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Giving in the time of COVID-19: A conversation with Victoria Vrana about the new PowerOf platform

On Tuesday, May 5th, the Gates Foundation supported the launch of PowerOf, a new online platform that connects people eager to make a difference with organizations addressing the impacts of COVID-19. We spoke with Victoria Vrana, a deputy director on the Philanthropic Partnerships team who has been leading the project.

What is PowerOf? And how does it work?

PowerOf is an online platform for people who want to donate and address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re someone who wants to give time or money, you go the site, find an opportunity or an organization you like, then give.

There are other websites that aggregate and vet charities. Why create this one now?

It’s true, platforms like this have existed before, but there are a few things that make PowerOf unique. One is that it connects givers with opportunities to donate both time and money. People can volunteer.

But another reason we created PowerOf—and a reason it’s important right now—is because it’s for the nonprofits themselves as much as it is for the people who give to them. COVID-19 has reoriented the nonprofit landscape in the U.S..

For one thing, the virus has created entirely new categories for funding. Before the pandemic, few people were giving money to help schools teach online or help medical providers hand out PPE. These new efforts need brand new donor support. At the same time, people are overloading existing safety net programs with demand—for example, hunger-relief organizations are anticipating the number of people in the U.S. who don’t have enough to eat to increase by 46 percent.

Finally, nonprofits who are not in the direct line of the battle against COVID-19, like arts programs, will suffer because of the loss of revenue from performances and charitable dollars shifting.

In fact, there’s a new survey out that says more than a quarter of nonprofits have reported an increased demand in services as a result of COVID-19, but 80 percent expect a reduction in revenue. And 89 percent are concerned about maintaining a financially stable organization.

PowerOf, perhaps, cannot fix the entirety of this problem. But it is intended to help stabilize nonprofits during this time by helping raise more money and volunteer hours—and direct it, more seamlessly, to areas of the greatest need.

Who are some of the nonprofits you’re partnering with?

PowerOf is supported by an extraordinary set of partners. We’re working with organizations like GivingTuesday, which built a pandemic response that includes a special global day of giving on May 5 called GivingTuesdayNow. Another partner, VolunteerMatch, serves more than 120,000 nonprofits, and is working to develop virtual volunteering opportunities specifically focused on COVID-19. DonorsChoose allows givers to donate money to help public school teachers pay for books, supplies, technology, and other needs. And Candid analyzes data on millions of nonprofits and more than 100,000 foundations to help givers donate to nonprofits.

All our launch partners were chosen extremely carefully. We focused on their depth and breadth of vetted giving opportunities, at both a geographic and cause level; the technical stability and security of their systems; the ability to provide refreshed and updated content; the type of content offerings; their long-standing track records of handling a large number of user transactions; and their reputation in the social sector.

These are early days, and we know we have a lot to learn about what users and the sector need. We’re always focused on finding ways to improve, and as time goes on, we might add additional partners to increase offerings for donors. But no matter what, people who want to use this platform can be confident that they are working with outstanding organizations that are connected with top-notch opportunities and focused on doing the most possible good.

Beyond this technical support and expertise, there’s also financial component to the foundation’s involvement. As part of the $250 million the Gates Foundation is allocating for COVID-19 response and research, your team is making $10 million in grants to strengthen the nonprofit sector in the U.S.. How is that money going to be spent?

Essentially, these grants can be divided into four buckets, in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish.

The first—and largest bucket—is to support emergency funds. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, over 600 emergency relief funds have been created nationwide. These funds help givers join with others—individual grassroots donors, big foundations, corporations, even celebrities—to get important resources to smaller organizations on the frontlines of every aspect of the COVID-19 response.

We feature many of these emergency funds on PowerOf, but they need more support to launch, grow, promote, and manage their organizations so we are partnering with United Philanthropy Forum to get $8.5M in small grants to emergency fund managers across the country through an open RFP that will launch later in May. That’s in addition to our initial grants in Washington state and new support to local partners in the foundation’s second home, Washington, D.C.

Another bucket is something we call, “Strengthening Advocacy Engines.” We increased our funding to sector advocates. These are people who work to ensure that nonprofits and communities are represented when legislators and others make policy proposals to respond to the pandemic.

A third bucket is what we just talked about—promoting equity. Communities of color and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by disasters, COVID-19 included. We will be making up to $750k in grants to cause-based philanthropic networks to ensure key populations, including women, are reached.

The fourth area is digital infrastructure for volunteering. We are providing resources to VolunteerMatch to transform and scale its current capacity to serve as a national digital backbone for COVID-19 volunteer relief and recovery.

We hope that together with our partners we can enhance the power of generosity to save more lives and meet urgent needs.

One of the challenges with giving is that there isn’t great information about what initiatives have enough funding and what ones have too little. How does this project address that?

Equity is incredibly important to us, and we want to make sure that our partners are serving all communities and people in need.

One thing that’s difficult is trying to achieve equity by cause—for example, to make sure our foundation is sending enough money to healthcare, or food, or education specifically. There just isn’t enough data to make that kind of equity possible. But what we can do is try to achieve equity by population—let’s make sure people are being treated equitably no matter where they live.

Now, how do we do that?

Well, our foundation has put together an advisory board for United Philanthropy Forum. It’s made up of five different groups that are helping assess the proposals. Essentially the advisory board is helping the Forum ask, "Okay, is this organization thinking about how to reach key groups like women and people of color? Do they have an approach to it? Do they have a process? Do they have criteria?"

Here’s an analogy. Imagine for a second, we weren’t in philanthropy, but instead were in the grocery wholesale business. From an equity standpoint, we’d want to make sure our food was getting to stores and bodegas in all communities—especially food deserts—and not just to one chain of organic markets. We’re taking the same approach with this project. We want to be sure people’s generosity can extend to every zip code in the country.

About the Interviewee

Victoria Vrana
Victoria Vrana is a Deputy Director of Policy, Systems and Giving by All on the Philanthropic Partnership team of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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