Lean Funders Are Adjusting Their Grantmaking and Operations to Respond to COVID-19: Week of April 6 - Exponent Philanthropy
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Lean Funders Are Adjusting Their Grantmaking and Operations to Respond to COVID-19: Week of April 6

On Friday, April 3, Exponent Philanthropy hosted a third live discussion for lean funders to share how they are responding to COVID-19. We will continue to host these discussions every Friday at 2 PM ET to give all lean funders the opportunity to connect around their responses. We are also compiling COVID-19 information and resources relevant to lean funders.

Lean funders are responding to COVID-19 with a number of strategies while recognizing the virus, response, testing, treatments, medical supplies, and community needs are constantly changing.

Here are the strategies funders discussed on April 3:


Collaboration remains an essential strategy for lean funders responding to COVID-19 in their communities. The Ausherman Family Foundation and the Helen J. Serini Foundation shared the importance of coordinating with other funders in your community, and they highlighted what they’ve learned from working together in Frederick, Maryland:

  • Start with who you know—The Ausherman Family Foundation and the Serini Foundation had been casually working with other place-based funders in their region, but when COVID-19 broke out, they began collaborating more formally. They co-funded a grant opportunity with the local United Way and community foundation; developed an optional survey for nonprofits in the community; and hosted calls with nonprofit and foundation leaders. By relying on relationships cultivated over time, the group has been able to move swiftly.
  • Getting buy-in—Both foundations emphasized having the right buy-in. For some, having buy-in at the board level is a must. At other foundations, buy-in from the executive director or another staff member might be key. Without buy-in, and at the right level, funders might not be able to work as cooperatively.
  • Funders move at different speeds—Lean funders agree that some foundations are more agile than others. Those with concentrated decision-making processes might be able to respond quickly, whereas other foundations with more dispersed leadership could need more input before making a decision. These distinct speeds can allow various funders who work together the opportunitiy to respond to different needs as they arise.

For more on funder collaboration, see this issue of Essentials.

Creating Space for Nonprofits to Collaborate

Recognizing that nonprofits are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, lean funders are providing moral and financial support necessary to create spaces for nonprofits to collaborate.

In Frederick, foundations worked with nonprofits to identify and purchase essential supplies (e.g., gloves, masks, sanitizers, grocery gift cards, diapers), and they partnered with the local YMCA to collect and distribute these and other in-kind donations. Since the YMCA’s operations had been suspended for purposes of social distancing, they had the space and personnel necessary for managing the logistics.

For more on supporting nonprofit collaboration, see:

Continuing to listen

Listening to what other funders in the community are doing, and learning what nonprofits lack, is a central focus for many lean funders right now. Whether through informal conversations and check-ins, or partnering to field a joint survey assessing community needs, lean funders are prioritizing listening. Although a joint survey may not perfectly capture what a particular funder wants to learn, lean funders want to lessen the strain on nonprofits at this critical time while affording them the opportunity to share what they’re lacking.

For more on listening well, see:

Concerns over nonprofit sustainability

Many lean funders are concerned about the sustainability of the nonprofits they support. In the short term, funders are stepping up to provide the moral and financial support that’s essential in times of crisis, and they’re connecting nonprofits with those who have assets to share. Thinking ahead, funders are leveraging research on nonprofit business models to help their grantees navigate changes to their business models—particularly those nonprofits that rely on earned revenue or fundraising events and galas.

Join your fellow lean funders on Fridays at 2 PM ET for another live discussion to connect around responses to COVID-19.

Brendan McCormick, Exponent Philanthropy manager, research and education, develops resources and programs for members. Prior to joining Exponent Philanthropy, Brendan worked as the grants and awards coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation; program coordinator for outreach, instruction, and communication at University of Maryland’s College Park Scholars Public Leadership Program; and as a fellow at the Greater Washington Community Foundation.

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