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Philanthropy in a time of Covid-19


Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

The big questions facing the philanthropy sector is how to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Do they assist only those organisations with whom they have relationships, are there opportunities to collaborate in a more systemic way, including with government and the corporate sector?

The world has changed and when we emerge in six or nine or 12 months from our burrows, we will find a very different world has emerged. A sudden shift to technology will bring about an awareness of how interconnected we are, both to each other and to our whole ecology. 

Covid-19 has in many ways provided relief to the environment as emissions have reduced dramatically, wild animals are increasingly protected and we have learned that the world cannot be left to the vagaries of the extractive “market” – in fact, it was the “market” that panicked and we are now left to fix what has been broken. However, we will see a lot of pain. Besides the massive health crisis, there will be job losses, closure of businesses, years lost to young people’s education and retirement savings going up in smoke. The banks have still not come to the party about defaulting on home loans.

In South Africa, we have a broad non-profit sector that has been providing welfare services, not to mention myriad other activities focussing on a range of issues from human rights, the environment, housing, transport, education and a whole host of other focus areas.  

Non-profit entities have a different ethos from business – they are developmental rather than extractive and funds are reinvested for the good of society rather than shareholders or owners only. Over the years, the noises made by the for-profit sector have come to resemble non-profit values. There is a slow recognition of the interrelationship between human activity and our ecology, and about 15 years ago we started to see business talk about “people, planet and profit”, as their mantra.  

We then saw the rise of social entrepreneurship and “blended value” with every kind of business activity that tried to improve conditions in the world, while making profit. None of these can actually replace the non-profit model which is mostly altruistic, as is philanthropy. 

We simply cannot find market solutions to some of the massive issues the world faces such as inequity, violence against women, racism and xenophobia. However, increasingly, people have tried to pressure non-profits to be more business-like and to generate their own income (even though the tax regime prevents this). This is surely the time to review our values – how we value the market and how we value society. 

In the meantime, philanthropic structures made their grants for 2020, mostly to non-profit organisations and institutions such as schools and universities, for specific developmental programmes that require clear measurable outputs and impacts. Suddenly the virus became a shot across the bow and every good plan and measuring tool became redundant. 

The big questions facing the philanthropy sector is how to respond to this crisis. Do they assist only those organisations with whom they have relationships, are there opportunities to collaborate in a more systemic way, including with government and the corporate sector, and how do foundations cope with existing obligations when their endowments have crashed?

What are some of the urgent actions that philanthropy can take? Firstly, philanthropic foundations can shift their contracts with their grantees to change programmatic funding to general purposes funding. 

We know many of the agreed programmes simply cannot take place, but we should acknowledge the importance of every non-profit organisation in our society and we need to ensure that they survive for the future.  General purposes funds will enable organisations to sustain their staff complement and perhaps use the time to improve their IT capabilities, undertake staff development and prepare, and plan again for the new world that will emerge after this is over – a world that will sorely need their services.

Secondly, it is important to engage with partners and grantees to assess how their work has been impacted. They may need some specific additional support such as extra cleaning systems, or improved technology for those who do not have the capacity for remote work, or funds for staff on extended sick leave, or for those needing to be at home with children who are no longer attending school. 

Thirdly, philanthropy can take a hard look at their endowments. The stock markets have collapsed and they are extremely volatile and unpredictable. For some foundations, this could be a time to take a  conservative approach and hold back, but there are huge consequences to holding back in this particular crisis. It is the right time to explore additional “stretch funding” to deal with this pandemic. 

There are a huge range of needs at this particular time and if philanthropy can come together and collaborate, there is the possibility that a significant contribution can be made towards hospital equipment, protective clothing for health workers, the employment of additional nurses, temporary isolation venues, supplying elderly people and others at risk with food, and possibly covering the cost of testing for Covid-19.  

There may be the opportunity to create a fund that will provide for once-off grants to organisations that work in communities that are not well-resourced to deal with Covid-19, such as informal settlements, rural areas that have few health facilities and immigrant communities whose lives are made even more difficult as they don’t necessarily have the documentation required to obtain assistance.

The Ford Foundation recently announced an extremely flexible and positive approach to its grantee partners. This included converting their current project funding to general purposes funding; shifting payment schedules and assurance that grants would not be cancelled if programme delivery did not take place because of Covid-19. 

In addition, the Ford Foundation has committed to advocating policy changes that will assist those affected by the virus including “paid sick leave; expanded access to health insurance; customised support for people with disabilities; expanded unemployment insurance; food aid; rental assistance and mortgage forbearance; student debt relief; and more”.   

We cannot predict the future, but we have learned that our interconnectedness is critical to survival, not only with each other, but also with the planet. This is a huge lesson for us and hopefully, the new world for which our children have been advocating will now come to fruition. DM


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