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Funders: now is the time for true grantee partnership

By Victoria Vrana
March 17, 2020

Hands of people of different races on top of each other to indicate solidarity or working together
Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Reprinted from LinkedIn.

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 partners. 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 partnership 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 grantees, 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 partners for the grantees who are critical to the success of our missions.

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