Toward a Philanthropic Racial Equity Movement

This period of racial justice activism in our nation’s history has been building for many years. Perceptions of confederate flags and statues, the renaming of buildings, numerous statements from businesses of all types, police reforms, and all the shifts we have seen in recent weeks are the result of sustained efforts.

Now we are experiencing an acceleration of change and a long-overdue acknowledgement of racial inequities and injustices that have remained present for several generations. Certainly, we have seen moments since the Civil Rights Movement, when it appeared widespread anti-racist action might be upon us. But this time feels different.

Previously, in discussing philanthropy’s response to the racial equity movement, I wondered whether philanthropy itself will experience a sustained movement for racial equity and racial justice. If so, what would be required to make this a reality?

Foundations Transforming Themselves and Helping Dismantle Systemic Racism

Looking ahead, foundations could pursue a few approaches in order to develop a lasting commitment to racial equity. These include sustained commitment in grantmaking to anti-racist advocates and organizers, investing in Black communities and other communities of color more broadly, transforming foundations institutionally, yielding power to communities and enabling community-driven and participatory grantmaking, collaborating across philanthropy, and collaborating across sectors.

Sustaining Commitments in Grantmaking to Racial Equity and Racial Justice

As we have seen in recent weeks, many organizations on the front lines of anti-racist policy and advocacy have received expanded funding. In some cases, this funding is an articulation from within foundations to commitments to racial equity and racial justice. But the challenge is to attain true sustained commitments. Systemic racism will not be eradicated with small, short-term grants. Large grants alone will not do it either. For philanthropy to help advance a racial justice movement, multiple foundations and donors would have to contribute significant and flexible funding that allows organizations to expand the work they have already begun – the work that actually brought us to this historical moment.

Moreover, foundations and donors would have to transcend funding only organizations that are well-known and well-connected. There has to be willingness to engage grassroots communities on the ground and openness to learning about new organizations that might be involved in crucial endeavors without any fanfare.  We should also remember that grassroots activism can transcend incorporated nonprofit organizations.  Philanthropy will have to be willing to engage informal associations that are not incorporated.

Investing in Black Communities and Other Communities of Color

In addition to investing in racial justice advocacy and organizing, it is also important for foundations and other donors to commit to strengthening Black communities and other communities of color.  This means supporting Black-led social change organizations as well as investing in capacity building for organizations led by and serving communities of color of all types including small businesses.

Transforming Institutionally

Grantmaking in a vacuum may have a short-term impact. However, a sustained anti-racist commitment in grantmaking or a new funding program require additional support systems. For example, it would be difficult to commit to dramatic increased investments in organizations led by and serving communities of color if foundations do not simultaneously collect demographic grantee data. The Race and Equity in Philanthropy Group (REPG) has been providing a forum for learning exchange among foundation representatives regarding policies and practices on racial equity and various aspects of equity and inclusion.

This historical moment for foundations is intriguing because numerous philanthropic institutions have been civic actors, beyond grantmaking. They have been challenged to reflect on their values, how they communicate, and their willingness to publicly advocate. There are so many dimensions of systems, operations, policies, and practices in foundations, all of which should be interrogated via a racial equity lens, from how they make decisions to how they hire and promote to how they build their boards of directors to how they invest, procure, and beyond. If foundations as whole institutions are transformed to embed a commitment to racial equity fully, grantmaking rests within a more sustainable context.

Community-Driven and Centered Philanthropy

Additionally, it is not enough to leave all decision-making about the distribution of resources to donors and their foundation staff. Too often, not only are communities of color not sufficiently represented on Boards and in executive level positions, but the very constituents in the communities most adversely impacted are also not engaged and consulted about the funding ostensibly intended for their benefit. A great deal of work is required to bridge this longstanding gap in philanthropic culture. Philanthropy is seen as the domain of the wealthy and their endowed institutions, and communities of color and all low-income communities as recipients. They are framed as deficits to be fixed rather than engaged as assets to help shape the direction of resources for their communities.

Black communities and other communities of color should be positioned to not only receive but also drive philanthropy. Larger, well-endowed foundations must learn to share power and relinquish control over money to communities of color, including philanthropic initiatives by and for their communities, which have a more intimate understanding of their constituents.  Moreover, we should acknowledge the potential of community foundations to create various avenues, such as giving circles, which can focus on highly localized strategies.  Racial inequities and injustices, after all, are experienced by people of color largely in places – in the neighborhoods, cities, and regions in which they reside. At this level, we can find many grassroots organizations that may have very little experience with foundations despite their important work.

Some years ago, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven created a Communities of Color Initiative, which spun off numerous new philanthropic initiatives led by and serving communities of color, including The Prosperity Foundation, which operates as a community foundation for Connecticut’s Black communities. The traditional community foundation model is no panacea for the breadth of systemic inequities around us, but it can be creatively leveraged. Community foundations are set up to remain in place in perpetuity, creating a unique relationship with the community as a crucial philanthropic vehicle that's embedded in that community and should, in theory, evolve along with the community and better understand the communities’ needs than regionally- and nationally-focused funders.

Beyond just community foundations, all foundations can investigate how systemic racism is manifested in local communities, and share decision-making with residents and community-based organizations. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, for example, has focused its work on community-based networks. There is much work to be done to enable greater and more widespread forms of community-driven philanthropy. But it does not feel as if philanthropy can maximize its contribution to dismantling systemic racism without it.

Collaborating Among Foundations

The journey to becoming a racially equitable foundation is lengthy. It can include various fits and starts. We see foundations change priorities relatively frequently.  Often, a commitment to racial equity and racial justice can be quite precariously positioned amidst shifting philanthropic sands. Peer learning and support can help foundations mutually strengthen each other’s commitment to this important work.

Community foundations across the country are working to reduce racial inequities in their communities as part of CFLeads' equity network. The goal of an equity practice is to eliminate the outcome disparities in society—many of which exist due to deep-rooted issues in our systems and institutions. The equity network fosters peer learning and support to help strengthen community foundations’ efforts toward racial equity.

But a single foundation can have only so much impact.

PSO’s can play a crucial role organizing groups of foundations around anti-racist agendas. ABFE notably galvanized numerous Black foundation CEOs to pursue joint priorities. Several foundations signed ABFE’s Joint Statement on COVID and Police Shootings highlighting action that the philanthropic sector should take in order to address the immediate needs around COVID-19 and police reform as well as longer-term strategies to address racial inequity and structural racism.

Collaborating Across Sectors

The philanthropic sector is not in a position to dismantle systemic racism on its own. Philanthropy can provide sustained and flexible support to nonprofit organizations. As previously noted, philanthropy can take responsibility to transform internally and engage externally. But given the pervasiveness and persistence of systemic racism, every sector must transform, and policymakers at all levels of government must institute substantially different regulations in so many aspects of life – housing, policing, education, health, and so on.

