Fay Twersky, vice president at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, recently launched The Listening Post, a monthly note dedicated to lifting up exceptional ideas, voices, and questions that can help all of us become more effective in our philanthropy. She’ll also share what the team at Hewlett is learning alongside its grantees.

An excerpt from the November edition is below:

What does history teach us about philanthropy in economic crises? How did philanthropy respond to pressing social needs in very tough times? What worked, what failed, and why?

That’s why I was pleased to get an early look at results from a new study, supported by Hewlett, by historian Benjamin Soskis at the Urban Institute that examined philanthropy’s response to the Great Depression. To be sure, when we interrogate the past “we compare like to unlike,” as he notes, but the Great Depression holds similarities to today’s challenges in its indefinite duration, struggles over private versus government response, and the tangle of multiple crises it involved.

One striking lesson in the new study, to be released in 2021, relates to individual philanthropy and the Herbert Hoover administration’s misguided notion that volunteerism could address the staggering human needs, and government should stand back so as not to dampen civic engagement. That abdication of responsibility was widely seen as a failure and led to untold misery.

Soskis also examines the foundation world at that time, which was much smaller (as was the population, government, and provision of social services) than it is now, and included some familiar names; Carnegie, Russell Sage, and Rockefeller all were significant players.

Soskis highlights three main trends in grantmaking after the 1929 crash:
  1. Foundations (with notable exceptions) gave less.
  2. Foundations balanced crisis response with established funding priorities.
  3. Foundations embraced new opportunities to work with government.
So, what will our current crisis mean for today’s diverse field of philanthropic players?

The parallels to history are clear: The mix of pressing needs and long-term challenges. But philanthropy today comes in many more flavors. Alongside the big private foundations, we have many more family foundations, community foundations, corporate funders, donor-advised funds, LLCs and spend-down foundations. There are also large, innovative funder collaboratives addressing systemic problems that are reminiscent of Rosenwald’s mergers idea in the 1930s, but at a scale he would likely have never imagined. Many are giving directly to address the crises and human suffering of our time when the federal government is doing little. Others are going well beyond research and seeding solutions by directly responding to crises and becoming far more involved in elections. Many are recommitting or committing for the first time to repair racial injustice, an overdue reckoning for sure.

Read the full Listening Post by Fay Twersky. Subscribe to the mailing here.