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November 14, 2020

From: By Dan Parks and Stacy Palmer

Subject: What the Election Means for Philanthropy


Good morning. This week we explored what the Biden-Harris administration means for nonprofit missions and finances. We also examined what data shows on foundation commitments to do more for grantees in the Covid and economic crises and on signs that volunteerism is taking a nosedive because of social-distancing rules. We share a new study that will help make your Zoom staff meetings and other gatherings more effective. Ensure you get your week off to a good start: Sign up now to join Monday’s free conversation on race with Edgar Villanueva and Wes Moore.
Stacy Palmer and Dan Parks

What the Election Means

Throughout the nonprofit world, Joe Biden’s presidential victory is prompting charities and foundations to reassess their giving, fundraising, and advocacy strategies.

Biden has vowed to shift the narrative in the nation’s highest office on issues that many charities care about, including the nation’s leadership role in foreign affairs, curbing climate change, and rooting out systemic racism, writes Ben Gose.

But those efforts could be stymied given the strong showing of Republicans in the Senate and House.

Even the timing of an economic relief package, which would provide much-needed funds to state and local governments and filter down to struggling nonprofits, remains in doubt and may not happen until 2021.

“Instead of grand slams, we can start working for singles and doubles. There’s plenty of room to work.”

— David Thompson, vice president for public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits

The election’s impact on fundraising is uncertain, but so far signs are positive for many groups — especially as the stock market has been buoyed by news of progress on a Covid vaccine.

Peter Lipsett, vice president of DonorsTrust, a donor-advised-fund sponsor whose supporters focus on advancing conservative policies, told Emily Haynes and Eden Stiffman his eyes are trained on the economy and stock market.

That’s generally a better driver of what philanthropy’s going to look like than the changing winds of politics.”

Still, progressive nonprofits that saw a surge in donations after President Trump’s election want to keep the momentum going.

The Environmental Defense Fund, for example, is reminding supporters that pro-environment policies still face substantial political opposition. “Our donors are smart,” says Anne Senft, vice president for development. “They know that just having Biden and Harris in the White House is definitely a step in the right direction for the environment, but it’s not a slam dunk.”

Other fundraisers say their supporters are buoyed by the Biden transition team’s early moves.

Marcela Howell, president of In Our Own Voice, a policy advocacy group focused on reproductive justice for Black women, says the prospect of a national response to Covid-19 is energizing her group’s donors.

“I don’t know if the Biden-Harris win does it, but I think people are now more optimistic about having a structure around fighting Covid, as opposed to piecemeal stuff,” Howell says. “That, I think, is giving more people a feeling like they can contribute to other groups.”

Nonprofit leaders push foundations to act on democracy: Thirty-two nonprofit associations joined forces this week to urge grant makers to “use your financial capital to invest in organizations that are working year-round to improve the key pillars of our democracy,” such as free elections, an informed electorate, and protection of voting rights. They said they were prompted to issue the call after what they saw as “serious threats to our democracy” in the wake of the 2020 election.

What’s next:  Don’t expect national government and business leaders to close the divides made deeper by the election, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, told an Independent Sector gathering this week. Brooks, who helped found Weave, a national philanthropic effort to bring people together, said instead “the agents of social change will be at the community and local level. If faith in each other disappears, the nation goes away.

Philanthropy’s Next Steps — Now and for the Long Haul (Opinion)

President Trump’s refusal to accept defeat means philanthropists need to act, writes Mike Berkowitz of Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies and the Democracy Funders Network, in a commentary.

Donors and foundations can make a difference by funding efforts to counteract false narratives about the election; supporting the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, and aiding government watchdog groups such as the Project on Government Oversight.

“After four years of concerted effort to protect American democracy, and a long and bruising election season, donors are understandably exhausted,” he writes. “But no one ever said fighting for democracy was quick or easy."

