Sending Help Fast: Setting Up & Managing Emergency Grants in Times of Crisis

There’re no definitive guidelines for how to act in a crisis, but there are a few actionable strategies that can help you thoughtfully and efficiently set up and manage emergency grants.

Grantmaking is close to an art. Honing the process of setting up a grant, collecting applications, selecting the right fits, and then reporting on your results is something that takes years of experience, lots of thought, and an ongoing, laser dedication to your mission.

Truly great grantmaking requires enormous amounts of consideration, labor, tweaking, and analysis—but what happens when you need to issue an emergency grant and don’t have time for any of that?

The recent Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that philanthropy can’t always wait—even for a few weeks—and that while the grantmaking process is often long and thorough for a reason, sometimes we have to expedite the process in order to do what grants do best: help connect resources to the people who need them most.

At Submittable, we have the unique opportunity to watch thousands of grantmakers go about their business each day. In the past month, we’ve also watched as dozens of foundations and organizations have stepped up bravely, quickly, and with resolve to mainline assistance to the groups who can use it most during the COVID crisis. Their solutions for setting up emergency grants have been creative, nimble, unhesitating, and, above all, compassionate.

Emergency grants are vital in the wake of calamity, whether the world has been shaken by a public health concern, a natural disaster, an economic recession, or a pressing social issue. Here’s what we’ve learned from our clients about how to set up and manage emergency grants with maximum efficiency, for maximum impact.


Ten emerging strategies for managing an emergency grant

Emergencies require that we leave our comfort zones. For grantmakers, this means that the rules change, even when it comes to the most tried and true methods, procedures, and technologies that you’re relied and sworn upon in past years. As an example, PEAK Grantmaking reports that just in the wake of the COVID crisis, 97 percent of organizations are considering changes to their grantmaking processes, while 63 percent are considering changing their grant priorities—who and what they fund.

Emergency grantmaking requires sacrificing “perfect” for “done” and valuing efficiency and speed over almost all else. It also requires more trust: trust that your applicants need your funds and that they will use them with the urgency and weight that inspired your grant.

Grantmaking best practices and emergency grantmaking best practices are different. Here are the strategies that we’ve seen working.

1. Be ready for remote work

One of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 crisis is that social distancing is required for everyone to stay healthy and safe, which means in-person collaboration is all but taken off the table. And it’s important to add that many emergency situations, from national disasters to economic crashes, may also necessitate an increase in remote work. For these reasons, being able to work remotely and virtually are vital to your emergency grant planning.

How can you make the shift?

Utilize video conferencing solutions, like ZoomMicrosoft Teams, or Google Hangouts, to take many meetings and interviews remote. Specifically for the grants space, you may conduct site visits virtually through these tools, too.

Adopt application management software, like Submittable, to replace in-person review and selection processes. Review teams of any size can tackle applications and make decisions based on customized scoring systems, while communicating through in-platform messaging.

Go paperless. The majority of foundations now use electronic grant application processes, but if you are in the minority, now is the time to update your procedure. This is also the time to examine any instances that you use paper—can you replace paper letters with email communication? Can you wire funds to your grantee accounts instead of sending checks via post?

Do less. Going fully remote in a crisis may simply mean letting some tasks slide. The Helen J. Serini Foundation, for example, cancelled all of their upcoming site visits, citing them as not vital to their current mission, which is helping their grantees during the crisis.

2. Reduce the burden on grantees

Place yourself in the grantee’s shoes. Many of them are strained by the consequences of the crisis and many of them need funding for crisis-related work yesterday. Anything you can do to make their job easier helps them, the community, and everyone’s efforts toward relief.

Just a few of many ideas:

  • Consider expanding your funding or changing the scope of your funding.
  • Ease requirements on existing grants, including requirements related to spending, reporting, timelines, outcomes, and allocations.
  • Consider offering general operating support, such as  technical support or infrastructure support, to grantees who are struggling with moving to remote work or adapting to the conditions of the emergency.
  • Make grant modifications easy through extremely simplified processes.
  • Consider making grant payments sooner and/or expediting the timeline of future payments.
3. Communicate transparently

The first best step toward easing the burden for your grantees is asking them about their situation and listening to their needs. This is the time to reach out individually to your grantees to both let them know what changes your organization is making to provide emergency relief as well as better understand what changes they are undergoing to adapt to the situation and continue making an impact.

This isn’t an opportunity for only sending a general public statement about “the current situation” and leaving it at that. This is the time to make individual phone calls or video conference meetings. Connect with individuals who are leaders in your community and get the best handle on the situation before you start organizing a unified response.

Don’t forget to communicate internally. If you’re making sweeping changes to the process in which you create and award grants, make those changes crystal clear. Just because you’re turning to a bare-bones system for issuing a grant doesn’t mean you can skip vital steps like getting your team on the same page.

Also communicate to the public and to donors. If you’re making drastic changes to your grant process, let people know. If you’re offering a ten-day application window for a new series of emergency relief grants, get the word out as quickly as possible so that the organizations and individuals who would benefit know to apply. If you are doing something new and exciting that will really help fast, let your donors know.

You will need to cease a lot of your “normal” tasks as a foundation, but communication is not one of them. Information that’s important to communicate especially in times of emergency includes:

  • How operations have been affected, such as a move to remote operation.
  • Any scheduled events that will be changed, cancelled, or postponed.
  • How your employees are being supported during this time.
  • How your grants processes and requirements are changing.
  • Special grants, events, and strategies that you are launching to help.
  • Other organizations that are offering assistance.
  • How readers can help.

Communicate this information through multiple channels:

  • Through email
  • On your website
  • On social media
  • Through the media
  • In a press release

Consider creating a simple survey to assess needs. Help everyone communicate their needs to you without a huge time commitment, especially if you don’t have the bandwidth to reach out individually. Quickly understanding the scope of the problem as you are forming your emergency grants to ensure you’ll be finding the right solutions.

Lilia Perez, Grants and Programs Manager at Arts Mid-Hudson, realized that much of what her nonprofit was funding was going to be cancelled, postponed, rescheduled indefinitely, or restructured into a new program. Before deciding on next steps, she set up a simple survey via Submittable to collect information and assess needs before picking up the phone.

She told Submittable:

Why Giving for Core Mission Support Matters

By Anne Phillips and Melinda Mosier

This post originally appeared on the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation website and has been reshared from the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog.

As you read this, a nonprofit organization is keeping a mother and children safe from domestic abuse. An elder knows that someone from Meals-on-Wheels will be coming to check on him — and deliver a hot lunch. A watershed critical to clean drinking water is being protected. A downtown is coming back to life — with help from arts and economic development nonprofits. Nonprofit media are keeping citizens informed about the news of the day. A child is getting dental care. A New American is learning English. A young boy has a mentor.

Nonprofits are at the heart of civil society, tending to our most pressing needs, caring for the most vulnerable among us. And yet most struggle, year over year, to maintain enough funding to carry out missions that make our communities healthier, happier, safer, more vibrant, and prosperous.

Nonprofits not only need our support — but they need support that is not earmarked for discrete items, programs or projects, but that funds their critical core missions.

It can be tempting to direct charitable dollars only to specific items, projects, or programs — and away from “overhead” like staffing, facilities, and materials. It is absolutely understandable — and commendable — for people to want to know where their money is going and to want to quantify its impact. But we would encourage generous people to take a holistic approach when they think about what it takes for nonprofits to do what they do for our communities.

If you are going to make a donation to a food pantry, for instance, it might be natural to think about restricting your donation to pay only for food. Your desire to help feed your neighbors who are struggling is, after all, what prompted you to make the donation. But if no one supported the food pantry’s staffing, rent, electricity, and outreach — in addition to the food for its shelves and coolers — there would be no food pantry. There would be a bag of groceries on a street corner.

We understand this, intuitively, about every other kind of business. Author Vu Le, who writes extensively about the nonprofit sector, puts it this way:

“No one goes to a bakery and says ‘I want to buy cake, but I don’t want any of this $20 I am giving you to pay for the vanilla or the electricity for the oven or for your chef’s salary.’” But too frequently, we have been encouraged to do exactly that when we think about giving to nonprofits.

When the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation surveyed our grantees with help from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), we got this message loud and clear: nonprofits need more funding that supports their core missions.

The Charitable Foundation increased this kind of support during the most recent recession. Other funding streams for critical services were drying up, and nonprofits desperately needed an influx of flexible capital to help fill budget gaps. The reality is that funding that disappeared during that recession is, for the most part, not coming back. Nonprofits are doing more with less, facing decreased resources and increased need for services — and they badly need more flexibility from funders. Last year, the Foundation changed its competitive Community Grants program so that all the largest grants from that program are for operating support, and the vast majority are now multiyear grants. Many generous people who hold donor-advised funds at the Foundation regularly recommend grants from those funds for core operating support.

No matter how much you have to give to support the nonprofits that you know are doing critical work in your community, we encourage you to give to support their whole missions — and to feel great about doing that. Food pantries, after all, need more than food.

Anne Phillips is director of grantmaking and senior program officer, Manchester and Statewide Programs, at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

Melinda Mosier is director of donor services at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

Making Philanthropy More Business-Like is a Big Mistake

By Larry Kramer, President, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

November 7, 2019

This post first appeared on India Development Review and has been reshared from The Center for Effective Philanthropy.

