What is the role of philanthropy during the novel coronavirus pandemic? Dr. Una Osili highlights how philanthropy can play a role in supporting communities, organizations, and individuals during this time.
Bill Stanczykiewicz (BS): What is the role of philanthropy during times of health and economic crises? Well, that role is quite robust.
I’m Bill Stanczykiewicz, and this the First Day from The Fund Raising School. Today, we have Dr. Una Osili of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, who will talk with us about the unique role of philanthropy during times such as this. We’re hearing so much from the federal government, as we should.
We’ve also begun to see the private sector play a role. But there’s a unique role for philanthropy as well.
Dr. Una Osili (UO): Absolutely. I’m so glad you raised that point Bill and I’m very pleased to be here. We have seen the world grappling with this crisis. None of us have the answer. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Philanthropy has a unique role to play in moments like this. Throughout our history, we’ve seen the philanthropic sector step up and especially fill in gaps that other sectors are not able to fill or may not best equipped to fill.
We’re dealing with a health crisis, and we also have a cascade of economic effects where families and communities are really grappling with how to cope with this. Nonprofits in some ways and philanthropists are best equipped because understand the needs of their communities and they’re in touch with them on a day-to-day basis.
So philanthropists can anticipate what those needs are, whether those are hourly employees that no longer have a paycheck coming in, or whether those are health care workers that may need support, or whether it’s about organizing neighborhoods to care for the most vulnerable in all of our communities. We’re already seeing that happening around the country where local community organizations know those senior citizens that may be isolated or know where they live and can organize small groups of volunteers to either call.
You don’t always have to be there in person. You can communicate via technology, whether those are phone calls or video calls, to stay informed and assist the most vulnerable in society. So I think that’s where we’re seeing philanthropy really step up and around the country. It’s really one of the roles that philanthropy can play – filling in gaps where government or business, the other two sectors, are less equipped to.
BS: And of course, we want all three sectors to thrive. We need wisdom and good policies from our federal, state, and local government leaders. We certainly need the private sector to be responsive during times like this. But there is a role for the philanthropic sector; yet, that also is not a one size fits all. Your research and your expertise point out that different subsectors are affected in different ways during times of economic crises, natural disasters, and health crises, like the one we’re in right now.
Let’s start with the human services sector. This is an area that sometimes actually can see more donations at times like this. Is that correct?
UO: Yes. So our research gives us a lot of evidence that during the 2008 financial crisis, we actually saw large gifts, some million-dollar gifts and above go up during that crisis. And when we looked at high net worth donors and their patterns of support, many of them actually switched some of their giving to focus on basic needs. The message for nonprofits who work in the human services sector is that this is a good time to actually show how you’re making a difference in the community and to engage donors as well as volunteers.
And as I mentioned, volunteering can include virtual volunteering because many families can need that support during this period of physical distancing. So the data suggests that human services large gifts actually increased during a crisis. And for many nonprofits, this means this is a time to think about how to engage your donors and how to bring in new donors to your causes. Because the needs in your communities may have gone up. There’s an opportunity for you to really engage donors to let them know how they can make a difference through the work of your organization.
BS: The public health crisis, of course, is primary. But we know the economic consequences are huge for people losing their jobs or having less hours, reduced pay, etc. And yet there are still many of us who are working full-time, who are still receiving that full-time paycheck, even if we’re working at home. And Una on the one hand, a lot of people understandably might be refraining from spending. But you’re saying there are donors even during tough times like this, who we can still be approaching for financial support?
UO: Absolutely. And Bill, you are correct; uncertainty does have an impact on donations. People tend to give when they feel financially and economically secure. But we also know that in times of crisis, there is the spirit of generosity that has been part of American philanthropy for as long as all of us know. It’s older than the history of this country. And it’s even something that spans the global context as well. And in communities around the country, we’re seeing the beginnings of that where communities are launching response funds. And we’re seeing donors really step up because they see how this can impact their own neighbors. They’re aware of not just the health crisis that we’re dealing with, but as you noted, the fall-out in terms of people’s economic lives.
BS: We talked about human service organizations that sometimes see giving go up during times of crises. On some of the other subsectors, what do you see in the arts during times such as this?
UO: The arts in the past has been quite vulnerable to economic shocks. And so this is something that I think many arts and culture organizations are aware of, and many of them are being very proactive during this time to start engaging with their supporters, to arrange virtual events, and more. Many have converted their galas to virtual, or they’re also giving supporters and stakeholders alternate ways of supporting the organization. For example, if you already had tickets for an event, consider converting that to a future event or donation instead of getting a refund.
I think the arts community is also very resilient and we’ve seen a lot of creativity and innovation, especially with online ways of building support and engagement. And so this is a time for arts organizations to continue to benefit from that creativity and innovation and to explore some of those ways of engaging support online if you can’t meet in person because of physical distancing. There are other ways—the arts are so central to many communities. They can give hope during periods of uncertainty and they can bring people together. Except this time, it’s online communities. And that has been one of the bright spots in today’s environment with seeing how organizations are innovating even in this time of great uncertainty.
BS: There are nine subsectors in the philanthropic sector. We focused just on two in this brief podcast. We hope that you can take these lessons and apply them to your particular subsector. And again, we’re not saying this is easy. We’re not trying to minimize the challenges that all of us know and we are all in this together. What we are encouraging you, with the expertise of Dr. Una Osili, is to do your best with who you know, where you are, and look for those opportunities during those difficult times. We do expect fundraising very understandably, will likely take a dip, at least for the short term, if not for longer. So what can you do now to continue to make your case to donors?