At every level – global, national, local – true systemic change will require some form of collaboration and coordination across sectors. This includes institutions transforming themselves and acting together. The Prudential Foundation has been supporting and participating in the Newark Anchor Collaborative (NAC) in Newark, New Jersey. Last year, NAC launched a signature initiative on racial equity in which Newark’s anchor institutions, representing numerous industries (corporations, foundations, universities, hospitals, arts institutions, etc.), have been mutually strengthening their racial equity policies and practices. Housed at the Newark Alliance, which has a close working relationship with the City of Newark, NAC has been aligning the entire city and its surrounding region to strengthen Newark, which is populated mostly by people of color.

Philanthropy As Part of the Whole

Overall, philanthropic foundations have been responding to and seeking to play a role in an advancing racial justice movement. But, as is always the case when confronted with enormous challenges, philanthropy must consider how to commit to sustained activity. Foundations and donors must have the will to stay focused and not walk away from a dedication to racial equity and racial justice. This is not easy work. Some strategies could fail. However, our current moment calls on us to proceed without the fear and risk aversion that can inhibit so many in philanthropy.  Additionally, it is important that philanthropy is not the whole story. It plays a role in a broader ecosystem of partners on the long road to racial equity and racial justice.

Participatory Evaluation: A Path to More Rigorous Information, Better Insights

The tumultuous and catalyzing events of 2020 have led many philanthropic leaders to revisit their existing processes and assumptions, especially when it comes to the power dynamics inherent in most interactions between grantseekers and grantmakers. The impact of business-as-usual is stark: nonprofits led by people of color are substantially less likely to receive philanthropic funding than white-led organizations. People in communities most affected by harmful policies are frequently left out of the process of developing and implementing solutions, limiting the effectiveness of the solutions themselves. In light of these inequities, many in philanthropy are heeding calls to change their mindsets and practices.

As attitudes shift, philanthropic approaches such as trust-based philanthropy and participatory grantmaking are gaining well-deserved attention as alternatives to more top-down approaches to philanthropy.

As grantmakers are revisiting their thinking about investing in organizations and communities, they should also revise their approach to learning and evaluation. Fortunately, there is a robust field of knowledge and practice to draw from; participatory evaluation is one approach to consider.

What is Participatory Evaluation?

The underlying goal of participatory evaluation is to re-center key decisions about what is evaluated, why, and how, with the communities most affected by an initiative or program. The roles of grantmakers and evaluators shift as the role of “expert” is expanded and shared.

This approach involves the stakeholders of a program in the evaluation process, including deciding on the purpose and process of an evaluation, collecting data, interpreting information, and making recommendations. In participatory evaluation, the level of stakeholder engagement can range from fairly light, such as serving on an advisory board for the evaluation team, to more intensive, such as setting evaluation questions and deciding on data sources.

Participatory evaluation approaches can improve the relevance of the questions guiding the evaluation, enhance data quality and improve interpretation, and help assure that the resulting recommendations are aligned with stakeholders’ values and priorities.

A few examples of participatory evaluation strategies illustrate the range of options available:

  • Intense period debriefs take place just after a major event in an organization’s history, such as the launch of a new program or set of services. Stakeholders gather to review the series of decisions they made, the outcomes they observed, and short-term lessons learned. Pausing briefly to reflect and learn along the way helps teams to continue to learn and improve as they navigate dynamic environments.
  • Ripple effect mapping (REM) is an evaluation strategy that brings together groups of stakeholders to describe and connect key outcomes for a program or an initiative. REM sessions can take place several months after an event. Engaging a broad set of stakeholders creates a more accurate picture of the varied outcomes of an initiative and grouping activities into “ripples” can show how activities interact in non-linear ways over time.
  • A data party engages stakeholders in interpreting data and developing recommendations based on their analysis. The group reviews quantitative and qualitative data together, exploring questions like, “What surprised you about the data?” “What is missing from the information we have?” and “What should we do next based on what we’ve learned?” Data parties commonly rely on visual, public displays of data that the group can look at together.

More Rigorous Information, Better Insights

Participatory evaluation approaches can help ensure that the questions guiding the evaluation are relevant to stakeholders, including program staff and participants.

For example, the leaders of a program intended to help families at risk of homelessness wanted to know how they could increase the proportion of families who secured stable housing. The program leaders initially framed the evaluation around, “What differentiates families who secure housing from those who don’t?”  A data party for program staff showed that this wasn’t the right question to ask. Instead, the staff noted that the underlying factor supporting more stable housing was increases in the family’s income. In response to this insight, the evaluation shifted to focus on the ways in which the program could help participating families to increase their incomes, a more relevant and actionable question to address.

Participatory evaluation approaches can interrupt entrenched social patterns that influence who feels comfortable offering their opinion, especially when it comes to using information and making recommendations. Many participatory approaches are group based, verbal, and iterative, a more inclusive alternative to the individualistic and perfectionist mindset that many associate with data and evaluation.


Participatory evaluation approaches are nearly always more time- and resource- intensive than top-down approaches, and grantmakers and their evaluation consultants should plan accordingly. Further, the guiding questions and recommendations can be less predictable than when a funder sets the agenda for the study, since they reflect the priorities of a broader array of stakeholders.

Participatory evaluation approaches also strengthen the relationship between funder and grantee, deepen grantees’ capacity to use data to inform practice, and increase the relevance and usefulness of evaluation, all of which are benefits that are well worth the additional investment. As participatory approaches to grantmaking and evaluation become more standard in philanthropy, increased stakeholder inclusion in determining impact and outcomes stand to change the landscape for the funder/grantee relationship. As current movements and trends are showing, this grantmaking philosophy works for and by the people it serves.

Introducing Candid Learning

We are excited to introduce you, the people who power the social sector, to Candid Learning. Candid Learning is your new single destination for trainings, resources, and learning experiences to improve the way you do your work.

Beginning today, Candid’s live trainings, on-demand learning resources, and grantseeking tools that were previously found on GrantSpace will now be a part of Candid Learning. Because Candid has learning tools for grantmakers and grantseekers, the site is designed to be a destination for both audiences, and includes pathways to content from GrantCraft and GlassPockets. Through sharing peer wisdom, case studies, and thought leadership, GlassPockets and GrantCraft offer learning experiences to improve philanthropic effectiveness. In the future, we’ll further integrate these sites into Candid Learning, aiming to bridge resources and conversations across both sides of the grantmaking table.

How We Got from GrantSpace to Candid Learning

Eleven years ago, in 2009, Foundation Center launched GrantSpace to more directly serve the learning needs of our nonprofit audience. When Foundation Center and GuideStar joined forces to create Candid last year, we further prioritized learning as an essential service and today’s announcement is a step towards streamlining and enhancing related offerings across the organization to serve you better.

