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Emergency times call for emergency measures—but not precedent. However, emergency times may help us to see more clearly, including helping foundations improve their giving.

It’s a live question right now how the current government restrictions on travel, social gatherings, business operations, religious worship, and much else will affect our country for the long term. Though many contest the value of the current social distancing measures—at least their extent and severity—the goal of the measures is certainly intelligible.

Even if you disagree with the various “shelter-in-place” orders sweeping the country, you can understand the logic behind enforced social distancing—for a time.

But the question is how willingly the government will cede its newfound power back to the people, returning the rights and freedoms due during times of normalcy but restricted in favor of “flattening the curve.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, made the unfortunate and appalling remarks that he would “permanently shut down” churches and synagogues that refuse to obey the shut-down orders. One hopes this was a slip of the tongue, not how de Blasio genuinely feels…and yet it can’t but make us wonder and worry.

Extreme times

The crucial point here is that extreme measures taken in extreme times must not set a precedent. Closing down restaurants and public parks might be necessary now, but that does not signal the government’s general authority to close down restaurants and public parks.

In a recent virtual conversation about “Communities of Faith and Covid-19,” Princeton politics professor Robert George described the “compelling state interest, least restrictive means” test. This is the “test” used to determine the legitimacy of the government’s expansion of power. If there is sufficient need, the government may take legal measure to limit our freedoms—but these measures must strive to restrict our life and freedoms as little as possible.

In other words, “emergency times call for emergency measures” but “the government should go as far as it needs to go but no further,” as another panelist, Daniel Mark, explained. If we judge ourselves to be in emergency times, then we warrant (the least-restrictive-but-effective) emergency measures. Those measures, however, are valid only while we find ourselves in an “emergency situation.” As soon as the emergency subsides, so too should the emergency measures.

But while it is the case that measures taken in extreme times should not set precedent, it is not the case that measures taken during extreme times simply must not be carried into normal times.

New habits

Later in that same webinar, Professor George, along with the other panelists, recommended an expanded prayer life during quarantine and devoting more time to reading long books we seldom have time for. Their point, of course, was to make good use of the increased free time while knowing full well that this “free time” will eventually be lost. That said, when we “return to normal,” we should consider carefully whether these new practices can be carried into “normal life.”

It is not sensible to say “these are my spiritual disciplines during quarantine. Come the end of COVID, I’m back to my emaciated prayer life.” On the contrary, if we manage to acquire new disciplines during the period of social distancing—increased prayer, reading poetry, exercising more, and so on—we should strive to maintain these disciplines even as we return to our normal busy schedules.

Grantee-friendly giving

This applies just as much in the world of philanthropy. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently covered a statement from “nine philanthropic membership and advocacy organizations [who] called on foundations to increase their giving in response to the coronavirus pandemic, even if their endowments take a big hit.”

They note that 400 foundations “have signed a pledge to make their grant making more grantee-friendly.” This is wonderful and timely, and these foundations should be commended.

As many have pointed out, now is precisely the time to see the 5% required minimum distribution as a minimum and to cut into endowment corpuses even despite the bear market. Now is precisely the time to think about how foundations can better serve the needs of grantees, as many are trying to do with various coronavirus relief funds. Now is precisely the time to reduce burdensome reporting requirements, as many foundations are doing.

I am glad that these foundations are recognizing extreme times and adjusting their behavior and expectations to be “more grantee-friendly.” My question, however, is whether these adjustments are more like the government’s emergency measures or more like an individual’s increased spiritual practices during social distancing.

In other words, are these the sorts of changes which ought, in fact, to outlast the coronavirus crisis?

Normal times

For what it’s worth, I suspect that many foundations are probably (hopefully!) being generous and lenient in such a way that should not extend into “normal” times. Eschewing “strategic philanthropy” does not mean being reckless in your giving, and so it’s entirely possible that some donors might now give in such a way that would not be wise for a longer duration.

But to the extent that these adjustments are described as making foundations “more grantee-friendly,” I suspect that many of these adjustments should extend into normal times.

A foundation exists not to grow its corpus and not even (to be precise) to solve problems 50 or 100 or more years from now. A foundation exists to solve a problem and advance a mission. It might continue doing that in 50 or 100 years, of course, but the point is the mission, not the timeline. A perpetual foundation exists to advance a mission in perpetuity, not simply “to exist” in perpetuity.

It follows, then, that foundations should strive, as much as possible to be “grantee-friendly.” In fact, the Council on Foundation’s “Call to Action” for more generous philanthropy during the crisis includes a pledge to “learn from these emergency practices and share what they teach us about effective partnership and philanthropic support, so we may consider adjusting our practices more fundamentally in the future, in more stable times.

This is exactly the right insight, and I hope it is taken seriously.

As I’ve written about before, grantmakers and grantseekers are on the same team. They are partners in advancing a shared mission. Too often, unfortunately, grantseekers turn into humble servants navigating byzantine and unnecessary application guidelines and reporting requirements—and all the while they are all fighting one another for part of a very carefully disbursed 5%, and nary a penny more.

There is much that has changed as the coronavirus has spread across the country in the last several weeks. Much of it, I hope will go away in due time. But there are some things—like strangers saying hello during evening walks and “grantee-friendly” foundations—that I hope will outlive these strange times.

Whether you are seeing changes in your personal or professional life, it is worth carefully considering whether these changes should or should not stick with us when things go back to normal.

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