How should philanthropists respond to the coronavirus?


Claire Wilkins


Covid-19 creates unprecedented challenges for all of us, and it is likely that everyone in the UK will be touched by it in some way before we reach a new normal. Our instinctive response to a crisis of this kind is apparently to hunker down, stockpile loo roll and hand-wash, and keep ourselves to ourselves. However, that is a luxury that the social sector can ill-afford to do, and we must work proactively and collectively to ensure that beloved and necessary charities survive the challenges ahead. 

Philanthropists have a key role to play in keeping the social sector alive through these difficult times, but many are unsure about how they can best respond to the current uncertainty. Here are some ideas for how philanthropists can approach the current crisis.

Be proactive
Some philanthropists prefer not to work primarily with fundraisers, but the fact is that most people in the UK give because they have been asked—whether that be face to face, through a letter or via a TV advert. In the current climate, charities are finding it hard to make their ask. Face to face meetings are rare, street fundraising is more unwelcome than ever, and events like coffee mornings and charity runs are being cancelled, with serious consequences for charity incomes.

In this context, it is important that philanthropists are on the front foot with their giving. Funders should proactively contact grantees to reassure them of support and be transparent about the potential for future gifts. Funders could offer to frontload longer-term commitments, to give grantees the immediate boost they need to survive their short-term challenges. Importantly, funders should seriously consider making unrestricted gifts, or de-restricting existing gifts, to give charities the flexibility they need to keep their operations going.

Be imaginative
Tempting as it may be to support areas visibly linked to the coronavirus, like Covid-19 medical research, these are well catered for by the international community. Instead, philanthropists seeking to make an impact should look beyond the headlines, identify newly vulnerable groups at home, and help the charities that support them. This could include funding organisations like the the Trussell Trust which provides food security support, or new initiatives like an open source Coronavirus Tech Handbook for charities.

Donors may wish to explore options for rapid response funding, pooled funding, or working with their local community foundations who could be well placed to coordinate responses to the crisis in their areas—a model that is currently underway in the US. The unique challenge posed by the coronavirus provides an opportunity for philanthropists that are open to power-sharing and adopting new partnership models to explore new approaches, and to have a big impact.

Which charities can we not afford to lose?
For charities already on the knife-edge of survival, the challenges posed by Covid-19 may be more than they can survive, and funders need to factor organisational survival into their decision-making. Philanthropists should always ask fundamental questions about effectiveness, but in the current climate they might also ask ‘which charities can we not afford to lose?’ This could open up a set of grantees that donors feel are brilliant and essential, but for one reason or another they have never got round to supporting. Philanthropists should consider this group when making decisions about grants, and take the lead in keeping the organisations they believe in alive.

Encourage transparency
All this may imply that philanthropists should let grantees off the hook when it comes to performance and reporting. That is not the case. Ideally, charity leaders will already be working to mitigate new problems. They may not be able to reach certain service users, such as prison residents, or they may have to delay certain activities, such as training events. In response, they should be thinking about how best to use their time, people and resources, and finding new ways to achieve their mission. This could mean anything from creating new online resources, to something as unsexy as a long-delayed-but-necessary audit of their database—but they should be telling donors about it. Philanthropists can help by encouraging such transparency (as many have pledged to do already) and by being understanding about the news they are given, without abandoning expectations entirely.

Be timely
For philanthropists, now might not look like the optimal time to give—or to give more. Stock markets are down, and investments are returning little if anything. It would be easy for funders to bide their time until they feel more comfortable with their own finances. But that would be a mistake. Timing of gifts is more important than ever, and the gift made today is likely to be more vital than the gift made in six months’ time. Philanthropists should consider bringing forward planned donations to help charities through the difficult times they face right now, consider giving more, and work with grantees to give them the greatest chance of survival—so that when the coronavirus crisis is over, charities will still be here to help the people who need them.

Clare Wilkins, Principal: Effective Philanthropy at New Philanthropy Capital (NPC)

Tagged in: Covid-19 Funding practice

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