Candid’s service orientation has evolved in ways we would never have predicted over the last year and a half. Addressing urgent information needs through real-time data reporting on philanthropy’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased calls for racial equity, tracking how grantmaking practices are evolving, and experimenting with brand-new methods for delivering our previously in-person trainings are just a few of the ways our organization is building and growing its presence. The launch of Candid Learning is part of Candid’s larger evolution and will help us deliver on our recently released 2030 vision.

The Information Your Grantees Rely On

When you visit Candid Learning, you’ll still find the rich trainings and resources your grantees have always found on GrantSpace. Grantseekers can still, for example, register for webinars on perfecting their proposals, find self-paced e-learning on cultivating relationships with individual donors, and chat in real time with our staff about board development and emergency funds. Nonprofits will still be able to rely on our experienced staff, a network of trainers, time-tested content, and the use of Candid data to ground education in facts.

And participants will still be part of a vibrant community. Candid offers trainings to tens of thousands of people each year, some of which are transformational for participants. To date in 2020, we’re nearing 30,000 registrants for our live and on-demand trainings, hundreds of checkouts of our eBooks collection, 650+ case studies about nonprofit collaborations, and nearly 10,000 questions asked and answered through our online librarian chat and email service.

Resources for Funders

Beyond changing our name from GrantSpace, we want Candid Learning to make it easier for you to see and take advantage of the many ways Candid can help. For example, let’s say you attend a webinar on digital storytelling on Candid Learning. An easy and free next step is to make sure you are currently enrolled in our Foundation Updater program so that the millions of users who use our databases annually get the most accurate and complete story about your foundation. And we know that your professional role in the social sector will evolve, and that you may work across both nonprofits and foundations throughout your career. Whether you have on your funder or grantseeker hat, Candid Learning’s tools from GrantCraft and GlassPockets will be here to help you improve your grantmaking practices with self-assessments, field guides, and toolkits.

Through Candid Learning, we’ll continue to get you the information you need to do good by connecting you with peers, experts, and innovative learning experiences. We invite you to explore the site, share it with your network, and follow us on social media @Candid_Learning.

Philanthropy Responds to the Racial Equity Movement

A racial reckoning is upon us. The Black Lives Matter movement has rapidly expanded in the wake of highly publicized incidents of racist police violence. Mass mobilization in the streets of major cities as well as suburban and rural towns has taken form across the U.S. and around the world. Indeed, policing has been central in recent activism and calls to action across numerous sectors. But the moment upon us, which feels like a genuine inflection point, is shining a critical light on numerous dimensions of systemic racism, especially as it impacts Black communities.

It is not an accident that this moment is occurring during a pandemic. COVID-19 is demonstrating and deepening racial inequality in many aspects of life. In health, Black, Latinx, and indigenous populations are experiencing disproportionate infections and deaths. In education, students in traditionally under-resourced schools, largely of color, are falling further behind. In economics, jobless rates have been higher for people of color in the midst of a substantial disruption to already vulnerable circumstances in which Black communities have been beset with centuries of limited wealth.

On so many levels, the various faces of systemic racism have been more broadly visible in 2020. Philanthropy as a sector is no exception. However, philanthropy has been on a slow path toward greater efforts to confront racism and pursue racial equity in recent years. An increasing number of foundations and Philanthropy Serving Organizations (PSOs) have been, at the very least, more curious about racial equity since 2016. The actions of the past several weeks exhibit some willingness to change. But, will philanthropy experience its own sustained movement for racial equity and racial justice?  If so, what would be required to make this a reality?

Some Evidence of Increased Anti-Racist Commitments

In recent weeks, a number of foundations sharpened and expanded their commitment to racial equity and racial justice. A substantial number of these commitments have been made only as  statements. But we are also seeing increased giving to Black-led racial justice.

Some foundations have not only increased giving, but raised awareness about these organizations:

A number of foundations have been organizing convenings:

  • The Lumina Foundation supported a partnership between three Historically Black Colleges and Universities to improve student retention and graduation rates. The foundation organized a webinar with the presidents of the three HBCUs to discuss how they are leading during the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide calls for racial justice.
  • The W.K. Kellogg Foundation organized a virtual National Day of Racial Healing: Healing in Action event on June 25 in response to the intensifying police violence against Black men and women.
  • The San Francisco Foundation, The California Endowment, and The Stuart Foundation partnered with Northern California Grantmakers to organize Shaping the Moment into a Movement: Black Youth Voice and Leadership. The event provided an opportunity to hear from Black youth leaders and directors about the needs and priorities that are essential to shaping this moment into a movement and the concrete ways that funders can step up.

One important aspect of racial justice that will be increasingly significant in the coming months is voter participation:

  • The Langeloth Foundation announced that it will deploy $10 million to support civic participation for Black voters and voters of color who are disproportionately targeted by voter suppression and oppressive policing tactics. This new $10 million investment is a significant portion of the Langeloth Foundation’s $88 million endowment.

In the midst of COVID-19, an economic crisis, and a historical reckoning with systemic racism, a number of foundations are increasing giving, or finding creative ways to access capital that can be channeled into grantmaking.

  • The Ford Foundation’s Board authorized an increase of up to $1 billion in giving, financed through the sale of bonds, to help stabilize and strengthen nonprofits that are fighting against inequality and injustice and leading communities through a post-coronavirus recovery. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has also joined with the Ford Foundation and three other foundations to commit to expanding payout over the next two years, and will give up to $300 million. Combined, the five foundations are pledging over $1.7 billion in new resources.
  • The Andrew Mellon Foundation is adjusting its mission to give greater emphasis in grantmaking to programs that promote social justice. The new mission will focus on building “just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking where ideas and imagination can thrive.” As part of this effort they have created a $5.3 million program to distribute curated books to prisons across the country.
  • Several foundations and individual donors have signed an open letter calling for an Emergency Charity Stimulus Bill to mandate increased payout for private foundations from 5 to 10 percent over the next three years and to mandate the same payout requirement for Donor Advised Funds.
  • The James Irvine Foundation’s board approved exceeding their grantmaking budget to allow an additional $20 million to support efforts to end anti-Black racism and advance racial equity in California’s systems of economic opportunity. They will simultaneously develop a strategy for long-term and deeper support for racial equity efforts in their grantmaking initiatives and operations.
  • The Rockefeller Foundation has pledged an initial $10 million to launch the Rockefeller Opportunity Collective. The funds will be allocated to a collective of government, business, faith-based, and non-profit partners in 10 cities over 10 years to protect communities from displacement and eliminate barriers to access capital and credit among low-wage workers and small businesses operated by women, Black, and Latinx owners.
  • The Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Board of Directors approved a 7 percent drawdown from the Foundation’s endowment for the next fiscal year to ensure that during this volatile time, their nonprofit partners will not lose support.
  • The Libra Foundation is doubling their grantmaking to $50 million in 2020 in order to use this historic opportunity to address systemic racism.

