The COVID-19 Crisis and Possible Futures for Family Philanthropy

Editor’s note: NCFP is pleased to partner with the Monitor Institute of Deloitte on the publication of An Event or an Era? Resources for social sector decision-making in the context of COVID-19. For those looking to learn more from the Monitor Institute, consider joining one of the upcoming focus groups for senior staff and trustees at family foundations.


As family foundations try to navigate through the COVID-19 crisis, they can often find themselves paralyzed by the hyper-uncertainty of the moment. In many cases, funders have completed their initial emergency responses to the crisis. But it’s much harder to figure out what they should do next.

So over the course of April and May 2020, our team at the Monitor Institute by Deloitte talked with more than 75 social sector leaders about how they were managing in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. We found that different organizations are preparing for wildly different futures.

Some leaders drew parallels to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed more than 675,000 Americans and caused unspeakable suffering for about two years. Yet after that crisis, many in the country just moved on. One historian called the 1918 flu “America’s forgotten pandemic,” writing that, “Americans took little notice of the pandemic and then quickly forgot whatever they did notice.” Even today, there are few memorials or remembrances for a virus that killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century combined. Some people we spoke with see the COVID-19 crisis in much the same way: wrenching and painful, but ultimately an event that our communities will move past.

Other social sector leaders, however, are anticipating an entirely different future. They see a Great Depression-level of economic dislocation that could last for many years, alongside a major health crisis that will spark deep changes in how society functions. They see the crises creating huge levels of need in communities while also causing drastic, multi-year budget shortfalls for states, municipalities, and operating nonprofits alike. And the COVID-19 crisis isn’t occurring in isolation. The activism for racial justice taking place across the nation is intersecting with the health and economic disparities laid bare by the virus. To some leaders, COVID-19 may mark the beginning of a fundamentally new era.

No one knows which of these realities (or others) might unfold. But there are a wide range of possibilities in play, and we know that it’s never a good bet to bank on a single one. Our experience suggests that when thinking about the future, many organizations don’t open their aperture wide enough and instead operate with an “expected version” of the future that serves as a baseline for their strategies and operations.

While it’s common to create best-case or worst-case forecasts around that baseline, it’s hard for social sector leaders—who have been urgently responding and caring for their communities and staff—to think about the future in a structured way and prepare to create impact across a range of different, plausible futures that might emerge.

Scenario planning is an approach to thinking about the future that is rooted in the recognition that even in the best of times, we can’t accurately anticipate what will come ahead; but decision-makers can begin to imagine multiple pictures of the future and rehearse how their organizations might respond.

Our team at the Monitor Institute by Deloitte—the social impact unit within Deloitte LLP—has used scenario planning processes for over two decades, working collaboratively with our colleagues at the former Global Business Network, which helped to pioneer the approach, and developing the resource guide, What If: The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits (written by our then-colleagues Diana Scearce and Katherine Fulton).

Now we’re excited to launch a new scenario planning resource for social sector leaders in cooperation with the National Center for Family Philanthropy, along with New Profit, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, and United Philanthropy Forum entitled: An Event or an Era? Resources for social sector decision-making in the context of COVID-19.

In the report, we explore:

  • Prudent Assumptions: Baseline realities that organizations will need to come to terms with—and hold onto—in order to begin moving forward in the midst of great uncertainty.
  • Critical Uncertainties: Factors that are not only volatile in terms of how they play out, but also have a high impact on how the future may unfold.
  • Scenarios for the Social Sector: Four provocative pictures of what the future could look like depending on the severity of the crisis and whether we come together as a nation—or come apart.
  • What to do Next: Advice about how your organization can use the scenarios to build resilience and prepare for whatever the future holds.
  • Takeaways for the Sector: Informed by our interviews with social sector leaders, reflections on what the crisis may mean for the social sector as a whole.

We firmly believe that in this time of crisis, philanthropy has an opportunity to meet the moment and step forward with bold action and leadership. While family foundations may not be able to control the future, they can influence its trajectory.

We created this guide to help funders begin to think and talk about the future in a productive way that embraces the many possible scenarios that may unfold. We have found that the most resilient organizations are those that have a broader array of choices and alternatives as the future twists and turns—and our hope is that the guide can help funders and nonprofits figure out how to plan and move forward amidst the uncertainty.


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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