Covid Was Not a Crash Diet: What Funders Need to Do in the Next Phase
(A Message for the National Day of Philanthropy)

By Andrés Spokoiny

Anybody who, like me, has ever tried to lose weight – and failed – has experienced some of the harsh realities of dieting. At the beginning, you get really encouraged, take decisive action, and see the results right away. The pounds seem to fall off, and those old jeans suddenly fit again.

But then progress slugs. You plateau and, little by little, you start gaining weight again. Well, you tell yourself, after that run I earned that cookie, didn’t I? You fail to realize the two key truths about dieting: that certain practices, like exercise, portion control, and no-snacking, need to become a way of life, and that every stage requires different actions. The exercise routine that helped you lose your first five pounds may not be effective for the next 10. And your carbs strategy needs to be different: You can totally cut them for two weeks, but can you sustain that over time?

It’s both funny and painful to talk about dieting in the midst of Covid. After all, while many people are struggling with food insecurity as a result of this pandemic, many of us have gained weight thanks to more time spent at home and less, if any, time at the gym. And yet, there’s something in this analogy that makes me think of the philanthropic response to the crisis.

This National Day of Philanthropy finds us, the Jewish philanthropic community, at an inflection point in our response to Covid. It seems to me that this yearly commemoration coincides with a time in which the “first phase” of our response to Covid needs to give way to a “second phase”; a longer and different game than the one we’ve been playing during the first nine months of this crisis.

As in dieting, our initial actions achieved results: The philanthropic community stepped up. Jewish communal institutions didn’t collapse as many had feared. There was no domino effect of closures and most – if not almost all – Jewish organizations are still standing. Covid, in the diet metaphor, was the dreaded call from the doctor, the scary prognosis that prompted us into action.

It is important to highlight the impressiveness of the philanthropic response; initial research conducted by Jewish Funders Network, which we will be publishing shortly, found that major funders made thousands of emergency grants, maintaining and increasing their prior philanthropic commitments. Almost two thirds of them funded in new areas and stretched their missions, following the needs. As opposed to the 2008 recession, when funders cut their giving, this time there was a realization that this was “the rainy day” and that a strong response was needed.

But now, we see the advent of a new stage. In the initial stage, a combination of philanthropic response, government support, and cost-cutting prevented the feared cascade of closings. But now, the long-term effects of the crisis are starting to be seen. When government grants dry up, many organizations that depend on them will be in dire straits. When businesses and families run out of stimulus money, when parents can’t pay day school tuition, when JCC membership becomes prohibitively expensive, when people can’t afford synagogue dues, new strategies will be required.

So, to confront this second phase, we need to do a similar thing that we do when we want to keep losing weight and keep it off: a) transform certain “emergency measures,” like cutting sugar, into habits, and even a way of life; b) try new strategies to break the body’s complacency.

What are the emergency measures we took during Covid’s first phase that now need to become second nature? Here are few examples:

  • Collaboration: When Covid hit, funders realized that collective action was needed, and they quickly joined forces. This collaboration might have been far from perfect, but it was stronger than ever before. The long-term challenges posed by Covid will require more of that collaboration, so partnership and joint-action needs to become a way of life for funders.
  • Private-Communal Partnership: In the beginning of the crisis funders, federation and national communal umbrellas worked together more than ever before, with funders relying on federations and national organizations to guide them, provide them with information and deliver services. National funders realized, for example, that federations offer them unparalleled access to local communities. This type of collaboration needs to become the norm in the second stage of Covid, when federations will need funder support even more, given that they will likely be losing some of their mid-level donors impacted by the long tail of the crisis.
  • Unrestricted, Long-Term, Flexible Funding: Funders realized in the early days of Covid that nonprofits needed flexibility to address the crisis as best they could. In that context, funding with highly restrictive designations would have been more trouble than help. When needs are evolving rapidly, nonprofits need to have fungible dollars and funding stability. Funders provided that, with many converting their grants to for general operating expenses and allowed nonprofits to shift funds to areas of higher need. To be sure, that is a good philanthropic practice in normal times as well. In the last few years, the pendulum had swung too much towards designated funding, causing nonprofits to struggle in fulfilling their basic mission.
  • Simplified Processes: Understanding that nonprofit leaders were overworked and overwhelmed, many funders simplified their application and reporting processes. Simple procedures and minimal paperwork will be critical as nonprofits start rebuilding, particularly as many have been forced to reduce their staff size.
  • Diversification of Philanthropic Tools: During the crisis, funders experimented with other philanthropic vehicles. Loans were enthusiastically embraced, the conversation about impact investing kicked into high gear, and crowdsourcing mechanism became more prevalent. These tools will be even more important in the months to come as people start to rebuild.
  • Diversification of Spending: Many funders realized that sticking to their narrowly defined mission wouldn’t be enough during the crisis. Thus, many adopted a broader interpretation of their missions and others explored new areas. This openness will need to remain in the next phase of our response.

And, like in a diet, there are new things we need to do to continue being successful.

  • Systemic Communal Planning: Much of our reaction to the crisis was to treat it as a “blip” rather than an earthquake. Thus, we tried to shore up organizations and help them “return to normal.” In doing that, we missed the big picture; the opportunity to rethink entire communal systems that need rejuvenation and reformulation. It’s necessary to “save the JCC” in your community, but what about also rethinking the JCC model and adapting it to the realities of the 21st century? Funders should lead, in this new phase, a rethinking of communal structures and systems that starts not from the existing institutions but from the individual and collective needs of Jews. Some funders – like the members of the Jewish Communal Response and Impact Fund, which was created in response to the pandemic – have explored systemic changes to make the community more resilient and strong in the long term, but much more of this thinking will be needed in 2021.
  • Mergers and Consolidations: So far, we have only scratched the surface in terms of reducing inefficiencies and duplications among communal organizations. In a way, the government support that shored up organizations reduced the urgency for these kinds of initiatives. Now, however, with stimulus drying out and greater communal needs, these conversations become critical.
  • Spiritual Reckoning: As I wrote a few months ago, the pandemic will – like every other pandemic in history – create a new set of spiritual and religious questions. The community hasn’t invested enough in providing the tools for individual Jews to confront the transcendental questions that will come after Covid. Without that investment – in deep Jewish learning, theology and even philosophy – we may have saved Jewish organizations, but we may endanger Judaism.
  • Listening: On the first phase of our response, we needed to act rapidly and couldn’t engage in deep and long consultation processes. Now, however, to fine tune the long-term response, mechanisms of participatory decision making will need to be implemented. To be effective, we will need to hear more and more in-depth from the populations we serve. Also, as major funders become more influential, due to a likely shrinking of support from middle- and lower-level givers who have been affected by the pandemic, participatory mechanism can help make philanthropy more transparent and democratic.
  • Helping Organizations and People: In the second phase of Covid, we will risk a domino effect because individual families won’t be able to afford fees, tuitions and dues. So far, we have mostly supported organizations, but, in this context, supporting families so they can keep affording Jewish life may be a better and more empowering strategy. Probably, a combination of these two will be necessary.

This Day of Philanthropy is fortuitous in that it falls in a time that should be an inflection point in our Covid response. Many of the things we did during Covid, like simplifying process and allowing flexibility are just plain healthy, Covid or not. Doubling down on them, and adding new dimensions to our response will be critical in the months to come.

Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.