Boston – The Boston Foundation today announced that TBF’s COVID-19 Response Fund had wrapped up its two-plus year effort in support of organizations supporting communities during the pandemic, having received and distributed more than $18 million to Massachusetts nonprofits from 1,600 individual and corporate donors. More than half of those donors were first-time donors to the Boston Foundation during the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 Response Fund was an unprecedented response to an unprecedented challenge,” said Orlando Watkins, Vice President and Chief Program Officer at TBF. ““In just 18 days, TBF established and began making grants to nonprofits serving an overwhelming amount of need in communities across the state. We could not have done it without the support of a legion of donors who stepped up with their gifts, and the partnership of hundreds of nonprofit leaders and organizations. Their work saved lives in the pandemic’s earliest days, and their unrelenting wisdom, understanding and leadership in the face of ongoing systemic challenges continue today.”
The COVID-19 Response Fund was just one of many organization-wide, cross-departmental efforts to address the issues and needs made evident by the pandemic, the economic impact it triggered, and the racial justice issues brought forth by the murder of George Floyd. Boston Foundation donors also stepped up their giving in other ways during this time, with a record-setting total of more than $200 million in grants made from the Foundation’s Donor Advised Funds during the first 13 months of the pandemic. In addition, Boston Indicators, the research center at TBF, launched a two-year effort to track the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across several economic and social indicators of wellbeing. The COVID-19 Community Data Lab received its final update at the end of June 2022 but will remain live as an archive of the work.
“TBF’s work during the pandemic serves as a model of the unique role community foundations can have in times of need, not just as grantmakers, but as civic leaders, conveners and partners with donors and nonprofits alike,” said M. Lee Pelton, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “It is no exaggeration to say that both what we were able to do during the pandemic and the valuable lessons we learned during COVID played a fundamental role in shaping our work as we enter Our New Pathway, TBF’s strategic plan focused on achieving equity.”
A timeline of philanthropy
The Boston Foundation grantmaking strategy fell into three distinct phases. In Phase I, the Foundation focused intentionally on meeting the immediate needs of BIPOC-led and community-centered organizations, providing nearly 200 $25,000 general operating support grants to organizations that were not only facing skyrocketing caseloads but also disruptions to staffing and operations. A partnership between community foundations statewide and the Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief provided another $3.4 million in support for Greater Boston nonprofits.
As the immediate needs eased somewhat in the Fall of 2020, TBF’s Phase II efforts shifted toward a “just and equitable recovery,” including the distribution of $2.3 million in larger grants to 17 organizations whose work addressed structural inequities in areas such as housing, food access, transportation, and workforce development. The funds helped established nonprofit partners scale up their efforts to address the deep-seated issues that the pandemic brought into sharp relief.
In Phase III, TBF shifted toward collaborative partnerships, among them partnerships with the Foundation’s “Equity Funds,” each of which serves defined communities and is overseen by independent boards of directors. The Asian Community Fund, Equality Fund, Latino Equity Fund, and New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund each received support for COVID-19-related grantmaking efforts.
A different kind of collaboration, Chelsea 2021, brought together a community of TBF donors, staff and community members in the complex-hit city of Chelsea for a participatory grantmaking process that distributed $825,000 in general operating support to Chelsea nonprofits with programs focused on housing, food insecurity, jobs and entrepreneurship.
“Chelsea 2021 provided a platform to directly connect a base of passionate donors with the community organizations and proximate leaders shaping the response to COVID and the systemic issues it underscored,” said Kate Guedj, Senior Vice President and Chief Philanthropy Officer at TBF. “The result is measured not just in grants made, but relationships forged between the collaborative members during this process.”
Beyond grantmaking – lessons learned
Beyond the direct impact the pandemic has had on community members, the many crises associated with COVID-19 had an exhausting and intense impact on those nonprofit partners working on the front lines. The result was an acceleration of an ongoing trend toward exhaustion and burnout in the sector that began in 2016. To respond to that trend, TBF established the Wellness Fund, offering $10,000 grants to nonprofits specifically to enhance the wellness of their employees. Nonprofits used the grants to cover paid time off, off-site retreats and other events to promote togetherness and healing.
Feedback from organizations funded in Phase I of The COVID-19 Response Fund highlighted the need for enhanced technical assistance. To address the need, TBF contracted with TSNE to provide all Phase II nonprofit partners with 25 hours of culturally competent consulting services to get support with self-determined projects.
Throughout the process, the focus on finding and supporting leaders and organizations working closest to the communities in need, providing general operating support and simplifying applications and reporting, and valuing proximity, cultural competency and cultural relevance – each played vital roles in shaping the Foundation’s response. Those elements will continue to shape the Foundation’s grantmaking and other operations, with a shared commitment to create a more equitable city and region in partnership with community.