Sunsetting our COVID-19 Funding

Author: Megan MacDavey

After three cycles and over $1.6 million dollars awarded to 120 agencies, we are sunsetting our COVID-19 grants. Even though the pandemic is not yet over, a new day is dawning for nonprofits that requires our funding to change too. We are moving on from our COVID-19 funding category and embedding the lessons learned throughout our work.

In a tumultuous 2020, funders were asked to transform their grantmaking in service of greater flexibility, timeliness, and trust toward nonprofit partners.  The Tower Foundation joined more than 800 other Foundations by adding our name to the Council on Foundation’s pledge that committed us to  loosening or eliminating restrictions on current grants; making new grants as unrestricted as possible; reducing reporting demands; and contributing to community-based emergency response funds.

Back when the pandemic was just beginning to spread in the U.S., we jumped into this flexible grantmaking approach with both feet, and with our Trustees’ full support. Unrestricted general operating funding was a new strategy for us, but we knew that this was a moment when flexibility was absolutely required. We removed all restrictions on our active grants, knowing that organizations needed to shift from their original plans to serve their clients’ emerging needs. We also launched our COVID-19 funding category, which was intended to give small, unrestricted grants of up to $25,000 to organizations to use for unanticipated expenses.

We knew from our grant partners that nonprofits were in an all-out sprint to meet the needs of their clients, shifting the way they worked, offering new services, and launching new collaborations. The average grant size was $14,000. In that first cycle, we saw requests for what you would imagine: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff, basic needs for clients, technology to help shift to virtual services, and requests for capital to help organizations respond to a rapidly changing landscape. We heard lots of positive reactions to the unrestricted funding approach. Some of the sentiments expressed included:

  • I could breathe easier knowing that I had flexible funds to respond to the changes.
  • We wouldn’t have been able to keep our staff on without flexible funding.”

By the end of 2020, we started to hear requests from our grant partners to bring our traditional grantmaking back online in 2021.  While emergency-response funding was critical, organizations told us that they wanted to build out longer-term responses to the needs brought on by the pandemic, rather than planning from one emergency pandemic grant to the next. So in 2021, we brought back our regular grantmaking and kept our COVID-19 funding going. While technology was a common theme through all of the COVID-19 grant cycles, over time we started to see fewer requests for PPE and basic needs for clients. Instead, requests in 2021 shifted toward projects that felt familiar to our grantmaking: adapting programs to meet new needs, launching infrastructure projects to improve organizational quality or sustainability, and launching new collaborations. The landscape in which these projects were designed had shifted, but the types of support organizations were seeking was familiar.

Beyond the good things we heard about unrestricted grants, we also were encouraged to see a new pool of applicants coming in through our COVID-19 funding category that we had never before funded or hadn’t funded in many years. This includes several newer organizations founded by people with lived expertise in their own communities (e.g., people with a disability, people of color, and immigrants). Our COVID-19 funding category also had a higher number of BIPOC-led organizations applying than any previous category.  This infusion of new partners into our work is exciting and important. At the same time, it brings further complexity and competition into the work as we think about how to continue to support long-time grant partners essential to our mission.  We’ve started to ask ourselves:

  • What was it about this funding category that made it attractive to new applicants, including BIPOC leaders?
  • How can we make our other funding categories more accessible to new applicants and more agencies serving BIPOC communities specifically?
  • What do we need to change so that other, well-aligned organizations that we haven’t historically partnered with “see themselves” in our work and that we “see them” in turn?
  • How do we support organizations that have been grant partners of ours for many years that continue to be champions of our shared goals but whose needs are evolving?

While our 2022 grant guidelines and calendar are still in process, I can share that we are working hard to bring an equity lens to our grantmaking. We hope you will speak up with suggestions and share your feedback on the experience of applying for a Tower Foundation grant, with one of us directly or on our Grant Advisor feedback site here: