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The impact of COVID-19 on civil society, part two

By Sarina Dayal (she, they)
March 29, 2021

Laptop computer with an online survey on its screen an someone typing on the keyboard.

In July 2020, Candid published a blog post examining the many surveys inquiring about social sector organizations’ needs in light of COVID-19. Conducted between March and July, these surveys revealed that during the early months of the crisis, nonprofits were concerned about financial stability and challenges related to new working conditions. Funders reported they had swiftly begun distributing emergency funds, had loosened requirements imposed on grantees, and realized the need to commit to deeper change in order to support long-term sector sustainability.

In the year since the outbreak, we have continued to track surveys from around the globe. These surveys—more than 75 to date—all help tell the story of the pandemic’s continued impact on the sector, including how needs and responses have changed and what funders and nonprofits expect moving forward. This blog presents several common insights generated through these surveys. We hope this information will be useful in a multitude of ways, from ongoing advocacy efforts to capturing the sector’s story to helping local leaders build greater resiliency.

1. Organizations across the globe continue to feel negative impacts of COVID-19

The latest Charities Aid Foundation COVID-19 report found that at the end of 2020, 93 percent of charitable organizations reported being adversely affected by the pandemic. This statistic has held relatively steady over the course of the crisis, ranging from nearly 97 percent in March 2020 to 90 percent in June. It’s reasonable to assume the negative impact will continue, at least in the short term if not longer.

2. Most charitable organizations’ greatest concern continues to be financial stability

This finding holds true across a range of locations. Florida nonprofit executives who participated in a Nonprofit Leadership Center survey stated their top anxieties about generating organizational revenue were cancelled fundraising events (64 percent) and loss of funders or corporate partners (45 percent). In Illinois, organizations reported feeling the pinch from changes in fundraising strategy and inconsistent federal and private relief. Nearly half (44 percent) of respondents across the state reported receiving no funding from a private COVID-19 fund; this figure dropped to 33 percent for organizations outside the Chicago area. Additionally, although 71 percent of Chicago-area organizations received relief from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), only 60 percent of nonprofits in other parts of the state received PPP funds. Race also appears to have affected which organizations benefited from the PPP; only 64 percent of organizations led by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or people of color) persons received PPP funding, compared to 72 percent of all other respondents.

Although the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines offers some hope of normalcy in the future, organizations predict the pandemic’s socioeconomic impacts are likely to last much longer. Nonprofits surveyed by the Toronto Foundation widely believe (65 percent) that the pandemic will significantly threaten their finances for the next five years. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) fear society will be more unequal a decade from now because of the pandemic’s social and financial impacts.

3. Many nonprofits have adjusted and kept operations going, even if at a limited level

Some 97 percent of organizations surveyed by Charities Aid Foundation shared that they’ve innovated and adapted their services in order to stay in operation. It’s important, however, to recognize that this figure may be artificially high, as organizations that had shut down were less likely to have responded to the survey. News from Turkey does offer a glimmer of hope. The rate of Turkish organizations reporting complete suspension of their activities decreased from 29 percent in April 2020 to 16 percent in August, according to TUSEV. Perhaps some organizations that had to stop activity were able to bounce back.

In Rhode Island, a Grantmakers Council of Rhode Island and Fio Partners survey published in October found that 64 percent of respondents have been delivering services in a moderately or severely reduced capacity, but only 3 percent had suspended services altogether. The other 33 percent had increased delivery or held steady. This survey also found that organizations with larger operating budgets were more likely to have increased delivery of services, whereas smaller organizations were more likely to have severely reduced or suspended services.

Similarly, a survey from the Toronto Foundation found that, although most nonprofits have been able to quickly move their programming online, they now face the combined challenges of plummeting revenues and increasing demand. Small grassroots organizations are most at risk of permanent closure.

4. Organizations identify funding, policy, and communication as the top ways they want funders to support their work

A report from Native Americans in Philanthropy advises philanthropy to maximize general operating support and diversify investment vehicles to meet today’s shifting demands. Respondents to the Center for Effective Philanthropy raised philanthropy’s role in advancing systems change and engaging in policy, especially advocacy and organizing. And Forefront found that nonprofits would like to see continued work with the government to advocate for the sector’s needs as well as more communication from funders about opportunities.

5. Surveys focused on funder communities reported funders are shifting strategies to be more responsive and flexible and increase support

A survey from Council on Foundations, Philanthropy California, and Dalberg Advisors found that approximately 60 percent of U.S. foundations are increasing giving beyond planned 2020 levels, with an average increase of 17 percent.

In light of the needs the pandemic has created (or exacerbated), many in the sector have urged funders to act quickly, demonstrate greater flexibility, and reduce burdens for grantees. Yet, although such practices are hardly new, evidence suggests that the extent to which foundations are heeding calls for change are limited. The Center for Effective Philanthropy found nearly 40 percent of surveyed foundations shared they are now more attuned to the administrative burden of their processes. As a result, they implemented new focuses on trust building, modifying elements of the application process to center equity and expand access to applicants that otherwise might not have been eligible for grant support. Only half, however, of the organizations that began making such shifts, such as loosening restrictions and providing more unrestricted grants, said that they would continue them in the future. Of that number, most foundations reported that they will do so to a lesser degree than their current pandemic practice.

6. Later surveys include questions on giving to marginalized communities, and funders are incorporating strategies to intentionally fund these communities

Notably, many early surveys did not include focused questions about giving strategies to support marginalized communities and racial justice efforts, but in surveys conducted later in the year, questions and answers mentioning “racial equity” and specifically “Black Lives Matter” began to appear.

According to Foundation Source, respondents who increased giving in 2020 attributed their decision to COVID-19 and increased nonprofit needs (79 percent) and social justice concerns (28 percent), such as Black Lives Matter. A September survey from Council of Foundations, Philanthropy California, and Dalberg Advisors asked about internal practices related to equity and power-sharing and found that 13 percent of foundations have increased commitments to hiring BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). Charities Aid Foundation found that corporate donors are considering a more intentional focus on applying a racial equity and social justice lens to their corporate philanthropy as they develop their future strategies.

Strategies around targeted beneficiaries and focus areas are also seeing small shifts. According to a Center for Effective Philanthropy report, in the U.S. alone, 90 percent of foundations are actively supporting organizations that serve communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Additionally, 52 percent of funders said their current percentage of grant dollars going to organizations led by Black or African American CEOs is higher than during pre-pandemic times. A study by the University of Washington found that 60 percent of Washington-based organizations reported prioritizing low-income people in their COVID-19 response, followed by Black/African American communities (48 percent), Latinx communities (43 percent), and immigrant and homeless communities (41 percent each). Finally, the survey from Council of Foundations, Philanthropy California, and Dalberg Advisors found that although 60 percent of respondents report a focus on Black communities, respondents perceive their internal policies and frameworks for racial equity work are still lacking. This deficiency represents a barrier to authentic pursuit of racial equity over the long term.

7. Staffing also remains a top concern, given some organizations’ uncertain financial future

The survey from Council of Foundations, Philanthropy California, and Dalberg Advisors found that 3 percent of funders have cut staff benefits and 4 percent have reduced staff numbers, though these figures may change in the next year. Alternatively, 23 percent of nonprofit leaders anticipate they’ll need to lay off or furlough staff, according to the Nonprofit Leadership Center.

In Turkey, organizations surveyed by TUSEV responded the same way in both April and August when asked if they anticipate having to dismiss employees if the pandemic continues. About 36 percent see such action as a likelihood, while under 30 percent have had to enforce leave.

8. Individual donors are split on whether they expect COVID-19 to affect future giving

A Fidelity Charitable survey found that only 22 percent of donors think the pandemic will have a significant influence on 2021 giving. Twenty-six percent believe it will have little or no influence; their reasons include the belief that there will be a “return to normal” and the desire not to allow the pandemic to impact giving plans.

Conclusion

All in all, these findings do not differ radically from those revealed last summer. Organizations continue to advocate for long-term commitments to strengthening nonprofits’ financial resiliency while also showing dedication to addressing structural change and racial equity. They are making new calls for developing partnerships with BIPOC-led organizations, listening to the concerns and needs of marginalized communities, and translating those needs into policy and action.

This post provides just a glimpse of the findings and data gathered from surveys across the field. We encourage you to explore more and share your surveys and data with us if you don’t see them included. Our last plug is to also take a look at Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s recent report, Philanthropy and COVID-19: Measuring one year of giving, which identifies $20.2 billion in global COVID-19 giving by grantmakers and wealthy donors in 2020. We hope this data and the survey findings can help guide future actions and understanding of the current moment.

Tags: Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Social sector