Just in time,” Raphael Vitorino

There is almost a loss for words to describe the scale, speed, and impact of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, although a few headlines have scratched the surface: “Coronavirus: Greatest test since World War Two,” “Decade of Job Growth…Undone by a Pandemic,” “Half of Humanity Under Lockdown Orders.”

At Robins Foundation, we are focused on creating an environment where children can thrive by supporting programs that enrich whole families and whole neighborhoods. Our founders, Lora M. and E. Claiborne Robins, were compassionate, empathetic, and generous community leaders who believed in supporting people and embracing the promise of a bright future. They realized that creating this future required the kind of leadership that embraces innovation and bold action:

“So many decisions in life are not made because there is a risk, but I have found that everything in life is a risk. People who are afraid to take a risk rarely get anywhere.”—E. Claiborne Robins

That is why Robins Foundation, in an innovative public-private partnership with the City of Richmond, has launched the Family Crisis Fund for greater Richmond, Virginia, to provide one-time $500 gifts to families with children in need due to a loss of income from the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeded with matching $500,000 contributions by Robins Foundation and the City of Richmond, the fund is the first of its kind launched in our region in partnership with Family Independence Initiative (FII), a nonprofit providing a platform and trusted space for families to build prosperity and social capital. The platform enables us to work with trusted nonprofit partners to disburse support to families residing in multiple localities throughout our region. Further, the platform allows for other nonprofits and contributions to be added later. In fact, two additional foundations and one private donor have already decided to join us since the launch.

Why cash assistance?

The research is clear—families do not squander cash assistance (Bastagli, et al., 2018). Contrary to popular belief, families actually steward the dollars responsibly. Research on cash assistance programs such as the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, and Magnolia Mother’s Trust shows that parents use the funds to cover essentials like food, utilities, and rent; to pay off debt; and to begin investing in education for themselves and their children. Research also shows that cash assistance does not discourage people from working (Jones & Marinescu, 2019), nor does it encourage people to engage in negative behavior like alcohol or tobacco use (Evans & Popova, 2016). In other words, just like you, families who receive cash assistance know what they need most, and unconditional cash assistance allows them to get it.

Even before the pandemic, families were stretched so thin that the Federal Reserve Bank found nearly 40 percent of all Americans could not afford a $400 emergency. Read that again—not certain types of Americans; all Americans.

“Before COVID-19, unemployment was at an all-time low,” said the mayor of Richmond, Levar Stoney, “but wages weren’t keeping up with costs. These are hardworking families who have been hit by an unprecedented challenge, and they deserve a hand up.”

While moratoria on evictions, utilities, and sales tax have emerged to help families and businesses through the COVID-19 crisis, the reality is many of them were at the breaking point before. Now, they need all the help they can get—and fast.

Why now?

The unprecedented job loss from the COVID-19 pandemic has left families strapped with overwhelming burdens related to their most basic needs. Even though the federal government will provide cash assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that relief will not arrive soon enough for many. Families who did not receive direct deposit payments for 2018 and 2019 tax returns and who cannot access the online portal to input direct deposit information will not receive checks until some time between April and September, according to the Washington Post.

Most businesses cannot withstand the wait either. According to the New York Times, a typical small business in the United States does not have enough cash on hand to cover even a month of expenses if its revenues are completely disrupted. That is why economists called on Congress to “act boldly, and fast, to keep money flowing to business owners to ensure they can reopen when the crisis abates.”

Families are key to maintaining this cash flow. Researchers at the Federal Reserve and Brookings found that family spending has a real impact on the economy, estimating that for every $1 increase in Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) assistance to families, the communities studied saw an additional $1.07–1.67 in local spending.

The role of philanthropy

This unprecedented crisis calls for bold action in the form of family-focused, place-based efforts that support those most in need. Providing direct cash assistance to families was no easy endeavor for a family foundation located in the South (as evidenced by the fact that the fund is the first of its kind launched in the region). Undertaking the effort required an unparalleled level of due diligence and internal reflection. As other foundations consider new approaches to the unprecedented calamity of COVID-19, I offer some guiding questions and thoughts based on our experience at Robins Foundation:

  • How can you deeply reconnect with your foundation’s reason for being? It sounds simple, but it is such an important step. Immerse yourself in your “why” so your mission, vision, and values can guide you.
  • What new ideas are challenging what you know, and do they deserve deeper examination? In this moment, it feels as if everything about our lives has been upended. If that is true for your personal life, why would it not be true for your professional circumstances? The world has fundamentally changed. The “same old, same old” will not get you the same results.
  • What research will be critical to justifying your new approach? Just because something is new or different does not mean it is unworthy. However, it does mean it may be seen as risky and invite scrutiny. Mitigate risk with facts. Uncover evidence you can lean on as you move in new directions.
  • Is the questioning you face an opportunity or a source of frustration? Everyone has a different tolerance for risk. That is true for your staff and your trustees. Just because a person seems hesitant or has lots of questions does not mean they are opposed. They may just have a different tolerance for risk or be more detail oriented. Appreciate the fact that you are engaged in a dialog in the first place (as opposed to just being shot down).
  • Do not let perfect be the enemy of good. No grant program reaches all of the people in need, and no grant program is perfect. As usual, find partners you trust to implement new initiatives and be willing to learn important lessons along the way.
  • No commitment is too small when addressing a situation of this magnitude. At Robins Foundation, we are thankful for the strategic, adaptable, and collaborative efforts between philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, and our local government partners to engage in innovative philanthropy that inspires solutions to our community’s greatest challenges.