Giving Compass' Take:

• Greater Washington Community Foundation and its partners gave direct cash transfers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Urban Institute unpacks how it worked. 

• Are direct cash transfers the best way for you to support communities during and after crises? 

• Read more about giving cash in response to COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, philanthropic entities across the US embraced giving directly— transferring cash to people—as an effective and efficient means of providing relief to those hit hard by the sudden economic and health emergency. Since the onset of the pandemic and in partnership with donors, nonprofit organizations, and local government agencies, the Greater Washington Community Foundation (The Community Foundation) has facilitated the administration of approximately $26 million in funds, distributed in increments of $50 to $2,500 to approximately 60,000 residents across the Greater Washington, DC, region. This report describes the goals, strategies, and short-term achievements of The Community Foundation and its partners in developing and implementing cash transfer strategies at the height of the pandemic. Closer examination of The Community Foundation’s role provides insight for private donors, government agencies, and nonprofits into how partnership with local philanthropy can help them deliver a speedy and equitable response to populations hit hardest by a crisis.

Early in March 2020, the mayor of the District of Columbia and the governors of Maryland and Virginia responded to the rapid escalation of COVID-19 infections along the eastern and mid-Atlantic seaboards by declaring public health emergencies in their jurisdictions. Within a week, gatherings of 10 or more people across the DMV (i.e., the Greater Washington, DC, region, or the metropolitan area formed by the District of Columbia and its immediately surrounding communities in Maryland and Virginia) had been banned, businesses were reducing or altering their operations, and school systems had halted in-person instruction and shifted to remote education.

In the DMV, as was true across the country, the COVID-19 “lockdown” had a disproportionate impact on small businesses and workers in service-sector jobs who could not shift to a remote-work environment. Workers in industries such as food service, hospitality, arts and entertainment, child care, and transportation were hit particularly hard. Other “essential workers” who did not lose or get laid off from their jobs—including grocery store workers, postal service staff members, hospital custodians, and nursing home caregivers—struggled with the added costs and burdens of losing child care and other crucial work supports such as public transportation, which had become dangerous to access. Affected people were disproportionately people with low incomes and Black and Latine communities.

As the DMV’s largest local grantmaker, stewarding more than $397 million in charitable assets from a wide range of individual and institutional donors, The Community Foundation and its funding and grantee partners were uniquely positioned to respond. Early on, The Community Foundation established a unifying goal for its COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund that dovetailed with the funding efforts it coordinated in partnership with jurisdictions and peer funders: to address immediate needs and reach adversely affected communities, particularly low-income households and communities of color (box 1). Although the goal was adapted to meet pandemic conditions, it aligned with The Community Foundation’s well-established community investment strategy to work closely with likeminded partners by “supporting marginalized neighbors to find pathways out of poverty, creating diverse and inclusive spaces to deepen human connection, and preparing workers to succeed in our region’s changing economy.”

Cash transfer became one of the dominant strategies The Community Foundation and its partners used to reach marginalized people quickly and with flexibility during the pandemic.

For this report, we draw on program data provided by The Community Foundation and on interviews with 13 people affiliated with six cash transfer initiatives in the DMV, including the COVID19 Emergency Response Fund. All the initiatives studied were affiliated with The Community Foundation and formed after March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of this research inquiry was to determine the motivations and methods of The Community Foundation and its partners for using cash assistance as a tool to respond to a crisis, as well as to evaluate the implications of direct giving against broader contexts, including rising awareness of racial inequity in American society and trends such as trust-based philanthropy.

The Advantages of Cash Transfer in a Crisis

The Community Foundation and its partners say three motivations drove their cash relief efforts during the pandemic. All three motivations have distinct and overlapping characteristics.

  1. Speed: Cash was a fast and efficient response in a crisis.
  2. Inclusivity: Local public and private dollars filled income gaps for those excluded from federal sources of cash relief.
  3. Equity: Cash stood out as an equitable response to the enormous and long-standing racial health, justice, and economic inequities laid bare by the co-occurring events of the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder