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Responding To Covid-19: Suggestions and Recommendations for Donors

March 24, 2020 - By Greg Ratliff

As of mid-March 2020, COVID-19 is now a world-wide pandemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 145 countries around the globe are confronted with outbreaks of the virus, and here in the United States multiple communities now live under declared states of emergency.

Fundamental to philanthropy is the core belief that donors can and should be a force for good. Pandemics reveal the worst of the human condition–anxiety, fear, suffering and death–and have grave social and economic consequences that last well beyond the crisis period. As the impact of COVID-19 continues to unfold, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors is at the forefront of ongoing conversations with both large foundations and private donors addressing the evolving needs facing communities across the country. We believe this goes beyond traditional notions of disaster philanthropy to emphasize resilience funding that builds the resilience of individuals, families, and communities to weather the crisis under conditions of extreme uncertainty, volatility, and complexity. Accordingly, we are providing to the donor community preliminary guidance that we will update as the context shifts relating to key principles and general funding areas, including specific recommendations for donations.

Critical Principles for Disaster Response

  • Give donations with as few restrictions as possible.General operating support dollars are the single best way to equip everyone and every group affected right now.
  • Allocate support for the immediate and longer term. The ripple effects of the pandemic will be far reaching and extensive. That means there will be plenty of short- and long-term opportunities for a donor to support what they care about.
  • Fund organizations that are already active and experienced with current capacity in providing services or conducting research for a public health and financial crisis. A crisis is not the best time to help an after-school program start providing support for benefits applications, for example. Look for organizations, like nonprofit hospitals, that are already adept at working with the public sector.
  • Prioritize funder collaboratives to get funding to nonprofits in larger amounts with a single grant vs. a multitude of donations to acknowledge and track. Big collaboratives can also scan the sector and allocate more efficiently.

COVID-19 Philanthropic Funding Areas

We are seeing donor interest in many areas but five come to the forefront: health and medical needs; social services and economic security; support for small businesses at risk of closure; educational support for students; and region-specific funds. Below is a list of organizations offering support services in one or more of these areas.


For local, national and global responses to be effective, they must have quality data about infection rates, good lines of communication across local, regional and national boundaries and not only sufficient resources, but also the right resources to combat the infection and save lives. Two organizations to consider that meet these criteria are:

  • The CDC Foundation, which provides flexible funding that can support state and local health departments, logistics, communication and data management.
  • Partners in Health, which is taking global action to contain the spread of the virus and ensure that care is available for the most vulnerable.

Overall, RPA feels that sufficient resources are available for vaccine and anti-viral treatments. For those who see this as a priority nonetheless, Gates Philanthropy Partners is supporting the development of therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines for COVID-19, in addition to funding work that protects the most vulnerable populations in low-income countries.

Social Services and Economic Security

In any emergency or national disaster situation, vulnerable or low-income communities suffer disproportionately. The pandemic is isolating the elderly and leaving them to fend for themselves at home. Many children who depend on school for their meals are at risk of going hungry. Low wage workers face the dilemma of putting their health at risk by going to work or losing income by staying home.  Several organizations are working to address these related issues and ameliorate their impact on low income populations. In addition to local food banks, national organizations with local partners also focus on delivering healthy meals to those in need.

  • Share Our Strength has a mission to end hunger in the U.S. and abroad. It has been an active contributor of food after every major hurricane in the past decade and has a stellar set of partners (from Walmart to Whole Foods). Its program No Kid Hungry is feeding school children who have lost access to meals.
  • Feeding America is another national anti-hunger organization with significant capacity.
  • Meals on Wheels is a national organization with several local chapters that deliver meals to the homebound elderly.
  • National Domestic Workers Alliance is providing emergency assistance to domestic workers that allows them to stay home and healthy with their families.
  • Food Bank For New York City is the city’s largest hunger-relief organization and centers on helping low-income New Yorkers overcome their circumstances and achieve greater independence.
  • Hunger Free America is a movement to enact the policies and programs needed to end domestic hunger.
  • Toward helping tribes with their internal efforts, in partnership with Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health and with in-kind support from Google, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has launched a COVID-19 Resources Toolbox.  It provides continuously updated resources for tribal chairs, officials and managers.  The Toolbox has been overwhelmingly well-received, is getting thousands of “hits”, and spawning a great deal of media coverage of what is happening to Indigenous communities during the pandemic
Small Business Help

Effective implementation of social distancing has resulted in the closure of many businesses, including small community-based enterprises like restaurants and cafes, as well as larger regional enterprises. Regardless of size, the business community is suffering, and several donors are interested in ensuring they have the capital or credit resources necessary to ride out this phase of the pandemic.

  • Opportunity Finance Network (OFN) is a national network of community development financial institutions (CDFIs). These organizations help small businesses that would have trouble getting credit and business guidance from the mainstream banking industry. One of their leading small business lenders is the Opportunity Fund based in San Francisco, and the CDFI Locater can help you find an organization in your area, or you can contribute to the national fund which distributes capital to those organizations experiencing capital shortages based on increased demand.
  • Common Future is a network of leaders building an equitable inclusive economy.
  • Restaurant Opportunity Center is a nonprofit organization fighting to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce.
Education and Student Support

In an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, schools across the country are closing and students are receiving remote online instruction. For poorer households with limited resources, access to the internet is spotty at best. Even in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, more than ten percent of households do not have broadband access.  A recent report Closing the Digital Divide provides a sobering overview of broadband access by households.

  • The Emerson Collective maintains a list of educational resources for remote learning. Each of the organizations delivering these services will benefit from donations that allow them to expand their capacity during this time.
  • Education Superhighway is working with school districts to close the digital divide.
Regional Collaborative Giving

A number of strategic funds that pool resources to increase scale and potential impact in addressing the pandemic are emerging to support everything from frontline medical interventions to vaccine research. Advantages of granting to a fund include shared responsibility, access to dedicated professionals who direct resources to the most important needs, and avoiding duplication of effort.

  • Look for community foundations that are brokering public/private partnerships to leverage investments. A prime example of this is the rapid response fund of the Seattle Foundation that focuses on needs in King County where the virus first struck hardest in the United States.
  • In the Bay Area, the major community foundations have created funds to address local needs. These include the East Bay Community Foundation’s COVID-19: A Just East Bay Response Fund.
  • Major New York City based foundations, including Ford and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, are supporting a collaborative fund at the New York Community Trust with an initial allocation of at least $25 million.
  • Other good local choices for New Yorkers for access to food are the Food Bank of New York City and City Harvest. Both of these organizations distribute food to a network of agencies and feeding programs throughout the five boroughs.
  • For other communities, we recommend turning to the local community foundation. Community foundations already fund local social service organizations, and so they have strong bases of knowledge, experience with partnerships, and good networks for crisis management. In addition, The Giving Compass has assembled a list of coronavirus focused funds that have emerged.
For More Information

More detailed information about collaborative giving is included in RPA’s guide Collaborative Giving, and for additional information can be found at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. For tailored recommendations that align with your mission, please contact Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Executive Vice President Walter Sweet at [email protected]

Greg Ratliff is a Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.



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