Beyond grantmaking, some foundations have directly addressed how to increase impact investing to combat systemic racism:

  • Several foundations are signatories to the 2020 Belonging Pledge: A Commitment to Advance Racial Equity, which focuses on investing with a racial equity lens. Signatories committed to discussing racial equity at their next investment committee meeting and moving an agenda forward that includes next steps and results sharing.

Recently, a number of community foundations have been establishing funds to support initiatives in their localities with specific attention to race and organizations led by and serving Black and other communities of color:

  • The Seattle Foundation, which houses the COVID-19 Response Fund, announced it will award $9.2 million in grants from the Response Fund to more than 200 community organizations and prioritize Black-led and Black-serving nonprofits who are navigating growing needs.
  • The Seattle Foundation is also housing the Black Future Co-op Fund. The Fund will be a collective hub for efforts to eradicate poverty, build generational wealth, preserve Black Culture, and celebrate the incredible resilience of the Black community. Its architects are four Black women leaders with long histories working to support the Black community across Washington state.
  • The East Bay Community Foundation along with The City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Division, and Akondadi Foundation announced the launch of Belonging In Oakland: A Just City Cultural Fund. This is a new multi-year program that will fund Oakland cultural practitioners of color to radically imagine a racially just city. In the first year, the Fund will award approximately $300,000 for up to 12 grants of $25,000 to support ideas for what a racially just Oakland could look like.
  • The Brooklyn Community Foundation prioritizes support for grassroots organizations led by Black people and other people of color as part of their institutional commitment to racial justice. Additionally, they are committed to investing in Black and POC leaders to ensure they have the support they need to fight for change.

Considering Long Term Commitments

This is an extraordinary year that is challenging philanthropy to respond accordingly.  But questions remain about long term commitments. There is no short-term strategy that can adequately dismantle systemic racism. Some foundations are grappling with how to develop longer term programming. For example:

  • The California Endowment released a statement in which they committed themselves to specifically undertake a decade-long investment in community “power-building” and increasing investment in Black-led organizing, advocacy and movement building organizations. Additionally, they will track and report publicly on funding to communities of color and Black-led organizations, develop an explicit strategy to use impact investing tools to contribute to Black economic development, and create a new Director of Advancing Racial Equity reporting directly to the President and CEO. They are also creating a President’s Youth Council, to be comprised of youth who identify as Black, African American, Native/Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander, who are engaged in social justice and health equity. They will serve in partnership with the CEO of the Foundation to shape its investment and culture.
  • The Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it will increase its annual spending to allocate an additional $48 million over the next five years to address critical system failures that underlie both COVID-19 and the enduring racial justice crisis. The spending plan includes $10 million for a new program focusing on racial justice that will identify systemic advances and fundamental changes in policy to dismantle structural racism.
  • Open Society Foundation is supporting what they call the “nation’s historic movement towards racial justice” by announcing investments totaling $220 million in emerging organizations and leaders building power in Black communities across the country.

Many will watch closely to see if a larger number of foundations institute multi-year commitments. In this moment, foundations are challenged to assess what they have done to date, determine what they can do now, and re-imagine for the long run. It is this third dimension that will provide us an indication of whether we are going to see a philanthropic movement toward racial equity and justice.

Beyond Words: What UK Grantmakers are Learning About Power and Trust

Philanthropy has to confront its contributions to maintaining systems of oppression if it ever is to contribute to the kind of systemic change needed in our society. State-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism is urging deep reflection on how to build power effectively in this moment to bring justice and change with and for affected communities. The Grant Givers’ Movement, a non-hierarchical gathering of those working in the UK grant-giving sector who want to push for positive change in how philanthropy is done, recently releasedBeyond Words: Power and Trust in UK Grant Making.” Based on more than 140 responses from grantmakers, the report provides unique insight into how funders themselves perceive their own power; the dynamics within grantmaking organizations; and the power balance between grantmakers, grantee partners, and the communities they seek to serve.


Not surprisingly, most respondents acknowledge a power imbalance exists. More importantly, almost 80 percent believe that better redistribution of power leads to greater impact. Encouragingly, 50 percent reported their respective organizations were taking steps to rebalance power, but there is clearly a long way to go. While several efforts are being made to take steps to adjust grantmaking practice towards building power in communities, fewer initiatives to create more fundamental changes are in place. Such measures include; funding social movements and informal/grassroots groups, and investing in those from underrepresented communities with the tools to become staff and leaders in grant-giving organizations.

Participants cited the lack of racial, ability, gender, and class diversity among staff at grant-giving organizations as a key barrier to rebalancing power. Respondents felt greater diversity and inclusion at grantmaking organizations enables a range of voices and experiences to contribute to decision making, leading to a more equitable distribution of resources and, ultimately, greater impact.

What inhibits trust?

We found a range of factors inhibiting a trusting relationship between grantee partners and funders. Respondents cited issues such as funders creating a “race to the bottom” in terms of low pay in the sector; funders applying punitive measures when things didn’t go according to plan; grantee partners not wanting to “bite the hand that feeds them”; lack of lived, thematic, or even sector experience on boards; one-directional learning, flowing only from grantees to funders; and a lack of accountability amongst funders, which creates an environment in which funders are not being motivated to do better.

Worryingly, we found respondents felt they were most accountable to their boards and least accountable to the communities they seek to serve. This sentiment is important because it relates to what drives change. Lack of accountability to serve communities better leads to questions about the change that funder is seeking to pursue. This reality of the board’s significance on funder practices also underscores the importance of grantmakers prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that improve community representation on their own boards.

The measure of a grantmaker is what it does with its power

Rebalancing power within the grantmaking context on a practical level means recognizing that grantmakers (and others who hold ultimate decision-making powers) are not always the best people to make funding decisions.  As funders, we need to enforce a greater level of participation and an understanding of equal partnership between grantmakers and communities. We need to recognize and value the expertise we miss out on when we do not put affected communities in the driver’s seat.  Philanthropy has the power to change its own practice, but we often stand in our own way. We need to be asking ourselves and our colleagues to demonstrate how we are redistributing and restoring power in our grantmaking strategy and practice.

Achieving greater equity is about restoring power and resources to affected people and communities, and recognizing the existing power already held within them. It is also necessary to recognize that power is deliberately broken down in certain communities (e.g., through structures of colonialism, racism, patriarchy, capitalism), and to understand that the majority of time, those who benefit from these structures are the ones who hold the power and the resources to enable change. It is therefore our responsibility to intentionally restore power through philanthropy in the communities that have been historically impacted by these wider systems of oppression. Restoring this power will go a long way toward ensuring philanthropy perceives its existence as the pursuit of justice, rather than mere charity. It’s about connecting our grantmaking practices and values with organizational missions.

