High-impact giving during a global crisis

Penn Today talks with Kat Rosqueta and Kelly Andrews of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy to discuss how to give when the need is great

Graphic illustration of essential worker delivering groceries to an older couple

People are hurting. What can we do? Simple questions can have complex answers, but The Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) is stepping in with timely advice. Founding Executive Director Kat Rosqueta and her team have leveraged their resources to focus on the need stemming from the global pandemic.

CHIP was founded 13 years ago as a collaboration between the School of Social Policy & Practice and alumni of the Wharton School. CHIP provides information and education to help donors around the world create greater social impact.

CHIP has now pivoted to address the COVID-19 pandemic, looking at where and how to give during a major economic and health crisis. “We shifted our work to designate COVID-19 response as our top priority, with all hands on deck,” says Rosqueta. “Everybody on our team contributed.”

Penn Today spoke with Rosqueta and her colleague Kelly Andrews, director of knowledge management and marketing, to find out how to address emerging needs.

Portrait of a woman smiling
Kelly Andrews, director of knowledge management and marketing at The Center for High Impact Philanthropy. (Image: Derek Rodenbeck)
Portrait of a woman with glasses on Locust Walk
Kat Rosqueta, founding executive director of The Center for High Impact Philanthropy. (Image: Laura Baldasarre)
Kelly Andrews (left), director of knowledge management and marketing, and Kat Rosqueta (right), founding executive director of The Center for High Impact Philanthropy.

What does The Center for High Impact Philanthropy do, and how has this changed over the past several months?

Rosqueta: CHIP’s mission is to provide knowledge and education to help donors around the world do more  good, whether they have $10 or $1 million. Over the past 13 years, one area we’ve always examined is effective philanthropic giving to address disasters. We’ve done this with Haiti and during the recession. In many ways, the current COVID-19 pandemic is similar to other disasters we’ve covered. The difference is the scale. The harm is so far-reaching that both those who need help and the helpers are affected.

There are phases to effective crisis response. With a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, there is a single event. Though devastating, the earthquake ends and is followed by an acute period of 72 hours of search and rescue, where the focus is on preventing further deaths. After that, communities move on to providing immediate relief for those displaced, followed by subsequent periods of recovery, rebuilding, and future-risk mitigation.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have parts of the world and the country that are in a prolonged phase of losing lives due to the disease. Without a cure or a vaccine readily available, we don’t know how long it will last, let alone when we can advance to the later stages of disaster response.

How can donors help, and what has CHIP done to provide that guidance?

Rosqueta: Part of what happens in a crisis is that it overwhelms the systems we normally rely on to understand what’s happening, where to get help, and how to provide help. With this crisis in particular, there’s been a lot of misinformation, as well as guidance that hasn’t been trusted.

Very early on in the Center’s creation, we thought about how to deal with conflicting evidence. We seek information from three circles of evidence: academic research, informed opinions, and field perspectives. In developing our COVID-10 guidance, our team went through hundreds of sources of information and resources to understand the situation and the ways people can best help.

We start with relevant academic evidence. We are quite fortunate in that we have two team members who are infectious disease and public health specialists. They had already been following the latest models  from the CDC, WHO, the University of Washington, and Johns Hopkins. They were tapping the expertise of our many Penn experts, and they were familiar with relevant, historical evidence of what worked and didn’t in prior outbreaks.

Next, we look at informed opinions. What is going on in different communities around the world? What can we learn from analogous situations? How can they point us towards what to do?

Last, but not least, we consider evidence from the field. What’s happening on the ground? What are those on the frontlines—ER docs, ICU nurses, etc.—reporting? From community organizations and the mainstream media, it was clear that access to food became a huge issue for many. Because of this, we speak to nonprofit emergency food providers, as well as representatives from grocery stores that experienced stock-outs due to hoarding.

When we find seemingly conflicting information, we ask, Where do all the arrows point? That’s where we have confidence. We prioritize the overlap.

Where are all the arrows pointing?

Rosqueta: In terms of the first phase of immediate relief, there are four areas that if we don’t address now, we’re going to lose more lives.

The first area is preventing deaths of those at risk of the disease, including those frontline workers we all depend on.

Next, we looked at two basic needs that have spiked: food and safe shelter. Historically when there have been increases in  food insecurity or homelessness due to a crisis, communities gather people in large centers. Think of Katrina: We brought people into stadiums, gymnasiums, churches. Or we mobilize large numbers of volunteers to work together to prepare and deliver meals. The need for social distancing means those models won’t work now. However, thanks to charitable and philanthropic support, some nonprofits have quickly adapted.

The fourth area is providing timely, trusted information. A recent Knight Foundation survey found that 78% of adults in the U.S. believe that misinformation about COVID-19 has been a big problem. Since the disease’s spread, public policy and sources of help differ by geography; donors and foundations can help by supporting trusted, local sources of news and information.

We compiled all of our findings into a free, public resource called COVID-19 Pandemic: How Can I Help? It is a special section of our Center’s website where visitors will find ways to help, examples of specific nonprofit to support, and related resources that our team has vetted.

