Celebrating SIF Funders' Proactive Response to COVID-19

Wellington Management, MassMutual Foundation, The Devonshire Foundation, and the Gross family react quickly to support their grantees in crisis.
Boston HERC, a 2020 Social Innovator, is one of 40 grantees to receive a $25,000 emergency grant from Wellington Management Foundation

In response to COVID-19, we have witnessed a great amount of philanthropic activity taking place across the sector. As nonprofits experience significant shifts in programming and fundraising, some funders have also been shifting their priorities to respond quickly to the needs of their grantees. At the Social Innovation Forum (SIF), we want to highlight some of our funding partners who have been extraordinarily responsive to nonprofits at this critical time. Wellington Management Foundation, MassMutual Foundation, The Devonshire Foundation, and the Gross family are among those setting an example of how the philanthropic community can respond proactively in a crisis.

Wellington Management Foundation

Every member on our team is glad to step up and support the organizations doing such important work in our communities.

At Wellington Management Foundation, we spoke with Karen Pfefferle, Executive Director, to gain insight into their response strategy. In early March, the Foundation’s leadership team came together and proposed to their Board a program of Emergency Grants of $25,000 that would be unrestricted and available to all 96 of their grantees throughout 2020. The funds would address any unanticipated programming costs or fundraising losses of the grantees.

Karen says, “This is a firm-wide effort, and it speaks to the culture here at Wellington. The Foundation has for years been preparing to be counter-cyclical, and every member on our team is glad to step up and support the organizations doing such important work in our communities.” With such great leadership and awareness of the pressing social issues, they were able to make decisions in just a matter of days and in the first month have already paid 40 of their grantees; among them are several Alumni organizations and current Social Innovators, including Write Boston (2006 Social Innovator), UTEC (2008 Social Innovator), Paige Academy (2019 Social Innovator), and Boston HERC (2020 Social Innovator). Karen hopes that other funders look to the foundation for hope and inspiration during this time to do something similar. 

Wellington Foundation Management has been an SIF social issue track partner for the past two years. 

MassMutual Foundation

Ali Mathias, Head of Community Responsibility Strategy at MassMutual Foundation, shared the Foundation’s support of their grantee portfolio, as well as the company’s response to the needs of the community at large. Leveraging survey results from our colleagues at Philanthropy Massachusetts, along with anecdotal feedback from the MassMutual Foundation’s current grantees, decision-makers moved quickly to provide an unrestricted one-time donation of 30 percent of grantees’ previous amount awarded. “I’m extraordinarily proud to work for an organization that provides the resources and flexibility to respond quickly and meaningfully to the needs of the community,” stated Ali. Within 48 hours of making this decision, the Foundation was able to initiate payment for their partners.

Outside of the Foundation’s strategic giving, MassMutual was a lead funder of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts’ COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley with a gift of $1 million. In the eastern part of the state, MassMutual also donated $500,000 to the City of Boston’s Boston Resiliency Fund. In addition to financial support, Ali encourages funders to “think beyond funding” and consider in-kind opportunities such as coaching or legal assistance, and to apply for state and federal grants.

MassMutual Foundation is a 2018 and 2020 social issue track partner.

The Devonshire Foundation

Organizations are making tough decisions in this period, and we are going to help sustain them through the decision making.

The Devonshire Foundation has taken an approach that reflects its focus on building relationships with its grantees. Kate Grundy, the Executive Director, shared that in early March, they emailed their grantees offering to have one-to-one conversations to address their challenges. Kate says, “Organizations are making tough decisions in this period, and we are going to help sustain them through the decision making.”

While funding is limited, the foundation plans to give back to grantees in several ways. The foundation is offering a range of support, including adjusting their terms on the matching grants to best support fundraising efforts and cash flow needs, providing one-time general operating grants to compensate for lost revenue sources, and providing limited grants for technology or other program needs. Kate encourages major donors to think about long-term growth as part of the solution.

The Devonshire Foundation has been an SIF funder for nine years, including both social issue track partnership and a range of capacity-building support.

The Gross Family

The SIF team was heartened to receive a call from Liz Gross, and her daughters, Kelly and Anna, asking how they could be helpful to the two 2020 Social Innovators their family selected on the track titled “Advancing Arts Engagement.” At the request of the Gross family, the SIF team reached out to Marquis Victor, Executive Director of Elevated Thought and Musau Dabinga, Executive Director of Origination Cultural Arts Center to learn what the impact has been on their work and what their needs were to get their organizations through the next three months. In an email with just a few bullet points (no proposal requested), Marquis and Musau were able to share their concerns. The Gross family moved quickly to not only meet their immediate needs but also provide some extra breathing room for other unexpected expenses. 

“We would like to raise the amount to a one time gift to give you a cushion of comfort. We believe that you will use it wisely…,” said Liz Gross in her email to Musau. SIF is grateful for our partnership with the Gross family and their leadership during this uncertain time. The Gross family’s commitment to helping organizations that they are close to was shared in this recent Boston Globe article. Their proactive outreach and deep care and concern for the organizations and people they serve will hopefully encourage others to give generously during this crisis.

The Gross Family has been an SIF social track partner for the past two years. 

The funders highlighted above are not alone in their responsiveness. Liberty Mutual Foundation immediately approved the removal of restrictions from active Liberty Mutual grants made in 2019 and 2020 and released fast emergency mini-grants to support those organizations in their portfolio who were finding ways to respond to the challenges present in the COVID-19 crisis quickly. Our 2019 Inspire Boston Funder Collaborative came together to provide critical support to Boston Youth Wrestling, the Innovator they selected in 2019. Martha Bacigalupo and track partner shared that she was “so impressed with what Bior and Boston Youth Wrestling were doing for the youth when we first visited their site in 2018, and we continue to be impressed by the recent steps taken by the organization to pivot in this time of crisis."

As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, we hope that funders continue to build a path forward for their grantees. Many of our nonprofit organizations are pivoting to launch new programs or address their financial needs and expect issues to surface in the coming months. It is important for funders to continuously assess the needs of their grantees and think about the ways they can best serve those organizations who are on the front lines. We honor our funding partners at Wellington Management Foundation, MassMutual Foundation, The Devonshire Foundation, and the Gross family for their thoughtful approaches and speedy action and for holding onto the spirit of innovation in these troubling times.  

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