A lot of people today talk about how philanthropy needs to be more business-like, about how we need to incorporate principles from the for-profit business sector into the nonprofit and traditional grantmaking sector. I think that is a big mistake, and I urge you to take care before doing it.

1. People

The people who come into our sector — whether in foundations or in the kind of nonprofits that foundations fund — come with passion for the work, they care about the issues we work on, and care enough to make the financial and other sacrifices the work requires.

To manage them in the same manner you would manage someone in the for-profit world, where the culture and motivations attract people who want to move up the hierarchy and earn a higher salary, is a mistake. The people in these different sectors are different, they come for different reasons, look for different rewards, and should be managed in ways that acknowledge these profound differences.

2. Measure of success

In the for-profit world, there is a single metric for success, everyone agrees on what it is, and it’s easily measured and tracked. It’s simple to know when you are doing well and when you are not, and it’s the same metric and measure for every business.

That’s simply not true for the vast bulk of work in the nonprofit sector. So much of the impact we are trying to achieve is not easily quantifiable; it’s complex. And if you are an organization like us — working across several different fields — what success looks like is incommensurable from one body of work to the next.

3. Competition

In the business sector, the success of your business organization necessarily comes at the expense of your competitors. Whereas in philanthropy, I’m not trying to outdo other foundations, or maximize the glory of the Hewlett Foundation. It’s exactly the opposite: I’m trying to develop and be part of ecosystems of organizations, including other funders with whom I want to partner, in ways that will help achieve solutions to social problems or help improve everyone’s social good. It’s a profound difference at precisely the level where business principles could matter: me with everyone else is not me versus everyone else.

Read the entire article on the Center for Independent Philanthropy’s website. If you’re interested in ways The Alliance to develop or refine your strategic philanthropy, send us an email at or call (601) 968-0061.

Obviously, there are things that overlap. We all want to manage well, we all want our organizations to be efficient and operate appropriately. But those aren’t business principles as such. They are just good practices for running an organization in any sector or endeavor.

For-profit and nonprofit organizations work in different ways, on different problems, toward different goals — and those differences matter. Here are a few things I think are important as distinguishing features:

In Defense of Nuance – Darren Walker

This letter was written by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. The original post can be found on the Ford Foundation website.

We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of progress. Within complexity and nuance, we find hope for the year ahead.

Dear Colleagues and Friends:

As I begin my seventh year as president of the Ford Foundation, I find myself reflecting on all that has changed in our world since 2013. If asked to encapsulate this tumultuous period in a single word, a reasonable observer might rattle off a list of possibilities—aberrant or abhorrent, appalling or inhumane—or they might reject the question entirely. Too much has happened, too quickly, for one term to perfectly capture it all.

If pushed, however, one might gravitate toward a telling adjective: “extreme.”

This is the age of extreme weather and extreme inequality. The age of extreme hate groups, extreme nationalism, and extreme populism around the world. The list goes on.

The business case for the extreme is well documented. The loudest voices garner the most coverage and clicks, while media companies and social networks reap the rewards. And these extremes beget more extremes, coarsening our discourse and dividing our societies.

The problem is that “extreme” is not just a descriptor of gathering crises for our planet—or the political personalities most breathlessly covered in the news and amplified in the echo chambers of our newsfeeds. Extreme opposition seems to have entered the playbook of leaders in every category. In this worldview, it’s all or nothing, good or evil, the best or worst.

Nuance and complexity, meanwhile, are nowhere to be found. And our extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved.

In the boardrooms of businesses and museums, on committees and campuses—and everywhere in between—seeking common ground has been replaced by a retreat to our corners. Like fighting fire with fire, the fiery is met with fiery, and no one seems willing to turn down the temperature. Nuance is a concession no one seems willing to make.

And yet, while nuance and complexity are clear victims of this new normal, they are hardly the only victims.

Our ability to solve our collective problems—especially, but not only, in our politics—is called into question. Common goals are framed as coercive demands; potential partners and experts unnecessarily cast as victims or enemies.

Rather than building bridges and relationships based on mutual understanding or shared respect, this oppositional, nuance-averse posture rewards ideological purity and public shame—the very things that scuttle strong working relationships and incentivize people to dig in their heels.

To be sure, there are cases where ineffective incremental progress has contributed to the frustration and anger that many in our society rightly feel. Now is no time for small steps or half measures—especially when it comes to extreme inequality and injustice.

And yet, ambition and animosity need not be linked; in fact, the latter impedes the former.

We must recognize that what has nuance on the run are distorted incentives, which in turn create more destructive behaviors.

This same flywheel drives every category of inequality—from economic disparity to racial injustice—and pits selfishness against social welfare, when the latter is in everyone’s self-interest.

