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COVID-19 philanthropy and 4 big questions for 2021

By Ryan Schlegel & Anna Koob
February 3, 2021

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What Candid’s data tells us about support for communities of color and social justice amid 2020’s pandemic response

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every aspect of life around the globe and exacerbated perennial challenges such as entrenched poverty, hunger, lack of access to health care, and racial inequality. In spite of the challenge presented by social distancing requirements, the U.S.’s civil society has mobilized to begin meeting historic levels of need for direct services. And as a reinvigorated movement for Black civil and human rights swelled again last spring and summer, organizations working at the intersection of advocacy, community organizing, and systems change have stepped up, too. U.S. foundations, corporations, and individual donors have responded, and according to Candid, more than $10.7 billion in U.S. grantmaking has been dedicated to meeting the COVID-19 challenge so far.

There is no doubt that philanthropy has responded to COVID-19 on a scale not seen before. Nearly 800 philanthropic organizations signed on to the Council on Foundations pledge calling on foundations to commit significant resources in response to COVID-19 and reduce grant restrictions and reporting requirements for their grantees. A July and August survey by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) found that 72 percent of surveyed foundations said they had increased their 2020 payout above what they had planned for the year. “Almost all” surveyed foundations reported a new strategic focus on supporting Black communities and other marginalized people during the ongoing COVID crisis, and 80 percent of surveyed funders said they were prioritizing systems change funding.

A survey of 500 of the largest U.S. foundations by scholars at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy (fielded between May and August) found that 75 percent reported they had relaxed restrictions on grants, making it easier for recipients to use the funds to meet emergency needs. Most (70 percent) said they’d started a COVID-specific response fund. But less than one-third reported they had increased their payout percentage. The dissonance between this final statistic and that gathered by CEP’s survey (above) demonstrates the limitations of reporting percentages from limited sample sizes.

The debate will continue whether foundations and other donors have done enough to fulfill their obligations during the ongoing crises gripping the country. Candid will not have a full picture of 2020 grantmaking until more giving data becomes available – ideally from funders submitting their grants directly to Candid (find out more about submitting grants data.)

There are, however, already some major takeaways from Candid’s COVID-19 grantmaking data as well as some major unanswered questions.

What we know

  • As of January 13, Candid has tracked $10.7 billion across 24,349 grants by foundations, corporations, and large individual donors to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
  • Candid identified an additional $8.2 billion representing 290 pledges. Candid distinguishes between grants, that is contributions for a specified amount to a recipient, and pledges, which generally reflect the announced intention to provide funding, typically in response to a crisis or emergency. In some cases, there may be double-counting between grants and pledges in Candid’s database.
  • Of U.S. grants funding to address COVID-19, 7 percent ($727 million, 551 grants) also addresses issues of racial equity. These grants are also captured in Candid’s racial equity map for 2020.

Tracking the philanthropic response to the COVID-19 pandemic provided Candid with an opportunity to scale up its collection of data on giving by individuals and corporations. Together, these two types of funders are responsible for 75 percent of U.S. COVID grants funding and 67 percent of pledged funding that Candid has collected so far.

How is COVID giving different?

Based on available U.S. grants data, grantmaking in response to the pandemic appears to have been designated for social justice and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color)-serving initiatives at higher rates than we've typically seen.[1] 

  • Some 28 percent of U.S. COVID giving so far has been for social justice strategies.[2] Between 2003 and 2016, just 9-12 percent of U.S. giving by the Foundation 1000 was for comparable strategies.
  • One-tenth of U.S. grant dollars and 5 percent of U.S. pledged dollars for COVID have been designated explicitly to benefit Black communities. Only 2 percent of Foundation 1000 giving has been designated this way in previous years.
  • Some 0.9 percent of total COVID-19 grant dollars (and zero pledged dollars) were designated explicitly to benefit Indigenous and American Indian communities, compared to just 0.1 percent of the total in previous years.

 What Candid’s data can’t tell us

Candid has tracked but has found little detail on two types of COVID-19 funding. Together, they make up significant chunks of all private giving in response to COVID-19 tracked to date:

  • Pledges. As noted earlier, these are intentions to give specified amounts at some point in the future (290 pledges, $8 billion). They account for 43 percent of all U.S. COVID funding tracked by Candid so far.
  • Grants to multiple or unknown recipients. These are specific gifts that have been announced but that, aside from the grant amount, contain little to no information about the organizations receiving the funds (1,200 grants, $5.5 billion). More than half (51 percent) of U.S. COVID grants tracked by Candid so far can only be attributed to multiple or unknown recipients.

