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The Extraordinary Response of Philanthropy Associations & Networks to COVID-19

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

As we mark the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems an appropriate moment for me to reflect back on how philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs)—the regional and national philanthropy associations and networks that comprise the United Philanthropy Forum network—have responded to the crisis. In short, the response has been extraordinary. 

Over the past two years, I have watched firsthand as regional and national PSOs have acted in truly astounding ways to ensure that philanthropy was being as effective and impactful as possible in helping our communities tackle a global health pandemic, demonstrating a powerful level of nimbleness, adaptability and flexibility. Almost on a dime, PSOs pivoted to bring funders together in virtual convenings to help them make sense of the pandemic, share what they were doing, and learn from their peers, as well as becoming vital clearinghouses for philanthropy’s response to COVID-19. PSOs quickly engaged in new public-private partnerships, led and managed new collaborative funds, advocated for philanthropy and nonprofits in COVID-19 legislation, provided a strong voice of accountability to push philanthropy to respond to the pandemic in the most equitable ways possible and much more. They did all of this at the same time that they were quickly switching all of their staffing, services and operations to a fully virtual environment. 

A new Forum report, The COVID-19 Crucible, details PSOs’ response to the pandemic and offers lessons for the field to inform how we respond to future crises. The Forum uses “PSO” as something of a catch-all term to describe a diverse and dynamic group of philanthropy associations and networks that bring funders together with a focus on a geographic region, funding issue, identity/population group or philanthropic practice. But as this report demonstrates, PSOs do so much more than “serve” philanthropy. In responding to the pandemic, PSOs have advanced, mobilized, convened, informed and, yes, supported philanthropy, just as they have been doing for many years. The report offers many examples of PSOs’ COVID-19 response efforts; here’s a sampling:

  • ABFE held funder briefings on COVID-19 relief for Black businesses and focused its annual conference, which shifted to virtual, on a range of critical challenges facing Black communities amid the pandemic, including redlining, the racial wealth divide, and ensuring relief efforts reach Black communities.
  • Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy issued an open letter to philanthropy, “The Cure to Viral Racism Is Within Our Hands,” calling for support for groups confronting racism in their pandemic relief efforts.
  • Forefront administered and reported on two surveys to document hwo COVID-19 pandemic affected Illinois nonprofits and what its continued impact was expected to be.
  • Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees mounted an extensive advocacy effort in response to the pandemic. They shared findings from more than 50 interviews with immigrant-serving organizations across California about priority concerns and policy strategies; issued recommendations for government and philanthropic action; and held member programs on immigrant justice, public-private partnerships, immigrant response funds, Census 2020, and other pandemic-related topics.
  • Indiana Philanthropy Alliance mapped member COVID-19 funds and began a monthly “Recovery to Resilience” webinar series.
  • Minnesota Council on Foundations moved quickly to establish the Minnesota Disaster Recovery Fund, partnering with the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation to raise and distribute more than $11 million to more than 1,700 nonprofit organizations and more than 3,000 small businesses.
  • Mission Investors Exchange held “Open Mics,” lightly structured, flexible calls for MIE members to come together and ask: “What ideas, projects, or resources exist within the MIE community—and how can we help each other respond to the COVID-19 crisis?”
  • Philanthropy California, an alliance of Catalyst of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Northern California Grantmakers, and SoCal Grantmakers, had its disaster resilience team coordinate with state agencies and partners to respond to the impacts of COVID-19.
  • Philanthropy Missouri provided a COVID-19 resource page along with a collaborative working document to track collaborations and funder responses.
  • Philanthropy Northwest, in partnership with the state of Washington and major food banks in the state, established the WA Food Fund to respond to the growing food crisis as a result of COVID-19. The fund raised more than $14 million from 60 philanthropic institutions and 9,000 individual donors.
  • Philanthropy Ohio partnered with the Ohio Department of Education to establish the Collaborative Fund for Educating Remotely and Transforming Schools. The fund supported projects to help schools in the state improve remote education practices and in particular address inequitable circumstances related to remote education during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Technology Association of Grantmakers developed “Call for Funders for Nonprofit Tech Support,” an educational publication for how to support digital infrastructure during COVID-19.

The list goes on and on and on. It’s important to note that PSOs’ responses to the pandemic were not done in a vacuum. Through United Philanthropy Forum calls, listservs and other means, PSOs were regularly sharing with each other how they were responding, both in terms of external work with their communities and partners and their internal operations. The Forum held PSO check-in calls that started with a few per week, then weekly and eventually monthly—or whenever was needed. Through the Forum network, new partnerships were formed, new internal policies where shared, and new expertise was offered to help philanthropy respond to a crisis unlike any we had ever faced before. 

The report identifies some key learnings from PSOs’ responses to COVID-19 that have implications for the future work of PSOs themselves and for the broader philanthropy sector. Many of the learnings relate to trends that were already happening pre-COVID but were greatly accelerated during the pandemic: PSOs have become more transformative and less transactional; PSOs are placing a more central focus on racial equity and on holding the field accountable on equity issues; PSOs are displaying new kinds of bold leadership in partnerships with government and the private sector; PSOs have a renewed focus on networks, as the pandemic was a case study in the power of networks in responding to a crisis—and the need to build those networks in advance.

The report confirms what many of us have known for years: PSOs are vital leadership organizations for the philanthropy sector in America. If you’re a funder who is not yet a member of the regional PSO(s) covering the states or regions where you fund or the national PSO(s) addressing the issues, populations and practices most important to you, you should join. Right now. You can find a list here. PSOs are also worthy of additional funder investment to ensure their long-term sustainability. PSOs responded immediately to the COVID-19 pandemic by engaging in entirely new areas of work and adapting on the fly—without having the time to find new financial resources to cover this added work. PSOs all need the capacity to do this without placing undue stress on their staffs and organizations, and many don’t yet have that capacity. That should not be the case.

I am grateful to all of the people working for PSOs in the Forum network for their efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, and for all of the people partnering with them in these efforts, including PSOs’ philanthropy members and nonprofit, government and business partners. Your work has made a huge difference in helping so many people get through the pandemic. As noted in this report, the sector needs to be planning now for the next crisis, and PSOs must be an integral component of any plan. United Philanthropy Forum looks forward to working with philanthropy leaders on that planning. 

David Biemesderfer
President & CEO
United Philanthropy Forum
Follow me @dbiemesderfer