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What Are Grant Makers Thinking?

A tumultuous 2020 yields streamlining, new planning, more collaboration

For a nation already mired in problems of poverty, racism, and inequity, 2020 brought fresh storms.  With COVID threatening lives and communities, nonprofits staggered under increasing demand, volunteers stood down, organizations turned to remote work and communications, and funders flexed. Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, we asked four grant makers to share their experiences and insights. What have been the biggest challenges? What’s been learned? What is still changing as they go forward, trying to serve their mission and support nonprofit partners?

The grant makers are:

  • Moses Taylor Foundation, a community-based foundation serving Northeast Pennsylvania, with a focus on health.
  • Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation, a family foundation located in the Rochester, New York, area and supporting both secular and Jewish organizations.
  • Scranton Area Community Foundation, a Pennsylvania foundation managing more than 200 charitable foundations.
  • Daniels Fund, a Denver, Colorado, foundation working with nonprofits in several western states, addressing aging, disabilities, and other concerns.

The early challenges: speed and responsiveness.

From Moses Taylor in Northeast Pennsylvania:Initially we were challenged to respond quickly and effectively to support our nonprofit partners. We were accustomed to quarterly grant cycles with full proposals and site visits. … We reexamined every step to distinguish the minimum required to actually make grants.

“We were also challenged to determine what exactly to fund in response to COVID-19. With the changing prevalence of COVID-19 in our region and fluctuating federal resources and responses, it’s been a moving target. … By default, we opted whenever possible to provide operating grants to trusted partners, to provide them with the greatest flexibility to respond in real time to changing needs.”

From Daniels Fund in Denver: “Our board swiftly allocated $5 million for COVID-19 relief and modified our grant approval process in favor of a nimbler approach, which allowed us to get time-sensitive grants reviewed and checks out the door weekly. We must also credit our amazing nonprofit partners for their resiliency and innovation as they adapted and pivoted to the changing needs and environment.”

Recognizing the unprecedented scale of need, some grant makers reached out.

From the Scranton Area Community Foundation in Northeast Pennsylvania: “We … established a rapid response COVID-19 fund [involving] many philanthropic partners including foundations, donor advised funds, and individuals … which distributed $1.2 million over a three-month period. …

“We also held a virtual fundraiser to support food insecurity in partnership with the mayor … and the first ever regional NEPA Gives day. This giving day helped 167 nonprofits raise much needed funds virtually to help take the place of the traditional fundraisers that had to be canceled in 2020.”

One concern: fulfilling mission in a time of emergency.

From Daniels Fund: “One of the most important lessons we learned is balancing a continued focus on our donor’s intent, while being innovative and responsive to new challenges in a time of crisis. The pandemic reinforced that strong relationships are key and a continued focus on them going forward will help us better understand the most pressing community needs in real time.”

Innovations surfaced, both inside the foundations and among grantees.

From Moses Taylor: “Many of our nonprofit partners have developed new innovations or expanded existing approaches. … Telehealth, no-contact emergency food distribution, remote learning, and Zoom conferences have demonstrated benefits beyond virus prevention in expanding access and reducing isolation. While we know our partners will welcome face-to-face contact when it’s possible again, we are hopeful that many of these practices will continue.”

From the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation in the Rochester area: “It is said ‘never let a good crisis go to waste.’ The pandemic provided a lens for us to look at things differently on our approach to grant making. This includes working in closer partnership with our grantees and supporting them through the immediate challenges and well beyond into the future as they look to recovery.

“Our community’s crisis fund has given us insight into effective collaborative grant making.  We will work with our foundation partners to think how we can continue partnering in many different ways to make our role for grantees more straightforward and aligned.”

Lessons were learned. Approaches changed.

From Moses Taylor: “By far the most important lesson I learned last year was to keep listening. In 2019 we joined the Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen4Good initiative to support local nonprofits in listening to the people they serve. … That program was phenomenal preparation for a tumultuous year like 2020. Throughout the year as I worked … listening was at the forefront of my mind. It challenged me to stay present in the face of changing dynamics, continually check my assumptions and adapt my approach based on current need, and close the loop to ensure our efforts are having the desired intent.”

From Farash: “The most important lesson? The importance of flexibility.”

From the Scranton Area Community Foundation: “That collaborations can make all of the difference in moving the needle. Whether the collaboration includes several foundations working together, several foundations and government working together, generous philanthropic individuals coming together to address a need, or some other combination, there is power in these partnerships, and they are well worth the time and effort to build and develop in order to create change.”

What’s next? Streamlined processes, more communication, more technology.

From Moses Taylor: “For most of 2020 our focus was rapid response grant making. Toward the end of the year, we understood COVID-19 would require a more sustained local response. We decided to operate both rapid response and traditional quarterly grant making in parallel.

“We’re also continuing to reassess our five-year strategic plan. The priorities we set in 2019 (responsive grant making, capacity building, school-based health, and older adult isolation) each took on heightened urgency in 2020 … [But] programs and activities we’d planned were no longer practical or urgent. Timelines shifted. Moving forward we are continuing to identify how to build upon our learning in these areas while being honest about what makes sense in this new environment.”

From Farash: “We are creating new operational goals and guiding principles … including strengthening partnerships with our grantees, increased transparency, streamlining the grants process, a focus on impact, and improved communication with an emphasis on listening and learning.”

From the Scranton Area Community Foundation: “We are continuing to provide grants from the Community Needs Fund (unrestricted endowment) but are adding in an additional critical needs grant pool for charitable organizations. …

“We enhanced our ability to accept grant applications and scholarship applications through an efficient and user-friendly online system and have provided access to donors to access their fund information on the system portal, as these capabilities are particularly critical in this environment.”

For changes the McGowan Fund has made and foresees, read more.