When neighborhoods across the country were blindsided by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, a group of funding heroes jumped into action: community foundations. In towns and regions across the country, community foundations immediately orchestrated initiatives to raise support from residents and major funders – and then quickly distributed those funds to local organizations serving individuals in need.

To date, more than $1 billion has been mobilized by nearly 600 community foundations across the U.S., according to a recent study by the Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative (updated here). Already, more than $853 million from those funds has been granted to nonprofits who are meeting the needs of people facing housing, food and job loss challenges exposed by the pandemic.

In more normal times, we’ve seen the unique role community foundations can play in driving place-based progress. They know the needs in their region like no one else, they know the funders, and they specialize in bringing the two together. As COVID is now showing us, this role can be even more essential in times of crisis.

Rapid and Local

Over the years, Erie (PA) Community Foundation (ECF) has been a model of a foundation that is well organized and deeply rooted in its community, and its pandemic response has been instructive. The Foundation organizes the hugely popular Erie Gives event every summer: a day when thousands of residents contribute to their favorite local charities. This experience helped ECF quickly organize an emergency Erie Gives appeal focused on COVID relief in March. “Within two days,” said ECF President Michael Batchelor, “we had a website up and our Board agreed to commit $100,000. Major corporations and other grantmakers quickly followed our leadership and we were able to raise $310,000 before going public.”

The public was exceedingly generous, with gifts large and small pouring in. “In March, the situation with COVID was very scary,” said Batchelor. “People wanted to help. We are a proven vehicle for doing that.” Remarkably, within two weeks after launching the emergency fund, grants totaling $667,801 were awarded to 41 local nonprofits who were providing critical services with decreasing resources.

Then in August, the traditional Erie Gives day broke all records – raising a phenomenal $6.3 million from a record 11,482 donors, to support 422 nonprofit organizations. “In the midst of a pandemic and an economic downturn, we increased gifts by 14% and donors by 29%,” said Batchelor. Steve Westbrook, CEO of Erie City Mission which received the largest number of donations, said, “Even during COVID-19, we have remained focused on our core programs and services and the funds from Erie Gives will go toward making sure the Mission remains a place of hope and transformation for those who need us. Thank you, Erie Community Foundation, for providing such an amazing day for our community!”

Actionable Insight

The achievements of the Erie Community Foundation exemplify the good work that so many community foundations have been doing nationwide in recent months. The Philadelphia Foundation—a hero in Schultz & Williams’s hometown—created the PHL COVID-19 Fund in partnership with other foundations and is still raising funds for nonprofits who face a long road to recovery. The experience of both ECF and the Philadelphia Foundation suggests that, when faced with a crisis deeply impacting their communities, foundation leaders should:

  • First, recognize their local roots as a unique asset. The awareness, connections, and visibility you have spent years or decades building are now invaluable, positioning your foundation as a go-to resource for crisis response.
  • Second, step boldly into leadership. Even if this is not your style and culture—even if your organization has seen itself mainly as a convener and catalyst—this is a time for vocal advocacy and visible action. People want to help their neighbors in need, but don’t know how; your job is to show the way.
  • Third, activate your existing infrastructure for both fundraising and grantmaking. To jumpstart its crisis campaign, ECF turned to its most loyal lead donors to launch a nucleus fund, then went public with an instant appeal modeled on its well-established annual giving day program. Had they moved forward without tapping into these already-solid channels, their response could have taken months longer.

By taking these steps, community foundations can make an important difference for people and families facing dire need. They can bolster these suddenly vulnerable organizations that have resiliently served the community for decades. For community foundations, this is a promising opportunity to build for the future, by making more people aware of their work and by strategically involving new partners in their successful crisis response.