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Four Tips for Giving During the Pandemic

Even with the best intentions, it can be overwhelming to know where to start.

The global coronavirus pandemic has affected our families and communities in numerous ways. In this time of upheaval and uncertainty, many are wondering how they can help. With almost 2 million nonprofits in the U.S., including thousands of local community foundations, it can be overwhelming to know where to start.

The following four steps, which were developed by the Effective Philanthropy Learning Initiative at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, in conjunction with Schwab Charitable, can be used with your clients to help them identify giving priorities and guide their search for charities that are offering support and relief during this disaster.

Pinpoint charitable giving priorities.

Organizations across the country are responding to the spread of COVID-19, and it may be difficult for clients to choose a charity to support without first having a clear understanding of their priorities. Prompt them to take time to reflect on what they hope to achieve. If they already have a track record of charitable giving, one way to help them get started is to review their giving history and look for themes in past behavior.

Some potential questions to discuss with your clients include:

  • Is there a particular need stemming from the coronavirus pandemic that is especially relevant to them? Response efforts are currently focused in two broad areas: public health and helping communities through economic instability. To help your clients understand the current response to COVID-19, Candid has created a webpage that combines news items and a funding summary with funding opportunities.
  • Does a particular community of people or region have special meaning? There are numerous nonprofit organizations, from local community foundations to international aid groups, that will help direct funds where they will have the most impact. To help clients determine how to be most effective during this time, Giving Compass has created a roundup of guidance from leaders across the nonprofit sector.
  • Can they combine financial support with their time? Although much of the country is practicing remote work and social distancing, many charities, such as food and blood banks, will still need to rely on volunteers. Neighbors who should not or cannot leave their homes may also need assistance. Schwab Charitable’s website offers three simple strategies for determining what combination of money, time, and skills will fulfill philanthropic goals.

Addressing these questions and considerations will help your clients create a philanthropic focus during this time of need.

Identify charities supporting those impacted by the coronavirus.

Once your clients have identified their giving priorities, it is important to become familiar with the nonprofits making a difference.

Schwab Charitable has partnered with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to curate a list of charities helping support those impacted by the coronavirus. The list includes general COVID-19 relief funds, charities providing food and shelter to those in need, charities offering medical support, children’s and mental health organizations, educational resource organizations, charities supporting supply delivery and logistics, and charities offering small business assistance. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s webpage on COVID-19 is also regularly updated and includes an overview of the evolving health situation, guidance on identifying charities and links to additional resources.

If your clients are looking to support a specific geographic region within the United States, community foundations have invaluable knowledge and resources to help donors maximize the impact of their support in local communities affected by the spread of COVID-19. The Schwab Charitable website has resources for directing support locally, including a link to The Council on Foundations’ search tool for community foundations working in regions across the U.S. and a resource developed by Giving Compass and the National Center for Family Philanthropy identifying COVID-19 funds offered by community foundations and other intermediaries.

Tapping personal and professional networks is also a great way to explore charities. Consider asking family or friends with relevant experience about which organizations they support or are familiar with. For example, a friend who is a healthcare worker may have insights about organizations that provide medical resources.

Once you have an understanding of the nonprofit landscape, you will be well-positioned to create a shortlist of organizations aligned with your clients’ charitable giving priorities and goals.

Understand approaches for maximizing impact.

It is also important to understand how each organization on the shortlist will advance change and measure impact.

Nonprofits typically address change in one of three ways: by providing goods and services, by promoting knowledge, or through advocacy and movement-building.

  • Organizations that provide goods and services directly to those impacted by the coronavirus may have the most capital-intensive needs as they try to secure and deliver critical supplies and services. This includes not only healthcare organizations but also those that support vulnerable populations such as workers who have lost their jobs or families and individuals who need to take extra precautions with social distancing because of age or pre-existing conditions.
  • Organizations that support the generation and dissemination of research and applied knowledge. Research into SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 vaccines and antivirals is essential to reduce future infections and fatalities. 
  • Advocacy and movement-building organizations address structural and systemic changes. For example, nonprofit organizations are working with lawmakers on policies designed to help communities weather economic instability through paid time off, sick leave, business loans, unemployment benefits and protection from eviction and utility shutoffs.

Evaluate and vet the shortlist.

Now that you’ve narrowed down a small group of charities, thoroughly vetting charities can help give your clients the confidence that their funding decisions will have a positive impact on the response to the coronavirus.

To vet a charity, keep the following key considerations and questions in mind:

  • U.S. nonprofits can be registered as various types of 501(c)(3) organizations. Is the organization legally registered as a charitable organization?
  • An organization’s track record is indicative of its experience. Does the organization have any negative press coverage about its history or experience?
  • An organization should be clear about its goals and approach. Has the organization’s strategy and vision for addressing the coronavirus situation been articulated?
  • Programs should allow an organization to meaningfully engage with the target population. Are programs or services for this initiative specific to disaster relief goals?
  • Senior staff and board members should have experience and knowledge relevant to the organization’s goals.
  • An organization must be strategic about its financial health, fundraising from a diversified stream of donors and tracking and managing its budget efficiently. Is the organization transparent about its financials and funding needs?
  • To maximize impact and efficiency, organizations should track program outcomes and obtain continuous feedback to inform their current and future work.

Some of these questions can be answered by looking at the organizations’ websites or searching GuideStar, Charity Navigator and Charity Watch for details about programs, results and financials. Other questions require deeper engagement with the nonprofits and experts in the field. Depending on what information you uncover, keep in mind that not all potential red flags are deal breakers. If something gives you pause, assess whether it is a result of a contained challenge, such an executive director in transition, or a more pervasive problem, such as a lack of program data or focus.

With so many charities involved, it is natural to feel overwhelmed. You will probably identify many organizations whose work aligns with your clients’ charitable goals. No single charity is the only “right” decision. Amid all this uncertainty, any way to help your clients give is important and appreciated.

Kim Laughton is president of Schwab Charitable.

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