COVID-19 philanthropy and 4 big questions for 2021

What Candid’s data tells us about support for communities of color and social justice amid 2020’s pandemic response

By Ryan Schlegel and Anna Koob

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every aspect of life around the globe and exacerbated perennial challenges such as entrenched poverty, hunger, lack of access to health care and racial inequality.

In spite of the challenge presented by social distancing requirements, the U.S.’s civil society has mobilized to begin meeting historic levels of need for direct services.

And as a reinvigorated movement for Black civil and human rights swelled again last spring and summer, organizations working at the intersection of advocacy, community organizing and systems change have stepped up, too. U.S. foundations, corporations and individual donors have responded, and according to Candid, more than $10.7 billion in U.S. grantmaking has been dedicated to meeting the COVID-19 challenge so far.

There is no doubt that philanthropy has responded to COVID-19 on a scale not seen before. Nearly 800 philanthropic organizations signed on to the Council on Foundations pledge calling on foundations to commit significant resources in response to COVID-19 and reduce grant restrictions and reporting requirements for their grantees.

A July and August survey by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) found that 72% of surveyed foundations said they had increased their 2020 payout above what they had planned for the year. “Almost all” surveyed foundations reported a new strategic focus on supporting Black communities and other marginalized people during the ongoing COVID crisis, and 80% of surveyed funders said they were prioritizing systems change funding.

A survey of 500 of the largest U.S. foundations by scholars at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy (fielded between May and August) found that 75% reported they had relaxed restrictions on grants, making it easier for recipients to use the funds to meet emergency needs. Most (70%) said they’d started a COVID-specific response fund. But less than one-third reported they had increased their payout percentage.

The dissonance between this final statistic and that gathered by CEP’s survey demonstrates the limitations of reporting percentages from limited sample sizes.

The debate will continue whether foundations and other donors have done enough to fulfill their obligations during the ongoing crises gripping the country. Candid will not have a full picture of 2020 grantmaking until more giving data becomes available — ideally from funders submitting their grants directly to Candid. (Find out more about submitting grants data.)

There are, however, already some major takeaways from Candid’s COVID-19 grantmaking data as well as some major unanswered questions.

What we know

● As of Jan. 13, Candid has tracked $10.7 billion across 24,349 grants by foundations, corporations, and large individual donors to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.

● Candid identified an additional $8.2 billion representing 290 pledges. Candid distinguishes between grants, contributions for a specified amount to a recipient, and pledges, which generally reflect the announced intention to provide funding, typically in response to a crisis or emergency. In some cases, there may be double-counting between grants and pledges in Candid’s database.

● Of U.S. grants funding to address COVID-19, 7% ($727 million, 551 grants) also addresses issues of racial equity. These grants are also captured in Candid’s racial equity map for 2020.

Tracking the philanthropic response to the COVID-19 pandemic provided Candid with an opportunity to scale up its collection of data on giving by individuals and corporations. Together, these 2 types of funders are responsible for 75% of U.S. COVID grants funding and 67% of pledged funding that Candid has collected so far.

How is COVID giving different?

Based on available U.S. grants data, grantmaking in response to the pandemic appears to have been designated for social justice and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color)-serving initiatives at higher rates than we’ve typically seen.¹

● Some 28% of U.S. COVID giving so far has been for social justice strategies.² Between 2003 and 2016, just 9–12% of U.S. giving by the Foundation 1000 was for comparable strategies.

● One-tenth of U.S. grant dollars and 5% of U.S. pledged dollars for COVID have been designated explicitly to benefit Black communities. Only 2% of Foundation 1000 giving has been designated this way in previous years.

● Some 0.9% of total COVID-19 grant dollars (and zero pledged dollars) were designated explicitly to benefit Indigenous and American Indian communities, compared to just 0.1% of the total in previous years.

What Candid’s data can’t tell us

Candid has tracked but has found little detail on 2 types of COVID-19 funding. Together, they comprise significant chunks of all private giving in response to COVID-19 tracked to date:

Pledges. As noted earlier, these are intentions to give specified amounts at some point in the future (290 pledges, $8 billion). They account for 43% of all U.S. COVID funding tracked by Candid so far.

Grants to multiple or unknown recipients. These are specific gifts that have been announced but that, aside from the grant amount, contain little to no information about the organizations receiving the funds (1,200 grants, $5.5 billion). More than half (51%) of U.S. COVID grants tracked by Candid so far can only be attributed to multiple or unknown recipients.

This breakdown between verifiable, detailed grants data and gifts with an expression of intent and little else plays out in different ways across different kinds of giving:

A chart breaking down the giving percentage for different groups of people of color.

More specifically, Candid’s detailed grants data suggests that funders are explicitly focusing on communities of color to vastly different degrees — 20% of grants to named recipients were expressly focused on Black communities, but less than 5% each for Latinx people, Asian American Pacific Islander people and Indigenous people.

And while a substantial portion of grant dollars to multiple or unnamed recipients (41% in either case) reportedly serve BIPOC communities and support social justice strategies, the lack of detail about this funding prevents more in-depth analysis. Without more information, it is impossible to confirm who is receiving this funding and in what amounts.

More research is also required to determine whether funders are making good on their commitments. At this time, Candid has only been able to find associated grants information for roughly 24% of COVID-19 pledges.

There are various possible explanations for this discrepancy:

Finally, and perhaps most important, Candid can only track what they find (i.e., what is made publicly available or shared directly). While foundation funding will eventually become available via foundations’ 990s (though not necessarily at a very descriptive level) Candid can only track funding from high-net-worth individuals, corporate direct giving programs and LLCs if it’s publicly announced. No mandated mechanism for transparency exists.

To what extent has philanthropy’s COVID response has been sufficient, effective and just? Here are the questions NCRP and Candid will be looking for answers to in 2021.

4 Big questions raised by the data

Over the past year, we’ve seen funders take drastic actions to support their grantees and their communities. The scale and newness of philanthropy’s COVID-19 response demands extensive analysis by many researchers using a variety of methods. We hope this preliminary analysis will inspire others to dive deeper into Candid’s data on COVID-19 philanthropy and look forward to working together to better understand a most unprecedented year in giving.

¹ The Foundation 1000 is Candid’s annual data set capturing all grants of $10,000 or more awarded by 1,000 of the largest U.S. foundations each year. The set is used to identify trends in U.S. foundation giving and, here, represents “typical” grantmaking.

² Candid uses a definition for social justice grantmaking it developed in collaboration with NCRP that includes subject and strategy codes like community organizing, democracy, human rights, environmental justice, health care access, and others. Read more here.

Ryan Schlegel is NCRP’s research director. Follow @r_j_schlegel on Twitter.

Anna Koob is Candid’s director of research standards.



For 40 years, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has served as the country’s independent watchdog of foundations.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

For 40 years, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has served as the country’s independent watchdog of foundations.