Learning as We Go: A Regional Family Foundation Responds to the COVID Pandemic

South Carolina marshland

No doubt, the COVID-19 crisis elicits a strong sense of purpose in every grantmaker, interspersed with moments of feeling overwhelmed. How do we meet all of the pressing needs in a society with a relatively weak social safety net and glaring inequalities, relative to our collective resources? How much should we deviate from our existing programs and grantees? What is the best balance between providing immediate emergency relief and stewarding of funds that will be needed for the longer term? There are no right or wrong answers, of course.

Early on amidst shelter in place orders, our board—comprised of a third Donnelley family and two-thirds community members—decided to remain focused primarily in our mission areas of artistic vitality, regional collections, and land conservation, and in our communities of the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. These sectors are a relatively small piece of the philanthropic pie and, in general, less understood by policymakers and the public as essential to our wellbeing. Each of our regions differs in the type of philanthropic communities available to match our efforts.

Our immediate priority was to accelerate $3 million of 2020 general operating grantmaking into the second quarter, for our 200 arts grantees with budgets under $1 million. All of these groups are shuttered, cutting off critical revenue, with many staff doubly impacted through loss of service industry jobs necessary to support a living. We already know that smaller arts and culture groups have the fewest resources for survival, recovery, and sustainability.

Simultaneously, we reached out to our peer funders to explore emergency fund options. We immediately awarded grants to our regional community foundations’ funds, at Coastal Community Foundation and Chicago Community Trust / United Way of Metro Chicago.

We collaborated with a group of Illinois arts funders, government, and nonprofits to create, fund, and launch the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund, which as of May 15 had awarded more than $3.3 million dollars to 906 artists and 166 arts organizations across the state. In the Lowcountry, with many fewer peer funders, we launched our own arts emergency relief fund which has so far made $5,000 to $10,000 awards to almost half of our smaller-budget grantees. The South Carolina Arts Alliance has since launched an emergency fund as well.

We launched a Collections emergency relief fund, which awarded $200,000 to 32 regionally-focused organizations in both regions, many of them new to us but representing the significant culture and history of our communities.

We have stayed in conversation with our conservation grantees and have developed both short-term and long-term plans for supporting their work. In the meantime, we made grants to organizations supporting communities affected by systemic poverty and now the COVID pandemic.

I can reflect on some initial staff takeaways, mostly centered on our aspirations for trust-based philanthropy. Multi-year general operations grants are always the most valued form of support, maximizing both flexibility and stability. Reducing or eliminating proposal and reporting requirements returns valuable time to everyone, but especially thinly staffed organizations. Building longstanding relationships with grantees helps foster candid conversations about where support is most helpful and how grantmakers can have the greatest impact. Basing our grant payout on a 60 month rolling average of assets, allows us to lean in with more support in times of need, rather than reduce our overall support.

We know that, despite our efforts, some organizations may not make it and others will need to transform to survive, shedding unsustainable programs or organizational models. Figuring out how we can provide support to our grantees for scenario planning efforts is underway in each of our mission areas. We embrace the inherent level of risk-taking, and learning as we go, in the art of philanthropy. We can come out of this stronger, smarter, and more empathetic as we work through this crisis together.


The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

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