I don’t typically write about current events in this blog. These are not typical times.
Today is April 2, 2020. My daughter is in her room “homeschooling” (or, sorta homeschooling and sorta singing show tunes) for the foreseeable future. I am working from home, as I’ll be doing for goodness knows how long. My family and friends are safe and well, we have enough food in our home, and I am connecting with others and staying positive as best I can. But it’s a struggle.
I am hearing about and talking to nonprofit organizations that are in dire straights. The people they serve are suffering, and it doesn’t look like that suffering will ease any time soon. The organizations, themselves, may or may not be able to stay afloat, and as they lay off workers and end programs, that will have a continuing ripple effect on the community and our economy. In just the past couple of days, I’ve heard about:
- The nonprofit that serves hundreds of homebound elderly people who were all but cut off from the world before this crisis. Their lifelines were home health aides, family members, or social workers who would conduct home visits. Those visits are no longer happening. Many of these seniors are too frail to even cook for themselves.
- The nonprofit that is trying to provide psychological supports to domestic violence victims who are being forced to shelter in place with their abusers.
- The nonprofit that supports minority students on college campuses, many of whom come from low-income families and are the first in their families to go to college. Many of these students lived in their college dormitories, and they depended on college meal plans for food. When their housing was closed, they had nowhere else to go and could not afford to travel back to their families. The organization is scrambling to find them housing and food.
- The nonprofit that just lost $300,000 in expected revenues due to a canceled fundraising event.
- The nonprofit that has lost 30% of their annual revenues due to cancellation of fee-for-service programs (including refunding fees that already had been paid).
- The nonprofit that is laying off most of its staff, but still must employ custodians to clean its facility and maintain equipment (such as HVAC systems); if that equipment is not maintained, it will sustain catastrophic damage and render the facility useless once stay-at-home orders are lifted.
The list goes on. I spoke to the executive director of one of these organizations yesterday, someone who is facing impossible choices, is scrambling to raise emergency funds, who knows that the organization’s clients are suffering and that his beloved staff is about to suffer when layoffs begin and they lose their household incomes. At the end of our call, I said “Hey, I just want to ask… are you OK? Are you eating? Are you sleeping?” His response: “No, but I’m drinking.”
Which leads me to the message I want to share in this blog post. This may end up coming back to bite me in my professional life, but as I said at the start of this post: these are not typical times.
Foundations, it is time for you to step up.
As some of you know, foundations are only required to disburse, in grants, 5% of their assets per year. In truth, it usually ends up being less than 5%, because there are certain administrative expenses that can be included in that 5%. So, if a foundation has $10 million in assets, they are required to make around $500,000 in grants in a given year.
Foundations, we need more from you. Your grantees need more from you. Your country needs more from you.
The superintendent of my daughter’s school system described this as a once in a 100 years event. Foundations, the rainy day is now. Please, please give away more money. Give it away more quickly. Give it away with greater ease, and easier grant proposal requirements. Please do more.
Many of you HAVE pledged to do more, and there is a growing drumbeat in the philanthropic sector for this trend to continue. According to a recent article in Nonprofit Quarterly:
…nine national organizations that serve philanthropic institutions, comprising BoardSource, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), the Council on Foundations (COF), Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), Independent Sector, the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP), the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), and the United Philanthropy Forum have signed on to a letter urging foundations to grant at significantly increased levels during the COVID crisis.
I know you were set up to operate in perpetuity, and that’s why you have to be conservative with the amount of grants you disburse each year. Give more anyway.
I know you are constrained by your bylaws, and it’s not that easy for you to pivot. I know this can feel like turning the Titanic. Give more anyway.
I know your assets have taken a hit as the stock market has tanked. Give more anyway.
I know you have a legacy to protect. Give more anyway.
US Foundations, in the time immediately before COVID-19, held $1 trillion in assets. $1 TRILLION. (and, by the way, there were over $100 million in assets in Donor Advised Funds, which I also hope will significantly increase their giving).
Now is your moment, foundations. Please give even more than usual, more quickly that usual, and more easily than usual. You can be heroes.