Blog / DEI & Inclusive Growth

Capacity Building for Resilience, Part 3: Don’t let this crisis go to waste.

by Tamela Spicer
Capacity Building for Resilience, Part 3: Don’t let this crisis go to waste.

Amidst the ever-changing landscape that has resulted from the COVID-19 crisis, nonprofit organizations continue to find new ways to serve and create impact in their communities. Adapting can be costly, and millions of dollars have poured into the sector. Both the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) included nonprofits. While these record-setting emergency aid funds were quickly depleted, additional funds were approved by Congress and have been extended.

Individual donors, corporations, and foundations are coming together to provide philanthropic support for critical programs across the country. As of July 23, 2020, Candid reported that 864 COVID-19 Response funds have been established across the country. In Northeast Ohio, a rapid-response fund raised more than $8.8 million in just over 12 weeks and had already distributed nearly $8.6 million as of July 17, 2020 (Cleveland Foundation).

While the response has been great, the need is even greater, as millions of Americans remain unemployed and nonprofit organizations struggle to find their footing on ever-shifting ground. As the country grapples with recovery — and/or a second surge in cases — the sector is recognizing that this crisis collided with an already growing demand for change in philanthropy.

Cries for Change

For years nonprofit leaders have been calling on foundations to relax restrictive funding in order to build greater capacity for nonprofits to serve their communities. One of the sector’s more vocal critics, Vu Le, recently noted that “the flexibility and autonomy that nonprofits need right now to do their best work are the same flexibility and autonomy they need at all other times. Restricted funds are silly and archaic, like powdered wigs” (Le, 2020, para. 9).

“[S]ector leaders are beginning to acknowledge that if nonprofits are going to be resilient enough to thrive as the country begins to recover, philanthropy needs to change.”

Other sector leaders are beginning to acknowledge that if nonprofits are going to be resilient enough to thrive as the country begins to recover, philanthropy needs to change. Foundations across the country are streamlining bureaucracy and going beyond the federal mandate to annually distribute 5% of assets, as well as offering operating support without restrictions (NPQ, 2020 Webinar). As of July 23, 775 foundations had signed the Council on Foundations’ (COF) COVID-19 pledge, committing to a wide variety of actions during this crisis, including to:

  • Minimize or completely eliminate grant restrictions.
  • Be part of COVID response efforts in their local community.
  • Hold off on required reports from nonprofits.
  • Be more transparent in the decision-making process.
  • Be better listeners.
  • Support advocacy efforts.
  • “Support organizations created and led by the communities most affected that we may not fund currently” (para. 5).

While all of these actions are important during this crisis, they will be equally important next year, and five or ten years from now. The pledge itself asks participating foundations to focus on learning during this time so that they “may consider adjusting … practices more fundamentally in the future, in more stable times” (COF, para. 11), emphasis on may consider.

The actions noted in COF’s pledge are precisely the actions that many in the sector have long been asking for. We’ve known for years that challenges in the system exist; the virus, combined with the national outcry over George Floyd’s death, has finally forced the conversations to the forefront.

Questions of Equity

In a recent interview with The New Yorker (2020), Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, noted that the coronavirus “is pulling a thread that is showing how many things are actually connected, and how deeply people are actually connected. But it’s also revealing the very different conditions in which we live because of social structures that are inequitable” (Chotiner, para. 3).

These inequitable structures do not exist separate from the philanthropic sector. Nonprofit organizations and the foundations that support them are subject to and influenced by these same “long-standing systemic … social inequities [that] have put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19” (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020, para. 1).

“These inequitable structures do not exist separate from the philanthropic sector. Nonprofit organizations and the foundations that support them are subject to and influenced by these same ‘long-standing systemic … social inequities[.]’”

Inequities in funding are the subject of a report by The Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green released in May of this year. Analyzing the applicant pool for Echoing Green, an organization focused on funding emerging social entrepreneurs, Dorsey, Bradach, and Kim (2020) “found that on average the revenues of the Black-led organizations are 24% percent smaller than the revenues of their white-led counterparts” (p. 11).

In 2019, Hispanics in Philanthropy partnered with Candid to launch a dashboard to help track funding for the Latinx community following an analysis of a decade of data from 1999 to 2009 that showed “U.S. foundation funding intended to benefit Latinos has remained relatively steady as a share of total foundation giving, averaging 1.3 percent” (Shah, Mukal, & McAllister, 2011, p. 1).

In Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, author Edgar Villanueva’s (2018) central argument is that

“what ails philanthropy at its core is colonialism. Almost without exception, funders reinforce the colonial division of Us vs. Them, Haves vs. Have Nots, and mostly white saviors and white experts vs. poor, needy, urban, disadvantaged, marginalized, at-risk people (take your pick of euphemisms for people of color)” (para. 1). (Emphasis is Villanueva’s.)