Our collective inaction only delays change. Now is the time to act. Social movements present in the UK, such as #shiftthepower (which emerged from the first Global Summit on Community Philanthropy held in Johannesburg in December 2016) and #charitysowhite, are creating a groundswell around power and trust. We are observing a rise in sector-wide conversations around improving grantmaking practices for more equitable power sharing. We need to hold each other accountable and help one another move beyond words to action. We need to recognize our crucial role in funding social justice movements, educating our donors, creating systems that reinforce mutual goals in partnerships with community groups, and using philanthropy as a powerful tool to change a broken system.

How Racial Equity Supports Better Grantmaking Practices

Exponent Philanthropy is on a journey to understand, embrace, and champion equity, and we are embedding it in our programmatic and research efforts. Much of our 2020 Foundation Operations and Management Report centered around exploring how racial equity relates to good grantmaking and governance practices.

The relevance of racial equity

Our survey defined racial equity as, "the systematic fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone." We asked foundations to rate the relevance of racial equity to their mission, and more than a third (34%) said it was “very relevant.”

Interestingly, foundations with at least two people of color on their boards and foundations with all female or nonbinary board members, considered racial equity significantly more relevant to their foundation mission than did boards without. Foundations with all white or all male boards can still engage in racial equity work, but bringing more diverse perspectives onto the board is the best way for a foundation to advance conversations around racial equity, and make the work more central to their mission.

Good grantmaking practices align with racial equity

We surveyed foundations on an array of grantmaking practices—from monitoring grantee accomplishments to engaging constituents in the grantmaking process—and analyzed the relevancy of racial equity as it related to the grantmaking practices.

The foundations rating racial equity “very relevant” to their mission were more likely to carry out each of the grantmaking practices above as compared to foundations rating it “not relevant” or “somewhat relevant.”

Stepping outside the survey, members say these strategies also play an outsized role in advancing racial equity:

  • Streamlining and simplifying grant requirements helps de-emphasize traditional long-form applications. It offers alternative ways to collect and share information, reducing some barriers to entry, and affording more organizations a shot at philanthropic dollars.
  • Collaborating with other funders to learn, support a cause, or pool grants, has its advantages including more large scale work, shared risks and new perspectives.
  • Engaging constituents in the grantmaking process helps funders make more informed decisions without preconceived ideas on what they think grantees need.

Interestingly, general operating support and multiyear grants were fairly common regardless of the relevance of racial equity to a foundation’s mission. But we’ve heard from funders and grantees working to advance racial equity that these two types of grants are essential.

Further, general operating support and multiyear grants are increasingly common amongst lean funders, and not just for those focused on racial equity. No matter your funding focus, multiyear general operating support grants afford recipients the security to think long term to better create change and solve problems.

There is still work to be done

Despite the positive findings we identified in this year's report, there is still work to do to increase the number of diverse voices in philanthropy and understand how racial equity relates to even more grantmaking practices.

The racial and ethnic diversity of foundation boards and staff was low compared to the overall population and number of foundations (65%) that consider racial equity “somewhat” or “very relevant” to their mission.

  • Of participating foundations, 74 percent reported having no board members of color (i.e., their boards were comprised entirely of people who identified as white)
  • More than three-fourths (78%) of participating staffed foundations had no paid staff members of color (their staffs were fully comprised of people who identified as white). And this trend continued for CEOs—90 percent of participating foundations with full-time CEOs had someone in that role who identified as white.

Though philanthropy is still dominated by people who identify as white, an important lesson to keep in mind here is that those who are engaging in racial equity work, and working to bring more diverse perspectives into the field, are the foundations more likely to be engaging in other types of philanthropic best practices. In addition to rethinking barriers to entry, rethinking data collection, and knowing the stresses on their grantees, these grantmakers are also streamlining grant requirements, collaborating with other funders, engaging constituents in the grantmaking process, and providing financial support to grantees for evaluation.

As the philanthropic sector aims to build trust, strengthen relationships, and address the systemic power imbalances in our society, trusting nonprofits and the people they serve is crucial. Regardless of a foundation's funding priorities, it can make the world a more equitable place for all of us.

About the Foundation Operations and Management Report

466 foundation members of Exponent Philanthropy completed the 2019 survey for a response rate of 26 percent. The majority of respondents self-identified as family foundations (53%) or independent foundations (39%), and respondents were relatively evenly distributed across the United States. For more information, access the full report on Exponent Philanthropy’s website.

Participatory grantmaking in a pandemic: practical considerations in design

This post originally appeared on the Candid blog.

Many of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are being led by grassroots activists and organizers across the world.  As we consider how to resource and fund this emergent work both in the short and long term, the need to place communities most impacted by and leading responses at the heart of decisions is deeply apparent. This crisis offers us an opportunity to learn by doing and to experiment with new models of participatory decision making that are accountable and intentional.

As funders in the philanthropic sector seek to support communities in meaningful and appropriate ways, we participatory grantmakers want to share what this means in political and practical terms, including some considerations and reflections on design.

Here are some key considerations for funders seeking to build participation into their grantmaking responses.

1. Find a balance between urgency and participation

Designing a model that is participatory, virtual and quick is new terrain for many, but certainly not impossible. It requires open-mindedness and a balance between the urgency of getting resources out the door and grounding the approach in the values of  meaningful and authentic participation. This requires flexibility and inevitably some trade-offs. The key is clear decisions about which things are non-negotiable and where compromises are possible.

2. Be clear on whom this participatory model should serve

Before you start designing, ask yourselves: Why do you want to make this process participatory? Who is the core community or constituency that should be part of this process? Then engage these communities in design as early as possible in the process, and find agreement on the values underpinning your model.

3. Start with your original base

This one comes with a shout out to Virisila Buadromoi from the Urgent Action Fund for Asia and Pacific: Where you can, start with activists in your community, your networks or sister funders. This is a way to ensure you can very quickly resource and also show up for your community when they need you most. It will cut down on due diligence and outreach and allow you to move quickly. One way to consider this is to first fund grantees of sister funds as phase 1, and then, having tested the process with your existing community, as phase 2, roll out a more widely accessible pot of funds.

4. Know that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores our interdependence. It shows us that we need to be in solidarity with others and use our skills and experience where we can to contribute to quick and well-designed responses. Draw on your networks and the expertise of those who have concrete experience in doing participatory and/or rapid response grant making. The GrantCraft Guide Deciding Together on participatory grantmaking is a good place to start. Look at how your work can complement existing work rather than duplicate.

5. Compensate activists for their time

Many activists have lost their jobs and organizations; many are in even more precarious financial situations then they were before the pandemic. Where you can, prioritize paying some financial compensation, stipends, or remuneration for people’s time spent advising or deciding on grants. Time is more precious than ever right now, and activists bringing their capacity and expertise to this work should be valued.

6. No process is perfect; plan to learn and adapt

Designing these models is new for almost everyone! So it is important to be open and accept with humility that there’s much we don't know. Do not strive for perfection, but rather a “work in progress” that will get better over time. Acknowledge up-front your plans to test and adapt your model.  Doing this with intention, transparency and care will ensure the changes do not have a backlash on people that apply for grants, peer reviewers.

