Rapid Response Grantmaking: A Call For Philanthropy

In the midst of the global pandemic, while scrambling to adjust to a new work-from-home reality—which for many, involves working while providing childcare, worrying about the health of loved ones and communities, and learning to adapt to physical distancing—it’s heartening to see the ways that the philanthropic sector is rallying to support grantees who are providing front-line support to vulnerable populations. 

As co-founder and Board Chair of Grantbook, I’ve been paying close attention to the ways foundations and other financial institutions are providing support in these unprecedented times. 

Foundations that have a strong mission, clear strategy, and an endowment that by definition, will survive this crisis, can play a key role in serving their communities—local, national, and global. For many organizations, staying true to their mission and strategy will mean examining processes with an eye for reducing friction for grantees and stakeholders—and allowing the unnecessary to drop away. 

As a small business owner (independent of Grantbook), I experienced two different rapid response application processes on behalf of financial institutions I deal with. One lender reached out to let me know I could apply to have loan repayments deferred for two months. It was a simple process: a few forms to fill out and sign, and then it was done. I was grateful. The other financial institution simply sent an email to all loan holders announcing that the next two months of interest & principal payments would be deferred. There were no hoops, even small ones, to jump through. I was both grateful and impressed. 

When I think of philanthropy's response to COVID-19, I envision at least some foundations opting for blanket responses as the best form of rapid response. For example, all balances on approved grants disbursed. All reports due deferred. Grants size doubled, or tripled. $50k cheques for any nonprofit the foundation has ever funded, in the mail, or better yet, deposited electronically. Rapid reallocation of funds in whatever ways the grantee knows are best. 

Foundations will also look for ways to streamline existing processes, or spin up new ones: shorter application forms, simplified reporting requirements, leaning on referral networks and collaborative data sources. To be clear, I think that both approaches—the blanket rapid response and the simplified application—are valid and necessary for the sector as we work together to get through this crisis. 

From the grantmaker perspective, proper due diligence and filtering of grant opportunities requires context, data, and narratives. Traditionally, this material has come from direct application forms that potential grantees fill in. If you're starting from a blank slate of applicants and aren't plugged into any data sources or referral networks, then it makes sense that you would need some applicant information to make an informed grant and know what you're funding. 

There's no great risk in having hoops. There’s also opportunity in finding ways to make the hoops go away—to remove any unnecessary barriers that don’t serve the mission of the Foundation. Any funder that chooses to take a hoop-less approach to their C19 response can still have application forms for related streams in the future. This is a both/and opportunity and isn't meant to replace standard grantmaking processes altogether. 

There is the chance that in opting for a blanket approach, some grantees will receive funding they don't desperately need. That said, the situation of most nonprofits is the opposite. As a result, you will be funding nonprofits in great need of your support in the vast majority of cases rather than make them spend precious time jumping through your hoops.

In a recent blog post and accompanying podcast discussion, members of the Grantbook team imagined the ways that philanthropy could respond to this crisis now, soon, and later—we know from previous disaster responses that there are several waves of challenges to address that will reveal themselves over time. As we continue to work to mitigate the effects of this pandemic, there will be many opportunities to streamline processes, lean into collaboration for coordinated efforts, and to uncover supplementary, non-cash ways of effecting change. 

We’ve been heartened to observe the ways foundations are banding together to support grantees and create greater impact through this crisis—releasing joint statements that codify their guiding principles, pledging to prioritize the needs of their non-profit partners, and directly serving individuals most affected. 

Every foundation that has set up or contributed to a rapid response funding stream in response to COVID-19 should be commended. Of course, rapid response for foundations doesn't need to mean just grant dollars. 

Philanthropy is responding, and must continue to respond in all kinds of consequential ways. For instance, what a foundation does with the investments that form its endowment can have a tremendous impact in the short and long term. As does the advocacy a foundation chooses to prioritize in response to this crisis, and the group and 1:1 meetings they hold. And how they treat/engage with their non-grantee partners can form an important part of their rapid response.

It's critical to remember that grants are just one lever that foundations can pull as they work to reduce the social burden that this crisis is creating. In times like this, it's important to pull hard on all the levers. Lives are on the line.

Peter Deitz's headshot

Peter Deitz


Team Building, Strategy Formation, Giving Marketplaces

Peter Deitz is an entrepreneur committed to creating enduring companies that have a deeply-rooted social and environmental purpose. Peter co-founded Grantbook in 2012 and currently serves as Board Chair.