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Companies Respond to COVID-19 – Philanthropic Response

Throughout March, as the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly evolved, and the scale and impact of this crisis has started to become apparent, companies have been readying their philanthropic response. With needs so vast and deep, how do companies determine where to focus their efforts? Of course, there are important calculations each company must make on its own, not the least of which are its budget and areas of focus. But, regardless of the specifics, one of the most important things all companies control right now is how they give. In this time of extreme burden and stress, we should treat our nonprofit partners as we should all be treating each other: be flexible, be generous, be creative, be proactive, be kind. Below, we outline what this looks like, and why it’s more than just the right thing to do, it’s also the most effective way to give right now. 

Be Flexible

“Business as usual” is out the window. Nonprofit organizations must pivot to respond to the moment. Many face quickly growing needs, and may need to find entirely new ways to deliver services to vulnerable populations. Now is not the time to hold fast to project deliverables agreed upon in a different reality; now is the time to empower your community partners to do what they deem necessary to serve the community, which may include support to stay in business themselves. Here are some ways to be flexible with your existing partners:

  • Loosen and/or remove restrictions on active grants: Make ongoing grants unrestricted. Allow current partners to redirect remaining funds where they see fit, whether that be meeting a surging need through additional programming or simply paying their staff and bills. Helping partners meet pressing needs and stay afloat will be an important way to help communities ultimately recover from this crisis.

In addition to allowing flexibility in where funds go, be flexible on timelines and reporting needs. You don’t want staff scrambling to complete impact reports when their attention should be focused on urgent needs.

    • Liberty Mutual is lifting all grant restrictions on program grants, totaling $14.4 million to 374 organizations, allowing them the flexibility to respond to changing needs.
  • Allow organizations to keep donations for canceled events: Events of all types are canceled, from fundraising galas, to sponsored walks and runs, to group volunteer events. Honor existing pledges and don’t claw back funds – instead, give organizations the opportunity to direct those donations to where they are most needed, without restriction.
    • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is honoring its commitment to fundraisers that were canceled, and giving nearly $50,000 to organizations where Blue Cross had to cancel employee volunteer projects; this includes providing $2,500 “mini-grants” to nonprofits to which Blue Cross intended to send employee volunteers during April’s Global Volunteer Month.
    • Altria is allowing nonprofits to keep the funds from events it has sponsored and redirect to other business needs.

Consider expediting payments: If you’ve made a 3-year commitment to a partner who is on the frontlines of response and faces new and unexpected costs, talk to them about adjusting the grant payment schedule to meet more of their needs today.

Be Generous

This is an unprecedented crisis, requiring an unprecedented response. The needs are immense and widespread, from kids and seniors losing meals, to businesses closing and families struggling to make ends meet. On the frontlines of the medical response, healthcare workers and hospitals face shortages of supplies, equipment and even trained staff to meet the need. Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations that serve these vulnerable populations face lost revenue due to canceled fundraising events and lost programmatic fees, while the need for their services simultaneously rises.

If there is ever a time to open additional funding streams to respond to an unexpected need, this is it. Here are some ways companies are going above and beyond their usual giving levels:

  • Increase your impact through amped up Matching Gifts: Double your match on employee donations from 1:1 to 2:1; increase match caps; and/or extend matching gifts to a broader audience, such as clients and customers.
    • Apple is matching employee donations to support COVID-19 response efforts 2:1.
    • Facebook committed $20 million to match donations made not only by its employees, but also by its users and the general public, to support the COVD-19 Solidarity Response Fund and the CDC Foundation.
  • Make “above and beyond” contributions: Whether donating immediately to key organizations responding directly to COVID-19, setting up “emergency grant” funds where organizations can apply to receive support during this crisis, or both, companies are opening up new funding streams to support nonprofits in this time of need. Issues prioritized include:
    • Food insecurity, particularly among youth and seniors
    • Basic needs beyond food, such as housing and emergency financial assistance
    • Senior services
    • Frontline healthcare workers and institutions, with a focus in the near-term of shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical equipment such as ventilators
    • Small business and nonprofit organization general operating supports and assistance

Here are some examples of companies’ above-and-beyond efforts:

  • Liberty Mutual created a $4 million fund allowing its existing community partners to apply for immediate grants of up to $10,000, with priority given to healthcare nonprofits and those serving high-risk populations like the homeless and elderly.
  • Wellington Management Foundation is providing emergency grants of $25,000 to current partners that will be available on a rolling basis throughout 2020.
  • Amazon created a $5 million Neighborhood Small Relief fund to provide cash grants to small businesses in the Seattle area during the crisis.
  • JP Morgan Chase is committing $50 million to help address immediate and long-term impacts of COVID-19. The company outlines plans for an initial $15 million investment, including $5 million to be immediately disbursed to various COVID-19 response funds in the U.S. and around the world; $2 million for existing nonprofit partners responding to COVID-19 locally; and $8 million to support small businesses around the world. An additional $35 million will be deployed over time to help the most vulnerable communities and people recover from the crisis.
  • Entergy Corporation created the Entergy COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund and seeded it with a $700,000 contribution from the Entergy Charitable Foundation. The fund will partner with United Ways and nonprofits in communities served by Entergy to provide support to low-income families, the elderly and the disabled who have been impacted by COVID-19.

Be Creative

Just as your nonprofit partners are pivoting to adjust how they operate and do more with less in difficult circumstances, so too can you. In addition to leveraging your products and services, here are some ways you can get creative with your COVID-19 efforts.

  • Repurpose existing funding streams: If you have a community-level grants program, you already have an effective vehicle to respond to COVID-19. This is not traditional disaster response. Once the immediate public health crisis subsides, the “disaster” in communities around the world will be economic, leaving already vulnerable populations, and the organizations that serve them, in a very difficult place. Consider how you can leverage your community grants program – expanding program objectives, lifting program restrictions – to channel funds to support COVID-19 response.
    • TD Ameritrade* is refocusing its Community Grants program for 2020 to help community organizations respond to and/or recover from COVID-19. In addition to a simplified application focused on COVID-19-related needs, the company is broadening eligibility requirements to include general operating expenses, to help nonprofits of all kinds weather these difficult times.
    • Union Pacific Railroad* is updating the guidelines for its annual Local Grants program, scheduled to launch in April, to include support for COVID-19 response efforts.
  • Take volunteerism virtual: You don’t have to sacrifice employee volunteerism entirely. You likely have employees working from home, often with their families, and looking for productive ways to use their time. Consider what types of service your unique workforce can provide virtually.
    • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is launching virtual volunteer initiatives for employees, including college mentoring with Strive, warm wish notes with Cradles to Crayons and virtual storytelling with Message of Hope.
    • Cisco didn’t let social distancing stop its support of Covenant House’s “Sleep Out,” an annual awareness and fundraising event; instead, it took the event virtual.

Be Proactive

This strange situation can feel paralyzing. Things are evolving so rapidly and it’s tempting to believe we should wait just another week, another month, to assess the need. But there is no guarantee of clarity anytime soon.

  • Consider supporting community-based response funds that are built to be responsive to local needs. The impact of COVID-19 is already crushing for many people and organizations around the world, and we can’t afford a “wait and see” approach. Since many of these funds adapt as needs evolve, you can be confident your commitment now will be directed where it’s needed most.
    • Like many community foundations, the Omaha Community Foundation, together with several local foundations, has launched the COVID-19 Response Fund to provide flexible resources to organizations aiding those who are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus and the outbreak’s economic consequences. The Seattle Foundation has a similar fund currently supported by companies including Amazon, Costco, Microsoft, and The Starbucks Foundation.
  • Reach out to grantees proactively: A simple email or an open and frank conversation with grantees about how your company is planning to help them weather the storm (e.g., unrestricting or diverting funds to more pressing needs, waiving reporting requirements, providing emergency response grants, etc.) can alleviate undue pressure and uncertainty among nonprofits, and reinforce your role as a supportive and proactive funder.
  • Look to the future: While the current situation may have put a halt on your pre-COVID social impact priorities, remember these goals will be better served in the future by bolstering the organizations that address them today. Even as you may divert funds to immediate needs, keep long term goals in sight and plan for the day when we can return to life as it was (even if this means simply helping keep your partners’ lights on and staff employed for now). And finally, capture the lessons learned now and prepare for if/when the next major disruption rears its head.

And finally… Be Kind

Remember that nerves are frayed all around the globe—and particularly those of people working tirelessly to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Many within the nonprofit community are attending to the most vulnerable populations, in addition to the challenges many of us face—juggling work from home; keeping our households safe and well-fed; and worrying for the health of loved ones. Be patient with your grantees, provide an encouraging word where possible, and thank those on the frontlines who are doing the brave and selfless work to keep us all safe and healthy.

Read about trends in the broader corporate citizenship response – including putting employees first and altering business operations – here.

* Changing Our World client