7. Embed transparency in your process

Wherever you can, document your learnings in real time. Make your documents open source so they can provide learning for your peers in philanthropy. Not only will this help you to learn but it will also build with broader stakeholders. Also, it will help the field generally to grow—to learn from each other and to improve together.


COVID-19, Racism, and Philanthropy


As the founder and president of Marga Inc., a consulting firm providing strategic advice and research to philanthropic initiatives and community partnerships, I have led coordination of the Race and Equity in Philanthropy Group (REPG), which engages a cluster of member foundations in strengthening policies and practices on racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. Through that work, Marga Inc. has collected the information and examples shared here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world. It is a crippling disaster.

As is often the case during and after disasters, philanthropy has stepped in. Over recent weeks, we have seen foundations and their partners create numerous relief funds and explore new policies to move resources more quickly or make grants and donations more flexible for recipients. And we have seen foundations raise their voices to highlight injustices during the crisis as well. More recently, some foundations have been speaking out regarding the events surrounding the deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed Black citizens and the broader racial injustices these incidents represent.

COVID-19 and Structural Racism

This pandemic is no ordinary disaster. It is creating, as so many have said, “a new normal.” While it has ushered in some new realities, it has also highlighted existing inequities—one of which is longstanding structural racism.

As data begins to become more available, we are seeing that people of color are more likely to be affected by the pandemic—they are contracting and dying from the virus at higher rates, as they disproportionately reside in densely populated metropolitan areas that increase the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, and those who contract the virus face worse health outcomes than their white counterparts.
Social distancing and working from home have been vital ways in which the spread of the virus has been limited to some degree. But many lower income people of color are not in a position to practice distancing if they don’t have much space at home, or they live with numerous others in those quarters. Perhaps they do not have homes at all. Mass incarceration has disproportionately filled prisons with people of color living in close quarters in which the virus can spread.

Additionally, many of the jobs that cannot be done at home and are considered essential, such as service employees in grocery stores or transportation workers, are disproportionately occupied by Black and Latinx employees. These workers are true champions for placing themselves at risk to keep things going. They deserve tremendous gratitude. Native American communities have been particularly devastated by COVID-19 as well.

Discrimination, xenophobia, and ignorance are components of racism that have also surfaced around COVID-19, as demonstrated in the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, who are being blamed for the virus.

In addition, what is unquestionably a public health crisis is also an economic one. As jobs disappear and small businesses go under, populations with limited savings and limited career flexibility cannot withstand the loss of even a single paycheck. In the context of structural racism, again, communities that have been historically underserved and disenfranchised are most vulnerable.

One of the greatest disparities by race is around wealth, beyond income. Crises put a strain on communities with the least wealth (e.g., savings). So many in communities of color experienced dramatic losses in wealth during the financial crisis over a decade ago and were just starting to recover. This pandemic worsens conditions for those already vulnerable conditions.

As the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in a public health and economic crisis, a third crisis of racial injustice has converged with our experiences around COVID-19. Again, the very recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are not actually new. They are emblematic of a history of systemic violence against communities of color, and Black people in particular. There have been many protests following specific acts of racial injustice throughout this century, but none as widespread and multiracial as the daily and nightly civil unrest of late May and early June.

It is also critical to examine the distribution of resources by financial institutions and by philanthropy during this multidimensional crisis. Who gets the money? At this moment, there is debate and inquiry around how the smallest businesses that need funding the most are not getting much, while larger businesses are figuring out ways to get more funding. These are familiar dynamics, with a racial dimension to the distribution of resources in philanthropy. Smaller organizations led by and serving communities of color that are in greatest need are often disconnected from larger foundations and greater philanthropic resources.

As we look at the inequities illuminated in the pandemic, philanthropy absolutely must explore how grantmakers can substantially expand giving to organizations led by and serving communities of color. It is particularly important to serve representative organizations that provide a voice for their constituents and raise awareness about the realities confronting communities and advocate for policy change.

The many actions taken by foundations and donors recently are very important. But it is crucial to expand the number and range of philanthropic activities that directly address the racial dynamics that are increasingly apparent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the racial injustices around repeated police brutality. The clear worsening of racial inequity demonstrated throughout this crisis only underscores the need for foundations to make it a priority in all aspects of their work well beyond the near future. If foundations want to contribute to improving the health and economic conditions that have influenced the gravity of the pandemic’s impact, they will have to consider crucial racial dynamics.

Philanthropy Together for Change

It is encouraging that many foundations have been actively engaged during the pandemic, focusing on the various racial equity considerations evident in the crisis. Because racial equity is complex, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Below are a variety of approaches some funders are taking that may serve as helpful examples for others.

Advocating for immigrant communities

A group of 40 California-based foundations signed a joint letter to Governor Gavin Newsom elevating the need to support and protect immigrant Californians and their families, who are excluded from federal relief and ineligible for state safety-net programs.

Creating rapid response funds and giving grants to support communities of color and other vulnerable communities.

(A complete list of the many recently created crisis response funds can be found on Candid’s regularly updated list of funding opportunities on its coronavirus popup web page.)

  • The California Wellness Foundation is committing $3 million in grants to support the most vulnerable communities and people in the state. Additionally, they are providing core support grants to small and mid-size organizations led by people of color.
  • The James Irvine Foundation board approved $22 million to support grantees that are critical to California’s efforts to protect and advance low-wage workers and to help other grassroots organizations in California.
  • The East Bay Community Foundation is allocating $1 million from its endowment to support provide support for the most vulnerable communities in the East Bay.
  • The Ford Foundation, along with several other funders, launched the Families and Workers Fund to serve the workers, families, and communities most devastated by the economic and health crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The Seattle Foundation, in partnership with a coalition of philanthropy, government, and business partners, started the COVID-19 Response Fund. The fund, which is intended for nonprofits that are working on the frontlines, prioritizes communities of color, undocumented immigrants, low-income residents, limited English proficient residents, among others. So far the fund has galvanized $21 million.
  • The San Francisco Foundation has created the SFF COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for capacity building grants to address worker support, preventing homelessness, providing renter protection/housing security, ensuring food security, and addressing racial bias. It is also tracking race and ethnicity data of grantees and populations served.
  • The Langeloth Foundation has created the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to address organizations’ urgent and critical needs.
  • The California Endowment announced a $5 million COVID-19 Response Plan to provide for the essential needs of highly vulnerable populations in California.
  • The Walton Family Foundation approved using part of its annual grant budget for disaster relief to provide direct support for existing grantees. Many of these are education grants to target under-resourced schools where students of color often comprise the majority of the student population.
  • The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation has relied on local philanthropic partners to provide grants to individuals for basic needs and to nonprofits providing direct services. recognizing that many businesses in communities of color have limited access to capital, the foundation has also provided $400,000 directly to CDFI (Community Development Financial Intsitutions) partners to provide loans and grants for small businesses
  • The Lumina Foundation designated two contingency funds totaling $1.4 million to address the needs of national partners and to fund the work of local nonprofits in Indianapolis.

