Lessons Learned from the Pandemic—How Funders Can Become More Supportive Community Partners

This is a guest post by NNCG member Sharmila Rao Thakkar.  It was originally posted by GrantCraft, and is reposted here with permission.

As we are well on our way into 2021, it’s a good time to pause to remember all we have lost, what we have had to overcome, and how much we have grown, learned, and accomplished together.

During this unprecedented trifecta of crises—the COVID-19 public health crisis, the economic crisis, and the social crisis of anti-blackness and continued attacks on the pursuit of racial equity—we have witnessed nearly all nonprofits, regardless of size, struggle not only to meet the varied and growing needs of the communities they serve but also to maintain their operations, funding, and staff. Our nonprofits continue to be challenged with operating through COVID-19 restrictions, dwindling and tentative budgets and staffing concerns, interpreting guidance, reopening safely, and preparing for what the months to come may hold. They are filled with anxiety about how the crises will continue to impact their ability to stay relevant and resilient to meet their missions, take care of their staff, maintain their buildings, and ensure program integrity.  We continue to be inspired by how nimble and resilient our nonprofits have been.  But, in many ways, we are just starting to see the impact of this past year on our sector, our organizations, and our leaders.  And, according to the worst-case scenario modeled by Candid, we lose nearly 120,000 nonprofit organizations due to COVID-19 related revenue shortages during the next three years.

Countless funders have stepped up in ways small and large, with emergency relief funds, flexible funding, fewer grant restrictions, making introductions, and helping to fill gaps. But nonprofits will need our funding partners and corporate sponsors to continue to be ever more diligent and aware of what we are dealing with daily and will continue to face as the year(s) continue.

Nonprofits will continue to need a variety of supports from funders. For example:

Advocacy, Sharing Power and Networks:

  • Serving as advocates and ambassadors, i.e., help opening doors to build relationships with funders. There is no guidebook on how to do this.  It’s been shown that nonprofits without those strong relationships and someone to pave the way receive less support.
  • Convening spaces for peer learning, collaborative action, and collective impact as well as providing resources to lift up lessons learned for the sector and other nonprofit leaders.
  • Intentional focus on achieving equity and justice in the sector. This perspective must be informed by those doing the work on the ground in our communities. Our community leaders have the solutions.  We must trust in their experiences, perspectives, voices, and strategies to fund wholly, broadly, and deeply.  We must also involve those who are making the change in the change making.
  • Foundation program staff and leadership to do the hard work of explaining the need for practice change to their boards and leadership, who often hold tightly to generations-long philanthropic strategies that may not be the most effective or efficient.

Increased and Flexible Funding:

  • Funders to understand that transformation cannot happen without multi-year, unrestricted general operating financial support. They should understand the needs of the communities and individuals that nonprofits serve from the inside out, bottom to top, and every which way it matters.
  • Flexibility and nimbleness in grant applications, allocations, and spending.
  • Offer nonprofits overhead support, true capacity building, such as funding for staffing, leadership development, governance and board development, fundraising, communications/marketing, and If asking nonprofits to assess their performance, provide funding and support for that evaluation.
  • Also consider the need to cover increased costs for technology and communications, especially in light of the need to do so much virtually this past year.

Practices & Processes Designed with Empathy:

  • Give money and trust in recognition that grantees are more likely to make the best decisions about how to allocate grant funding in their communities.
  • Transparency in the process, including expectations of stewardship.
  • A less-is-more approach to reporting. If it’s not being used, please don’t ask for it. Too often grant applications or reports require nonprofits to collect and document information that will never be reviewed, let alone utilized. Measurement and evaluation and financial reporting often fall into this category.
  • Broad acceptance that no grant covers the full cost of doing the work that a grant is expected to cover and solutions for how an organization can do that work regardless.
  • An invitation to embrace flexibility and welcome failure. Accepting, actually expecting, flaws, mistakes, and resets or do-overs and learning from them to enhance and improve can open us to new and different ways of doing things.

Committing to this kind of approach represents a move toward more effective and equitable grantee-grantmaker relationships, but it also means letting go of “business as usual” philanthropy. Funders could be strategizing how to make these practices permanent and long-lasting, not temporary adjustments.  COVID-19, like many disasters before it, has fundamentally shifted the way nonprofits work. Funders, too, can look at their policies, procedures, and practices to best support nonprofits in the ways they need most.

As we reflect on the past year and prepare more deeply for 2021, let us think about how the pandemic, the crises we’ve faced, have provided an opportunity to reset or to shift. What will we take with us from this experience into the future, and what can we, perhaps gladly, leave behind? Nonprofits assess these types of decisions every day. We ask our funding partners to do the same by considering with each request and decision: Is this helping or is this hurting? What can we do today in this moment to not be a burden or extend the problem, but to live the meaning of philanthropy and be a part of the solution?