If this virus is teaching us anything, it’s that we can be responsive and flexible in the face of adversity—at a massive scale. It’s true, we can join the many people talking about what’s going wrong, but we can also acknowledge all the collaboration and unprecedented actions people are taking in cities, towns and across the globe to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect those among us who are most at risk. In this moment, philanthropists in particular find themselves in a unique position of potentially helping. The trick lies in their ability to mobilize quickly, appropriately and effectively.
As someone who has advised philanthropists for over two decades, I’m getting a birds-eye view of leaders in action and it’s very instructive. In one recent conversation with a client, Moses Taylor Foundation CEO LaTida Smith, she made an important observation about philanthropy and flexibility. “We create almost all our internal policies and protocols,” she told me, “and that means we can change them.” The foundation she leads may be better positioned than some to adapt quickly and effectively, as they already operate with a mandate to use at least half of their funds for responsive grant making; their mission centers on improving people’s health in Northeastern Pennsylvania. But regardless of a philanthropist’s focus, there are many ways to help soften the curve of crisis for grantees working to advance change. Here are five that can be acted on immediately:
1. Build and strengthen trusting relationships. Where to begin? Start by listening. Call your grantees and ask them two questions: How are you doing? What can I do to help? But keep in mind that although we’re all in crisis mode now, this step requires patience. Be aware of power dynamics and take the time required to break down barriers and truly get to the heart of things.
2. After listening well, act on what you learned. In the case of the Moses Taylor Foundation, they’ve decided to extend deadlines for all grant timelines and reporting. They’re also offering a free webinar to all nonprofits in the area on business continuity—a fantastic way to promote mutual support. Other relevant ways philanthropists might help include purchasing bulk online meeting licenses and distributing them to grantees, providing trainings on working remotely including cyber-security concerns, or offering guidelines on HR issues, like what to do if an employee contracts the virus.
3. Offer flexible monetary support. You can give operating support and flexible funding. The Moses Taylor Foundation is providing rapid-response general operating support to nonprofits that are meeting basic needs in the Northeast Pennsylvania area, such as the local food pantry. As Smith put it, “The nonprofits do not need to apply, they just need to come pick up their check!” Supporting an organization with general operating money frees up leaders to prioritize other things besides fundraising—and right now that’s especially important. It also sends an extremely heartening message: “You are doing a great job, we trust you, here is a core support grant to do what you feel is most important right now.”
You can also offer development ideas on how to raise money during an economic downturn, make introductions to other donors, or serve as a convener of nonprofit CEOs to discuss common problems and lessons learned to provide much-needed relief and moral support.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate! In times of uncertainty, people often assume the worst if they aren’t told anything. This includes your staff, your volunteers, your trustees, and your grantees. Now is the time to step up communication, not withhold and shrink back. No doubt, you’ll be asked questions that you either don’t know the answer to or are unable to answer. It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know.” People don’t expect you to have all the answers. What they do want is reassurance and transparency.
5. Stick with grantees through challenging times. Progress and change take time. People learn from mistakes. Building infrastructure, investing in professional development, and being supported during transitions all help ensure that organizations succeed not just today or tomorrow, but over the long-term. In a climate of uncertainty, all of these already challenging activities become more difficult. By being a constant for your grantees and supporting their long-term success in good times and in bad, you’ll both take another necessary step forward in the long game of making change.
Above all, being responsive and flexible is a choice and a mindset. During a crisis there are needs that can’t wait for your board to convene three months from now. Notice the policies and protocols that are holding you and your grantees back. Flexing that responsive muscle now in a clear-headed and stepwise way will only help as you work together with your grantees to create a more stable and certain future.
* * *
Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a trusted advisor to the world’s leading philanthropists, including families, private donors, foundations, Fortune 500 companies, and celebrity activists. She’s helped over 100 philanthropists strategically allocate over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts, and works closely with estate planning attorneys, financial and wealth advisors, and family offices to help their clients deepen their philanthropic commitments. She was named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers, and is the author of the new book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Giving (Wiley, March 24, 2020). Learn more at PutnamConsulting.com.