Philanthropic Responses to the Pandemic

On May 27th, the Mandel Institute for Nonprofit Leadership convened philanthropic leaders to discuss responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Panelists included Rachel Garbow Monroe, President and CEO of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Jehuda Reinharz, President and CEO of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, and Andrés Spokoiny, President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.  Over the course of a 60-minute conversation, the panelists described how their own organizations have responded, trends they have observed among funders in general, and their views on the role funders can play to create a stronger Jewish nonprofit ecosystem. Please find a recording of the session here.

According to the panelists, the pandemic has caused funders to change their priorities and practices in numerous ways.  For example, there has been increased collaboration at the local level, between foundations, and between foundations and other national organizations.  Additionally, many funders have moved beyond their traditional lanes, with some entering the social services space for the first time.  Funders have increased their giving, shifted designated gifts to general operating grants, and expanded support for basic infrastructure. Funders have also extended moral and emotional support to CEOs, many of whom have been traumatized by the crisis. According to Spokoiny, although recent trends will undoubtedly have a lasting impact, they are not completely new. Instead, they reflect “an acceleration of things that we were seeing in the past few years.”

The panelists also discussed how the crisis might impact the North American Jewish nonprofit ecosystem.  Many Jewish nonprofits will have to reconsider their business models in order to avoid a similar crisis in the future.  There is also a need to explore ways to restructure the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem as a whole. Are the major networks—for example, day schools, camps, human services organizations, and young adult engagement initiatives—configured in the best way to address the Jewish community’s future after the crisis? What are the opportunities for mergers or new strategic partnerships?

One common theme among panelists was that funders should not impose new strategies or business models, as no single solution will work in every instance.  Instead, Reinharz suggested, “we can get organizations to start thinking, what would they do in the future that is different from what they do now?”  In addition to encouraging planning within organizations, funders can convene conversations among organizations to envision different structures for the field. The panelists emphasized that organizations can take advantage of this moment to make meaningful change that could not have occurred otherwise.

While planning for the future is crucial, the panelists also acknowledged the need to provide immediate support. The surge in unemployment caused by the pandemic has caused great personal hardship. Monroe commented, “I hope that some of the funders who’ve come to the space of human services will stay here, even if it’s in some small way.”  Additionally, funders can help organizations address new challenges that emerge in the wake of the pandemic, including decreased revenue, new regulations that affect programs, and a loss of talent in the field due to mergers, layoffs, exhaustion and trauma.

All three panelists agreed that the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem, and funders’ strategies, will undergo many changes as a result of the pandemic.  They hope that once North American Jewish communal institutions can move past the immediate issues brought on by the crisis, they will seize the opportunity to envision a more resilient future for the field.

— Alyssa Berkson