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Mary Mazzoni headshot

What COVID-19 Means for Philanthropy: Experts Weigh In

By Mary Mazzoni
temperature check COVID-19 response from philanthropy

(Image: A woman has her temperature checked at a COVID-19 response center in Beijing.)

As governments grapple with the scope of need associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, philanthropists are challenged to step up and fill the gap — and many are responding in kind. By the start of this month, more than $4.3 billion in philanthropic commitments had been made around COVID-19, said Jennifer Alcorn, deputy director of philanthropic partnerships for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

During a recent webcast hosted by Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), Alcorn and two other philanthropy professionals shared case studies in how the sector is responding and offered advice on how donors of any size can contribute. Read on for their insights. 

In the U.S., the coronavirus relief bill provides incentive for charitable giving 

"In the midst of this unprecedented crisis, there are so many different pressing needs that it's going to take everyone's collective resources to make a difference as quickly as possible," said Kim Laughton, president of Schwab Charitable. 

Of course, at a time when more than 22 million people — or roughly 1 in 7 American workers — have filed for unemployment benefits in the past four weeks alone, not everyone has the ability to give. But for those who are fortunate enough to be less financially affected by the pandemic and related shutdowns, the coronavirus aid bill enacted on March 27 provides incentive to give more, Laughton explained during SSIR's webcast.

As most of us probably know, the bill provides a one-time payment of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. "If you're one of the lucky ones who has a stable job, expects to remain employed, and you do not need this payment, you might consider giving all or part of it to charity," she said. 

Additionally, donors at any level can deduct up to $300 in charitable contributions from their 2020 taxable income through a provision in the bill. Wealthier donors who itemize in their filings can typically deduct up to 60 percent of their taxable income by donating to charity. The relief bill increases this to 100 percent, excluding donor-advised funds and private foundations, and any excess can be rolled over for five years.

Schwab Charitable offers a list of nonprofits working on COVID-19 response and vetted by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to guide individual donors. 

Regional action plans put donations to work

In the U.S., some of the leading philanthropic organizations on the front lines of COVID-19 are the country's more than 700 community foundations. While the average community foundation serves around 180,000 people from a given city or county, the scale of coronavirus-related challenges has prompted many to come together in united regional action plans. 

Cities along the U.S. West Coast, including Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, were among the first hit by COVID-19, and case studies from this region shed light on how locally-based philanthropists can maximize their response. 

In the Bay Area, for example, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) primarily serves San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, about an hour's drive south of San Francisco. Its initial COVID-19 fund, launched February, was aimed at serving these two counties, but "we quickly realized this had to be a regional response," said Nicole Taylor, president and CEO of the foundation. 

It joined with the eight other community foundations serving all 10 counties across the Bay Area to establish a regional response fund. Working with dozens of nonprofits across the region, the fund channeled charitable donations to help affected residents pay rent, buy food and meet other basic needs in the wake of the pandemic. The group also launched a  nonprofit emergency fund to help charitable organizations across the region weather the storm. 

Still, the level of need is daunting. Last month, SVCF joined with the mayor of San Jose and others to raise $11 million for Santa Clara County residents through the local nonprofit Destination: Home. "They received 4,400 applications for financial assistance, and that $11 million was depleted in three days," Taylor said. 

More than 7,000 individuals and families are now on the waitlist for assistance in Santa Clara County alone. "That is the level of need we're seeing right here in one of the wealthiest regions in our country," she continued. "The scale of job loss in just two weeks was on par with the first two years of the great recession back in 2008 and 2009." 

The small businesses that employ roughly half of all California workers are also being hit hard. "Before the crisis, half of the country's small businesses only had 15 days of cash reserve, and almost overnight, so many of them had to close their doors or put their work on pause," Taylor said. The community foundation partners joined with California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the nonprofit microfinance lender Opportunity Fund on a separate regional relief fund to help small businesses stay afloat. 

Overall, SVCF has seen giving increase by 30 percent compared to this time last year, and "community foundations across the country are doing very, very similar activities," Taylor said. Use this locator from the Council on Foundations to find and support community foundations near you. 

More work is needed to fight the pandemic in the Southern Hemisphere

As healthcare systems are pushed to the brink even in the world's wealthiest countries, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is growing exponentially across Africa and South Asia. This is what keeps Jennifer Alcorn and her team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation up at night, she told attendees at the SSIR event. 

"In the U.S., for the most part, social distancing will be effective, but in many other parts of the world where multiple generations live together, social distancing can be impossible," she explained. "It's critical that we expand enough capacity to ensure that diagnostic testing and results can be processed quickly and efficiently, particularly on the ground in low- and middle-income countries."

The foundation has already committed more than $250 million to support the development of testing, treatments and vaccines, fund centers for disease control in African and South Asia, and contribute to national and sub-national responses to the pandemic worldwide. Its Combating COVID-19 Fund has received donations as small as $10 and as large as $25 million, Alcorn said.

Meanwhile, with funds from large donors including the U.K. government, the Wellcome Trust, Mastercard and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the foundation's COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator is looking to bring treatments, diagnostics and vaccines to market as quickly as possible. Last month, the accelerator announced grants of $20 million each to fund clinical trials at the University of Washington, University of Oxford and La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

"Our goal is to have something to market as early as the end of the year," Alcorn said. "We're moving fast, and our first clinical trials started last week. But we also know that developing and delivering diagnostics that can be used in low-resource settings is going to be a top priority."

The bottom line: Philanthropy professionals dig in for the long haul

The early response from philanthropic organizations and their donors is surely promising. All three experts on SSIR's panel reported increased giving to their respective organizations compared to this time last year, but each underscored that their sector's work is far from over.  

"The urgency of need is critical, but we also have to understand that we are in this for the long haul," said Taylor of SVCF. "There are going to be waves of response that need to happen — not just now in response, but also in recovery."

Image: Kian Zhang and Liz Martin via Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni