As the world grapples with the devastation in the wake of the Covid-19, some of the hardest hit are the poor and marginalized. It has been well documented that this pandemic has laid bare the vast inequalities and inequity throughout the country and on many levels. Those who serve these communities have not been immune, and civil society organizations (CSOs) have been dramatically affected. From unexpected expenditure such as data costs, to high rates of staff stress and trauma and managing the expectations of donor partners, leaders of CSOs are overwhelmed. In an already challenging environment amidst shrinking space for CSOs and lessening donor funding, the Ford Foundation has taken a new approach.
Within a few weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Ford Foundation issued a statement to all grantees through its Executive Leadership Team, acknowledging the effects of Covid-19 and highlighting the Foundation’s commitment to seeking ways to lighten the burden that CSOs would face. The statement, “A Message of Support for Our Grantees”, was issued on 16 March 2020 by the Vice President of Programs, Hilary Pennington. In this message, she acknowledged the unanticipated shock that the Covid-19 period would have on the nonprofit sector. In an effort to mitigate this shock, she laid out the Foundation’s plan for its current grantees.
Acknowledging that each CSO would have different needs and challenges in this period, the program officers reached out to each grantee to establish what support would be most meaningful. This was under the umbrella of a maximum flexibility approach. To this end, grantees chose a number of options which included:
1. Where the grant contract was based on “project support”, they could choose to convert the grant to either core support or general support. This allowed for the flexibility to reallocate funds within budget line item and address costs such as data for staff working from home, laptops, personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff etc.
2. Furthermore, grantees were encouraged to look at travel and convening costs which would not be utilized due to the travel restrictions and could therefore be reallocated to more pressing matters.
3. Included in point 2. above, was the acknowledgement that CSO leadership and staff would face additional stresses at this time, particularly grantees on the Gender, Race and Ethnicity Justice Program with its focus on violence against women and girls. Increased numbers of such gender-based violence (GBV) were anticipated during the lockdown period, as seen in countries like China and the United Kingdom. Grantees were encouraged to redirect funding to wellness and psychosocial support for staff.
4. Grantees were also supported in decisions to postpone or cancel activities that could not be completed. The Foundation worked with grantees to reassess deadlines and activities including the flexibility to delay reporting dates.
Increases to current grants
The Foundation reallocated much of the budget for the first and second quarter of 2020 to increasing current grants. With these increases, the Foundation also extended project end dates. This gave CSOs the opportunity to utilize funding in innovative ways to address the pandemic, with some breathing room within which to do this.
While the Ford Foundation was particularly interested in the social justice sector organizations, it could not ignore the humanitarian crises that was unfolding in every one of the regions. To this end, a few key humanitarian grants were awarded to fund activities such as PPE for health workers; food parcels for poor and marginalized people; and in the case of Southern Africa, funding to organizations working with GBV survivors and providing key support to the anticipated increase in women seeking shelter from GBV during the lockdown period.
Social bonds and Project Wanda
Most innovatively and radically, the Ford Foundation has sold $1 billion of taxable bonds in order to support civil society in what is anticipated to be an extremely difficult period post Covid-19. This is unprecedented and outside of “normative thinking for Foundations1”. Project Wanda is a one-time injection of fresh resources to respond to the Covid-19 crisis that engulfs the regions where the Foundation works. Its main purpose is to ensure that civil society emerges as resilient and well-prepared as possible to face the new challenges brought about by the pandemic.
As the Covid-19 crisis subsides and leaves in its wake an even more inequitable society, the Ford Foundation has made a commitment to the social justice sector at large, to support the critical work undertaken by those who will be helping us all to adapt to the new normal, in a financial environment that will be difficult at best.