7 Lessons from COVID-19 Philanthropy and Implications for Future Disaster Funding

Alex Gray and Sally Ray

From a global pandemic to the recent invasion of Ukraine, globally impactful disasters are an increasingly frequent part of our reality, and thus an important factor as funders consider grantmaking priorities and the funding landscape in which they operate. In light of these events and global trends that will make disasters of this scale and complexity imminent, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) reflects in this series on why grantmakers must consider disaster funding, how to approach this work with an equity and community-based mindset, and what individual donors can do to help.

Since the World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (where we work) have seen $28.4 billion in giving for response, relief, and recovery efforts.

Who knew then that, after the 12th round of grantmaking and grants totaling nearly $40 million through the CDP COVID-19 Response Fund, we would still be funding organizations globally two-plus years later?

What we have learned from the past years informs our work, not just with our COVID-19 fund but also with other disasters and emergencies in the U.S. and abroad. We share some of this below and invite other grantmakers and donors to learn alongside us.

1. COVID-19 affects everyone and intersects everything.

With more than 563 million cases and nearly 6.5 million deaths worldwide, many of us already had the virus or know someone who had it, died from it or suffers from long COVID. Yet, these heart wrenching numbers are only one measure of the pandemic’s impact, which has been layered and multidimensional. There are multitudes of secondary impacts such as supply chain issues, food insecurity, rising unemployment, an increase in gender-based violence, and mental health crises.

As we continue to support recovery from other disasters and crises that rose before and after the pandemic, from wildfires to hurricanes to armed conflicts to refugee crises to tornadoes and floods, we must consider the pandemic’s impact on the disaster recovery processes and approaches. Wildfire smoke increases COVID-19 sickness and death. Pandemic restrictions limit disaster volunteer availability. And, donor fatigue might affect the funding available to continue to support disasters and the ongoing pandemic. Donors must make provisions for this, and offer maximum flexibility in their funding to adapt to changing circumstances as they arise.

2. Recovery from disasters and crises does not happen equitably.

Time and again, we’ve witnessed how disasters disproportionately affect marginalized populations. Disasters widen the wealth gap and create further inequities.

For example, in the U.S., more people from communities of color died than those in primarily white neighborhoods. The elderly were the first to die in large numbers. Essential workers, comprised mostly of minorities, women, migrants, and refugees, got sick and lost jobs during the economic downturn.

Internationally, we saw a reversal of the progress in poverty reduction as tens of millions of people were plunged back into poverty. Domestic violence against women and children increased. Gay and lesbian couples were denied access to basic food and other assistance because they do not legally count as a family in many countries.

Worldwide, millions of kids without access to adequate internet and other technology to enable remote learning still struggle to catch up from the learning loss and isolation they experienced from school shutdowns and closures of the many things in their worlds.

And while the scale and speed of the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines was unprecedented, in many underserved and hard-to-reach areas in the U.S. and abroad, we are seeing a reduction in vaccination rates for other diseases, which is a worrying trend.

The pandemic exposed injustices to more donors and the general public. Many acknowledged it and began to act on it in ways they may otherwise not have. It’s vital that donors continue to support efforts to provide equitable access to vaccines and trustworthy information to save lives and prevent human suffering. At the same time, donors must recognize the significant protracted impacts of the pandemic and the need to support longer-term solutions to ensure equitable and sustainable recovery for all.

3. Trust is critical.

COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation resulted in preventable deaths. Trust in science, our systems, leaders, and processes has eroded in many parts of the world. Yet, trust is vital for us to act on information and advice that will help us and our communities recover from this pandemic and other crises we may face.

We need to fight disinformation and misinformation by heavily investing in organizations dispelling myths about the virus, testing, treatments and vaccines to save lives. Simultaneously, we must support efforts to rebuild trust in our doctors, scientists, community leaders and one another to work our way from tragedy to equitable and sustainable recovery whatever the disaster.

Additionally, we at CDP trust our grantee partners to lead the work in the community to effect transformative change. We hope they trust us to advocate for them and for their recovery. Directing funds as local as possible allows funders to honor the trust earned at the local level.

4. Community is essential.

At first, we seemed to lose our sense of community as we were necessarily isolated from one another. But community is vital to our overall wellbeing. 

We saw communities come together across the globe through organizations like mutual aid networks to share information, provide access to testing and vaccines, and support the work of being together with a common goal of living better together.

As donors, we must develop tailored solutions and be ready to support community-driven efforts to rebuild and recover stronger from this crisis and any other.

5. Our public health systems are inadequate.

It’s clear that public health systems worldwide are not prepared for a protracted crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s inequitable access to life-saving care, especially in marginalized communities.

Grantmakers need to advocate for a more robust, connected, better funded, and equitable global health system. And we must support those organizations working to transform our health systems. Whether through improved access to good telehealth or strengthening and expanding the community health worker network, let’s latch onto what we’ve learned to grow and improve for a healthier future.

6. Good mental health is good overall health.

Trauma often creates mental health crises in communities affected by The layered trauma of the past 30 months has touched us all. Although CDP has always funded organizations providing trauma-informed care following disasters, COVID-19 has exposed how woefully underprioritized mental health is for crisis-affected communities and frontline health care workers exposed to potentially traumatic events daily.

We have seen greater acknowledgment of the need, and greater explicit demand, for mental health services globally. In the U.S., we’ve seen an expansion of organizations providing access to quality services and a recognition that there is much to be done to expand our provider network. The new 988 hotline offers better access to emergency mental health services.

As funders, we must continue supporting efforts to expand access to mental health care services throughout the disaster recovery process.

7. Women and women’s groups have played a critical role.

There was a significant concern about the potential for rolling back women’s rights at the start of the pandemic. At the same time, women’s groups, such as health and savings and loans groups, have been playing a critical and trusted leadership role in disseminating information and in supporting local economic recovery of their communities.

We need to recognize women’s essential role in leading COVID-19 and other equitable response, recovery and development efforts globally. Donors must continue to make smart investments in programs, research, and advocacy initiatives that promote women’s leadership in the community response to COVID-19 and other disasters.

We are heartened to see more grantmakers and donors committing to addressing inequities. We’re thrilled to hear stories of other funders breaking down funding barriers and finding ways to support local communities whenever possible. As COVID-19 and other disasters continue to devastate our communities, we in the sector are challenged to respond boldly and collectively in ways that lift up marginalized voices and address systemic inequities. By working together and sharing our lessons learned with one another, we can help create real transformational change in the lives of those most affected by disasters and crises around the world.

Alex Gray (@alexgray2005) is director of international funds and Sally Ray (@SallyRay51) is director of domestic funds at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Find CDP on Twitter at @funds4disaster.

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