One powerful example comes from our collective response—or lack thereof—to the global climate crisis. Too often, the debate about climate change is dominated by an extreme form of denial—by the voices who refuse to acknowledge its very existence and who denigrate the efforts of the people, communities, and organizations working to address it. The solution, of course, is not just in the middle, but on the ground—with the indigenous communities who face the most immediate and dire consequences of our climate catastrophe. Yet, these are the same groups that are dismissed as anti-development.

We at Ford have learned the impact that comes from honoring and amplifying the voices and experiences of the communities most directly affected by injustice. So, we support individuals and institutions that understand a simple idea: averting a climate catastrophe cannot mean displacing, disassembling, or ignoring indigenous communities. And, for their part, indigenous leaders have proven time and again that they are in fact open to development—providing that it is done with their input and creates opportunities and benefits for their communities.

Another example is closer to home: New York City’s effort to close Rikers Island, a complex of eight separate Department of Correction facilities on 413 acres in the middle of the East River. For decades, Rikers has represented the very worst of America’s criminal justice system. It is infamous for barbaric conditions, insidious corruption, and unrelenting brutality. And, as a consequence of America’s broken for-profit bail system, some 80 percent of the incarcerated at Rikers have not yet been tried for any crime. Instead, many thousands of innocent-until-proven-guilty people are waiting for their trials—sometimes for years.

Rikers has been in desperate need of reform—if not a wrecking ball—for longer than any of us can remember. And yet, it was only in 2016 that the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform was established—a group of judges and lawyers, activists and educators, nonprofit leaders and justice advocates—to finally devise a plan to shut it down.

As a member of the commission, I am proud of our work to propose reasonable, workable solutions to shutter this warehouse of inhumanity and to end its long history of abuse and injustice. This was heavy lifting, full of competing interests and complexity—of nuance.

Meanwhile, some advocates—including some community leaders who have moved the needle on criminal justice reform—oppose the construction of smaller, replacement jails, which will make the shuttering of Rikers feasible. No doubt, some simply are NIMBYs who don’t want these facilities in their neighborhoods. Many more—courageous visionaries whom I admire and respect—argue that these new jails will fuel the forces that lead to mass incarceration.

Without question, as a community, we will need to hold replacement jails to account, especially in light of the negligent affronts to human dignity at other New York City jails. And, more broadly, we must work together to address the root causes of mass incarceration—to develop and deploy a more just approach to criminal justice.

But we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of progress. If we skip steps, we risk creating a new kind of gap—a gap of missed opportunities and lost alliances.

Indeed, these examples help inform the path forward—a journey away from the extremes.

To begin with, we need to reestablish incentives that encourage our leaders to seek more nuanced solutions and reject unproductive extremes. For instance, the way we measure value has lifted up quarterly earnings without fully accounting for environmental or social costs. The way we delineate political districts and decide elections favors ideological purity over persuasion. And the way we practice philanthropy too often allows for the obscenely wealthy to whitewash or greenwash their reputations through charity, rather than dismantling the systems that make their charity necessary in the first place.

We must also recognize the ways in which a patient, inclusive, and nuanced approach already has resulted in more productive conversations and constructive solutions.

We can see how our capitalist systems have broken down, while also appreciating that markets have helped reduce the number of people around the globe who live in poverty. Indeed, we can and should acknowledge the positive step forward by the Business Roundtable and a group of 181 global CEOs, who, this summer, committed to redefining the purpose of a corporation in order to benefit all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Now, let’s ensure that BRT members follow through on the changes in corporate behavior reflected in the lofty principles in their manifesto.

We can see the historical failures of our own republic on fault lines of race and gender and sexual orientation and class—as the New York Times has illustrated with deft, delicate care in its 1619 Projectwhile also protecting and promoting democratic values and institutions, and participating fully in democratic processes, around the globe.

We can be critical of ill-gotten fortunes, while also appreciating the current need for private capital to fund certain valuable public goods, and encouraging wealthy individuals to understand their own privilege and support institutional reforms.

Of course, even the need for nuance is not without its nuances. Some cases are so morally odious and corrupt that no nuance is required: We can disagree about immigration policy without accepting that a government separates parents from their children, or warehouses babies in cages. We can disagree about tax rates and the reach of regulation without accepting white supremacists marching in our streets. We can disagree about the exact scope of the United States Constitution’s Second Amendment without accepting violence and terror as an inevitable fact of American life.

Within this kind of rationality—within this kind of complexity—I believe we can find reason for hope: Hope that we can reclaim the commons and common ground; hope that we can join in common cause for a common good; hope that we can extend our hands, and our good faith, and, occasionally, even the benefit of the doubt.