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We will never know philanthropy’s full response to the COVID-19 crisis

By Laia Griñó
November 3, 2021

Black and white photo of woman wearing surgical mask looking at charts on her phone and laptop

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic upended philanthropy. Confronted by a crisis that affected every sector, every place, and every community, funders recognized they could not go about business as usual. At Candid, we’ve been tracking philanthropy’s response. Based on the data we were able to collect from news sources, funder websites, and from funders directly, we issued two reports with our partners at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to help the sector make sense of its collective response. Next year, we will issue a new report to revisit our figures for 2020 and try to capture the global response to the pandemic in 2021. As we review the latest data for 2020, though, we’ve realized that we have little chance of ever fully understanding philanthropy’s response to one of the most serious global crises of our lifetimes. 

We start with a few caveats. First, it’s important to note that this analysis is based on U.S. data. We understood from the start that it would be impossible to fully capture the response of funders outside the United States. Few countries have detailed reporting requirements related to grantmaking and/or may not make that data publicly available. Compounding the problem, few funders—including in the United States—publish detailed data about their grantmaking.  

Second, there are more intangible aspects of grantmaking that are difficult to capture via grants data alone. For example, how many funders expedited payments or converted grants to general support? How many relaxed reporting requirements or adjusted grant terms? How many established streamlined application processes? These changes, which many nonprofits have advocated for for decades, are meaningful and worth tracking. For much of our analysis, however, we are trying to answer the most basic question: Who has given for what, for who, and for where? 

The state of the data 

Like most organizations that analyze data about the U.S. social sector, Candid relies heavily on 990 and 990-PF data. As of mid-October, and after long delays, Candid had received nearly 30,200 FY2020 IRS 990 or 990-PF forms. While this batch of returns might not be representative of the funder community as a whole, it does represent a wide variety of organizations in terms of size, funder type, and number of grants made.  

It seems fair to assume that nearly every funder did something in response to the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. However, looking solely at 990 information would lead you to conclude otherwise. Only 3 percent of the available FY2020 returns include grants lists with a reference to COVID-19 (we looked for the terms ”COVID,” “coronavirus,” and “pandemic” to identify COVID-19-related grantmaking). We can’t be sure that these funders flagged all of their COVID-19 grantmaking as such—we’ve caught gaps in self-reported data. That aside, on average, COVID-19 grants accounted for 27 percent of all grants reported by funders. Seventy-four funders (8 percent) identified all their grants as COVID-19-related, and 173 funders (19 percent) identified at least 50 percent as such.  

Pie chart showing 3% of FY20 tax forms include keywords related to Covid-19

The remaining 97 percent of funders didn’t include COVID-19 keywords in any of their grant descriptions. This means that none of their grantmaking will be included in Candid’s analysis of funding for the pandemic. Here is what we see in these funders’ grants data: 

  • In many cases, the grant descriptions funders provided are brief, often limited to issue areas rather than text actually describing the purpose of the grant (e.g., Health; Education; Community & Human Services; Housing; Economic Development; etc.). This was true of several funders that provided millions of dollars in COVID-19 assistance to hundreds of nonprofits as well as some funders who targeted particularly hard-hit communities.  
  • Other funders provided the same general description for all grants (e.g., “General tax exempt purposes” or “To support environmental projects”), or used their own program areas as a grant description (e.g., “Capital Support” or “Special Project”) rather than describe the work being funded. 
  • Some funders provided more detailed grant descriptions (e.g., “Reproductive and breast cancer screening program”), but made no references to COVID-19, even though we know they established a coronavirus fund. Though Candid may suspect a grant is COVID-19-related based on the grant text or recipient, absent explicit evidence, we cannot include it in our analysis.  

Even when grants were flagged as coronavirus-related, funders frequently provided no extra details. Did a “COVID-19 relief” grant or “COVID response grant” support purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the crisis? Was it provided as general support to meet any of the nonprofit’s needs? Did it benefit the nonprofit’s general constituents, or was it designated for particularly vulnerable populations? We just don’t know. 

Why does this matter?   

The cumulative effect of all of this is a huge gap in our understanding of how funders have collectively responded to this crisis. Based on the many efforts to gather data about COVID-19 funding, it seems clear that funders are hungry for this information. And how could they not be? The COVID-19 pandemic laid stark massive inequalities in our society and has transformed our lives in ways that are still becoming apparent. Funders will be responding to COVID-19 and its consequences for years to come. How can we plan for the work ahead if we don’t know what’s already been done? How can we make sure our response is equitable when we know so little about who has been served by funding? 

At Candid, we recognize that sharing good data is not easy. And we understand that in a crisis, focusing on data might seem like a luxury at best or an unnecessary distraction at worst. But having good data matters. It is critical to ensuring that our individual contributions add up to something greater and actually go some way towards bringing about real change. The data shortcomings we’ve encountered for COVID-19 are not unique to this crisis—they hold true for every issue for which Candid collects information. Investing time in clearly communicating about their grantmaking—including in their 990s, on their websites, and in data shared with Candid—is a small but important step funders can take to increase their impact. 

To confirm what COVID-19 data we have for you, please look up your organization in our public COVID-19 map under “More filters” (near the top). If we’re missing grants for your organization, learn more about sharing your grants data here or reach out to [email protected]. Candid will be collecting data on FY2020 and FY2021 grants to date until November 30.

This analysis was made possible by my colleague, Andrew Grabois, Corporate Philanthropy Manager.

Tags: IRS Form 990; Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Data