Posted on April 10, 2020 | Hanh Le, Weissberg Foundation
At the same time the COVID-19 crisis creates an unprecedented demand for emergency relief services, it also glaringly exposes and exacerbates deep social, political, and economic inequities that are foundational to our country. True to form with our nation’s ilk of historical oppression, these inequities are taking their greatest toll on individuals and communities of color. Because of this, “emergency response” to the coronavirus crisis necessitates both applying a racial equity frame to meet people’s immediate, basic needs, as well as working equally aggressively to transform the inequitable systems and power structures the crisis lays bare.
What we’re doing
A small foundation—in staff, board, and budget—Weissberg advances systems change for racial justice by leveraging four core strategies: funding, amplification, building capacity, and collaboration. These are the same strategies structuring our response to the COVID crisis. I share them here as they inform our response, but—spoiler alert—I also share them knowing they are woefully inadequate when up against a crisis of this magnitude.
Our general approach to funding is to identify the most promising initiatives centering people directly impacted by structural racism and other systems of oppression and to support them with funding that best meets their needs. We’re staying true to that in this crisis, but super-charging it by moving more money much faster to the groups below.
- Existing grantee partners: We made $10,000-20,000 unrestricted, no application, and no reporting grants to current multi-year grantee partners in our DMV Power, Equitable Justice, and Reframing <Washington> program areas. These are predominantly people of color-led groups already working to build power of communities of color to reform or abolish oppressive and unjust systems. On top of that, many are now also engaged in mutual aid efforts and need dollars fast to sustain these networks, as well as to build capacity to transition the once-essential face-to-face work to digital. We also made these grants to partners in our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Theater program area, who are vital community hubs that contribute to the critical narrative change work needed for cultural and policy change to take root.
- Pooled emergency response funds: There are so many people and organizations that need access to quick funding to mitigate the harms of the crisis, and there are institutions much more adept and equipped than Weissberg to rapidly deploy money to where it is needed most. Giving to pooled funds also allows us to support collaborative funding efforts that strengthen our community, deepen our ties to it, and apply an equity lens to funding decisions. So far, we have made a $50,000 grant to the Greater Washington Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund and a $25,000 grant to theatreWashington’s Taking Care COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.
- Intermediary and infrastructure organizations: Philanthropy support organizations and other nonprofit infrastructure groups are moving quickly to disseminate information about the crisis, finding opportunities to convene and collaborate, and getting work done and making change in this new environment. These organizations are the glue that hold together and push the social sector, and we need to increase our support of them.
- National groups working for federal-level reform: The COVID-19 crisis glaringly exposes failures in how federal systems and policies benefit some and oppress others, in particular black and brown communities. We are exploring funding to national nonprofits working for equitable federal-level reform to strengthen our democracy— especially at such a pivotal time for our country.
Our ABC strategies of amplification, building capacity, and collaboration are critical in this crisis. Below are some ways we are activating each of these strategies to ensure a response that addresses immediate needs and is supportive of long-term systems change for racial justice.
- Amplification: We are pushing out information through social media about grantee partners’ undertakings and needs. We have also added our name to various sign-on letters to wield our power across government, philanthropy, and the private sector for equitable emergency action and systems change. This includes the Council on Foundations’ A Call to Action: Philanthropy’s Commitment During COVID-19 and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy’s Open Letter to Philanthropy: The Cure to Viral Racism Is Within Our Hands. And we launched our new newsletter, Tip of the Weissberg.
- Building capacity: We are working to plan virtual meet-ups for all of our grantee cohorts over the next several weeks. Topics for these convenings are deeply informed by grantee partners and will be addressed with the realities of COVID-19. In addition to practicing trust-based philanthropy ourselves, we are collaborating with the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, Maryland Philanthropic Network, and funding peers to encourage leaning into these practices during this crisis and committing to them for the long haul.
- Collaboration: We are coordinating and/or taking part in a good number of virtual meetings with both grantee partners and funding partners. While we want to hear directly from grantee partners about the issues, opportunities, and needs they are experiencing and seeing, we are cautious about not overburdening them. Where we can, we collaborate with other funders to jointly convene shared grantees. With funding partners, understanding who is giving to which organizations and which might be underfunded helps ensure we can contribute to a coordinated response that ensures certain groups—particularly the smaller, people of color-led ones organizing for racial justice—are not left out of philanthropy’s COVID-19 response.
Why it’s not enough
For sure, we in philanthropy need to step up, dig deeper, and more fully leverage all the assets at our disposal in and through this moment. Yet the reality is that we can never fill the funding gaps and nonprofits will never meet all of the service gaps that our government should be providing for, and that it and corporations actually sustain and exacerbate.
This crisis will have deep and long-lasting impacts on our country, and what we do now will demonstrate what we value. For the Weissberg Foundation, it’s listening and learning, building power and community, and equity and justice. We will keep plugging away at what we’re already doing in service to these values, and we are challenging ourselves to think and act bigger to collectively build, share, and wield power (H/T NCRP’s Power Moves) to truly disrupt current systems and build new, equitable, and just ones. Will you join us and hold us accountable?
Hanh Le is the executive director of the Weissberg Foundation, where she oversees strategy development, stakeholder engagement, grantmaking, and operations. Prior to joining the foundation, she was the chief program officer at Exponent Philanthropy, where she led educational programming, content development, and internal learning efforts. Hanh serves on the boards of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers and Asian American LEAD and co-chairs the Metro-DC chapter of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy.