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Pandemic Philanthropy: A Q&A with Caira Woods about how nonprofits are handling the high demand for, and supply of, charitable giving

Updated September 30, 2020. Earlier this month a report from Johns Hopkins University revealed the U.S. nonprofit sector had lost nearly 1 million jobs since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We checked in with deputy director Caira Woods to get an update on the foundation's efforts to help the sector weather the crisis.

Back in May, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made a $9 million grant to the United Philanthropy Forum. Can you give us an update?

The goal of our grant was to build the capacity of local funders, philanthropic-serving organizations, and community-led nonprofits that are currently supporting other nonprofits through their COVID-19 emergency funds. Since the pandemic began, we have watched many of these organizations be overwhelmed with donations that help alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 while grappling with the same challenges faced by the rest of us: Figuring out how to do their work (and everything else) virtually while staying safe and taking on additional responsibilities at home.

To lend our support, we partnered with the United Philanthropy Forum. They created the Momentum Fund that distributes resources with a specific focus on communities most impacted by the ongoing public health and economic crises: Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.

Nearly 760 organizations applied for support, and the Momentum Fund announced it has awarded $8.5 million in grants to 129 of those organizations. The grantees are from 31 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They include women’s foundations, community foundations, local United Ways, and community-led nonprofits, many led by members of the communities they serve.

Soon, the Momentum Fund team will launch a community of practice. This will allow its grantees to connect with one another and learn about best practices in managing COVID-19 emergency funds.

As the pandemic has gone on, what other trends or changes have you seen in the nonprofit sector?

We knew foundations that primarily serve women and girls were being significantly impacted by COVID-19, so we made a grant in the spring to the Women’s Funding Network to help establish the Response, Recovery, and Resilience Collaborative Fund (RRRCF).

Last week, the fund announced it has provided $400,000 in grants to 16 nonprofits that are collectively serving the needs of over 940,000 women and girls in urban, rural, and suburban parts of the U.S. The applicants noted several high-priority needs in their communities, including a major one: Assisting women who are experiencing unemployment as a result of the pandemic. Seventy-five percent of applicants cited this as a chief concern, along with dramatic increases in food and housing insecurity as well as reports of domestic violence and child abuse.

Because communities continue to face these obstacles, many of the RRRCF award recipients are dedicating higher amounts of funding to others at the expense of their own operating costs. In fact, 44% of the grantees plan to decrease operating costs, such as benefits and staff, to cover grant-making priorities.

As the nation continues to contend with the pandemic, it is important that resources like the RRRCF be in place to support women’s funds and foundations for COVID-19’s duration.

Are there other ways the foundation is helping to build capacity in the nonprofit sector?

As I mentioned in May, the Seattle Foundation was able to respond quickly to COVID-19 since Washington state was one of the first in which people were found to be infected. By

March 9th, they had established their emergency response fund to raise money and quickly get it to people in need. Armed with the lessons they learned and funding from us, the Seattle Foundation was able to develop a toolkit containing resources that funders in other communities can now draw upon as they craft their own responses to COVID-19.

Additionally, to improve the experience of individuals looking to help, the foundation has partnered with several giving and volunteering platforms to launch and regularly update, a website that makes it easy to find ways to donate money or time to nonprofits, schools, community funds, and other organizations responding to COVID-19.

Most of the grantees of the Momentum Fund and the RRRCF are now searchable on PowerOf, giving them a way to reach new audiences and receive additional support.

What are some of the challenges you’re addressing with grants to the nonprofit sector, and why is this work important?

Capacity-building at many nonprofits is crucial right now. Some nonprofits are receiving huge influxes of donations from contributors who really care and want to be a part of a solution. That influx poses a problem—and it’s a great problem to have—in that nonprofits are having to operate at breakneck speed, without the chance to hire new staff or come up with a project management plan to take in new dollars and get them out the door to the places that need them the most.

These are institutions that we typically consider intermediaries in the nonprofit world. They raise funds and send them to frontline organizations that do the on-the-ground charitable work. This process normally would take months for a large organization, but they don't have the luxury of doing that right now because the needs have been so urgent. Many institutions that would typically run an RFP process that would take months are now doing so in a matter of weeks. For example, some local foundations are making grants within a week after a proposal has been submitted, which is incredible.

These institutions may have a great system that works for them normally, but now they could really use additional staff to review those applications, or new digital tools or software that'll allow them to collate information in a more streamlined way. Our goal is to support them and to catalyze their capacity-building process. We realized that there are these urgent short-term needs, and we expect that some needs will continue to exist for quite a while, related to the economy and otherwise. We want to make sure that these institutions are in a position to do this work for the long haul and be supported in the best way possible.

What are some of the grants being made?

We have over a dozen grants in the pipeline that are all aimed at bolstering the philanthropy sector's infrastructure in one way or another. Earlier this month, we announced a $9 million grant to United Philanthropy Forum, which will sub-grant $8.5 million to build the capacity of around 100 funders, philanthropic-serving organizations, and community-led nonprofits with COVID-19 emergency funds aimed at supporting other nonprofits. We also made related grants to five organizations that serve key populations in need, ranging from people experiencing homelessness, to immigrants and refugees, to women and the aging, to communities of color, which have been hit extremely hard by this crisis. They are working alongside the United Philanthropy Forum to ensure that those populations are served through their process as well.

There's also a tool kit that's in development by the Seattle Foundation. They were one of the early responders given that Seattle was one of the first places where people were found to be infected in the U.S., and so the Seattle Foundation has had more time than other local funders to really think through how to do this work well. We've asked them to put together a set of resources that other local funders can use and consider as they’re similarly responding to COVID-19.

We made two investments in Washington, D.C., which is the location of the foundation's second U.S. office. We have about 200 employees in D.C. and wanted to show our support for that city as well. The Greater Washington Community Foundation as well as the Washington Area Women’s Foundation both received unrestricted funding from us to support their COVID-19 relief funds.


How has COVID-19 changed the philanthropic landscape in the long-term, and how are nonprofit organizations thinking about their long-term future impact?

We don’t know overall what the long-term impact will be yet. But there are some specific areas where things are coming into focus.

One area is the ability of these organizations themselves to survive. While some of them are receiving surges of donations for COVID-19, they’re also seeing reduced revenues even as the demand for their services increases. That puts their long-term future in jeopardy and comes with ripple effects for the communities they serve and for their own employees. A recent analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed nonprofits lost 2 million jobs in April alone, which is about 16 percent of total nonprofit employment.

Another example I can give you is the uptick in cases of domestic abuse that have been reported during this time, because people are trapped at home and not always in the best of situations. Well, that's work that women's foundations, for example, typically fund and do a lot of activity around. There will probably be more need around that issue in particular—so women's foundations are starting to think right now about how they will be able to shift from supporting COVID-19 response efforts to recovery and, ultimately, resiliency including what their agenda and priorities are going to look like in a year or two.

Economic security is another issue that I would put on that list. For people who already struggled with things like access to paid leave and childcare, those aspects of life have only gotten more difficult and may continue to—and part of what local funders are trying to do is prepare for what may come, and make sure that they're able to continue to support their stakeholders in getting through the tough times since it is unclear when they will end.

About the Interviewee

Caira Woods
Dr. Caira Woods, Ph.D., is a deputy director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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