Every year, Kathy Kretman and Tamara Copeland design a curriculum for their “Philanthropy, Power and Impact” class that allows students to experience grantmaking first-hand while teaching the fundamentals of philanthropy and how to advance racial equity. With support from the Learning by Giving Foundation, the students are given $20,000 in grant dollars to administer to a nonprofit in the DC-area. Each student is assigned a grant applicant, or organization, to review, and the class discusses and determines three nonprofits to allocate the grant money to at the end of the semester.
This year, as students wrapped up their meetings with each organization, COVID-19 was categorized as a global pandemic and people across the world began efforts to help minimize the spread and support frontline workers, vulnerable communities, and more. The pandemic was not discussed when the students initially began discussions with the nonprofits to learn about the organizations’ missions, populations served and funding needs.
Adapting the Process to Better Serve Communities
“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 Kretman and Copeland’s virtual class in mid-March. The conversation quickly shifted to what must be done to support relief efforts.
As the students began the decision-making process to identify which nonprofits would receive grants, Kretman and Copeland reminded them they had the power to adjust as needed.
“Emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic tempt us to regress back to traditional grant-making practices, which tend to privilege larger, white-led organizations,” explained student Andrew Walker (MPP ‘21). “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.”
The students were deliberative and compassionate. They recognized the immediacy of the COVID-19 crisis, and the dire effects on the nonprofits they had gotten to know.
The crisis “encouraged me to view philanthropy as a means to provide immediate relief to the most vulnerable and affected populations,” explained Shilpa Shankar (MPP ‘20). “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.”
Supporting Local Response Efforts
Ultimately, the $20,000 was divided among three nonprofits – one focused on housing, another on legal aid, and the last on elevating youth voices.
The Housing Initiative Partnership, Inc. (HIP) received a $7,000 grant to establish an Emergency Rent & Food Assistance Fund to address the evolving needs of its tenants hardest hit by COVID-19. The seed grant from the class encouraged individual donors to grow the assistance fund to almost $9,000.
The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, which provides free legal services for people in need in DC, received a $10,000 grant.
“The COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately impacting communities of color to a truly shocking degree,” remarked Eric Angel, Legal Aid Society’s executive director and grant recipient. “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, received a $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.
End of Semester Reflections
By the end of the semester, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the students became more thoughtful, empathetic grantmakers.
“I found the class foundation work to be a very difficult decision,” reflected Alyssa Snider (MPP ‘20). “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.”
While not all organizations received a grant, students advocated and presented compelling cases, and one student reminded the group they can personally support organizations outside of class. “There is a need for greater trust and flexibility in grantmaking, which should extend beyond the crisis,” reflected Grace Fisher (MPP ‘21).“The response to COVID-19 has demonstrated the ways foundations can make a lasting impact in times like these when they choose to invest more in communities rather than stepping back.”
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.
Tamara Copeland is the former President of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG).