COVID Turned the Philanthropy World Upside Down

Last year the local non-profit sector had to adapt on the fly, and organizations stepped up in a big way. Here's why we need to step up for them—and keep doing it.

The Philadelphia philanthropy world has faced unprecedented challenges in the past year-plus. Photo by PoepleImages via Getty Images

When I was a child, my mother would speak often of her father.

He was 22 when he and my grandmother came up from North Carolina in 1917. He was poor but diligent, illiterate but a quick study. He earned enough from his own hauling business to feed his kids, all 10 of them. And of his little, he gave much.

When the hungry passed by the house, and many did during the Great Depression, he would simply say, “Give ’em plenty to eat.” My grandmother was a Southern scratch cook, so the food was good, portions were generous, and seconds were encouraged. His home became a dependable place to get a meal.

My grandfather died when I was five years old, so I really only know him through this fabled tale of generosity.

My grandfather may have been born into a family not long out of slavery and learned to survive at the economic margins of a country that had little use for him, but his gung-ho giving philosophy was all-American: Give ’em plenty to eat.

My mother loved teaching through stories, and giving was one of her favorite topics. She used my grandfather’s life the same way she used Jesus feeding the multitude with a little kid’s lunch of loaves and fishes. Sometimes for emphasis, she would ball up her fist and show it to me. “See how nothing gets out,” she’d say, pausing ever so slightly before adding the aha: “But nothing gets in, either.”

I believed her, so I believed her lessons of fists and fables. But in my child’s head, everything got mixed up — God, grandfather, generosity, food and fairy tales. These, I thought, were solutions to life’s problems. I believed that generosity was the weapon that got us all to our happily-ever-after. I prayed that I would be heroic like Granddad and give ’em plenty to eat, too. Amen.

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, I paid little attention to the announcement. I wasn’t particularly worried, because we’re a land of plenty, rich in resources, with the best health-care system in the world. How many times had I read that — the best health-care system in the world? I was so cavalier. Clearly, any outbreak could be handled if we just threw enough money at it. We would, I thought confidently, be back to normal in a week, two at the most.

Now, I look back in utter disbelief. We have spent so much time hopelessly watching the healthy get sick, the sickly die, and the living grieve. Even as politicians tossed out ever-larger sums of money, COVID refused to abate. Collectively, we moaned or baked, drank or prayed: Please, God, bring back yesteryear. Amen.

This wasn’t just a pandemic; it was a “syndemic.” That’s according to Joe Pyle, president of the Scattergood Foundation, a non-profit devoted to improving the behavioral health-care system in the Philadelphia area. Pyle says it means “synergistic epidemic,” and it occurs when biology works within a sociological context that makes everything worse. COVID descended on people who were already playing host to chronic diseases like diabetes and respiratory ailments­, in a country with a fragmented, inequitable health-care system — one where systemic racism and mistrust in science were rampant.

Give ’em plenty to eat. My grandfather’s heroic generosity seemed much too small for these troubles. It was almost too much to take in.

Yet it’s exactly this suffering in others that brings out the generosity in us. (Well, in most of us.) Suffering unleashes an outpouring of donations. A 2019 study found that almost a third of American households made disaster-related donations in 2018, contributing an average of $314. After 9/11, $2.2 billion in aid money was raised. Contributions for Hurricane Katrina totaled $3.7 billion, and $1 billion was rushed to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Bombarded daily by the news of this pox on all our houses — jobs lost, hunger and housing insecurity, rents and utilities unpaid, families with school-age children but no internet — we did what we’ve always done in a disaster: We gave. And we gave a lot.

Last year, foundations, corporations and individuals collectively opened our hands and slipped an unprecedented $471 billion into the coffers of U.S. charities, especially human-service charities that provide basic services like food, water and shelter. Individuals gave the largest share of that pie — almost 70 percent.

Patricia Snell Herzog and Heather E. Price, the authors of American Generosity: Who Gives and Why, found that, on the whole, “Americans are generally quite active in working to help others.” My grandfather may have been born into a family not long out of slavery and learned to survive at the economic margins of a country that had little use for him, but his gung-ho giving philosophy was all-American: Give ’em plenty to eat.

And this year, in return, philanthropies rose to the occasion, finding smart solutions for giving and pushing back on how things are usually done.

It was a picture-perfect October day, and Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia was near 33rd and Oxford streets in East Fairmount Park, hosting a press conference to announce the public portion of its first-ever multi-year fund-raising campaign. It had already raised $4 million toward its We Build Together effort. Now the nonprofit was turning to individuals for the last million.

CEO Corinne O’Connell took to the stage to rally the givers. Motivating donors is part science and part art. Present too big a problem, and they’ll feel overwhelmed and might not give. She had to hit just the right balance of issue and doable individual action. She told a short story.

A few years back, at a home-cooked church dinner for Habitat volunteers, the church’s pastor proudly shared with O’Connell how his congregation had contributed to the meal. Folks had signed up to bring what they could, including an elderly parishioner who put her name next to the line for the butter.

It was a feast — chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, homemade bread. And everything, O’Connell said, was more delicious because of the butter.

According to economics professor and philanthropy researcher John List, of the University of Chicago, small donors give “because they enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling of helping or doing a good thing.” But individual giving to charities has remained fairly stagnant since 1971 — at about two to three percent of income — while the number of individuals giving has declined.

