Beyond Hand Sanitizers: A Local Philanthropic Response to COVID-19

So, COVID-19 is coming to town. Like me, you’ve probably been reading tips on how to boost your immune system, how to self-quarantine, and how many seconds are required for effective hand washing until your eyeballs are dry. In addition to considering self care, I encourage you to consider how COVID-19/coronavirus may impact your philanthropic portfolio, and how to respond.

Here, I’m focusing my recommendations on how to respond on the local level, in the United States. We want our community-based nonprofits to have the resources to support our most vulnerable neighbors, and to survive this coming uncertain year.

I’m willing to wager that we’ll see these two dynamics at the local level:


Yes, any sort of health care organization will struggle to respond to increased demand due to coronavirus. However, also consider the impact on the other basic human needs nonprofits. The people in our communities who are going to be hardest hit are those who are already struggling: people working low wage jobs with no benefits and no sick time, people who are self-employed, people who already live with health conditions, people who are elderly, and people who are caregivers. For these community members, becoming ill, being forced to self-quarantine, staying home with children who are out of school, or caring for an ill family member may mean losing their job and/or losing weeks and weeks of pay.

For the 78% of U.S. workers living paycheck to paycheck, the impact of coronavirus will mean that they cannot pay their rent or mortgage, their bills, or buy enough healthy food. We need to anticipate that soon many community members will be facing financial stress, and offer short-term solutions that will help our neighbors now.


Nonprofits, especially the smaller nonprofits that already struggle to scrape together funding, are going to be in crisis this year, for two reasons. First, giving may decline, given the volatile stock market affecting portfolios of donors with invested assets, and coronavirus affecting the lives of poor and middle income donors. Many nonprofits will also be taking a financial hit from cancelled theater performances, conferences, and other events.

The other is that many nonprofits, especially small organizations, are unable to provide market rate compensation and benefit packages, or sick leave. Think of a small nonprofit like your local food shelf or shelter … when their staff start to get sick or are supposed to self-quarantine, how can they afford to both pay staff for sick leave AND hire the necessary temporary staff to keep up with increased demand for their services? Your local food shelf may see a day when half their staff are sick at home without pay, more people than ever need temporary access to food, and someone still needs to buy the food and stock the shelves.


  1. Make general operating grants: The nonprofits you support need to be able to pivot quickly, and while that specific project a foundation funded sounded promising six months ago, now nonprofits need to respond to coronavirus. General operating funds help them to do that.
  2. Support free health care clinics: People who are uninsured, or underinsured, need to access care without breaking the bank. People who are undocumented may not seek care at all out of fear of deportation. Click here to find free healthcare clinics in your community.
  3. Increase giving to basic human needs nonprofits: In your community, who is working on homelessness prevention? What organizations are able to help pay overdue bills to ensure that a family crisis doesn’t mean a family loses their home? Where are the nonprofits that are delivering meals or groceries to seniors and people who are homebound? Where can your neighbor pick up food when they can’t afford groceries this month because their children aren’t able to eat lunch at school anymore? These are the organizations that are especially going to struggle; seek them out and support them.
  4. Consider offering emergency funding for paid sick leave: In an ideal world, we would not be having to consider using philanthropic funds for sick leave. However, given that only 68% of all workers have any paid sick days (and less than half of service industry workers), chances are good that your local nonprofits struggle to offer their staff paid sick days. Especially for small organizations, consider offering funding that makes it easier for the nonprofit and for the staff to stay home when sick — and hire temporary staff to continue services.

We’re about to experience a year of philanthropy that will be a test of values and priorities. As a civil society, we cannot let COVID-19 become synonymous with food insecurity, bankruptcy, or homelessness. We need our communities to be able to weather this storm and come out stronger. Consider proactively getting ahead of the crisis curve with a plan to use your philanthropy to support your community’s response to coronavirus.


On the Philanthropic Response to COVID-19:

Center for Disaster Philanthropy

FSG: Seven Things Philanthropy Can Do

Webinar: How Philanthropy Can Support and Enhance the Government Response to COVID-19