As protests resulting from the death of George Floyd continue across the country, and around the world, nonprofits and foundations alike are grappling with what this means for a sector dominated by whiteness. Deep questions that perhaps were circling in the back of minds around the philanthropic table can no longer be relegated to a planning session or thought experiment, the call to action has grown too loud.

In a piece written last month for Nonprofit Quarterly, Will Cordery, an advisor with Leverage Philanthropic Partners LLC, called on philanthropy to fund racial equity work, noting “that anti-Black racism and white supremacy are the bedrock of every single social injustice we aim to address. Be it housing, education, wages, gender justice, civic engagement, LGBTQI freedom, immigration, hunger, poverty, culture, you name it” (para. 12).

Moving Forward

As nonprofit organizations addressing these challenges seek to develop their own capacity to meet demands amidst the continued uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis, multi-year funding, relaxed restrictions, and operating dollars will become increasingly important. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) continues to remind their members that “flexible, reliable funding, such as general operating support, multiyear grants, and funds that cover indirect costs, gives nonprofits the resources to strengthen their organizations, respond to changes in our communities and make real progress” (Hoeflich, 2020, para. 5).

Creating space for rethinking funding is at the heart of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. A five-year collaborative effort, the project started with an acknowledgment that the imbalanced power dynamic between funders and nonprofits is a problem for the well-being of the sector and includes six core, values-based actions.

  1. Encourage innovation and relieve stress by providing unrestricted, multi-year funding.
  2. Simplify and streamline paperwork required for grants.
  3. Actively seek feedback and use it to improve processes and systems.
  4. Provide non-monetary support to nonprofits through capacity building and connections.
  5. Create more open communication through timely responses and honest conversations.
  6. Do your own research to know what nonprofits are out there, particularly outside of the usual circle, to help reduce pre-proposal steps for organizations.

Trust-Based Philanthropy seeks to encourage innovation, resilience, and rapid response in nonprofit organizations by reimagining grantmaking that is “Infused by core values of power-sharing, equity, humility, transparency, curiosity, and collaboration” (n.d., p. 1). Reimagining how to do our work could be vital for thriving as nonprofit organizations and foundations continue to move through the changing landscape brought on by the coronavirus.


British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill is credited for having said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” As noted in the second blog of this series, it’s important to be mindful of the lessons we’re learning as we continue to navigate our way through a global crisis. Nonprofits have learned that programs can be delivered differently and still have a vital impact. Foundations have learned that less restrictive grantmaking can be both swift and effective. My hope is that we’ve all learned the importance of transparent, authentic communication as we center equity in our work.

All of these lessons can have a profound impact on the sector if we let them. Nichole Hoeflich, program director for GEO, recently reminded us that “when grantmakers operate in traditional, transactional ways, we perpetuate inequitable systems and work against the goals we share with nonprofit and community partners. We need to embrace a new way of operating for the long haul” (2020, para. 2). I would offer that the same holds true for nonprofits. We won’t build our capacity for resilience without embracing new ways of doing the work.

As we consider our work in light of the events of 2020, let us be guided by the beautiful words of Maya Angelou,

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”


Angelou, M. (2015, November 16). Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better [Facebook].

Candid. (n.d.) Funds for coronavirus relief. Retrieved July 6, 2020 from

Candid. (2019, June 9). Candid, Hispanics in Philanthropy document scope of Latinx funding.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 25). Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.

Chotiner, I. (2020, April 14). The interwoven threads of inequality and health. The New Yorker.

Cleveland Foundation. (2020, July 6). Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund.

Cordery, W. (2020, June 1). Dear philanthropy: These are the fires of anti-black racism. Nonprofit Quarterly.

Council on Foundations. (n.d.) A call to action: Philanthropy’s commitment during COVID-19. Retrieved July 16, 2020 from

Dorsey, C., Bradach, J., Kim, P. (2020, May 4). Racial equity and philanthropy: Disparities in funding for leaders of color leave impact on the table. Bridgespan.

Hoeflich, N. (2020, April 15). Smarter grantwriting practices during-and beyond-COVID-19. GEO.

Le, V. (2020, March 29). 10 archaic and harmful funding practices we can longer put up with. Nonprofit AF.

Shah, S., Mukal, R., & McAllister, G. (2011). Foundation funding for Hispanics/Latinos in the United States and for Latin America. The Foundation Center in collaboration with Hispanics in Philanthropy.

Trust-Based Philanthropy. (n.d.) Trust-based philanthropy: An approach.

Villanueva, E. (2018, May 10). On redemption – Excerpt from Decolonizing Wealth [Blog]. Decolonizing Wealth.