Skip to content

To Help Nonprofits as Omicron Surges, Foundations Should Maintain and Expand New Giving Approaches

by Ellie Buteau and Phil Buchanan | January 14, 2022 | The Chronicles of Philanthropy

cold flu

A new year has brought no respite from the continuing crisis facing nonprofits. The rapidly transmissible omicron variant has upended plans for providing in-person service to clients in need and has again delayed returns to the office for millions of nonprofit employees who have worked remotely for nearly two years.

This brutal reality necessitates a continued commitment from grant makers to maintain critical giving reforms adopted in the immediate aftermath of the health crisis — not only now, but in the years to come.

Many nonprofit staff, often working for wages well below what they could earn in the business world, have responded heroically since the earliest days of the pandemic. But they are discouraged that what once seemed like a temporary crisis now feels unending. In the fall, before omicron hit, one of us reached out informally to some nonprofit leaders to ask them to describe their biggest challenges. Their most common answer: a sense of cumulative exhaustion.

“With the sprint of change evolving into a marathon and now the new normal, people remain passionate and committed to the mission, but they are exhausted — personally and professionally,” one leader told us.

Foundations need to understand the degree to which nonprofit leaders and staff are running on fumes, beaten down by two years of constant challenge. And they need to respond by supporting them in every way they can.

It’s true that many organizations fared better financially than initially feared thanks to stepped up giving from foundations and federal funding from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Ditching Burdensome Rules


But nonprofits need a continued commitment from grant makers to operate differently than they have in the past. That means sticking with approaches they put in place in 2020 in response to both the health crisis and the racial-justice uprisings following George Floyd’s murder. Responses included providing more general support, throwing burdensome and often unnecessary reporting requirements out the window, and confronting issues of race and racism more directly.

There is cause for optimism. Foundations shifted their giving practices more in the last two years than they did in the previous two decades.

Before the pandemic, foundation giving for general operating support was stuck at about 20 percent of total foundation grants. Similarly, there had been no decrease in the amount of time nonprofits spent on application and reporting processes, which our colleague Kevin Bolduc recently described as “an invented system, filled with bespoke … requirements that don’t seem to be doing anyone much good.”

Perhaps most important, despite past calls for donors to focus on equity, there was little documented change prior to 2020 in how philanthropy considered the role of race and racism in problems they sought to address, and in areas such as the allocation of funding and the diversity of foundation staff and boards.

It took a pandemic and a national racial reckoning to see meaningful change in a significant cross section of foundations.

study released late last year by our organization — the Center for Effective Philanthropy — found many grant makers responded by instituting a range of changes, including reducing the burden of applying for and reporting back on grants. They started providing more unrestricted support and made racial equity an increasingly central focus of their work. Foundations also changed how they identified potential grantees and which organizations they funded, most often increasing giving to nonprofits that support Blacks and Latinos and fight for systemic change.

Will Changes Last?


At the same time, our research raised some questions about how lasting the changes would be.

In 2020, among the foundations that had changed their grant-making approach, 21 percent said they had sustained all those changes last year, while 41 percent said they maintained most changes. And many foundation leaders admitted that much more work was still needed to address issues of race and racism, including stepping up efforts on board diversity and providing greater support of Native Americans and Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

Yet we also saw that grant makers, often portrayed as lumbering, bureaucratic, and out of touch with nonprofit needs, can respond quickly and work differently during a crisis. The challenge now is for foundation leaders and staff to view these changes as standard operating procedure, not a temporary shift.

Foundations should continue to listen to what grantees and the people they seek to help say they need. And foundations should build on, not abandon, the important changes they made during the past two years. Escalating from these improvements would make sense at any time. But during this period of overwhelming need and seemingly endless crisis, such reforms have never been more imperative.


Click here for link to original article.