Smarter Grantmaking Practices During—and Beyond—COVID-19

  • By Nichole Hoeflich , April 15, 2020

As a community of grantmakers advocating for philanthropy to put nonprofits and communities at the center of our work, we at GEO think the most important questions grantmakers should be asking center around how you can change your practices to be of greater service to your grantees and others serving communities during this time of crisis and beyond. We are heartened to see grantmakers signing pledges to embrace smarter, trust-based grantmaking practices, calling for increased funding and operating in ways that previously felt impossible for some. However, these practices are not only needed during times of crisis. We can make permanent changes that shift more power to people working on the ground to strengthen communities.

When the pandemic passes and the economic crisis eases—acknowledging that this recovery may take years—we should not expect to return to “business as usual.” The status quo was not working. Persistent systemic disparities will exist throughout this recovery in a way that will complicate and prevent a full, speedy recovery for marginalized communities. Some of our colleagues have already named ways funders can use a racial justice lens to address racism against Asian American communities and the disparate impacts of the pandemic we’re already seeing in Black, Native and Latinx communities. When grantmakers operate in traditional, transactional ways, we perpetuate inequitable systems and work against the goals we share with nonprofit and community partners. We need to embrace a new way of operating for the long haul.

GEO provides resources, peer communities and programs to support grantmakers in shifting cultures to embed better practices throughout our work. If you’re seeking inspiration to help you create change, here are some examples of smarter grantmaking during the COVID-19 and economic crisis, along with resources to help you get started.

Strengthening Relationships with Nonprofits and Community Leaders

When we center the perspectives of nonprofits and the communities we serve, we support better solutions. Building trusting relationships is critical to our success as grantmakers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing that grantmakers with existing trust-based relationships are better able to pivot funding and support to respond quickly to the needs of their community. “Practicing in a trust-based way before the pandemic allowed the communities we work with to pivot more quickly. They had secure multi-year general operating support to respond in the way they needed. Once the pandemic hit, our grantees shifted to addressing needs created by COVID-19 and we trusted them to decide what was needed,” shared Philip Li, president and CEO of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, GEO board member and Trust-Based Philanthropy Project steering committee member. Read more about building stronger relationships with nonprofits and community leaders:

Flexible, Reliable Funding

Flexible, reliable funding, such as general operating support, multiyear grants and funds that cover indirect costs, gives nonprofits the resources to strengthen their organizations, respond to changes in our communities and make real progress. We are seeing many grantmakers immediately lift restrictions on current grants, but the need for general operating support is not limited to this current crisis. Carmen Rojas of Marguerite Casey Foundation urges grantmakers to universalize unrestricted funding and go beyond payout requirements. When this funding is provided consistently, nonprofits have the space to worry less about their own survival and focus more on achieving their missions. This can be even more critical for nonprofits led by and serving communities of color, which are less likely to have financial reserves and access to major funding streams. Read more about providing flexible, reliable funding:

Capacity Building

Grantmakers who put the work in to provide effective capacity-building support help ensure that nonprofits have what they need to deliver on their missions over the long term. During the COVID-19 crisis, these needs will inevitably shift and by holding the principles of making capacity building contextual, continuous and collective, funders can shift our efforts so they remain grounded in the needs of nonprofit and community partners, who are at the frontline of this crisis. Recognizing the needs of their partners would be shifting, the Hazen Foundation communicated directly with nonprofit leaders to better provide contextual support. Knowing that many would potentially be adjusting to remote work, they included an offer to provide each nonprofit with Zoom licenses. Read more about providing capacity building support:

Learning and Evaluation

To make lasting progress toward the goals we share with our nonprofit and community partners, we need to learn from our work. Learning and evaluation efforts, when done equitably, can help us know what is happening in the communities where we want to have an impact. Members of GEO’s Strategic Learning Network are reflecting on how they can support learning during the crisis response efforts within their organizations. Wanting to reduce reporting burden for grantees during this time, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust created a template for program staff to use during touch points with grantees to support gathering consistent data without asking the nonprofit to spend critical time gathering reporting data. Read more about learning and evaluation:


No organization alone has the resources to address the complex issues facing our communities, including the latest challenges we face with COVID-19. Working together gives us an opportunity to create long lasting change. To leverage collective resources, a coalition of philanthropy, government and business partners in Seattle established the COVID-19 Response Fund, house at the Seattle Foundation, where they have issued over $17 million in rapid response grants. When we leverage joint resources and collaborate with other funders and nonprofit partners, we deepen the impact of our work. Funders can also support field-strengthening organizations: capacity builders, network-weavers, intermediaries with greater reach into marginalized communities and institutions that advocate for stronger social-safety nets to protect the most vulnerable. Read more about acting in collaborative ways:

Grantmakers can weave equity through each of these areas to keep it at the forefront as we respond to COVID-19. Explore these racial equity and social justice resources related to pandemic response to ensure you are attending to the structural forces that drive disparities.

Over the coming weeks, we will continue to bring you examples from the GEO community of what smarter grantmaking looks like in practice during this time and as a new normal. If you are looking for support in embedding these practices into your work or looking to connect with peers, please reach out to Nichole Hoeflich, We’d also love to hear how you are leaning on smarter grantmaking approaches during this time and what changes your organization has made. Share what you’re working on or what questions you still have here.

Nichole Hoeflich

Director of Programs

Contact Nichole with questions about program development and design for GEO’s peer learning, conferences, publications and other programming.

Nichole Hoeflich is a director at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. GEO is a diverse community of more than 450 grantmakers working to reshape the way philanthropy operates. The community is committed to advancing smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to grow stronger and achieve better results. As part of GEO’s program team, Nichole supports content planning and development for GEO conferences, remote learning opportunities, publications and other programming.

Before joining GEO she worked at the Center for American Progress as a Graduate Student Fellow on their K-12 Education Policy team. Prior to this, she taught high school social studies at Ivy Collegiate Academy, an international boarding school in Taichung City, Taiwan, where she also served as the dean of students and the social studies department chair.

Nichole earned her masters of science in public policy and management from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College and her bachelor of arts in history and education from Clarke University.