A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How We Leveraged Our Super Powers to Respond to COVID-19

COVID-19 is keeping me awake at night. I am completely overwhelmed with information and uncertainty. As a foundation with only one staff member located in Monterey, California, I knew that we could do something to support our community, but I also knew that we didn’t have the financial or human resources to do anything dramatic (to be Bill Gates…).

On March 12, I woke up early after a restless night and immediately realized that I could do something incredibly simple yet important. I even made my husband react to the idea before he even got out of bed. He loves my job!

The Nancy Buck Ransom Foundation only supports children and youth and, although we prefer to fund operating support, we do fund some programs if the organization does more than just serve youth. I emailed my board at 9:48 am with the proposal to change all 2019 grants to operating support, and by 12:53 pm I had heard from every board member and emailed all program grantees.

This is when I realized our super powers: speed and flexibility.

The reaction to this news was overwhelming considering the action cost us zero dollars and seemed like common sense to me. Grantee replies were eloquent, heartfelt, and shared a universal concern for our community. A grantwriter even called me up crying and forwarded my email to Vu Le (who is my nonprofit hero for his blog www.nonprofitaf.com). No one knows exactly what to do, so they appreciated knowing that they didn’t have to worry about using funds for any specific purpose.

I’m also incredibly lucky to have a number of philanthropy mentors in my life, including one of my rockstar board members. We had a meeting set to work on our grantmaking review project but immediately decided to put that on hold and brainstorm how else we could support our grantees. She had already asked me to call an emergency board meeting but I honestly didn’t know what to ask of them. This was Monday, and at my Wednesday morning board meeting we put forward a proposal to fund all of our spring 2019 grantees again for 2020 with operating support at the same level with the option to receive the funds right away.

People right now feel robbed of all that they know to be true, and all funders have an opportunity to demonstrate our trust and support.

As the notifications went out, the response again was heartwarming. People right now feel robbed of all they know to be true, and all funders have an opportunity to demonstrate our trust and support. We’re exchanging tips for working from home with young children, tearing up on the phone, and focusing on youth who are not safe at home. One grantee wrote, “I hope we can lean on each other and get through this. I cannot imagine operating any other way.” I wholeheartedly agree!

Our board did mention that our portfolio has taken a big hit, and if we stick to funding at 2019 levels (and most likely a bit more), we would likely far exceed our 5% requirement. We want the foundation to last into perpetuity, but there is a shared understanding that our role is first and foremost to support our community. Our second priority is to be good stewards to our assets.

The super powers of small foundations should not be underestimated.

Our grantees have remarked that my email was the first piece of good news they had received and our commitment helped them focus on the tough job ahead. Our communities are isolated and fearful that the market crisis will impact giving for the foreseeable future. We need to calm those fears so the good work can continue.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the work being done at the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. This funder collaborative emphasizes shifting power dynamics and working from a base of trust in one another rather than fear. I see no more relevant project given our current situation, and I hope that this crisis affords all foundations the opportunity to rethink how they do their work. Asking organizations to fill out forms, evaluate programs, or craft engaging narratives at the moment feels just absurd.

Let’s remove the barriers to funding and let the organizations do the work they need to do.

Another resource that has been incredibly helpful are Exponent Philanthropy’s discussions with peers. As a one-woman show, I can spend too much time in my own head without an outside perspective. I went right away to Exponent to see what other foundations were doing to be able to pick and choose what would work for us. Coming together during a time of crisis is vital.

One of my favorite work mentors once said to me: A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. A crisis forces us to change in ways that seemed previously impossible. COVID-19 has brought unimaginable fear and change to our world. Let’s not waste it.

Lynn Bentaleb has been the executive director at the Nancy Buck Ransom Foundation since 2017. She worked at youth nonprofits and international schools and then transitioned to philanthropy after receiving her master’s degree in nonprofit management from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Comments

  1. Mark Boos

    good article, I hope you and your family are safe and healthy!

  2. Tom Nelson

    NBRF certainly made a most wise choice in hiring you, Lynn. The Lyceum will thrive again after this crisis, thanks to the kind support of organizations like yours.

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