ESO/L. Calçada / CC BY

These are extraordinary times, and that has led to calls for extraordinary measures—even within philanthropy, which is not always known for its adaptive capacities. We have not yet worked out all of the elements of the new adaptive response to the moment, but it looks like we’re seeing a new philanthropic phenomenon that merits our attention.  (Please keep today’s Voice from the Field article from Robins Foundation in mind as you read this.)

In March of 2020, NPQ published a series of articles about the outcomes of the last recession. Our research found, among other things, that while nonprofits rebounded relatively well after the downturn, the people they served as a whole did not. The wealth divide continued to widen, and low-wage workers lost ground. Communities of color suffered disproportionately.

Today, it’s already plain that the lows we experienced then, as painful and long-lasting as they were, won’t be as deep as those coming in the wake of the coronavirus. Our unemployment figures already exceed those of the last recession by far and, cruelly, too many of those who are most at risk as essential workers during the COVID-19 response are paying for this with their lives.

From this, we are seeing the emergence of some markedly different funding paradigms—ones that focus not just on direct organizational support, but support for their constituents, too. This crosses some boundaries for many institutional funders, who normally do not involve themselves in making even indirect grants to individuals, leaving that to government. But, as we said, these are extraordinary times.

One-time stimulus checks to individuals are on their way, after a pause to, apparently, ensure Donald J. Trump’s signature is on each one. Meanwhile, longtime advocates are eyeing ways to use this time, when the day-to-day unrequited heroism of essential workers is on full display, to shift policies and, perhaps more importantly, the basic economic ethos of this country.

The result is a wave of action by foundations that appears to acknowledge a few core principles including the critical importance of community self-advocacy.

The Initiatives

A new collaboration announced yesterday will focus on low-wage workers and their families. As with the initiative announced in the Robins Foundation feature today, the funds are meant not only to promote advocacy, but to provide immediate grants and funds to individuals.

Current members of the funding collaborative include the Ford Foundation, Schmidt Futures, Open Society Foundations, the JPB Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Amalgamated Foundation.

Called the Families and Workers Fund, the effort has been seeded by current funding partners to the tune of $7 million. The goal is to build the fund to $20 million and to focus on organizations that center the priorities of the families they represent while addressing their short-term needs.

“Low-wage workers stand at the forefront of this pandemic, reeling from the profound health and economic implications,” said Ai-jen Poo, co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “As we dedicate our resources to supporting vulnerable working families across the United States, flexible and fast funding is critical. The creation of this fund is an important act of leadership, toward resilience for workers facing unprecedented hardship.”

The Ford Foundation’s press release about the program reveals that:

The Families and Workers Fund will employ a two-tiered approach. The fund will facilitate direct cash grants and loans to individuals, with a focus on those who are most likely to be left out of the government’s emergency policy response—especially workers and families who are reeling from layoffs, temporary business and school shutdowns, and struggling with caretaking duties. The fund will also advance economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic designed with and for vulnerable workers, families, and communities by providing grants to policy and advocacy organizations, worker groups, community nonprofits, and others advancing and implementing policies and business practices that stabilize working people during the acute phase of this crisis (e.g., paid sick days and unemployment insurance) and ultimately help to center them in the long-term economic recovery.

We do not pretend that $20 million is remotely adequate to the task at hand in a country where 17 million have officially joined the unemployment ranks in the last month and millions more, such as undocumented workers, are excluded from federal support altogether. Nonetheless, it represents a recognition by the philanthropic community of the vital need of getting people direct support.

The structure of the grants mimics the mix of activities often traditionally at work in grassroots activist groups—that is, policy advocacy and mutual support.

The funding partners on this particular collaborative are themselves a bit of a mix, too, While the Annie Casey Foundation and Open Society US are well known, Schmidt Futures is less so, as a philanthropic initiative co-founded by former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, and the Amalgamated Foundation is a bank foundation, albeit a bank founded by a textile workers’ union. All see the chronic problems faced by low-wage workers as having deep roots in policy but being acutely worsened by the COVID-related downturn.

“COVID-19 demands that philanthropy step in to address the severe financial impact on millions of workers and families of this unprecedented public health crisis,” said Anna Fink, executive director of Amalgamated Foundation. “Amalgamated has deep roots as a bank for working people and we are deeply committed to helping support those most impacted. As we begin to understand the short and long-term economic effects of COVID-19 grow, we must ensure that workers and families are not left behind. This fund will move resources nimbly to address immediate needs while also supporting advocacy to empower working families over the long-term.”

As we mentioned earlier, we are seeing a number of funding initiatives aimed at supporting organizing efforts led by those who are most deeply affected and those suffering most immediately from an economy structured to marginalize hard-working communities comprising the essential workers who have consistently lost ground in the neoliberal economy. It is indeed time for a change.

A number of other foundations are also stepping up to enact similar initiatives aimed both at policy advocacy and direct aid to individuals. Blue Meridian, a pooled fund organized to support youth development, has committed an “incremental” $100 million for COVID-19 emergency response.

First, we will support community-based organizations to provide direct cash assistance to especially vulnerable individuals and families. Our first investments include the Family Independence InitiativeGiveDirectlyNational Domestic Workers AllianceOne Fair Wage, and The Workers Lab. Collectively, these organizations are providing cash payments to tens of thousands of people who need financial assistance immediately but cannot access public benefits quickly enough.

Second, we will fund efforts to help millions more low-income people access billions of dollars in public aid for which they are eligible—from SNAP and federal stimulus aid to nutrition grants for women, infants, and children. As we invest in more organizations and strategies in the coming weeks, we will share more with you, and we welcome other investors to join us in this effort.

In a statement, they strike the same respectful tone as the initiative described above, saying they are humbled by the work of their grantees. Their statement reflects this understanding of the enormous challenge and opportunity in front of nonprofits and philanthropy right now. They are intentionally breaking previous practice models to take a lead from those they fund, even if it means that they must interrogate their own methods, relationships, systems of accountability, and identity. Blue Meridian’s statement evidences a consciousness of the need for radical difference:

In past crises, the recovery reached marginalized communities last and least. Our work must adapt to this reality. The personal, social, and economic devastation caused by COVID-19 highlights the need for bold, scalable solutions to our most intractable problems—solutions that confront the systemic barriers holding problems in place and trapping people in poverty. We are more committed than ever to supporting and investing in the people and organizations that will make the future different.

This direction is not, of course, appearing without company. Newsday wrote last week that universal basic income (UBI) has suddenly gotten real traction in the wake of the pandemic, where it was previously dismissed as a “fringe” theory in this country. NPQ reports that Spain has passed a universal basic income measure there, and Pope Francis has weighed in on its promotion. Much more remains to be done to change this economy’s direction, and these grants reflect an acknowledgement of that opportunity.

As is often the case, advocacy will be critical for this philanthropic shift in approach to have lasting impact. If the goal is to provide a basic income floor, then policy action—as in Spain—will clearly be required. Nonetheless, the initiatives reviewed here provide a hopeful sign that perhaps our sector has learned a thing or two from the Great Recession. Hopefully, in this crisis, both philanthropy and nonprofits can truly dedicate ourselves to ensuring that, this time, we don’t leave anyone behind.—Ruth McCambridge