Restoring public trust. Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund, writes that in 2021, philanthropy’s “focus must shift toward the bedrock efforts that can restore public faith in our system.” He adds: “From the federal government to the local level, we must undertake a new era of reforms to foster effective, trustworthy government institutions able to deliver for the public. And with a divided government, we’ll need to find a way to do it across partisan divisions.”

Don’t expect rapid change. Suzanne Garment and Leslie Lenkowsky of Indiana University say philanthropy still faces considerable challenges even after Biden takes office. It will be difficult to undo some Trump administration measures that the nonprofit world especially dislikes, such as the 2017 tax law that in effect sharply limited the share of Americans who have access to charitable deductions.

State policy matters, too. Becca Guerra of the New American Majority Fund at the Democracy Alliance says it's time to change the pattern of boom and bust funding for state-level advocacy — dumping money into grassroots organizations from August until Election Day every four years but failing to provide the resources to sustain them for the 44 months in between. A lot is at stake, she writes, including support for affordable housing, workers' rights, immigrant rights, and equity and justice.

Take time to reflect — and keep the money flowing to grantees. Lisa Pilar Cowan of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, says it’s not yet clear what bets grants makers should make in the weeks after the election, but one thing is certain: Donors must keep supporting their work and listening to what they can do to make this incredibly hard time more bearable for grantees.  “Now is an opportunity for philanthropy to give up the instinct to be the savior and the smartest kid in the room.”

A Big Share of Foundations Are Working to Ease Burdens on Grantees

In the weeks after signs of a pandemic became clear, nearly 800 foundations pledged to do all they could to show flexibility to grantees — and in many cases, also increase giving.

Now it appears that many are doing what they promised: Nearly three in four foundations had or will increase grant making this year by more than they had previously budgeted.

What’s more, over two-thirds of foundations told the Center for Effective Philanthropy they have begun loosening or eliminating restrictions on existing grants and reducing what they asked of grantees.

Ellie Bureau, the center’s vice president for research, said the survey shows just how quickly foundations can shift their approaches, raising the question of why it took a crisis to spur action.

“Foundations could make the changes much more easily than perhaps they had anticipated,” said Buteau. “I’m just not sure the motivation and urgency had been there before.”

Virtual Events Are Drawing Supporters but Not Big Dollars

Zoom screen showing participants on a virtual tour to Israel

Many charities have had dismal drops in event revenue compared with what they had expected for 2020.

The American Lung Association is one of many nonprofits that has moved most of its events online, but it isn’t counting on them to draw as many people — or as much money, writes Emily Haynes. In the second half of the year, it expects events will raise less than half of what they ordinarily would, and that has forced the organization to put some of its workers on furlough.

“We are taking a very realistic view to what we can expect from that revenue stream and dialing it way back and trying to make up for it in other ways — by trimming expenses and really leaning into some of the other revenue streams where we’re seeing more opportunity,” says Sue Swan, a development officer at the charity.

But many nonprofits say they will continue online events because they have no alternative. And some nonprofit leaders remain upbeat.

Russell Robinson, chief executive of the Jewish National Fund-USA, is buoyed by the response to his charity’s online programming. Since March, roughly 123,000 people have participated in the international aid charity’s online book clubs, webinars, and other activities, including virtual trips to Israel.

“I don’t believe in Zoom fatigue,” says Robinson. “Every time somebody tells me there’s Zoom fatigue, all I know is there’s another Zoom call the next day with like 500 people on it. So I don’t know who’s fatiguing, but they keep coming.”

Alternative fundraising approaches to events: Many groups are focusing on year-end appeals that can make up for lost event revenue and other financial challenges. To ensure success, frame your request for money as a bridge from the challenges and lessons of 2020 to a better day in 2021, writes Joan Garry, in her latest Chronicle column. “ If you do a great job painting the 2021 picture, a donor will want to help your organization get there.

