April 30, 2020
PFC Blog

Highlights from PFC webinar: “COVID-19: An equity problem that needs to be addressed through diversity, equity and inclusion”

Juniper Glass

When COVID-19 started spreading in Hamilton, Sarah Jama and other volunteer leaders at the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO) took little time to mobilize. They knew that many people with compromised immune systems or mobility challenges would need extra support to get through the lock down period. Within days, they had organized an ad hoc food bank. Now CareMongering HamOnt provides food to 100 families each week, and hundreds of volunteers run errands and a multi-language phone line for people who cannot safely leave their homes.

Grassroots initiatives like this were highlighted by the four panelists in PFC’s April 22 webinar on the COVID crisis and how foundations can respond, keeping equity and inclusion top of mind.

Panelists gave a fantastic, nuanced analysis of how the pandemic is especially affecting folks who were already marginalized before the crisis. These include low-income and precarious workers, racialized and Indigenous communities, homeless and incarcerated populations and people with disabilities. (PFC’s new brief also highlights key inequities being exacerbated by COVID-19.)

Grassroots organizations are often closest to the ground and can respond nimbly in a crisis, like DJNO and their partners in the mutual aid initiative, Hamilton Student Mobilization Network. The problem is: they tend to receive very little support from philanthropic funders. Why? Foundations often don’t know about these initiatives and encounter barriers when trying to support them.

Sarah Jama encourages foundations to “do the work to build the relationships with the grassroots. No matter what issue, I assure you, someone is working already to fill that gap. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we do have to give legitimacy and funding to that work. In Hamilton, even though we are feeding many people, we are sometimes treated as illegitimate, for many reasons, one being that we are not a registered charity, another being we are led by youth and racialized people.”

Many groups closest to the front-lines and advocating for equity during the crisis are not “qualified donees” under CRA’s rules, so foundations are often hesitant to channel funds because of regulatory concerns. Jon McPhedran Waitzer of Resource Movement says that the pandemic is a good time for foundations to “embrace the ‘risk’ of funding these groups,” especially when considering “the difference between the risks that foundations face and the genuine life or death risks experienced within marginalized communities.”

Panelists hope the crisis will push grantmakers to experiment beyond their usual practices. They offered many concrete suggestions for foundations and donors that want to increase their contribution to inclusion and equity at this crucial time. Hanifa Kassam, former Board Chair at Laidlaw Foundation, and author of PFC’s guide on diversity, equity and inclusion, offered this call to action: “Move, and move quickly. Know that this is something that our philanthropic sector has the resources and capacity to do. It is an opportunity to let go of practices that have been harmful, like those that disqualify community groups that are doing amazing equity-seeking work, like 1-year grants instead of multi-year. How do you share power and involve people from the community in decision making? Explore all the levers your institution has to make change: impact investment, grantmaking, decision making, mission and mandate.”

Panelists urged foundations to seriously consider dipping into their capital and increasing their grants – or, at the very least, not to scale back granting to “protect” endowments during this downturn in stock markets. “Most foundations have been doing very well in their return on investments during the last decade,” Hanifa points out. “Now is the time to mobilize our resources.” Rather than foundation trustees figuring out how they will maintain their size of endowment, they could ask: “How will we support those who are experiencing the most struggle day to day? How will we invest in systems change work?”

Adam Saifer, a postdoctoral researcher with PhiLab, sees an opportunity in the current crisis: “The response to COVID-19 has highlighted what is possible and what a more humane society looks like, like bolstering unemployment support to populations that were typically ignored like part time workers and temporary foreign workers. Or the use of empty buildings to house homeless folks. Why is it only during crisis like COVID-19 that we find it suddenly unacceptable that people are living on the streets? I hope that we treat this as a lesson for how we organize around future crises. For example, the philanthropic sector will play a key role in the climate crisis, which will not be an equalizer either, it will magnify existing inequalities. It’s important for foundations to take the lessons now and think about it as they retool and come up with new strategies for new crises when this one is over.”

The full webinar is well worth the listen for funders who want to make sure their contributions during and after the crisis help bring about a more equal society – while also meeting immediate needs. PFC’s new tool on COVID-19 and social inequities also provides several tips for foundations. On the “non-qualified donee” challenge, many resources exist to assist foundations, including PFC’s recent webinar on the topic and United Way of Greater Calgary’s Better Together).

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