Denouncing discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities

Several foundations have endorsed the call to action from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) entitled “Open Letter to Philanthropy: The Cure to Viral Racism is Within Our Hands,” which denounces the racism accompanying COVID-19 that is targeting Asian American communities.

Focusing public attention on structural racism and racial inequities

Policy advocacy, and community organizing

  • The San Francisco Foundation is planning to weigh in on key policy issues, as it sees this as one of the most important tools it can use to advance racial equity and economic inclusion in the Bay Area.
  • The California Wellness Foundation will commit $1 million to community clinics and the associations that advocate for them.
  • The East Bay Community Foundation’sCOVID-19: “Just East Bay” Response Fund will target community groups that put policy and organizing at the core of their work and prioritize underserved populations.
  • The James Irvine Foundation, as part of the Priority Communities grantmaking initiative, is focusing on building more inclusive and equitable economies in several places.
  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation has provided policy resources, which elevate the needs of youth, families, and communities of color, to help grantees influence and educate federal legislators to inform relief bills.

Promoting power building strategies

Going Forward

One way foundations should deepen communication with communities of color is through existing networks that have been organizing people of color in philanthropy and raising awareness about racial equity, such as the ABFE, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and Native Americans in Philanthropy, among others.

COVID-19 has revealed the depth of persistent racial inequities, which has made the array of existing resources in philanthropy even more relevant to helping foundations contribute to social change. Change Philanthropy’s assessment tool can help foundations understand the state of their current policies and practices and the breadth of considerations as they imagine the work required to become more inclusive and equitable. The Philanthropy Initiative on Racial Equity (PRE) is another resource that has been helping foundations bring a racial equity lens to their work. United Philanthropy Forum’s Racial Equity Committee has been helping philanthropy-serving organizations build capacity to help their foundation members develop programming on racial equity.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed structural racism we already knew about, and the need for philanthropy to directly address these inequities has been longstanding. But if anyone needed an additional reason to prioritize racial equity in philanthropy, the rationale is upon us. In this pandemic, its impacts, and aftermath, we will need foundations to use all the tools at their disposal. This will include greater funding to organizations led by and serving communities of color and will also require foundations and donors to reflect on themselves as civic actors—as institutional change agents willing to raise awareness about the racial dimensions of this crisis and advocate for change.

Persistent acts of police brutality and racist violence that have especially impacted Black communities over generations have been painfully animated in recent events. While each incident involves individuals, the context is systemic racism. The lack of accountability of the perpetrators of such acts demonstrates the structural racism that supports and even encourages these behaviors. Foundations will have to challenge these systems in order to be relevant, and support the advocacy and community organizing to dramatically reform the criminal justice system and the racism embedded within it.

As the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color will be longstanding, philanthropy will be faced with a continued challenge. And as the calls for justice in the face of recent racist murders increase, philanthropy is faced with another responsibility. Philanthropy will have to make a sustained commitment to racial equity, racial justice, and communities of color in order to truly have an impact.

Certainly, philanthropy alone will not transform historically persistent inequities. But philanthropy can use its influence—both money and power—across sectors to authentically collaborate with communities that are most impacted to effect real change.

Crisis at Scale is an Invitation to Share & Learn at Scale

I hope this newsletter finds you staying healthy and productive during these stressful times. From social distancing, and donning masks, to remote work and school, and determining which phase of re-opening our communities have entered, there’s a lot to get used to, and many updates to track.

Here at my desk in California, my husband and kids have been at my home office with me daily since mid-March. We are fortunate that the children are school-aged and that their teachers have been providing remote instruction that keeps them busy most of the day.

However, this routine has also made me painfully aware of the inequities of this sudden leap to technology-based learning. Though some schools are making laptops available, not all families have Wi-Fi at home so children can connect. And in helping a local teacher communicate with Spanish-speaking families in my community, I’ve also discovered that some families fear accepting laptops on loan because they worry their children might break them, so they opt for worksheet packets instead.

In a world where only those with access to technology receive regular interaction and instruction from their teacher, it’s clear that many students will get left behind. The tragedy of this is magnified when one considers college-aged young adults who may find themselves now lacking a supportive learning environment or, in some cases, even becoming homeless.

Student poverty is a huge issue. It’s reminding me of our ongoing work on the Scholarships for Change platform, where we are tracking information about how donors are able to use scholarship dollars to create social impact. Some of the case studies there now take on new resonance, such as Ascendium’s emergency student aid program, which provides critical support for students in crisis. Does your organization award scholarships or student aid? How has your support of students changed due to the crisis? Given this ongoing effort, GrantCraft is interested in featuring blog content about adaptive approaches donors are using to equip students during these difficult times. Let us know so we can help you share what you are learning.

Education is just one of many such issues that are magnified by this pandemic, which is expanding divides between the haves and have-nots in wide-ranging areas of essential needs, such as health, hunger, housing, and employment. Here at Candid, we’ve been tracking how philanthropy is using its grant dollars to respond to the scale of this crisis. Our COVID-19 Pop-Up Page is providing free access to grants information, rapid response funds, COVID-related RFPs, and related news.

The grants data updates regularly, and, as of this writing, we are mapping a total of $10.5 billion of grants awarded in response to the crisis. Are your grants on our map? These tools are incomplete without your participation. The majority of this data comes from either news sources or directly from funders electronically reporting these grants to us. If your organization has funded efforts related to the crisis, please share information on this grantmaking so we can include your COVID-19 grants on our free, public map. We even have templates for submitting your information. Just be sure to include either the term "coronavirus" or "COVID-19" in your grant descriptions so they end up in the right place.

Candid’s COVID-19 web page also shares insights from our staff about what we are learning from our data. For example, I recently examined how foundations that participate in our GlassPockets transparency program are communicating about changes they are making to grantmaking practices. You can find out more about the communication trends I identified. This effort led to a recent “Community Conversation” co-hosted with PEAK Grantmaking during which we captured more information about practice changes that funders are making now, and which ones we hope are here to stay. These include things like streamlined applications, wider adoption of electronic submissions and payments, and increased use of general operating support and participatory grantmaking.

On that latter point, you may already be familiar with GrantCraft’s field guide on participatory grantmaking, Deciding Together. But did you also know we share the mechanics of how funders have made such efforts work? Since shifting power is taking on new resonance now with many working to lift the burden on grantees, and considering how to better learn from community voices and expertise, GrantCraft is interested in lifting up case examples and mechanics of participatory grantmaking during the pandemic. How do you balance the need for participation at a time when many community leaders are dealing with crisis? Let us know if you have lessons that we can share on our platform.

