As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the world, the 2020 cohort of the Terrance Keenan Institute for Emerging Leaders in Health Philanthropy was thrust into uncertainty and isolation like those in the communities we serve. We recognized our own power and privilege while also experiencing the paradox of systemic health inequities met with one-time funding opportunities. We watched as the sector pushed aside ingrained practices and processes to quickly get money to communities in need. Nearly a year later and still in a pandemic, we see these processes being reinstituted and wonder, how can philanthropy move away from one-time responses to crisis—and towards partnering with organizations and communities so they have the necessary resources to adapt, respond, and build on years of progress?

As the next generation of health-focused philanthropic leadership in this country, we believe that a fundamental shift is needed in philanthropy. Moving towards sustained and authentic relationship-building with community partners requires that we examine and shift away from practices, policies, and behaviors that prioritize the transactional components of grantmaking. To do this, we must acknowledge and confront power where it lies within our foundations and work at all levels of the organization to truly make this shift.

The pandemic has shown us that boards can set high-level guardrails and empower staff to approve grants within guidelines that are responsive and strategic. The de Beaumont Foundation’s board delegates authority to the President and CEO for “rapid response” grantmaking up to $500,000 each year. Last year, these grants provided general operating support in response to the pandemic and enabled funding to flow quickly. This approach has been so successful that the board recently expanded the CEO’s delegated authority, now allowing budget line items to shift up to 10% of the annual charitable budget without seeking board authorization.

By examining internal practices related to preserving corpus and minimum payout levels, trustees can lead more agile, responsive, and equitable foundations. Last spring, the sudden stock market drop triggered the Headwaters Foundation’s spending policy, requiring them to cut 15% of operating expenses. Market volatility coupled with growing community needs raised tensions around preserving the endowment and meeting mission among board members. At the Healthy Communities Foundation, the board approved a three-year grantmaking policy that tripled grantmaking dollars available, going above the 5% threshold in recognition that equitable recovery for Black and Latinx communities will be a long process requiring deep commitment. Lastly, the board of the de Beaumont Foundation voted to increase payout by $1 million in 2021, with the understanding that philanthropic dollars are more useful during the pandemic.

Read the full article about health philanthropy by Noelle Dorward, Nora Garcia, Amy Gorn, Christine Kudrav James, Erin Switalski at Grantmakers In Health.