This breakdown between verifiable, detailed grants data and gifts with an expression of intent and little else plays out in different ways across different kinds of giving:

Grant dollars—named recipients Grant dollars—multiple or unknown recipients Pledged dollars

% giving for Black communities 20% of grant dollars to named recipients explicitly support Black communities 0.9% 5%

% giving for Indigenous communities 2% 0.0% 0.0%

% giving for Latinx communities 3% 0.1% 0.0%

% giving for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities 0.2% 0.2% 0.0%

% giving for all BIPOC communities 39% 41% 8%

% giving for social justice strategies 15% 41% 7%

Note: Rows are not mutually exclusive (e.g., a given grant may be categorized as giving to both BIPOC and Black communities). Additionally, not all COVID grants are included in one of these categories. Therefore, column totals do not equal 100 percent.

More specifically, Candid’s detailed grants data suggests that funders are explicitly focusing on communities of color to vastly different degrees—20 percent of grants to named recipients were expressly focused on Black communities, but less than 5 percent each for Latinx people, AAPI people, and Indigenous people. And while a substantial portion of grant dollars to multiple or unnamed recipients (41 percent in either case) reportedly serve BIPOC communities and support social justice strategies, the lack of detail about this funding prevents more in-depth analysis. Without more information, it is impossible to confirm who is receiving this funding and in what amounts.

More research is also required to determine whether funders are making good on their commitments. At this time, Candid has only been able to find associated grants information for roughly 24 percent of COVID-19 pledges. There are various possible explanations for this discrepancy: 1) Grants associated with the pledge haven’t been awarded yet; 2) grants were awarded, but not publicly announced; and 3) grants were publicly announced, but Candid hasn’t yet come across the announcement or processed the data.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Candid can only track what they find (i.e., what is made publicly available or shared directly). While foundation funding will eventually become available via foundations’ 990s (though not necessarily at a very descriptive level,) Candid can only track funding from high-net-worth individuals, corporate direct giving programs, and LLCs if it’s publicly announced. No mandated mechanism for transparency exists.

To what extent has philanthropy’s COVID response has been sufficient, effective, and just? Here are the questions NCRP and Candid will be looking for answers to in 2021.

4 big questions raised by the data

  1. Will donors and foundations make good on their pledges to communities of color?
    Spring and summer of 2020—and more specifically, the community organizing led by Black grassroots activists—inspired a wave of announcements of new racial justice philanthropy initiatives. How and when will those announcements of intent be realized? Will the philanthropic momentum built by BIPOC leaders continue into 2021?
  1. How much funding for COVID work in communities of color will go to work by and for those communities?
    We know—both because BIPOC leaders in philanthropy have said so for decades and because the quantitative data shows us—that BIPOC-led organizations are systematically under-funded due to implicit and explicit biases in our grantmaking practices. Will philanthropy’s COVID-driven investments in BIPOC communities reach work by and for those communities?
  1. Will the philanthropic response to COVID change how grantmaking is done, or just how much?
    Hundreds of the country’s largest foundations have pledged to change their grantmaking practices to embrace more flexible MYGOD funding practices. Candid’s data doesn’t capture instances where funding has been pre-paid, project support has been converted to general operating support, or reporting requirements have been relaxed. But it does seem to point to a new focus on social justice strategies and general support funding in the COVID pandemic response. Will changes like these be durable? Will more foundations adopt them?
  1. To what extent will donors share the details of their grantmaking—either publicly, or better yet, directly with Candid—as long as mandatory reporting does not exist?
    The law requires foundations to disclose sparingly little information about their grantmaking, and it requires next to no disclosure from individual donors or corporate giving. Despite this lack of requirement, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has shown a high degree of transparency through a publicly available spreadsheet where his LLC, Start Small, is sharing details about how it’s disseminating the $1 billion he’s committed in response to the pandemic. We encourage other donors and foundations to follow this example and share grants-level information about their giving, including through Candid’s eReporting program.

Over the past year, we’ve seen funders take drastic actions to support their grantees and their communities. The scale and newness of philanthropy’s COVID-19 response demands extensive analysis by many researchers using a variety of methods. We hope this preliminary analysis will inspire others to dive deeper into Candid’s data on COVID-19 philanthropy and look forward to working together to better understand a most unprecedented year in giving.

[1] The Foundation 1000 is Candid’s annual data set capturing all grants of $10,000 or more awarded by 1,000 of the largest U.S. foundations each year. The set is used to identify trends in U.S. foundation giving and, here, represents “typical” grantmaking.

[2] Candid uses a definition for social justice grantmaking it developed in collaboration with NCRP that includes subject and strategy codes like community organizing, democracy, human rights, environmental justice, health care access, and others. Read more.

Tags: Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Foundations and grantmaking; Giving