Authors Herzog and Price estimate that four out of 10 people who do give are impulsive givers. What O’Connell wants is for that first impulse gift to turn into a long-term donor relationship. (Currently, less than half of first-time donors continue to give.) O’Connell knows that nonprofits like Habitat­ for Humanity thrive on exactly that — hundreds­ of regular, conscientious givers providing butter for the long haul.

As O’Connell spoke, Peter and Kathy Davis were seated on the sidelines. Pointing out the couple, O’Connell made another big announcement: The Davises had given the largest legacy gift ever to the Philadelphia chapter of Habitat for Humanity — a $1 million planned gift that would help launch the agency’s Wilt Street Legacy Society.

“It’s rare that we get a seven-figure gift,” Kathryn Fernandez, Habitat’s senior director of institutional advancement, tells me, adding that unlike New York, our region has relatively few one percenters. Those that are here, she adds, tend to give to universities and hospitals. COVID underscored that most nonprofits need to develop sustainable funding. (Per a survey by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, 60 percent of fund-raising execs currently have donor retention as their top priority.)

Before retiring from TD Bank in 2013, Peter Davis worked in Center City, where he was confronted every day with the problem of homelessness. It disturbed him — not in a “Can they be removed?” way, but rather in the “What can I do about it?” way. “If you don’t have a good home and a good family situation, your chances are diminished,” he tells me. Davis is from a loving home in Jenkintown, with supportive parents who provided him with a good education. For him, that was the secret to his success and the impetus for his giving.

At first, the Davises gave to the national Habitat for Humanity. Then, about five years ago, they steered their contributions to the local office. Soon, they started to go to local Habitat functions and meet other Habitat people — donors, recipients, employees. The first event was a tour of rowhomes in North Philly — six to eight houses in different states of completion. Davis could tell it was a well-constructed project. Two years ago, while redoing their will, the couple decided to provide for the local Habitat for Humanity. “I feel it was the right time,” Davis explains. “I wanted to treat a charity like I treat one of my children … well, better than my children.”

Then the Davises went further and created a matching component, promising to provide matches of up to $25,000 for the next 10 people who signed a letter of intent to put Habitat in their wills. It seems Habitat’s plan is working. “It was Kathryn who actually brought it up,” Davis says, referring to the group’s institutional advancement head. “And we were willing to do that to get other people involved.”

Nonprofits need couples like the Davises, because many are in as fragile a financial state as the clients they serve. It’s true that foundations stepped up and poured out recovery dollars during COVID. A University of Pennsylvania Center for High Impact Philanthropy study showed the 13 regional recovery funds participating in its survey doled out more than 4,800 grants totaling more than $40 million across the region’s 10 counties during the first three months of the pandemic. The Philadelphia Foundation awarded more than $90 million in 2020 — three times more than usual.

Nonprofit executives hope to use  lessons from the pandemic to make changes that will let them work faster, and smarter, in the next crisis. Organizations have been increasingly hamstrung by specific guidelines attached to donations — “This money must fund this specific project” — that can make it hard to fulfill broader missions. Vu Le, a nonprofit exec turned activist blogger at, calls it “philanthropic benevolent patriarchy” — funders’ belief that they know what’s best for organizations. Le says that’s been more harm than help, because board members rarely have an insider’s view of the problems, the clients, or how nonprofits are run.

“These are totally valid complaints,” says Jennifer Leith, the departing executive director of Philadelphia’s Alfred and Mary Douty Foundation. “It’s a power thing, a control thing.”

Le, Leith, and other nonprofit advocates are calling on foundations to make multi-year general operating dollars funding, a.k.a. MYGOD funding, the new normal.

It’s not easy. Leith has been the executive director of the $7 million Douty Foundation since 2012. While COVID raged, the foundation gave a quarter of its assets to help its grantees survive. Now it’s shuttering, in part because its board didn’t know if it would have the resources to pursue participatory grant-making, a model that essentially transfers decision-making power about grants from large foundations to the communities impacted by those funding decisions. “I have a progressive board and an enlightened board, but they just weren’t behind this idea,” Leith says.

Samuel S. Fels Fund president Sarah Martinez-Helfman is a strong advocate of MYGOD — most of her foundation’s grants are multi-year and general-support. Still, she says, it isn’t a simple issue. “When a small funder makes multi-year grant commitments to all of their grantees, they risk cutting deep into their endowment [principal] if the investment markets tumble,” she explains. “You have to be sure you can deliver on your promises while following state laws that can be in tension with the organization’s mission and values.”

Many of the adaptations that have occurred in the philanthropy world these past two years were born out of necessity. That doesn’t mean they don’t have long-standing value; in fact, it’s the opposite. They’ve opened our eyes to how to best serve our communities that need help most.

My grandfather was a man who believed a need demanded a response. On Sunday mornings, he would gather men milling about the block, the ones with nowhere to go, and invite them in for a Sunday breakfast — homemade bread, grits, eggs, bacon. He didn’t wait for them to ask, because, well, he already knew.

We all know, too. Philadelphia is the nation’s poorest big city, and our nonprofit agencies are our champions for providing for those most in need. We all must find a way — whether we’re foundations or individuals­ — to unfurl our fists and give, give regularly, and give without restriction, allowing our gifts to be guided by those who have boots on the ground.

If we’re going to create a better country, we know we gotta give ’em plenty to eat.

FEELING GENEROUS? Read our guide to 30 Philadelphia organizations working to make the region better.

Published as “The Ultimate Guide to Giving Back” in the December 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.