COVID-19: What One Class Learned about Philanthropy, Nonprofits and Racial Equity in Real-Time

Posted in News Story

By Kathy Kretman and Tamara Copeland

May 12, 2020

Kathy Kretman is the Waldemar A. Nielsen Chair in Philanthropy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. She also directs McCourt’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership. Kretman, is a long-term Georgetown University faculty member and a national expert on nonprofits and leadership.  

Tamara Copeland is the former President of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG). The philanthropic sector had been Copeland’s world for over a decade and in her last five years with WRAG her focus was on structural racism and implicit bias. You can follow her thoughts on racial equity via her blog, .

“Can we take COVID-19 into consideration when making our grant decisions? We think the virus may have changed what our nonprofits want to do.” That was the question and the comment that began our “Philanthropy, Power and Impact” Zoom class in mid-March. With sixteen students, this graduate course in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University had started in January 2020. The course was focused on philanthropy, public policy and nonprofits with an overlay of exploring racial equity. In just fourteen classes, we planned to give these students a grounding in all four. 

By the end of the semester, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the students became more thoughtful, empathetic grantmakers. Grace Fisher (MPP ‘21) observed, “There is a need for greater trust and flexibility in grantmaking, which should extend beyond the crisis.”

Learning Inside and Outside the Classroom

There are more than 100,000 foundations in America with hundreds of billions of dollars in funding, yet many of us rarely think about the tremendous influence they have in the public policy arena. There are more than 1.7 million nonprofit organizations. How can foundations and nonprofits use their collective power to create large-scale social change? How can they use their resources to advance racial equity in their communities at the same time? We created the course with these questions in mind. 

Suspecting that most, if not all, of the students had some experience in philanthropy, on the first day we asked them to share. They were fluent in personal giving on a relatively small scale, but their assignment for this class was to learn about philanthropy writ large.

We also asked the students when was the first time they thought about race, racial differences and disparities. They had to think about that longer. And, most were hesitant to speak. This, too, was their assignment: to examine their values, assumptions and actions through the lens of racial equity.

Exploring the future of philanthropy, along with the students’ roles as future philanthropists, was fundamental to how we approached the class. With support from the McCourt School and the Learning by Giving Foundation, the students had $20,000 to utilize in grants to organizations in the Washington, D.C. area. They were divided into two groups that became two foundations. They had to determine their values and the objectives that would actualize those values. 

Each student was also assigned a local nonprofit organization to meet with the CEO and determine its needs for philanthropic support—all grant applicants had to be engaged in work aimed at racial equity. The students were inspired by the nonprofits and their leaders. Tricia N. Newell (MPM ‘20) shared, “It was refreshing to hear from Scott Schenkelberg and read about the work that he and Miriam’s Kitchen have done to foster collaboration in helping to end chronic homelessness. Scott’s comment about needing to have hope in order to be a change agent is what has stuck with me the most. The world’s pressing issues often look very bleak, are overwhelming and at times feel like they are impossible to fix. The Miriam’s Kitchen ethos, reaffirms the direct opposite. I think the common denominator in the most effective change agents is the ability to approach these issues from a find “the cure” perspective rather than a treat the symptoms mindset.”

Exploring the Good and Bad of Philanthropy

Sharing the historical underpinning of philanthropy was the easy part. The desire of successful business leaders from Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller to Julius Rosenwald and today’s Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to be a part of the change they hoped to see for society was not difficult to grasp. What proved more challenging was the current laser examination on what many perceive as the ills of philanthropy. 

Never having to look at more than the good that philanthropy was doing, it proved a bit challenging for some students to explore what some suggest as onerous expectations on nonprofits for applications, self-evaluation and reporting. The lack of philanthropic attention to racial equity even in the face of massive data about disparate outcomes particularly for black and brown people was a troubling reality for some students. They also struggled with recognizing what some guest speakers from philanthropy referred to as the power imbalance. And then there was the discussion of the lack of oversight of philanthropy. We had shifted from a focus on the good, the altruism, to take a more penetrating look at the ways some think philanthropy must change to really benefit society. Then came COVID-19.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Grantmaking

The class was held once a week with the first session in mid-January. Just as spring break was ending in mid-March, the students were called on to divide into their earlier-established foundations, review proposals and make decisions on who would be awarded grants. This happened simultaneous to the declaration of coronavirus as a pandemic and to the adjustment of the in-person class moving to a virtual class via Zoom. The adjustments were many, but one of the biggest relative to the class was how, or if, to accommodate COVID-19 in their deliberations.

