Learning from Community Foundations’ Response to Crisis

Lori Bartczak

Amid the dual crises of a global pandemic and a national reckoning with systemic racism, the U.S. philanthropic sector faces tremendous challenges and opportunities. CEP’s Foundations Respond to Crisis study found that many foundations are making new efforts to support communities of color and other communities disproportionately impacted by the public health and economic consequences of COVID-19. Unfortunately, CEP’s data also suggest that while foundations are thinking about operating differently, they are slow to act. (For example, in interviews, foundation leaders more frequently described reflecting and learning when asked how they are making changes to their internal policies and practices; less than half of interviewees reported doing something differently internally.)

As private and family foundations continue to make meaning of this current moment and philanthropy’s response in it, they should look to community foundations for guidance. Community foundations can play a powerful role in directing resources to organizations meeting the greatest needs in communities. Among the philanthropic sector, they have perhaps experienced the challenges and opportunities of the past year most acutely as they deploy COVID-response funds to meet the most pressing needs in their respective communities.

To better understand how community foundations are responding to their respective communities’ needs, Community Wealth Partners interviewed staff members from 13 community foundations representing a range of geographies and asset sizes. Our research found that many community foundations are moving from talk to action when it comes to 1) adopting more equitable practices and 2) communicating a point of view about racial justice in their communities with donors and other stakeholders.

Moving from Talk to Action

For some community foundations, the COVID-19 crisis pushed them to move from planning for new ways of working to trying new ways of working.

“The pandemic required that we go from zero to 100 in terms of developing and deploying a plan as a response to the pandemic,” said Norma Fuentes of the Seattle Foundation. The Seattle Foundation had been developing a logic model to inform actions the Foundation would take to address growing inequities in its region, but the need to respond to COVID-19 pushed the Foundation to move forward on working in new ways.

Similarly, the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) was in the process of developing an equity framework for its grantmaking when the effects of the pandemic created a heightened sense of urgency. CICF’s COVID-19 response fund provided an opportunity for the Foundation to build new relationships, fund new organizations and projects, and reassess its grantmaking practices with a racial equity lens.

“We leaned on residents to understand the greatest needs and who was positioned to meet them,” said CICF Director of Effective Philanthropy Robin Elmerick. “We made grants to grassroots organizations, including several who did not have 501(c)(3) status, and we helped some organizations find fiscal agents where needed. It was a total shift for us.”

Community foundations are also thinking about how to ensure that changes they are making in their pandemic response become embedded in their day-to-day practices moving forward.

“With our COVID response grants, we are reaching out beyond the organizations we usually support and trying to find creative ideas in the community that are addressing inequities,” said Katie Kling of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation (CACF). “This helps us think about how we foster those relationships and stay connected to those who are filling critical needs in our community.”

CACF continues to foster those relationships by staying in regular contact with organizations and community leaders that work in close proximity to community needs. In response to requests for non-monetary support in addition to funding, the Foundation is offering Catchafire subscriptions to qualified local organizations so they can augment their capacity with skilled volunteer support.

Communicating a Point of View

The national conversation on systemic racism also pushed many community foundations to take a stronger point of view about racial equity — and to communicate that point of view directly with their respective donors and other stakeholders.

“Community foundations are not neutral,” said Kirsten Kilchenstein of the Oregon Community Foundation. “We frame our work in our core values and embrace our role as a bridge builder, bringing communities and resources together where they’re needed most.” (CEP’s research also found that community foundations are having different types of conversations with donors.)

Like many of the community foundations we spoke with, the San Francisco Foundation is thinking about how a focus on racial equity shifts the way it works with donors, nonprofits, and other partners in the community.

“This is a moment to redefine what it means to be a donor of the San Francisco Foundation,” said the Foundation’s chief of philanthropy, Ruben Orduña. “With the COVID pandemic, civil unrest happening across the country, and increasing criticism of donor-advised funds, we are having conversations with donors we’ve never had before. They are asking questions like, ‘What does it mean to defund the police?’ ‘What does it mean to center Blackness?’ If we can get donors to move dollars into the issues we’re prioritizing, that’s a win.”

While some may be reluctant to raise these types of conversations out of fear of losing donors, the community foundations we spoke with agreed that the benefits outweigh the risks. Most foundations reported losing few or no donors in response to them taking a stand on racial equity; not only that, they also attracted new donors.

“If we lose a few donors, the trade-off is we get loyal donors in return,” said Cecilia Clarke of the Brooklyn Community Foundation. “When they come to work with us, knowing our point of view, that means they’re in.”

Learning from Community Foundations

As the pandemic enters another season and a new presidential administration sparks potential for significant policy change, foundations need to decide how they want to show up in this moment. Based on what many community foundations have done in the past year, here are two recommendations that can apply to all types of funders:

  1. Less talk, more action. The events of 2020 forced many foundations to move from planning and strategizing to acting. It is past time for foundations to change their practices to advance racial equity, and there are a host of resources available to support them. (For starters, look to groups like NCRP, Equity in the Center, and Change Philanthropy for guidance.)
  1. Leverage your relationships to advocate for racial justice. Foundations should use their privilege and social and relational capital to champion racial justice. Make it a priority to educate and influence your board members, peer foundations, partners, and key decision-makers in your community. (For more resources on intentional influence, read these blog posts.)

While COVID-19 took the world by surprise almost a year ago, we are now in a stage of the crisis where there’s no excuse to be caught off guard. As we approach a second year of significant struggle in our communities, foundations need to take more decisive and deliberate action and use their privilege and position to champion racial equity.

Lori Bartczak is senior director, knowledge & content, at Community Wealth Partners. Follow her on Twitter at @lbartczak.

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