We first published the website on April 15 but have continued to monitor the situation and previewed what we know we need to focus on next, such as COVID-19’s impact on livelihoods and employment, as well as the far-reaching effect it is having on education, from early childhood through college. As long as we are in this crisis and CHIP has resources to fund this work, this is what we’re going to do.

What’s the next step?

Andrews: One next step is supporting mental health during the crisis. Earlier this year we published guidance, Health in Mind, that we are adapting.

Behavioral health care has always been a really underfunded need, and now mental health needs are more widespread. You have the trauma and stress of first responders, you have the isolation that people are feeling as they’re sheltering in place, and add to that the mental health and substance use disorders that already exist.

The crisis is exacerbating problems for people who experience mental health issues chronically, and new anxiety and depression are popping up. It was difficult to find mental health care providers before, and if you didn’t already have a provider, there’s more scarcity now.

This presents opportunity for change because more people are thinking about mental health these days. Telemedicine is increasing dramatically. Before, it was more difficult to get insurance payment for telemedicine. That’s has changed dramatically in the pandemic era, and funders can fund further change in this space.

What’s going on specific to Philadelphia?

Rosqueta: We are working with more than a dozen COVID-19 emergency response funds in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey to develop a regional philanthropic data dashboard. Such timely, relevant information is critical because just like the broader economy, foundations are seeing reductions in endowments at the same time the nonprofits they fund are seeing greater demand for their services. As one funder involved in the dashboard noted, the philanthropic community doesn’t have a penny or minute to waste. Now, more than ever, individual donors and foundations need good information to help them make decisions.

By aggregating information at a regional level, the dashboard has the potential to help funders coordinate better. Such coordination can mean the difference between an effective philanthropic response and an ineffective one. Coordinating response is important so that you’re not overinvesting in one area and completely missing another. The need is so high that if we can’t think of smarter, better, more coordinated ways to respond, we’re going to be overwhelmed.

Kelly spoke earlier about the opportunity for change in mental health. This crisis is also bringing changes to how funders are operating. The speed with which these emergency funds have shared data with us and the interest in coordination is at a whole new level.

You just spoke of coordination. In a typical economy, each individual nonprofit is not only trying to meet needs, they’re also trying to leverage their organizations. Does that mean that you’re seeing funders set aside competition in order to more effectively meet need? Similar to what we’re seeing in the sciences, where labs will share information before publication in order to arrive at a solution more quickly?

Rosqueta: That’s a good analogy and the short answer is yes.

What we’re also seeing is that foundations and grant makers are getting to know and trust their grantees more. They are relaxing some of the typical restrictions they might put on the use of their grant funds because funders recognize that if they can’t be flexible their grantees won’t be able to respond to what is happening in real time.

For example, many funders like to allocate resources to a specific project. But now, those same funders are converting project-specific funding to emergency, general operating funds. Other funders who were considering providing a grant later in the year have decided to provide those funds immediately. Still other foundations that typically give no more than 5% of their endowment are now considering going beyond that payout. Everybody understands that the dire situation requires a different operating model.

CHIP’s system of evaluating information and providing guidance on how to best meet the greatest needs sounds like it would be effective at the government level as well. Are you in dialogue with elected officials?

Rosqueta: CHIP is housed at the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), so some of the findings that our team used to inform our philanthropic guidance came from our colleagues at SP2 and peers who are doing related research to inform government policy.

For example, Dennis Culhane’s research on homelessness and Amy Castro Baker‘s research on direct payments are informing policy decisions at the local and national level.

Also, the regional data dashboard I mentioned earlier includes COVID-19 emergency response funds that are collaborative efforts between the government and the private philanthropic sectors. The big PHL COVID-19 fund is a partnership among the city, United Way, and the Philadelphia Foundation. Another big fund is the Small Business Relief Fund, a collaboration between the commerce department in the city and PIDC which is an economic development nonprofit. So the evidence is informing both philanthropy and policy, and some of those funds are a collaboration between philanthropy and government.

Remember, the funds available in the philanthropic sector are tiny compared to the financial resources of the business sector and the government. Each sector has a role to play. The strength of the non-profit and philanthropic sector is that it can often move faster and more nimbly because it’s not accountable to shareholders or taxpayers. The downside is it has fewer financial resources.

Take the Gates Foundation. It is the largest private foundation in the world. Yet its entire endowment couldn’t pay for public education for two years in the state of Pennsylvania. Its endowment is less than a quarter of Google’s revenue for one year. The Gates Foundation seems huge, but if you compare it to the financial resources of the government or the business sector, it’s just a drop in the ocean.

This pandemic is so big that it will require all three sectors to work together.

How do you see this work evolving through the course of the pandemic?

Rosqueta:  COVID-19 is the primary context of all of our work right now. Given the scale of the pandemic, any project we take on will require understanding how  COVID-19 is affecting communities.

What are the needs? What is the philanthropic response? What are the gaps we need to focus on next? That is going to be the mantra of our work for the foreseeable future.

Andrews: This is it. This is our work now.