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

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?

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


About the author(s)

SRT Advising & Consulting

Employing People with Disabilities: Lessons from Kessler Foundation’s Signature Employment Grants

Since 2004, Kessler Foundation has provided more than $41.5 million in support initiatives that expand opportunities for people with disabilities. This White Paper assesses the diverse grants supported under the Foundation's Signature Employment Grant (SEG) program from 2009-2015. The SEG program funds pilot initiatives, demonstration projects, and social ventures that generate new models to address the employment gap between people with and without disabilities. Based on the independent external evaluations of more than 20 SE grants by experts at the John J. Heldrich Centerfor Workforce Development at Rutgers University, five strategic elements were identified as common to successful projects. The paper details illustrative examples of the contributions of these elements to the success of selected SE grantees, namely, 1) A focus on changing attitudes about people withdisabilities and their ability to work, 2) A person-centered approach to employment, 3) Technological platforms or model documentation, 4) Strong community partnerships, and 5) Wrap around services. The markers for success were increased employment of people with disabilities, employer and program participant satisfaction, and model replicability. These lessons learned from Kessler Foundation's experiences in grant making are important considerations for all who seek greater inclusion of individuals with disabilities in our workplaces.


Kessler Foundation


Kessler Foundation

Through IssueLab, the Foundation Center is working to more effectively gather, index, and share the collective intelligence of the social sector by providing free access to thousands of case studies, evaluations, white papers, and issue briefs.

SDGfunders Helping Philanthropy Engage in the Global Development Agenda

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become a universal language for discussing how we need to improve the world. SDGfunders.org, a free platform from Foundation Center, tells the story of how philanthropic dollars are being used to achieve these goals on a new dynamically-updated dashboard, and aims to foster better coordination among those working to build a better future for all of us. Launched by the SDG Philanthropy, a partnership of the United Nations Development Programme, Foundation Center, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors the site features interactive maps and dashboards tracking key funding data, lists of top funders and recipients working on specific SDGs, a collection of literature, including case studies and interviews with global experts, and an online community that will serve as a hub for discussions and knowledge sharing worldwide. Among other benefits, it will enhance opportunities for collaboration across sectors to increase the effectiveness of work that addresses our world’s common social, and economic challenges.

View Resource

Blueprint 2018 – Predictions

Cover of Blueprint 2018

The year that’s passed turned out to be quite a ride for philanthropy both big and small. Billions in new philanthropic dollars from a handful of donors at one end of the spectrum, plus billions more in crowdfunding across the globe. Regulatory provocations on dark money and charity. Global migration and natural disasters provide ample opportunity for civil society and philanthropy to take action. What’s in store for the year ahead? Here are a few predictions for 2018 – the full list is available in Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018.


  • FinTech (financial technology) will be a shiny new interest area for philanthropy in 2018.
  • Voice-activated giving (“Alexa, donate $10 to the Community Disaster Fund”) will make headlines.
  • The European Union will become the global standard bearer for digital privacy policy. Nonprofits everywhere will examine their privacy practices to abide by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

United States

  • Transparency advocates will demand regulation of political advertising on the Web and social media networks. They won’t get it.
  • Tech companies will increase their philanthropy and political giving as their reputations suffer.
  • Team communications tools that are slowly replacing internal corporate e-mail will be hacked, drawing as much attention as e-mail dumps did in 2016.

2018 Wild Cards (Surprising, unlikely things that just might happen)

  • Britain won’t Brexit.
  • The rate of growth in global carbon production will slow significantly.
  • Countries will begin competing to take in and take care of millions of refugees. 

P.S. If you didn't catch Predict-a-Palooza on January 11, watch a recording of this virtual roundtable of experts, scholars, and practitioners as they identify key trends and share predictions for 2018, including insights from Blueprint!

Editor’s Note: We were delighted to partner with Lucy on publishing the Blueprint for the past several years, and are still avid followers of her predictions! Explore past editions on GrantCraft here.

About the author(s)

Spotlight on Immigration

Immigration continues to be a complex issue sparking national debate and discussion in the United States. Foundations have invested over $12.5 billion in supporting causes associated with immigrants, migrants, and refugees in the United States since 2006. To help funders be more strategic and effective, Foundation Center has put together a roundup of some quick facts and resources from organizations that work on this issue every day. This list reflects views on immigration from organizations that are as diverse as the nonprofit sector itself. It is in no way intended to stake a particular policy stance, rather to spark thinking around philanthropy’s role in this landscape. We hope you’ll dig in, find what speaks to you, start a conversation, and continue to share your wisdom so we can all learn and work smarter together.

Immigrants are a key segment of the U.S. workforce, yet 42% fall below the poverty line.


Improving Immigrant Access to Workforce Services: Partnerships, Practices & Policies, Aspen Institute


Immigrants have started more than half of startup companies valued at a billion dollars or more in the U.S.


Immigrants and Billion Dollar Startups, National Center for American Policy (NFAP)


Immigrants account for about one-half of workers in the U.S. who have not completed high school.


Securing the Border: Defining the Current Population Living in the Shadows
and Addressing Future Flows
, American Enterprise Institute


Unauthorized immigrants account for one-fourth of the U.S. foreign-born population — and less than three percent of the total U.S. population.


Funders Guide: Grants and Immigration Status, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR)


Legal and illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than U.S. natives.


Criminal Immigrants: Their Numbers, Demographics, and Countries of Origin,

Cato Institute


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has increased the capacity of its immigrant detention system to add 45,000 immigrants per day.


Shadow Prisons: Immigrant Detention in the South, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, Southern Poverty Law Center, Adelante Alabama Worker Center


Refugee children around the world are five times more likely to be out of school.


Missing Out: Refugee Education in Crisis, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)


Of an estimated 5.5 million U.S. children of unauthorized immigrant parents, 82% percent were US citizens.


Health and Social Service Needs of US-Citizen Children with Detained or Departed Immigrant Parents, Urban Institute; Migration Policy Institute


Arrests of undocumented immigrants have increased by nearly 40 percent since January 2017.


Funders Taking on Mass Deportation and Mass Incarceration, Philanthropy News Digest


Demand for foreign labor far outstrips the supply of H1-B visas.


Does Immigration Increase Economic Growth? , Manhattan Institute


One million immigrants receive lawful permanent resident status in the U.S. each year that puts them on a path to citizenship.


5 Key Facts About U.S. Lawful Immigrants, Pew Research Center


Have you funded issues related to immigration? Have a report or case study on this topic or itching to write a blog post? Share your wisdom with Foundation Center through GrantCraft, Philanthropy News Digest, or IssueLab

Editor's Note: Total foundation funding for immigrants, migrants, and refugees updated as of June 2018.


About the author(s)

Director of Knowledge Management
Foundation Center

Editorial Director/Publisher of Philanthropy News Digest
Foundation Center

Director of Stakeholder Engagement

Anchored in Place: How Funders Are Helping Anchor Institutions Strengthen Local Economies

This report issued by the Funders' Network as part of their Anchors Institution Funders' Group, examines the potential these deeply rooted local enterprises hold to create lasting and sustainable change—and illustrates how funders are working with anchor institutions to create healthier, more equitable, and economically vibrant places to live and work.


Katherine Pease


Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities

Through IssueLab, the Foundation Center is working to more effectively gather, index, and share the collective intelligence of the social sector by providing free access to thousands of case studies, evaluations, white papers, and issue briefs.

SDG Indicator Wizard

How Does Your Work Align with the SDGs?

The SDG Indicator Wizard helps you determine which Sustainable Development Goal(s) and Targets relate to your work. Enter your mission statement, strategy or goals, and the wizard will translate your strategic priorities into an SDG-compatible framework consisting of the relevant goal(s), targets, and indicators that are universally comparable.

The SDG Indicator Wizard Widget can be embedded onto any website and there is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android users. Search for SDG Wizard on iOS App Store or Google Play Store, download it, and see how your work relates to the SDGs from your mobile.

View Tool

What Are the Benefits of Being Part of an Advocacy Collaborative?

Grantmakers were remarkably consistent about the benefits of participating in advocacy collaboratives. These were:

  • Accessing knowledge from all kinds of experts, especially groups working on the front lines. It’s not unusual for funders to come into an advocacy collaborative knowing little about an issue. But they soon get the chance to learn directly from people with deep expertise—their colleagues, field leaders, and other experts. That’s knowledge “a lot of funders probably wouldn’t be able to access on their own and that leads to smarter grantmaking.”

    Members’ institutions benefit from this expertise as well. Having access to “an ever-expanding grantee and funder network, along with other experts in the field, is a quick and easy way to radically expand what I bring into my own institution’s grantmaking without having to expand our staff.”

    Expert intelligence also helps members spot trends and opportunities, find funding partners, and, together, act on information more effectively. Being able to get this information “at any given time is no small feat because these issues are often complex. I think responsible grantmakers build a lot of relationships—sometimes more than one person can hold—so having different points of reference helps you see partnership opportunities.”

    Funders agree that one of the most valuable aspects of being part of advocacy collaboratives is that they’re better able to “see the bigger picture” and where their perspective or theory of change might fit within a more comprehensive advocacy strategy. “I’ve seen program officers come into a collaborative feeling as if they know everything about a particular issue because they were hired by their institution for that expertise. What they quickly find is that their perspective is one of several.” For many grantmakers, this is new and humbling; it’s easy to thrive on individual expertise. But, among others with valuable knowledge, the group mentality quickly shows its value. “Being part of a community of donors who are open to new ideas helps them see themselves in the work.”

  • Making investments and connections beyond what would be possible through their own foundations. Advocacy collaboratives often give grantmakers a way to make investments they may be unable to make as individual program officers, due to mission, urgency, defined program areas and investment strategies, governance, or other structures. “The most meaningful advances for our constituency take place at the local level, where the collaborative I participate in has helped build a movement. As a national foundation, we aren’t able to directly support that work, but the collaborative allowed us to go beyond our foundation’s constraints and do something we couldn’t do on our own.”

    Policy change windows and funding needs can emerge quickly, in unanticipated ways, and with little prior notice. Fellow grantmakers from institutions with extensive procedures and layers of bureaucracy agree that being part of an advocacy collaborative makes it more possible for them to “move the money more quickly and in more targeted ways” than they can do individually. “It gives us a nimble way to react and is a great adjunct to the core support our foundation has traditionally given to the big human rights and civil liberties groups.”

    One grantmaker’s foundation had quarterly cycles that required grants to be made in advance, most of which were large multi-year allocations, because the board wanted to see “big bets” and didn’t want make a lot of small, short-time grants they felt would get them into the weeds. In many contexts, this is a valuable investment strategy. However, to every strong strategy, there’s a downside. “We wanted to be policy funders, and that meant we had to find a way to give those kinds of rapid response grants. The funder collaborative we joined helped us do that.”

    Advocacy collaboratives can also give program officers a broader network of resources, more direct connection with the people they support, or with other communities affected by the foundation’s work. “A lot of foundations don’t have program officers who have direct experience working with Muslims, even though Islamophobia affects every issue we work on. If I’m working with an advocacy collaborative that has connections to that community or a program officer from that community, it educates me.”

  • Leveraging and bringing to scale their foundations’ investments. Many grantmakers join advocacy collaboratives because their institutions can be more effective and have more impact collectively than individually. A donor whose collaborative now funds in 30 states points out that there was “just no way that I, as a national funder, could ever do this on my own well. Even though we’re a big foundation, we just don’t have the capacity.” Funders who join advocacy collaboratives tend to recognize their foundation’s limitations in supporting advocacy well, at scale in the real world, and so collaboratives are a way to join forces with like-minded funders to jointly move advocacy investments effectively and at scale.