Shifting Donor Attitudes: What Matters Now

A new study suggests that donors aren’t making decisions about where to give the way they once did, such as looking at whether a nonprofit was trustworthy or spent a small share of donations on overhead.

The study, by the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, suggests that as the pandemic turned life upside-down for donors, they decided what was most important to know before deciding where to give is this: what nonprofits are taking steps to deal with the health and economic crisis. Elvia Castro, an official at the alliance, also urged charities sending appeals to “speak to how their costs are affected by the larger Covid-19 issue.”

Volunteerism Is Dropping Sharply — but Might Rebound After the Pandemic

Sixty-six percent of donors say they have stopped or decreased their volunteer activities during the pandemic, while 11 percent have increased their volunteer work, according to a new study from Fidelity Charitable.

Of those who continue to volunteer, two-thirds took advantage of remote options for giving time. Before the pandemic, only 20 percent went that route.

Most volunteers say they are eager to return to volunteering once social-distancing warnings are eased.

Nearly three-quarters of people who volunteer say they plan to return to their previous levels of volunteer work after the pandemic ends.

A Billionaire Is Ready to Give Away 99% of His Fortune

Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, says he plans to ramp up his foundation’s grant making over the next five to 10 years, writes Maria Di Mento. Blank, who has a net worth of $6.2 billion according to Forbes, says that he plans to give “99 percent” of his fortune to his foundation.

His philanthropy’s mission: to help others “grow and have equality and equity in their work and their lives.”

To lead his work to accelerate his giving, his foundation last week named Fay Twersky, a vice president at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, as its next president.

How to Make Zoom Meetings Better

As nonprofit employees spend more time in Zoom meetings, many of them feel disengaged and even excluded from their actual work, according to a new survey of more than 4,400 nonprofit employees.

The report, written by Andy Goodman of the Goodman Center, offers easy ways to improve the situation.

Meeting leaders, for example, should say a personal hello to each participant as that person joins the Zoom room and encourage people to ask lots of questions in chat boxes. Using breakout rooms in meetings can facilitate small-group meetings that build inclusion.

And perhaps most important: Develop a mission statement for each online meeting. “If you cannot state the purpose and desired outcomes in a single sentence, you’re probably not ready to call the meeting,” Goodman says.

People on the Move

  • Donald Wood, a medical researcher and vice president for institutional effectiveness at Odessa College, will be the CEO of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
  • Severn Cullis-Suzuki will become executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation in September 2021. She is the daughter of the environmentalist and science reporter who started the foundation; currently she is completing a Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology on the Haida language.

See more in our Transitions column

New Grant Opportunities

Your Chronicle subscription includes free access to GrantStation's database of grant opportunities. Among the latest listings:

  • Mental health The Department of Health and Human Services Statewide Family Network program provides support to more effectively respond to the needs of children, youths, and young adults with serious emotional disturbances and their families by providing information, referrals, and support. The program also supports the creation of mechanisms for families to participate in state and local mental-health services planning and policy development. The application deadline is January 4.
  • Housing for veterans. The Home Depot Foundation awards funds for the new construction or rehabilitation of permanent supportive housing for veterans. Grants range from $100,000 to $500,000 for the hard costs associated with the physical construction or repair of housing. The grant amount must make up less than 50 percent of the total development cost of the project. Rural areas will be considered; however, high priority will be given to large metropolitan areas that have a dense veteran population. Nonprofit organizations that are least five years old and that have a current operating budget of at least $300,000 are eligible to apply. Requests are reviewed three times a year; the next application deadline is December 18.
Dan joined the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2014. He previously was managing editor of Bloomberg Government. He also worked as a reporter and editor at Congressional Quarterly.
Stacy Palmer has served as a top editor since the Chronicle of Philanthropy was founded in 1988 and has overseen the development of its website, She plays a hands-on role in many Chronicle services, such as its Philanthropy Today daily newsletter and its webinar series offering professional development for people involved in fundraising, grant seeking, advocacy, marketing and social media.