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Grantmaking foundations have a responsibility to step up to the plate during crisis, but they also must respect their donor’s wishes. Here is how one foundation managed to thread that needle.

Those of us in the philanthropic sector recognize the immediate call to action when a natural disaster or devastating event occurs. I can still vividly recall the helpless feeling after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the destructive 100-year flood in my home state of Colorado. We now find ourselves navigating perhaps the most challenging crisis we’ve faced in our lifetime.

The current global pandemic and disastrous economic fallout are testing us in ways we never dreamed possible. The world seems to be shifting like sand beneath our feet with every day bringing new, unanticipated difficulties. As human beings, we feel morally compelled to help. As foundation representatives, we feel duty-bound to help. After all, we’re in the business of helping others. But in the midst of devastation and urgency it can be challenging for foundations to respond in a way that’s swift and impactful, while also honoring their donor’s core values.

The Daniels Fund is a private foundation headquartered in Denver, CO with assets of $1.5 billion. In the spirit of our founder, Bill Daniels, the Daniels Fund is dedicated to making life better for the people of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Bill Daniels was a cable television pioneer known for his compassion for those in need and his unwavering commitment to ethics and integrity. Upon his death, Bill Daniels left very specific direction as to how his foundation’s resources should be used and outlined specific areas of focus that carried deep personal meaning for him. In the two decades since his death, the Daniels Fund leadership has taken extraordinary measures to codify Bill Daniels’ wishes and ensure his values and intentions are reflected in every aspect of our work. In fact, the Daniels Fund is often held up as a national exemplar for its faithful adherence to donor intent.

Given our commitment to keeping Bill Daniels’ values at the core of our work, the first question I asked myself when considering how the Daniels Fund could respond to the current health and economic crisis was, “What would Bill Daniels do?” Knowing that people and relationships were central to Bill Daniels, I started there. Reflecting Bill Daniels’ personal style, we leveraged the personal and trusting relationships we’ve developed over the years to quickly understand the community’s greatest needs. Our program officers spent the initial weeks of the pandemic proactively reaching out to key grant partners to understand how the situation was affecting them and the people they serve, and how the Daniels Fund could help. For some organizations, additional funding was urgently needed, for others, it was the flexibility to repurpose existing grants to general operating support. In all scenarios, we were able to help.

The result of our ongoing response has been $5 million dedicated to emergency funding in areas important to Bill Daniels – basic human needs, food and housing, employment and job training, childcare, and K-12 education. We’ve also sought ways to address the social isolation being felt by home-bound elderly, youth, and those in addiction treatment. Our Board of Directors quickly modified our quarterly grant approval process in favor of a more nimble approach which allowed us to get checks out the door weekly. And financial resources were not the only way we assisted our grant partners. Learning that many nonprofit organizations were struggling to adapt their fundraising to a virtual environment, we connected them to a variety of resources, webinars, and even individualized pro-bono consulting to help them build capacity.

Honoring donor intent is crucial if we bear any sense of responsibility to those who came before—but adhering to your founder’s values does not mean you can’t be nimble or respond to current needs. We avoided a rigid application of our grantmaking guidelines in order to observe Bill Daniels’ real goals: to help those in need. I hope that, while the nonprofit sector strives to recover from the effects of the pandemic and to weather the strange storms that likely lie ahead, foundations will rise to the challenge to maintain donor intent while also serving those in need right now.

We are grateful for the life-changing work of our nonprofit partners during these unprecedented times. Their selfless efforts are what strengthen our communities and provide a critical safety net for the most vulnerable populations. The Daniels Fund is both humbled and honored to play a supporting role in this vital work. And I can’t help but look to the heavens and feel that Bill Daniels would be proud of how his foundation has responded. We’ve focused on people and relationships, and we’ve been nimble, flexible, and responsive – all through the lens of his core values and direction. Suffice it to say, I’m a firm believer that it’s not only possible to balance crisis grantmaking and donor intent, but it’s an imperative.

Note: the Daniels Fund is a generous supporter of Philanthropy Daily.

1 thought on “Honoring donor intent in times of crisis”

  1. Cindy Aubrey says:

    As a Coloradan, I am very grateful to the Daniels Fund and most especially Bill Daniels. A man of vision with a tremendous heart, he should be our example of how we choose to help those in need in our communities. It is reassuring to read about the importance of donor intent, while recognizing the absolute necessity of being nimble during times of crisis. What is needed most in times of natural disaster and a catastrophic event, is the ability to move swiftly, to help those – and there are many of them – who have suffered that unexpected loss and need help immediately. We cannot move swiftly unless we have some latitude and can be nimble. There are times when we should focus on certain nonprofit sectors for the good of our future, but when people need to eat and have shelter, we must come to their aid. We have all seen many in our cities and towns who have lost jobs, who have families, who didn’t earn enough to have an emergency fund, or even a small savings account. But one month’s rent and groceries for a few weeks, helped so many stay on their feet. For those donors who allowed a shift to occur with their funding, thank you. You saved lives, you allowed people to maintain their dignity and helped prevent a family or individual from entering into homelessness. Many had to make difficult decisions about allocating funds, and it wasn’t easy. You are right about balancing crisis grant making and donor intent – it is absolutely imperative. Where would we be without the generous citizens who so cheerfully give!

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