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Philanthropy: Make Grantmaking More Responsive and Community-Informed

By Elizabeth Pauley, Associate Vice President, Education to Career, The Boston Foundation

March 19, 2021

To a person, we have felt the impact of the triple turmoil of pandemic, economic crisis and racial reckoning, but we have not felt it equally. The suffering has been most concentrated in communities that were marginalized before the pandemic: communities of color, immigrants, and other groups that have experienced longstanding structural racism and its pervasive inequities. We must acknowledge the losses and trauma experienced by these neighbors and must commit that even as the region begins to return to health and safety, returning to the old “normal” is not an option.

For philanthropy, that means we cannot miss lessons we’ve learned through crisis grantmaking over the last 12 months. Individuals and families, corporations and foundations have given generously. At the city and state levels, at United Ways and community foundations, new and nimble response funds provided critical and timely resources to community organizations and relief to those they serve.

In adapting to emergency circumstances, funders have in many cases brought their operations more in line with their missions and values. For some grantmakers, this was a continuation or natural evolution of their philanthropy. For others, it was a sea change. For both, this kind of investing should become philanthropy’s new normal: flexible dollars awarded to those most proximate to the work. To enact that we need to:

  • Make balanced investments both to support immediate-term relief and for longer-term recovery and systems change.
  • Use data to identify hard-hit communities.
  • Prioritize investments in organizations with leaders of color, acknowledging the historic underinvestment by philanthropy.
  • Provide flexible operating grants, with a rapid turnaround and responsive reporting expectations.

Here’s one way that new approach has played out. At the Boston Foundation, our COVID-19 Response Fund has raised over $15 million for relief and recovery through more than 1,300 unique gifts, ranging from $24 to $750,000. The first phase of grantmaking from this fund focused on relief: More than 200 organizations received general operating support grants to help them meet the needs of their community. Sixty percent of these organizations are led by people of color, a deliberate outcome because we are keeping racial equity at the forefront and are committed to investing in those most connected to community.

The second round of grantmaking launched in December and focused on recovery; grants went to nearly 20 organizations that are led by or serving people of color in communities hard hit by the pandemic. All are working to address basic needs support while going beyond that to tackle the root causes of the pandemic’s disproportionate pain. Even though the suffering caused by the pandemic is far from over, we believed it was incumbent upon us to advance a conversation about what it will mean to build toward a more just and equitable Greater Boston. Business as usual, with built-in, longstanding and pervasive inequities, cannot be what we return to.

As a first step, we are working with these organizations as community partners to co-create a vision for a just and equitable recovery, and how that can play out in Greater Boston. Through surveys and conversations, we are learning from their work and using that to envision a new normal, describing a Boston that includes:

  • A thriving and diverse workforce with access to the education, training and career preparation, and opportunities to pursue work that pays family-sustaining wages;
  • Leaders who reflect the racial diversity and cultural wealth of our communities;
  • Universal access to infrastructure and basic needs supports, including reliable, affordable transportation and childcare, physical and mental healthcare and healthy food;
  • Vibrant communities, including access to safe outdoor play and exercise spaces, affordable housing, high quality schools, and cultural and arts organizations and offerings; and,
  • Equitable access to resources, including philanthropic and business contracts, especially for organizations and/or leaders authentically connected to their community.

We are in the early stages of this effort. The vision for recovery will need to be translated into actions, and additional resources will be needed to accelerate recovery.

The lessons we’ve learned from crisis grantmaking through the COVID-19 Response Fund should guide philanthropy’s “new normal” practices: Trust community leadership; understand and listen to needs they articulate for and with their communities; use data to guide our choices; and use a range of measures to capture the near-term and longer-term change.

The crises we are facing offer an opportunity for us to work differently together. It isn’t easy or fast and it calls on philanthropy to operate with greater faith in community leaders. But the resulting recovery should be one in which opportunity is more accessible for all residents.

Read more proposals in the Seizing the Moment series.