I realize this is a lot of questions for one newsletter, but hopefully it’s a good reminder that everything we do in philanthropy is ultimately about sharing and learning, and the knowledge that we are in this together makes social distancing, and the scale of this crisis, just a little more bearable.


This letter originally appeared in GrantCraft's newsletter. To stay updated with our newsletter and special alerts, sign up here.

Can Students, Parents, and Higher Ed Survive a Global Pandemic?

As a philanthropy advisor who works with individuals to help them chart a course for making an impact with their giving, I can attest to the strong interest many donors have in supporting access to higher education.

Some do it because they themselves were scholarship recipients and want to give back to a system that supported them when they needed it; others do it as a way to level the playing field; some want to support the institutions that they hold deep affection for; and others because they see education as a way to improve outcomes for struggling communities.  In short, there can be as many motivations as there are donors. But what they share in common is a yearning to make a difference.

So, last year when Candid launched its new Scholarships for Change website, I was excited to dig into the data and case studies showing how scholarship dollars can be used to effect transformative change. The website, funded by the Ford Foundation and Mellon Foundation, provides funding trend data, case studies, and an interactive grants map with more than 680,000 scholarships.

The case studies highlight the kinds of strategies that funders with many years of experience in supporting scholarships are using to change the lives of individuals, and also change whole regions, institutions, and communities for the better. From Ascendium’s emergency financial aid for unexpected student expenses, to the LeBron James Family Foundation’s strategy of engaging whole families in supporting first-generation college students, the case studies provide an insightful, behind-the-scenes look at how funders are enabling transformative change for scholars everywhere.

So Many Unknowns

Reflecting on these ideas of emergency student aid and the plight of first-generation students, coupled with recent conversations I’ve been having with colleagues and friends, makes me realize the enormity of the need students, parents, universities, and philanthropists will be facing.

COVID-19 has changed everything. Though the full impact of a global pandemic on higher education is not yet known, the disruption that it is causing in the lives and futures of American students is undeniable. Nationwide, colleges and universities are trying to decide whether or not they can safely reopen campuses in the fall. Uncertainty is wreaking havoc in the lives of students, parents and faculty members throughout the country. Yet even in crisis, there are moments of clarity.

Despite the disruption, a whole generation of students is still forced to go through the motions of applying for colleges and financial aid, and deciding whether or not to make the leap to college in the fall. And those who are currently students have seen their college experiences uprooted, shifting from once-engaging campus interactions with faculty and fellow students to less than satisfying remote online instruction. Most students have had to move home, adding layers of emotional complexity to their parents' and siblings' lives as well as their own.

Shortly before sheltering in place began in the Bay Area, I’d joined a women’s incubator at the Hivery, a women’s creative workspace and community at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Every Friday for three months, this group of 21 highly motivated, talented women were scheduled to meet  in a beautiful workspace to help each other bring our passion projects to life. But just three weeks into the incubator, the coronavirus led to sheltering in place and all of our gatherings pivoted to Zoom virtual meetings. As we checked in with each other online to see how we each were doing, it became clear that the unprecedented challenges that their children now faced were taking a heavy emotional toll on the mothers in our group.

A catalytic bonding moment occurred for all of us who hadn’t known each other well before the incubator began, when one of the participants teared up and told us how she and her son were both struggling with fear. “My son’s clamming up,” she said. “I’m afraid for him to travel. We’re considering letting him take a gap year.” Others jumped in, noting that their finances were stretched now, yet tuitions remain the same. “No one wants to pay full tuition for an online experience,” someone added.

Another mentioned the sheer terror her child was going through. “She’s talking about death. We’re all watching too much news and get anxious when we constantly hear about people getting sick and dying.”

Participants commiserated over children concerned about looking for work as the economy crashed, frustration and confusion over credit/no credit grading systems, coveted internships that may no longer be possible, entering freshmen looking at their dreams deferred, and concerns that college may become even more out of reach for first-generation students than it already was.

Envisioning Philanthropy’s Role

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, higher education grantmakers, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina, Kresge, and others share these concerns and are focused on efforts to get more emergency aid directly into the hands of students who were already at a financial disadvantage and who will be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 economic turmoil.

The Scholarships for Change case studies also provide a helpful playbook for donors to follow when it comes to meeting the needs of first-generation and economically disadvantaged college students. The Ascendium Dash Emergency Program helps low-income and underrepresented students complete college by creating a safety net of small grants designed to help students overcome unexpected financial setbacks.

Aside from financial setbacks that low-income students may now be facing, another consideration is the change of educational setting as many college students have had to return home and access remote learning. How will first-generation college students get the educational support and mentoring that they need? The LeBron James Family Foundation's I Promise Scholarship case study provides some helpful insights for donors about engaging entire families and multiple generations in the effort to change life trajectories with access to education. The focus is not just on the student, but also on supporting educational attainment for parents and extended family of the student.

The Wall Street Journal (Colleges Ponder Fall Semesters) notes that the return to normal may take many years. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, a higher-education advocacy group, estimates that the number of students on campus will decline by 15 percent, causing $23 billion in lost revenue. Some colleges may not survive the financial shocks of the pandemic, particularly those with small endowments, less than $24 million.

For funders seeking impact in this challenging environment, it’s safe to say that approaches that were effective prior to the pandemic will be equally but more important going forward. The need for scholarship support, for instance, will be intensified as the economy and the job market slowly recover. Financial support will be critical for first-generation students and for those who were financially vulnerable prior to the crisis, who may no longer consider higher education an option without significant scholarship support. Graduation rates may decline as students facing new financial hurdles--whose college plans may be disrupted--need to take much longer to fulfill academic requirements. Plans may need to be put in place to lure back dropouts.

Going forward, colleges will need to be much more proactive in anticipating and addressing the needs of students whose lives have been impacted by COVID-19. As a funder, it always makes sense to keep in close communication with your contacts at a college you’ve funded, and it is especially critical now to ascertain as realistically as you can how colleges are addressing the specific needs of their students and faculty.

Approaches for Impactful Funding Going Forward

  1. Give unrestricted support that will allow colleges and universities the flexibility to meet students’ needs as they arise and to design programs that will bridge workplace and college learning, encourage entrepreneurialism in an age of diminishing jobs, or ease students’ transition from community colleges to four-year institutions, or from colleges that may close during the crisis to more viable institutions.
  2. Increase funding for support programs for first-generation and financially vulnerable students.
  3. Encourage other funders to join you and leverage your support. Tech philanthropists Jennifer and David Risher's #HalfMyDAF set an inspiring example recently by setting up $1 million challenge in matching grants for nonprofits whose backers pledge to donate half the money they keep in donor advised funds to nonprofits by the end of September. One hundred nonprofits will receive matching grants of up to $10,000.

Funding in a pandemic crisis and its unknown aftermath is uncharted territory. But now, as never before, it’s essential to communicate with your grant partners and to adopt a flexible mindset in addressing their evolving needs.