Why Flexible Funding Needs to be Philanthropy’s New Normal

Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins

During the past year, we have seen an overwhelming show of support from the philanthropic community to help address the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has there been an overall increase in giving, but many funders have loosened — or eliminated altogether — grant restrictions, allowing nonprofits to redirect staff time and resources to focus on responding to the crisis at hand.

While this approach has been both welcome and necessary, we should not lose sight of the fact that greater flexibility in funding is not only needed during a crisis. To ensure impactful and equitable partnerships between funders and nonprofits, this degree of flexibility needs to be the new normal in philanthropy.

As an organization that both gives and receives grants, PAI, where I serve as president and CEO, has a unique perspective on this dynamic. PAI is an international advocacy nonprofit that provides financial and technical support to 96 grantees in 33 countries working to expand sexual and reproductive health and rights in their communities. The guiding principle of our partnership model is rooted in our unwavering belief that sustained progress for women, youth, and vulnerable communities requires highly responsive, frontline efforts led by on-the-ground organizations and advocates. Grantees working with PAI identify what they need to achieve their goals, and PAI supports their efforts by providing flexible funding, advocacy support, technical insights and assistance, and strategic guidance.

It should come as no surprise that, in the past year, the needs of the grantees we partner with have shifted dramatically. The pandemic and related lockdowns led to the closure of offices and the end of work travel and in-person meetings. At the same time, many of the organizations PAI supports were called on by their governments to assist with national health responses, straining already limited resources.

PAI was able to swiftly respond to the rapidly changing needs of grantees by offering even more flexibility with existing grants, and by providing additional funding and guidance to support grantees’ COVID-related activities. This included investing in tools and equipment to facilitate working from home, support remote advocacy activities, and enable virtual monitoring of the availability of essential health services and supplies.

For example, early in the pandemic, many health clinics in Mexico abruptly closed, and officials failed to inform people about where they could still access care. PAI provided flexible funding so that grantee Observatorio de Mortalidad Materna en México could quickly pivot its work to map out which facilities were still open during lockdown and help indigenous women and girls continue to access essential sexual and reproductive healthcare during that time.

And in Kenya, PAI gave additional funding and technical assistance to support Women Promotion Centre’s COVID-19 efforts, including its work with local government officials to fill gaps in sexual and reproductive health services, as well as its work with local law enforcement to respond to the increase in domestic and sexual violence targeted at girls and young women.

In both of these examples, as is the case with all of our grantees, local advocates informed the needs and approaches to protecting the health and well-being of their communities. In a time when COVID-19 has exacerbated harm, exposed inequities, and added pressure on health and community-based nonprofits, it is the flexibility, responsiveness, and trust from funders that enable those organizations to meet urgent needs and prevent hard-fought health and rights gains from being eroded.

We value the work and safety of the advocates we support and know it does not serve our shared mission if the organizations we have been investing in for years cannot make it through this crisis. The specific challenges and strategies may vary from one grantee to another, but at the end of the day, it comes down to one simple question we ask of our funded partners: What do you need?

Fortunately, we have been able to do this because many of PAI’s own funders have asked the same question of us. Last year, the Sheldon and Audrey Katz Foundation (SAFI), for example, recognized that PAI was facing many unknowns in our progress toward achieving our mission. With the uncertain global impact of the pandemic on women’s access to healthcare — and the potential ramifications of the (then) upcoming U.S. presidential election for sexual and reproductive health equity and justice — SAFI made the decision to not only increase their support to PAI, but also to make the entirety of the grant unrestricted.

By trusting us to know what projects to prioritize, SAFI has enabled us to be more responsive in how we support grantees and also better positioned us to seize opportunities to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights in the year ahead.

We have seen this trend toward more flexible giving throughout the past year. Shortly after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, more than 40 U.S.-based and international foundations committed to supporting nonprofits by reducing funding restrictions, and the number of signatories to that pledge has since grown to 800. Additionally, last summer’s HalfMyDAF campaign urged individual donors to pay down half the money in their donor-advised funds (DAFs), resulting in $8.6 million in donations to more than 750 nonprofits.

The significance of this shift goes beyond providing the critical funding nonprofits need to do their work. Less prescriptive grants are also vital to creating more equitable partnerships and dismantling the colonialism and paternalism that is pervasive in the nonprofit sector, particularly in international development.

If philanthropy wants to get it right, we have to trust and invest in community-led programming and priorities — and the organizations that support them. Less restrictive, more flexible funding is the only way to ensure that the organizations that best understand the policy threats and opportunities facing them, the roadblocks toward progress, and the needs of their communities have the power and the means to implement essential advocacy, research, programs, and services to drive sustained systems change that will benefit the people they serve. This way of working also better positions organizations like PAI to respond to urgent needs and opportunities, as well as future crises.

Whether your focus is on battling climate change, ending hunger and malnutrition, or fighting for health equity, members of the philanthropic community ultimately want the same thing: to create positive change in the world. If we are going to have a real, lasting impact on the issues we care about, the flexible funding practices adopted during the past year need to extend beyond the current crisis and become the rule — not the exception.

Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins is president & CEO of PAI, a champion of universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for women, youth, and vulnerable communities. PAI works with policymakers, civil society partners, and grassroots leaders in the United States and around the world to remove roadblocks between women and the sexual and reproductive health services, supplies, and support they need. Follow Nabeeha and PAI’s efforts on Twitter at @nabeehakazi and @pai_org.

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