A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Working With the State and Other Funders to Address COVID-19 Racial Health Equity in Louisiana

In March, Louisiana had the fastest growth rate of coronavirus cases in the world. To help the state until federal dollars were ready, the Irene W. & C.B. Pennington Foundation, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and Huey and Angelina Wilson Foundation each donated $400,000 to start a $1.2 million COVID-19 Response Fund—a request from Governor John Bel Edwards.

The Irene W. & C.B. Pennington Foundation, established in 1982 by Claude “Doc” Pennington and his wife, Irene, is a Baton Rouge-based private family foundation. Its giving has historically centered on health and human services. After Hurricane Katrina, the foundation introduced a more holistic approach to addressing current community needs.

In every disaster, our most vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected. This was glaring during Katrina, and disparities in health, a major factor in being resilient to a disaster, are now complicating COVID-19, overwhelmingly affecting Black Americans and other communities of color.

The mission of the Irene W. & C.B. Pennington Foundation is to serve as a partner, champion, and ally for the State of Louisiana by investing in innovative programs, initiatives, and organizations that build resilient communities.

Louisiana is a remarkable melting pot of American cultures, a rich spring of natural resources, and a catalyst for the imagination of Americans from every walk of life. Yet we are a small state prone to challenges, such as poverty, chronic diseases, obesity, and natural disasters.

The Irene W. & C.B. Pennington Foundation acknowledges and addresses these issues individually and collectively with the understanding of how each impacts one another. They all form an ecosystem of challenges that, in their entirety, slows us down from being our best selves. We therefore not only leverage our investments, but we also forge partnerships and encourage creative collaborations for maximum impact in the state and the region as a whole. For instance, Arnold Ventures leveraged our combined contribution and committed an additional $600,000 to the governor’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

The first gift from the governor’s fund was used to address food insecurity. Another major undertaking is funding a health equity taskforce that’s examining causes and solutions to COVID-19 racial disparities. The taskforce is made up of physicians, nurses, hospitals, academic researchers, public officials, local leaders, and community stakeholders. The taskforce’s priorities include: testing for vulnerable and at-risk communities; a health equity dashboard; exploring the impact on Louisiana’s prison and nursing home populations; COVID-19 racial disparities in healthcare; policy and regulatory affairs; and community outreach and stakeholder engagement.

Philanthropy is an agile and flexible funding source that can serve as a catalyst for larger projects throughout a disaster. The Irene W. & C.B. Pennington Foundation was instrumental in founding the Center for Disaster Philanthropy—the only full-time national resource dedicated to helping donors make more strategic disaster-related giving decisions. We have also long worked with FEMA and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (GOHSEP).

Collaborating as funders, locally and nationally, and working across sectors is vital. By pooling funding, we can make more thoughtful grants—ones that will have lasting, systemic change. This will enable our communities to recover faster, better, and more equitably.


Lori J. Bertman is president and CEO of the Baton Rouge-based Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, Louisiana’s largest private family foundation. Bertman is widely recognized as a noted expert and innovative thinker in the field of disaster philanthropy. She is co-founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP). Bertman was honored by City Year Louisiana in 2011 as a Visionary Leader for her work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and she was given a National Leadership Award for Advocate of the Year by Share Our Strength.

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