A growing group of hundreds of American foundations has pledged, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, to approach grantmaking in a dramatically different way. The philanthropies, among them major givers like the Ford, Levi Strauss, Robert Sterling Clark, Joyce, Surdna, and Hewlett Foundations, have signed on to “A Call to Action: Philanthropy’s Commitment During Covid-19.” 

The eight promises, as summarized by The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Alex Daniels, include:

  1. eliminating restrictions on current grants, “including turning project-based grants to unrestricted support, accelerating payment schedules, and not holding grantees liable for missed deadlines or canceled events;”
  2. making new grants “as unrestricted as possible,” and supporting “organizations led by groups of people who are most affected;”
  3. reducing site visits and postponing reporting requirements;
  4. contributing to “community-based response funds that support the health and economic well-being of people most affected;”
  5. keeping grantees informed about the foundation’s decision-making process;
  6. listening to the “communities least heard” and working those conversations into public discussion;
  7. supporting grantees to engage in public-policy advocacy “to insure an equitable response to the Coronavirus;” and, …
  8. sharing “what is learned from instituting the practices” so that “permanent changes can be considered during more stable times.”

Ruth McCambridge and our friends at Nonprofit Quarterly have been supporting these changes for some time, as have Ford and other foundations associated with the “participatory-grantmaking” initiative that Cindy Gibson promotes, and the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. The project’s Pia Infante noted in McCambridge’s NPQ coverage,

The reason a trust-based approach works in this short-term, emergency frame is because it works for the long term. When we deeply resource our leaders, organizations, and movements, we enable the adaptivity necessary in the chaotic, complex times we are living. It may have taken a global pandemic for some philanthropies to let go of restrictions, arduous processes, and exacting expectations of already overburdened nonprofits, but let’s hope one benefit is that we now jettison all that no longer serves the greater good.

Recognized practices

Longtime observers of public-policy grantmaking will recognize that many of these practices—particularly awarding long-term, general-operating support with minimal reporting requirements and interference—are already common among some foundations, namely the small band of philanthropies gathered under the banner of conservatism. Progressive activists have long pointed to these practices as a key to conservative philanthropic success. 

As David Callahan noted in 2018, conservative funders

played the long game, over decades. … They didn’t invest in issues or programs, or dole out one-year restricted grants. They invested in ideas, institutions and people. They gave general support to a core group of multi-issue think tanks, legal groups, leadership institutes, and media outfits year after year, decade after decade.

Or, in Infante’s words, conservatives “deeply resource” their “leaders, organizations, and movements.”

Conservative foundations have not adopted this mode operation out of mere tactical cleverness. It’s due rather to a deep skepticism—shared by almost all conservative schools of thought—about efforts to shape or control human behavior through large-scale structural interventions. Economic conservatives look to the market’s “spontaneous order,” rather than centralized-government direction, to generate answers to social needs. Traditional conservatives tend to rely on America’s diverse and dispersed religious and cultural institutions to produce sensible responses.

Translated into philanthropic practice, both dispositions tilt toward allowing maximum latitude to front-line responders imbued with local knowledge, rather than heavy-handed guidance from remote foundation overseers. This enables the “adaptivity necessary in the chaotic, complex times,” per Infante.

Modest offices and hushed corridors

So why has it taken a national health emergency to prompt widespread consideration of these practices among liberal foundations? As readers of The Giving Review know, most large American foundations have operated for more than a century under the long shadow cast by 20th Century progressivism. 

That project aimed at centralizing governance in the hands of experts trained in the natural and social sciences, with foundations very much at the heart of the enterprise. In the name of constructing a usable body of scientific evidence, foundations have emphasized experimentation with carefully framed projects, from which statistical data can be harvested, scalable models fashioned, and replications across the country funded. Only this kind of knowledge, we are often told, will enable philanthropy to get at the “root causes” of problems, rather than just putting Band-Aids on their symptoms.

But this inevitably shifts power from the modest offices of nonprofits to the hushed corridors of foundation headquarters, even when it comes to social problems. After all, very few nonprofit leaders have the luxury of keeping up with the latest evidence generated by universities and think tanks, or of concocting replicable, scalable social experiments that might interest foundations.

But the foundations are typically staffed by well-educated professionals trained in the social sciences most relevant to its areas of interest. They alone have the ambition, the latitude, and (they are persuaded) the expertise to design or replicate program models that will truly penetrate to the source of the problem at hand.

The initial expectations for producing a unified, systematic body of knowledge that would result in a high degree of expert-driven “social control” have long since faded, of course. And the left has always hosted its own robust, community-oriented critique of centralized progressive social control, reflected in everything from the ’60s New Left to the Black Power movement to Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation.

Applied to philanthropy, Robert Arnove argued in Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism that “the elitist and technocratic dimensions of foundations … inhere in their belief that social change can occur and social ills can be redressed by highly trained professionals (scientists and technicians) who produce knowledge and proffer solutions.”


But as the authors of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded point out, radical-left, community-oriented approaches are, well, at least unlikely to be funded, especially by our largest foundations. The rhetoric and organizational structure of modern philanthropy are still overwhelmingly shaped by centralist progressive aspirations. 

Our large foundations are heavily skewed toward the development of uniform models or “best practices” that can be backed by empirical data, scaled up, and replicated. Foundation conferences are geared toward unveiling and sharing results from successful initiatives, in hopes that collaboration and coordination will spread such “bold, innovative” practices across the land. 

Grant applications typically demand quasi-experimental propositions leading to measurable outcomes. Applicants must concoct elaborate logic models and theories of change, specifying that if we get this amount of money, we will undertake these activities, which we have solid empirical reasons to believe will produce these results, describable in statistical charts to be submitted at grant’s end. Naturally, potential grantees (no matter their complex real-life missions) are careful to pitch their projects as fitting perfectly within the rigid structure of systematic grantmaking that the foundation’s professionals have established.

Potential significance

Had all of this produced a substantial and enduring body of social knowledge during the century it has been pursued, then progressives might be able to claim that it has been worthwhile. But in fact, it’s produced nothing of the sort. When institutional philanthropy reviews its “greatest hits,” it focuses on its achievements within the natural sciences, where of course such procedures are effective: the suppression of hookworm in the American South, agriculture’s Green Revolution, and the efficient provision of vaccines and other medicines to developing nations. We can hope that today’s substantial philanthropic commitment toward addressing the coronavirus may one day take its place on this list.  

There is, however, no such list of “hits” within the social realm. For all the demands put upon grantees to produce measurable outcomes, the larger knowledge-building project to which these demands were to contribute has itself, ironically, produced virtually no measurable outcome worth celebrating.

The significance of “A Call to Action” is that at last, our largest foundations may have come to see the hollowness and waste in all these “restrictions, arduous processes, and exacting expectations,” as Infante put it.

In this moment of crisis, nonprofits at their best will respond to the immediate and infinitely varied needs of the communities within which they are embedded. Only front-line grantees can decide what kinds of services are needed where, and how they should be delivered for maximum effect.  

The professionals back at foundation headquarters can best serve in this moment by admitting, in all humility, that their customary stream of “helpful suggestions” may not be so helpful. Rather, they should concentrate on clearing away the dessicated, ramshackle pseudo-scientific apparatus they have built up over time, and work to ensure the unimpeded flow of vital financial resources directly to hard-pressed grantees.

And, as the “Call to Action” suggests, let’s prepare ourselves for a future in which trust in grantees, rather than cumbersome monitoring and oversight, becomes the daily mode of philanthropic operation, not just an emergency measure.