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Funders: now is the time for true grantee partnerships

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COVID-19 is creating unprecedented disruptions, fear, and uncertainty in all of our lives. While none of us can control this new reality, we can control how we respond.

Now is the time to lead with compassion in each of our spheres of influence: Lead with steadiness in your family. Lead with compassion and action in your community. Lead within your organization and support your teams and colleagues from wherever you sit.

In my role as a funder at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, another key sphere of influence for me is with my incredible grantee partnerships. All of them are confronting huge financial and logistical challenges—even if they do not do anything specifically related to COVID-19. For all of us who are funders, our grantees need true partnerships now more than ever. What does that look like? And what can we do?

First, reach out. If you haven’t yet, call or email each of your grantees. Do it now. Just a short note to let them know you are there. Ask them what they are doing and hearing. Ask them what they need. Share any resources or procedures your organization has in place that might help them out.

Second, stay on top of grants in process. Contact organizations who are waiting for responses, even if it’s just to say decisions may be delayed. Try and let them know how long. For proposals, renewals, or payments going forward, keep them moving. All of our grantees need resources now, but they also need reassurance that previously agreed-upon future support will come through.

Third, pivot aggressively to meet the moment. Every organization I know, including ours, is shifting gears and changing how it does business to adapt to our new reality. Travel is cancelled. Meetings are cancelled. Many of us are working virtually. Priorities are changing, sometimes hour by hour. Nearly all organizations are cancelling gatherings, big and small. Many nonprofits have hesitated because they fear losing foundation or sponsor support, or because cancellations mean losing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in sunk costs. Some organizations are trying to switch to virtual modes of convening and knowledge sharing. While a few have the know-how, tools, and software to make that switch smoothly, many do not. Innovation will come from this moment, but it is difficult and stressful, and organizations need our support. If you’ve provided funds for a convening, let the organization re-purpose those funds. Consider providing additional support for new needs. Fundraising will also undergo transformation, starting with events and rippling out to every aspect of development. Organizations will need new tools, techniques, and creativity amidst the very real uncertainties of how giving patterns may shift.

Fourth, be agile. Many grantees will need to change their programming. Whether they are involved in vaccine development, food supply, eviction prevention, education, or climate change, everyone’s work has taken on a different, urgent dimension. As funders, we must flex and adapt along with our grantees. We must take inventory of whatever resources we have and deploy them in new ways. We must tap all of our networks. Jennifer Lockwood Shabat, president and CEO of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, reports that grantees in the Washington, D.C., region who tackle the challenges of gender-based violence daily have immediate worries about the effect of mandatory quarantines and social distancing, not to mention lost jobs and other severe stresses, on those vulnerable to such violence. Those organizations are quickly working to deploy new ways of supporting and protecting families. As your grantees work through similar evolutions, consider evolving your support as well. Be flexible. Convert milestones and grant terms where possible. Be open to shifting proposals in process to accommodate new ideas. Do not be a barrier to nimbleness.

Finally, consider supporting the nonprofit infrastructure that supports your grantee partnerships, even if it’s not a standard part of your portfolio. Infrastructure organizations are the knowledge and connection engines we need in this time, such as the National Council of Nonprofits or NTEN, which helps nonprofits leverage technology to fulfill their missions. Or consider local or issue-based networks like the Montgomery County Food Council in my own backyard, which connects food-insecure county residents to over 75+ food assistance programs in our community and convenes providers during this crisis to share best practices and resources and address service needs. Organizations that coordinate are critical to navigating through this chaos. Whatever sphere you are in, find the networks. Without them, we are inefficiently wasting resources, energy and time.

As challenging and overwhelming as the current moment is for all of us, we all have opportunities to help and lead. This is particularly true for those of us who are funders. No matter how close or far we are to the front lines of the battle to counter COVID-19, we can all find creative ways to be true partnerships for the grantees who are critical to the success of our missions.

Reprinted from LinkedIn.


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  • Chlo√© C. Battle says:

    April 4, 2020 11:42 am

    Do you know of any companies that would be interested in helping us to continue supporting expectant mothers with their pregnancies right now? A lot of these women are scared and anxious about what risks are involved with giving birth during the coronavirus pandemic. We are still offering pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, counseling, and limited prenatal/postnatal care, but we are a nonprofit and would be very grateful for some additional funding right now to keep our doors open. Thank you!

  • James Posner, Ph.D says:

    March 23, 2020 4:08 pm

    Looking back to the banking crisis of the 1990's, I listened as many large (and not so large) foundations (and other funders) decided that stock-market losses at that time implied, or led to the decision--"therefore"-- to decrease the amount of grants. I thought then-- and continue to think now-- that is a non-sequitur. The first priority of a foundation is its charitable purposes. For many of us, the potential decrease in endowment over a period of multiple years in the future, does not warrant a decrease in grants over the coming 18 months. To the contrary, if not now, when would it ever be more important to utilize the liquid assets, and the credit, and the capacity to absorb financial risk than in a profound, urgent, and widespread situation such as Covid-19? In effect, there is sometimes a disconnect conflating near-term modest financial pressure on our foundations, with near-term existential threat to people and organizations that are grantees and important parts of the infra-structure we rely on in our supporting capacity growth and sustainability. Our trustees are being ask to contact grantees they know most closely, in order to gauge the magnitude and scope of pressure and pain that could be assuaged by an 18-24 month bolus of funding. In other words, I personally weigh the impact of adding 10-20-30% of the current grants budget against a conjecture of how that might compare to the weight on our endowment within 3-5 years? [Please do the math for yourself and your organization.]

  • Barbara Witte says:

    March 20, 2020 3:33 pm

    This is so insightful. As a nonprofit development person, it is wonderful to be reminded that partners are truly in this together. I would love to share with funders, but fear it could be interpreted as an "ask." I have already shared with our staff. I hope this gets distributed broadly among foundations in the absence of development professionals sharing. Thank you for this article!

  • Victor Kalie Kamara says:

    March 19, 2020 8:25 am

    I really admire your work in addressing global challenges. We are a Community Based Organisation - Care Against Rural Poverty-CARP , operating in Sierra Leone to address similar challenges like yours.
    As the Convid 19 is knocking at our door, since our neighbours Guinea and Liberia has started recording cases, we as a nation are on an emergency preperedness and effective prevention through sensitisation and hand washing in public places, the Government has put in place several mechanisms including eestriction on overcrowding and banning of social activities amongst others.
    In this regard, we are intending to undertake peeventive activities in our operational area, Kambia District which is close to the Republic of Guniea.
    If you will be of help , what further action could we take? I hope you will sgaee this request with other networks to support us participate in the fight afainst this scourge.
    Hope to hear from you.