    Moreover, the public policy issues that advocacy funders deal with are usually bigger and more complex than one institution can handle alone, so collaboratives give grantmakers the chance to work with other funders with the same goals—“a system that’s much more cost effective.” Having extra sets of eyes, as well as checks and balances, doesn’t hurt either.

    Small foundations, in particular, benefit from participating by amplifying their voices. “We’re only able to give a small amount of money to the collaborative’s grantmaking pool, but we still get to vote on how millions of dollars in that pool are allocated. We’re getting a lot of leverage being associated with these large amounts of money!”

    Collaboratives also help provide additional services for grantees such as capacity building, technical assistance, and peer learning convenings—the kinds of “things individual funders like me can’t or don’t do but are critical to sustaining this work.” Collaboratives that are staffed, for example, “can put together a docket that would take me years to be as competent in that space. And they also give the grantees help in marketing and communications. I want all that as part of my strategy!”

    Finally, collaboratives can help sustain advocacy work. “For our foundation, the advocacy collaborative was a way to help build up the financial support for these issues by working with and continually finding other funding partners to make sure that when we left, there would still be other funders in that space.” Joining forces puts a stake in the ground to say that philanthropic support for a given issue isn’t going to go away, even when approaches and investments at individual foundations might shift.

  • Improving grantmaking practice that builds the capacity of foundations and their leaders themselves. Advocacy funders say collaboratives improve their grantmaking in powerful ways. They help program officers strategically map what’s going on in the field, identify gaps, and think more deeply about how their institutional funding can best fill those needs. “Our advocacy collaborative functions as an efficient team where we think about who’s doing what in this small network of deep-pocket funders and learn where everyone’s funding. Then, as a group, we figure out where to plug those holes so we don’t duplicate what’s already sufficiently resourced. The collaborative construct and the people who staff it allow us to do this really well.” For organizations and staff that may not spend time independently scanning, it is baked into how collaboratives must operate.

    Individual funders also believe their grantmaking is improved because the information shared through the advocacy collaborative is more comprehensive, timely, and rich. “When I first got into philanthropy, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was thinking more about individual grantees that had interesting theories of change or were doing appealing work. When I joined the advocacy collaborative, I saw what other people were funding and why, how their strategies were different, and how they were viewing the issue. That led me to a more nuanced view of what my strategy could look like and then shape it in a way that dovetails with others without being duplicative.”

    Being part of an advocacy collaborative also opens funders’ eyes to other options and opportunities. “If I were doing this grantmaking on my own, I’d miss important pieces about my issue. For example, I knew a lot about immigration, but I’d never thought about how it intersects the LGBTQ community or the law enforcement aspects of this issue. Now I get it because my colleagues have been so helpful in educating me about it.” 


  • What do you hope to get out of advocacy work that you can only do in partnership with other funders? What’s the value add of your participation (or potential membership)?

  • If you’re not getting the benefits you anticipated, why not? Are there ways to engage other collaborative members in finding ways to address this?

  • How do you talk about the benefits to other staff at your foundation? To trustees? Do they understand? If not, are there ways to strengthen your case?


Please click here for information on GrantCraft's methodology for this research.

About the author(s)

Cynthesis Consulting

Challenging the Globalization Agenda

In the 1980s and 1990s, the pressure on developing countries to embrace economic liberalization was overwhelming. They were bullied by global aid and trade organizations, such as the World Bank, into adopting reforms whose benefits were questionable and many argue hurt the poorest. Through its International Economic Policy portfolio, the Ford Foundation supported civil society organizations and academia to devise counter-arguments, which have ultimately led to changes in many of those damaging policies and the way that we think about economic development in general.

Despite overwhelming pressure in favor of economic liberalization, critical analysis of these policies was emerging in the economics departments of universities, particularly in the United States. At Ford, we decided to fund this critical research, bring together those doing it, and support civil society organizations who could facilitate joint work and present it to government agencies and international organizations. How did the International Economic Policy portfolio fit in with Ford’s overall direction and focus? Ford already had an academic international economics program in place for decades and the idea of training a generation of economists in transition economies was very much part of our approach to development Additionally, in an effort to increase the staff diversity they decided to recruit me, an academic economist from the global south, to lead the global economics program and bring a different perspective to the table.

