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Philanthropy Roundtable K-12 Chief on Funders’ Response to Coronavirus

By Rick Hess — May 01, 2020 10 min read
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As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Katherine Haley is senior director of K-12 education programs for The Philanthropy Roundtable, a nonprofit network of 620 philanthropic organizations and individuals. Before going to the roundtable, Katherine had an extensive career on Capitol Hill, including working for the Speaker of the House. I reached out to Katherine to find out what she’s hearing from funders who are responding to the coronavirus. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick: How are funders responding to the coronavirus crisis?

Katherine: Donors have responded nimbly and have shown their commitment to meeting the needs of their communities and grantees. As state and local leaders directed schools to close their doors and students began to learn from home, our members have been doing several things: 1. Universally, they checked in with their grantees (e.g., schools and school networks, community-based and advocacy organizations, content providers, etc.) to find out their situations and specific needs. 2. Many donors converted program-specific grants to general operating funds and adjusted outcome metrics. 3. Some provided emergency grants to meet specific school or community needs (e.g., tablets, laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, and grab-and-go meals). 4. Some donors paid out grant commitments earlier than planned, given long-term concerns about revenue or organizational sustainability. 5. Other donors have gone beyond their typical grantmaking commitments to ensure student learning continues.

A few great examples come to mind: In cities like Washington, D.C., Boise, Indianapolis, Atlanta, New York City, and Richmond (Calif.), savvy donors have helped establish funds to mobilize philanthropy and get critical resources to families. Other donors are giving directly to school networks to make sure students have access to the technology, meals, and connectivity they need to thrive.

A few of our members have also gone above and beyond their traditional grantmaking to fill in gaps. The Morgridge Family Foundation distributed $1 million in unrestricted grants to 46 nonprofit organizations, including Colorado’s Adams 12 school district to distribute meals to 5,000 families in need. Another family foundation distributed nearly $1 million to 42 K-8 charter and independent schools so they could offer emergency meals, technology such as hotspots and Chromebooks, and other immediate needs. And foundations like The GHR Foundation deployed funds to entities with whom they did not have a prior relationship but still aligned with GHR’s broader mission. One grant went to the Minnesota Independent School Forum to support distance-learning technology, teacher training, child care, and facility cleanliness at private schools, and the other went to The Sheridan Story to deliver backpacks of food to food-insecure families.

Finally, donors are supporting teachers in unique ways. DonorsChoose launched a Keep Learning Fund to get much-needed supplies to teachers and students. The fund gives resources to teachers at schools in low-income communities where nearly all students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. With support from national funders like Bill & Melinda Gates and regional donors like the Burton Family Foundation, more than $6 million has been raised with over 4,000 teachers receiving assistance.

Rick: How does this crisis compare with events and crises of the last two decades? What role have donors played in the past and what role are they playing now?

Katherine: This is a different type of crisis whose direct effects are widespread and not isolated to any one region or community. The COVID-19 pandemic is global, invisible, can be deadly, and impacts everyone.

Similar to previous crises—like the Great Recession and Hurricane Katrina—individuals are facing financial uncertainty, families are strained in ways they didn’t anticipate, and we are disconnected from normal day-to-day interactions. The crisis has exposed limits to our country’s infrastructure, particularly inequitable access to internet connectivity, dependence on other countries to supply certain goods, and lack of long-term planning for a pandemic.

In the case of education, donors have supported schools in providing the technology students need, internet connectivity to those who don’t have it, and supporting distance-learning platforms that offer curriculum for teachers and families. In spite of these efforts, education leaders’ responses to student learning have varied, and there are serious concerns about the long-term implications for students who aren’t receiving the necessary services and support. Some leaders have been creative and forward thinking, while others have simply thrown in the towel. Because we don’t know how long we will be asked to stay home and when it will be safe for communities to open back up, donors are concerned about the learning gaps that will be exposed.

Rick: What are some of the challenges funders are facing that people might not know about?

Katherine: Many foundations have lost a significant amount of money during this crisis due to oil- and gas-price decline, sharp decline of stock values, etc. Asset loss and financial uncertainty affects how much money foundations will be able to commit in the coming year.

Many donors are mission-driven, which means they are committed to supporting a specific cause (e.g., high-quality teacher development, Catholic schools, replicating high-quality school models) or achieving a specific objective (e.g., 3rd grade reading proficiency). Due to the challenges individuals and systems are facing because of the COVID-19 crisis, donors might not be able to meet the immediate community needs because of original donor intent.

Rick: OK, so how easy or hard is it for funders to pivot from one initiative or focus to another? Can they adjust that original donor intent given the current situation?

Katherine: Foundations plan ahead. Boards and foundation leaders review their finances in advance, assessing the state of their portfolio and assets, and determine how much they will charitably give in a given fiscal year. Many donors also specify the types of organizations they will fund and the type of grants they will award well in advance. Individual donors (i.e., those who don’t have a foundation) may have greater flexibility in how they allocate their resources.

Given a foundation’s forethought, pivoting may be difficult because immediate needs may go outside a donor’s intent. That said, members of the Roundtable have chosen to give beyond their commitments to meet community demands, converted program-specific grants to general operations investments, waived certain requirements on grants, and paid out grants earlier in the grant cycle. Other donors have decided to launch community funds to meet specific student and family needs, and others have sought out new partners to meet the demands of students and teachers as they transition to full-time distance learning.

Looking ahead, donors who are committed to supporting specific causes may have to adjust their goals and expectations given the uncertainty about how schools will function the remainder of this and the coming year. This is particularly important if a school or school system has decided to not provide learning supports for the rest of the current school year.

Rick: Where are foundation staff getting their sense of what’s important to fund right now?

Katherine: The donors we have spoken to have spent a lot of time reaching out to their grantees and other community leaders to identify needs and opportunities. This has informed their response to the crisis.

Rick: How do regulations regarding foundations play out in a situation like this?

Katherine: By law, foundations are required to distribute 5 percent of the value of their net investment assets. If a foundation’s net assets decline on average in 2020, it could negatively impact giving levels in 2021 and beyond. However, if a foundation makes financial gains this year, giving could remain the same or increase next year. I should note many foundations, including members of the Roundtable, give substantially more than 5 percent.

Rick: What have you seen funders doing that’s got you concerned? What would you caution against?

Katherine: Donors should not think about this crisis like the Great Recession—when they poured more money into districts because of declining state and local revenue. COVID-19 has shown us that learning happens everywhere and anywhere, not just in a classroom of a building. This pandemic has given us an opportunity to think boldly about students’ educational needs and how to creatively respond to them.

We need to use this opportunity to help our education system and education policies be dynamic and adaptable to different learning environments. I’ve been impressed by charter schools that identified their top talent and deployed them to teach content to all students across the network. Other teachers then serve as mentors and coaches to their students offering additional explanations to help them deepen understanding.

Prior to COVID-19, some educators, policymakers, and philanthropists were already thinking about competency-based education (vs. seat time) and how to assess mastery. These innovations have become even more critical to the future.

And, speaking of dynamism, COVID-19 has recalibrated supply chains across economic sectors to focus on health-care needs. Companies like Ford and GM transformed their production lines to partner with medical-device companies and make ventilators and protective equipment. Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Under Armour, MyPillow, Jockey, Fiat Chrysler, and Hanes transformed their production facilities to make things such as masks, shields, and hospital gowns. Distilleries decided to stop production of spirits to make hand sanitizer. Their responses showed creativity and dynamism, just a couple attributes our education system could use to cultivate lifelong learning, spur creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

Philanthropy can play a catalytic role moving the education system in that direction. If we resign to returning to the way things were, we are missing out on an opportunity to finally bring education into the 21st century for all kids.

Rick: What advice do you share when funders ask?

Katherine: My colleagues and I recommend donors directly connect with their grantees—find out their immediate needs and determine if there are ways to support them through this crisis. If they can, we suggest funders lift requirements on grants so that grantees may use the funds for general operating purposes and waive or adjust outcome measures given the significant changes. We urge donors who have experienced a decline in assets because of the financial market roller coaster to be upfront with current and prospective grantees so they know what to expect. Finally, we recommend donors think about the future and how their investments today can lay the foundation for reforms down the road.

Rick: What’s the most heartening thing that you’ve seen some of your funders do?

Katherine: Many of our members have contacted their grantees to find out their immediate needs and have responded accordingly. As I shared earlier, some helped launch education funds in their communities to make sure kids have Wi-Fi hotspots and devices to learn from home. Others directed significant resources to schools—district, charter, and private—to aid the transition to distance learning. I love how the Philadelphia School Partnership and area donors invested over $4.2 million to launch the Jump-Start Philly Schools Fund to support district, public charter, and private schools. The fund aims to raise more than $6 million to meet the immediate needs of low-income students and families across Philadelphia as schools are closed because of COVID-19.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.