telescope in front of horizon

If not now, when? Transforming philanthropy’s approach in the aftermath of the pandemic.

By Russell Johnson, President & CEO

As we enter the seventh month of coronavirus relief efforts, the impact of philanthropic and government assistance is of keen public concern. How well are relief efforts targeted? What is the impact on these efforts? What can we learn about our response as large-scale government support falters, yet health and community impacts continue? While both philanthropy, individuals, and government have made historic investments to date, the outlook for many businesses, nonprofits, and families remains grim.

Make no mistake, the outpouring of charitable support has been both appreciated and necessary.  Still, we must find way to become more strategic in how we use our individual and institutional philanthropic resources. 

Over the past summer, HealthSpark Foundation surveyed more than 100 nonprofit organizations hoping to learn how the onset of the pandemic was impacting these organizations.  These respondents noted the longstanding lack of funding and investment in infrastructure weakened their organizations and placed unrealistic expectations on their staff and volunteers.  Still, so common in the nonprofit business sector, many responded as best they could expressing significant hope for the future and a willingness to pursue alternative ways of conducting business. 

With this information in hand, HealthSpark invited a variety of community stakeholders – nonprofit, faith, government, business, and educational leaders to help us envision opportunities to build a better safety net system.  Over a two-month period, these stakeholders drafted a shared vision and set of guiding principles to guide future investments.  With crystal-clear clarity and intent, a blueprint for action evolved defining six opportunities intended to address longstanding problems including:   

  • Underinvestment in safety net system programs
  • Restrictive government regulations and organizational policies/practices that make it harder to help or get help when in need
  • Lack of operational capacity in nonprofits, from tech to finance to board governance
  • Limited understanding of how to advance racial and social justice

From great pain and crisis, we once again have the opportunity for transformative change.  We’ve had it before, but regrettably we- funders, business, faith, and nonprofit leaders- did not have a plan and took no definitive actions to remediate what has been a systemic failure for more than a century.  There is palpable urgency expressed by the group that met over the summer to get work started now – and not wait until the pandemic and crisis is over.  So where do we start? 

Foundations, corporate giving programs, philanthropists and others have an opportunity to redirect and commit resources to rebuild a system desperately begging for change.  Together we can:

  • Move from investing in individual programs to collaborative models that leverage expertise, resources, and information-sharing.
  • Change our grantmaking practices to become more inclusive of community voice, less administratively complicated and restrictive, and with longer investment horizons.
  • Support essential programs/services AND create new sources of capital needed for innovation, staff training, research, and advocacy.

For our government partners, we invite you to:

  • Consider how you can invest in the securing the cornerstone of thriving communities – good, responsive, transparent government. 
  • Share what specific federal/state policies and practices interfere with the delivery of racially equitable and socially just programs and services in our county. You can change those practices under your immediate control now. 
  • Enhance the true value of the public/private partnership between local government and nonprofit safety net providers by paying the full cost of contracted programs and services including administrative overhead expenses. 

And finally, to our residents.  We all thrive when our neighbors and surrounding communities prosper.  The aphorism “a rising tide raises all boats” is associated with the idea that an improved economy will benefit all participants, and that economic policy, particularly government economic policy, should therefore focus on broad economic efforts. None of us can do this work by ourselves.  We all have a stake in seeing the six action opportunities advance with intentional thought and investment from all.