Yes, COVID-19 was happening now, but it hadn’t been a reality when the students had met with their nonprofits to learn about the organizations’ missions, populations served and funding needs that were the basis for the grant proposals to the class. That all changed as Andrew Walker (MPP ‘21) noted: “Emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic tempt us to regress back to traditional grant-making practices, which tend to privilege larger, white-led organizations. But funding grassroots, systems-change work with a racial equity lens should become more important in a crisis, not less, in order to put more money and power in the hands of marginalized communities more likely to experience hardship during a crisis.”

As the students transitioned in their roles from program officers to foundation trustees, it was time for them to decide which nonprofits would receive grants. Their first question was to us: “Can we make changes based on COVID-19?”  We reminded them that they were the trustees—they ultimately had the power to adjust.

While not offering advice, we were able to be flies on the wall as we observed the interaction in the foundations. They were deliberative and empathetic. The students recognized the immediacy of the COVID-19 crisis, and the dire effects on the nonprofits they had gotten to know.   

We knew the lessons had been learned after a rich conversation about one nonprofit focused on building the skills of a marginalized group to secure employment. Some students favored funding for the organization because the proposal made a compelling case. Others stated that while the organization did excellent work, the request did not meet the foundation’s criteria to focus on systemic change. The debate went back and forth with the final decision being to decline the request. One student reminded the others that they could still support this group. When asked how that could occur since all the available funds had been allocated, the response was, “You know, we can personally support outside of class.”  

The Grant Recipients

Ultimately, the $20,000 pot was divided among three nonprofits – one focused on housing, another on legal aid, and the last on storytelling. Accepting the $7,000 grant on behalf of the Housing Initiative Partnership, Inc. (HIP), Jocelyn Harris, the Senior Housing Director, announced, “The $7,000 grant will be used to establish an Emergency Rent & Food Assistance Fund to address the urgent needs of its tenants hardest hit by COVID-19. Inspired by the generosity of the class, individual donors have grown the assistance fund to almost $9,000.” 

Shilpa Shankar (MPP ‘20) said the crisis “encouraged me to view philanthropy as a means to provide immediate relief to the most vulnerable and affected populations. It revealed the importance of examining how the current crisis fits into philanthropies’ established core values and missions, and how philanthropies must consider input from the affected populations to learn how to best serve them during this time.” 

Accepting the $10,000 grant for Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, Eric Angel, Executive Director, remarked, “The Covid-19 crisis is disproportionately impacting communities of color to a truly shocking degree. For these students to recognize how structural racism is devastating the District, and to support Legal Aid’s work fighting for equal justice, is truly inspiring. And it came at just the right time, energizing our staff immeasurably.”

The final grantee, Shout Mouse Press, is using it’s $3,000 grant to jumpstart an initiative called #ShoutInPlace, which invites young people “to process this challenging time with creativity and reflection, document their under-heard perspectives, and earn money to meet their families’ most critical needs. Executive Director Kathy Crutcher emphasized that she “deeply values the class’s focus on equity and community-based problem-solving as the path forward, both for philanthropy and for our post-crisis re-building.”

Lessons Learned in Responding to the Crisis

We invited our funder, Learning by Giving Foundation’s Academic Director, Shanna O’Berry, to our Zoom ceremony. She observed, “The culmination of the students’ work highlighted how they internalized the weight of the public health crisis and pivoted their grantmaking to be responsive to the needs of the local community. The students’ grantmaking decisions were rooted in humility, fairness, and an understanding of their role in this crisis. It was an honor to see how they rose to this unique moment.”   

During the course of the semester, Alyssa Snider (MPP ‘20) found herself dealing with “the same complex and impossible decisions that Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said foundations face: to give money away for urgent work or steward it for the future? To be ambitious or be pragmatic? To take risks or avoid bravado? To follow the foundation’s legacy or set out a bold new vision? I found the class foundation work to be a very difficult decision, knowing that all the nonprofits could benefit from funding, and having to decide which need was the most important, the most urgent, which nonprofit would be the most impactful.”

In January, we knew our objectives for the class were ambitious. In mid-March, we were sure we would need to adjust our expectations. The students proved us wrong. Without any guidance, they recognized that their grantmaking needed to be flexible in recognition of the times we are living in. Our students demonstrated not only their intellect but also their empathy by understanding this new reality.