Once the decision to go ahead had been taken and I was hired from outside to take the lead  for the program working with other peace and social justice program officers and program officers based in overseas offices, the first task was to find a strategy to ‘implement’ the “solution”. As an initial step, we spent about a year surveying the field, talking to academics and activists, and attending key events where discussions on development policies would take place. The consultation period culminated in early 2001 in a three-day ‘convening’ of academics, activists and civil society organizations, organized by Ford jointly with the Rockefeller Foundation. Three key propositions came out of this meeting:

  1. It was important to support work that produces historically accurate economic analysis that can contribute to policy design.
  2. Domestic actors – government officials, academics, civil society organizations – were needed in developing countries that could contribute to the design of economic policies in a way that engaged with the analyses and ideas coming from the Washington think-tanks and international funding agencies.
  3. There was an influential view in international bodies such as the WTO and the IMF that the less discretionary space governments in developing countries had, the easier it would be for them to integrate into the international economic system. 

In starting to address these points, the most effective intervention we discovered was to support not just individual scholars or even academic centers but knowledge-building networks, often based in universities. We found this approach to be very successful. In a book entitled How Rich Countries Got Rich ... Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, published in 2007, the portfolio is credited with ‘single-handedly’ changing the field of development studies. From my point of view, the main achievement was fostering a number of large networks of analysts and activists that could engage critically with the economic policies associated with globalization. Thanks to these networks, some new fields of study were created and important analytical standards developed, including gender and trade and gender and macroeconomics. These networks survive today, which is another indicator of the success of the program. 

One thing that partners in the portfolio consistently predicted – that the preferred economic integration approaches would result in enormous increases in inequality – is now a significant political and policy issue. As a large funder, the Ford Foundation was able to help groups disrupt the march towards the ‘liberalization’ of economies that harmed the poorest, through the creation of an alternative narrative. The portfolio’s funding strategy was critical to its success: there was a willingness to fund over a long period of time; humility about not knowing the solution and a willingness to learn; and an inclusive effort to determine the problem and identify possible solutions. Ford brought together two very different groups, academia and civil society, whose strengths complemented each other and were both crucial to the success of this initiative.

The Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace and GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center, are releasing a series of 11 blog posts authored by grantmakers around the world. The posts are derived from the recently published Effective Philanthropy: Another Take, a collection of stories describing a philanthropic intervention against some form of injustice (socioeconomic and/or political) at a local, national or global scale. Each story addresses key questions grantmakers wrestle with in order to effect systemic social change, and the blog posts in this series highlight certain details that feed into the bigger story. Through this series, the partners hope to raise awareness of some of the most effective examples from philanthropy in tackling injustice and achieving lasting structural change. By sharing knowledge in philanthropy and being willing to learn from one another’s experiences and perspectives, we can improve our practice together.

This is the final post in this series, which was rolled out over the past three months; it focuses on the impact of supporting strong community leadership to create social change. 

About the author(s)

Senior Adviser on Finance and Development
South Centre

Former Knowledge Services Fellow
Foundation Center

Seeking an Inclusive Europe: Foundation Grantmaking for Countering Ethnic and Religious Bias and Xenophobia

Seeking an Inclusive Europe: Foundation Grantmaking for Countering Ethnic and Religious Bias and Xenophobia is the first-ever study of the philanthropic community’s response to ongoing discrimination and increasing violence and the need for greater cultural understanding, inclusion, and equity. It enables foundations active in addressing bias and promoting social change and rights across Europe to understand their grantmaking priorities in the context of the larger funder community. For foundations that want to become active, it offers numerous examples of approaches funders are taking to address these issues.


Steven Lawrence



Through IssueLab, the Foundation Center is working to more effectively gather, index, and share the collective intelligence of the social sector by providing free access to thousands of case studies, evaluations, white papers, and issue briefs.