A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Lean Funders Reflect on COVID-19 and 2020

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

2020 was an unexpectedly challenging year. The pandemic changed the nature of work, and how we interact with our boards, staff and the nonprofits in our communities.

We asked members of the Exponent Philanthropy community to reflect on COVID-19, how it affected their work in 2020, and what they foresee for 2021.

Lean funders stepped up to respond to COVID-19 in 2020

85% of the funders who responded to our survey said they made changes in response to COVID-19. When asked what motivated these changes, Melinda Sanders, President of the Kharis Foundation said,

“We could not continue to do business as usual, and we had to look for ways to help the nonprofits that we serve.”

Susan Berseth of the Llewellyn Foundation said,

“The acute and widespread need of COVID-19 made us both loosen/eliminate our application requirements, as well as broaden our grantees.”

Another funder said,

“We realized that our grantee organizations were facing many additional challenges, and felt we needed to provide extra support to keep them afloat, and help keep their staff and constituents [stay] safe.”

Reflecting on 2020, Janis Reischmann of the Hau`oli Mau Loa Foundation said,

“I think we are closer to our grantee partners as a result of COVID-19, and see our relationship with them with slightly more flexibility. We have also strengthened a few relationships with other funders. Lastly, I think we are more committed to figuring out to work more effectively with government, together with our grantee partners.”

In 2020, lean funders made changes to grantmaking including:

  • Converting existing grants to more flexible funds (for example, converting project grants to general operating support grants): 74%
  • Making additional grants to existing grantees: 74%
  • Making emergency response grants (grants outside of the foundation’s normal grant cycle, in response to the pandemic): 71%
  • Making grants to organizations outside of the foundation’s existing grantee portfolio: 65%
  • Delaying or postponing reporting deadlines: 65%
  • Increasing payout compared to original plans: 53%

In 2020, lean funders also made operational changes including:

  • Conducting board meetings virtually (via conference call, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or another platform): 94.34%
  • Conducting meetings with grantees virtually (via conference call, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or another platform): 84.91%
  • Postponing or suspending site visits: 77.36%
  • Temporarily closing the foundation’s office and shifting to teleworking: 60.38%
  • Moving from issuing paper checks to electronic payments for grants: 39.62%
  • Conducting virtual site visits (via conference call, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or another platform): 39.62%

COVID-19 isn’t going away in 2021

Moving into 2021, a large portion of funders (67%) plan to continue supporting grantees as they navigate the pandemic. However, many are still deciding what that looks like. Funders are keeping in mind the flexible practices adopted in 2020. And a majority will implement, or are considering implementing them in 2021:

  • Converting existing grants to more flexible funds (for example, converting project grants to general operating support grants): 71%
  • Delaying or postponing reporting deadlines: 54%
  • Making additional grants to existing grantees: 74%
  • Making grants to organizations outside of the foundation’s existing grantee portfolio: 73%
  • Making emergency response grants (grants outside of the foundation’s normal grant cycle in response to the pandemic): 68%

Funders know these practices are needed to continue supporting grantees in 2021, as COVID-19 remains a challenge throughout the country and world. Julie Brown of All Stars Helping Kids said,

“Our grantees are not out of the woods yet from the impact of COVID-19, and we are committed to helping them navigate these uncertain waters.”

Another funder said,

“Typically, we don’t provide operating funds. But in response to COVID-19 and the challenges faced by nonprofits, as their abilities to fundraise are limited, we have made an exception and perhaps we will continue moving forward.”

Funders are also focused on continuing to build strong relationships with grantees. Katie Briggs of the Laird Norton Family Foundation said,

“Our grantees are navigating particularly challenging times, and if we’re serious about being in real relationships with them, we need to support our partners differently than in the past.”

While many funders have moved to support grantees, they’re still nervous about the fragility of nonprofits in 2021. Sheri Gurock of the Becker Foundation said,

“I’m nervous about how much support some of our grantees will need to get through COVID-19, and how to set reasonable expectations for innovating and impact during this time. Some organizations have been really successful at pivoting and getting creative, while others seem to be floundering. It’s hard to justify supporting those who aren’t getting much work done. But we also want them to get to the other side of this in one piece.”

Questions to ask yourself

As we move into 2021, COVID-19 will continue to affect foundations and grantees alike. Take the time to reflect on the past yearyou’ve been through a lot!

  1. What changes did you make (big and small) in 2020?
  2. What did you do in 2020 to better support your grantees?
  3. What worked well?
  4. What didn’t?
  5. What can you continue in 2021 and beyond?

Looking to 2021, Dorothy Gardner of the Longbrake Family Foundation said,

“All of the changes we are making to respond to COVID-19 are exciting, but it is also anxiety inducing. Change is always hard, even when it is good in the end.”


Notes on the survey: Exponent Philanthropy fielded a survey asking our members to reflect on COVID-19, Race Equity, broader experiences in 2020, and where they see things going in 2021. We fielded the survey in late December 2020, and early January 2021 in a stand-alone email, on social media, and as a part of our year-end email. The survey received a lower response than our typical surveys. We believe the lower response rate is due to when we fielded the survey, combined with competing marketing materials.

The survey had a sample of approximately 1800 member foundations, and we received 56 responses for a response rate of about 3%. Compared to our typical membership, the sample of respondents underrepresented foundations with over $50 million in assets, while foundations with paid staff were over represented in the sample. The representation of foundation type generally mirrored our membership with approximately 50% family foundations, 40% private foundations, and 10% other types of foundations. The regional spread of funders also mirrored that of our wider membership with roughly 25% of respondents in each of the four major regions of the country. While this survey response was not perfect, the data mirrored what we found in the 2020 publication, “COVID-19: How Have Funders Changed Their Approach & What Will Stick?”

Comment

  1. Frances Sykes

    Good, well put together article.

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