Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, CEP has set out to document the needs of nonprofits and the response of funders. Today, we released new research that corroborates many of the changes that foundations reported making to their processes in response to the pandemic.
In 2020 and 2021, we surveyed our nationally representative panel of nonprofit leaders to understand how their organizations and the communities they serve were being impacted by the pandemic and what they most needed from their funders. At the same time, we also asked funders directly what they were doing to support their nonprofit partners. Through those research efforts, we collected data that indicated a level of change in foundation practices that we have not seen in the two decades we have been conducting research about philanthropy.
To further investigate that change, we analyzed the data we collected through our Grantee Perception Report (GPR). We examined this survey data for evidence of these unprecedented changes on the part of foundations. Through the GPR, we have asked nonprofits for decades about their experiences with their funders on a range of topics. In order to pinpoint changes made in the wake of the pandemic, we compared the nonprofit feedback for funders who had completed a GPR at least once before 2020 and then repeated the survey in 2021 or 2022. This comparison revealed two distinct patterns:
- Grantees are spending less time on application and reporting processes than they were before the pandemic and finding the proposal process to be more helpful in strengthening the efforts funded by the grant.
- Funders are providing slightly more unrestricted support than they were before the pandemic.
While the direction of these changes is consistent with analyses of other funders who have repeated GPRs, the magnitude of the shifts in this set of pre- and post-pandemic data is larger than we have historically observed. The nonprofits in this sample reported a median of eight fewer hours spent on funder processes — a full day of work — for just a single funder, and the proportion of grantees receiving general operating support grants increased from 23 to 30 percent on average.
When we spoke to several of the funders in this sample whose grantees reported experiencing these simplified processes and increased unrestricted support, they expressed how the need for these changes took on a new light in the pandemic. As John Hecklinger, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Children said, “our funding has always been flexible, but it feels responsive and flexible in a different way when a grantee gets that quick, flexible funding in a different context.”
Moreover, these funders indicated intent to maintain these simplified processes and increased unrestricted support, as they view these practices as helping to advance their missions. As Alicia Harris, program officer at the Grove Foundation said, “if the idea is that we are resourcing organizations and movements, then part of that is not taking up the time that they would otherwise be using to further their important work.”
There are a couple important caveats to note in this research. First, this analysis focuses on a set of 61 funders that commissioned the GPR in the years preceding 2020 and then again in 2021 and 2022. This is a group of funders that are, obviously, interested in obtaining feedback from the nonprofits they fund and motivated to make changes. Second, the timing of these GPR surveys in 2021 and 2022 allows us to confirm the shifts that foundations self-reported to us at the same time. It does not, however, provide evidence of whether these are enduring changes for funders and philanthropy. Of course, we hope these changes will be sustained — and CEP recently published a new study in which nonprofit leaders reported experiencing an increase in trust from their funders, including streamlined application and reporting processes and more unrestricted support.
While it will take years to fully understand whether 2020 was a turning point for philanthropic practices, the research released today is a positive indicator of change. The funders in this study stood by their commitments to better support the work of grantees and communities.
Katarina Malmgren is an associate manager, Research, at CEP.