A plea to philanthropists—double the value of your grants to local non-profits

Rahul Chandran: You are Canada’s philanthropists, and you have the assets. You’ve worked with non-profit organizations for many years and their clients need them to live now more than ever.

Rahul Chandran is a managing director at CARE. Previously, he was the executive director of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, and a former United Nations senior official.

As the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic unfold across Canada, philanthropic funders need to ask themselves, how they can help. 

Canada faces a crisis unlike any it has faced before. Canadians with disabilities, diabetics and the elderly face a real risk of death. The people who survive at the fringes—the homeless and the hungry, and the part-time hourly workers—face a real risk of hunger as the economy struggles. The people who need help will be the people that the state has always struggled to reach. In this hour of need, they want trusted partners who have learned how to work with them through decades of listening, understanding and respect.

Nationwide, non-profit organizations are closing down because of health risks, funding risks, and because they cannot execute their “normal” programming. They’re not set up for this task, but they are the ones who can deliver.

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So this is a plea for help from the philanthropists of Canada.

I live in Ottawa-Vanier. It’s the riding that has the greatest food bank usage in the province. In the last week, my own community council has had to lay off staff, and our local food bank has shut down.

I am lucky to serve on the board of the Ottawa Community and Immigrant Services Organization, but I’m also scared. How will we ensure that refugees get food and support? These are people who are recovering from the horrors of war, striving to learn French or English, and rely on community ties for help.

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This crisis will need visionary action by the federal, provincial and municipal governments, as we’ve seen this week, to keep the economy afloat.

But on a human level, keeping afloat requires community. Imagine a person in need who lives down your street: perhaps someone with limited mobility who has always been helped by her local non-profit; perhaps someone immune-compromised, who might not have told everyone about their vulnerability; perhaps a middle-aged, divorced diabetic, who has recently moved and doesn’t have a social network. How will we reach those people?

There is a wide body of literature on crisis response. Most of it, from global emergency response to the emergency planning in nuclear power plants to hospital administrations tell us the same thing: defer to local expertise. And the way we will reach people in need is the way we always have—through the local expertise of communities and their organizations, who will work tirelessly to help their own. If they’re still open, that is.

So what can philanthropists do to keep these community organizations going?

Canada’s private foundations have assets of $49.6 billion. In 2017, they made grants of $2.5 billion dollars, or almost five per cent of assets under management. That is arguably prudent management. But this is the reason Canadians are prudent in normal times, so that we have the money we need in an emergency.

My request is simple: every foundation with an endowment should double the value of every current grant to a non-profit; and they should give them that money without restrictions.

That’s not a joke. These organizations are the local experts in need. No one knows a community, whether it’s a small geographic area or an identity group, like the community. No one understands the nature of their needs; no-one can be adaptable, at the local level, to what is going to be a constantly shifting challenge.

There are other options, of course. When governments have finished scaling up the public health response, we could let them define how they want to solve this problem, and perhaps organize a grant competition? We could wait for the wonderful Canadian Red Cross to scale up its response across the entire country. But both of those ideas will take too much time. There are no national organizations designed to feed tens of thousands of people for months. Frankly, none of them even know where most of those people are—and hungry, scared, and potentially sick people can’t wait.

You have the assets—you are the philanthropists. You’ve worked with these organizations for many years. Their clients need them to live. They need your trust to serve their clients. Please be bold. Great forces, the ones that you have helped to will into existence over the last few decades, will come to our aid.

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