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  • Ari Betof

Philanthropy Increases During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Here, we explore the philanthropic response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on social welfare in general and economic assistance and health care in particular.


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased giving

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the 50 Americans who contributed most to charity in 2020 donated nearly $25 billion to educational and health care institutions, homeless shelters, and museums, among other entities. This figure represents a whopping 54 percent increase over top philanthropists’ 2019 contributions.


Driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic—layered with racial injustice in America—this increase in giving wasn’t limited to the country’s top 50 philanthropists, but extended to all manner of donors, ranging from large corporations to individuals. In July 2020, the Charities Aid Foundation of America learned that nearly 72 percent of the corporations and corporate foundations they surveyed had increased their contributions during the pandemic. And nearer the beginning of the pandemic, Fidelity Charitable found that, while more than half of its surveyed donors planned to maintain their level of giving, one-quarter of those surveyed anticipated increasing their charitable giving. Among younger donors, the move toward increased giving was even stronger, with 46 percent identifying as millennials stating that they planned to increase their charitable contributions as a result of the pandemic.


This renewal of the spirit of American philanthropy was - and largely remains - needed. While many Americans are able to earn a comfortable living by continuing to work from home, more than 20 million people depend on unemployment benefits to make ends meet. Hunger and other issues associated with poverty skyrocketed during 2020, with many food banks seeing a 50 percent increase in requests for aid.


A spokesperson for Forgotten Harvest, a Michigan food bank, told Reuters at the end of 2020 that “the only good thing about this pandemic is that it has made people care. . . more about their neighbors.” In general, donations have increased at food banks and elsewhere during the pandemic, thanks to support from donors at multiple levels. Indeed, one of Forgotten Harvest’s Detroit locations has been able to use the growth in contributions to strengthen its infrastructure and add mobile distribution locations.


Major donor supports grassroots efforts

Author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, donated more than $4 billion in 2020 to combat the pandemic and its effects among her other philanthropic interests. Scott called COVID-19 a “wrecking ball” that was destroying American families’ lives and jobs while exacerbating existing inequalities experienced by women, young people, and people of color.


With this in mind, she contributed substantially to nonprofits working to address the economic needs of some of the hardest-hit individuals and communities nationwide during the pandemic. Her donations were notable as well for being unrestricted gifts to hundreds of boots-on-the-ground organizations.


Scott has contributed to local food pantries and economic assistance organizations, as well as financial institutions working to uplift underserved communities economically and groups working to address historic racial and societal inequities.


Experienced health care funders focus on the pandemic

Early in the pandemic, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), already deeply committed to global health efforts, pledged massive funding for research and development (R&D) into testing, anti-viral treatments, and vaccines for COVID-19. In addition to its funding of local public health efforts in the United States, the Foundation reached out to support developing countries’ need for preventive infrastructure. Later in 2020, it focused on fairness and equity in global vaccine manufacture and distribution.


In November 2020, the BMGF announced a renewed funding commitment to fighting COVID-19 in the developing world. Toward that end, it pledged an additional $70 million to R&D and the distribution of a safe, effective vaccine to meet the needs of low- and medium-income nations. Melinda Gates made the announcement at the Paris Peace Forum, which brings together government officials and leaders in international philanthropy and civil society organizations, as well as those in the private sector.


“COVID-19 anywhere is COVID-19 everywhere,” said Gates during the forum. A lack of equity in access to testing, treatments, and vaccines means that the coronavirus has more opportunities to spread and mutate across borders.


At the close of 2020, the BMGF noted why it was committing a total additional $250 million to this fight. After almost a year of waging war on all fronts against the coronavirus, scientists had by then assembled several promising vaccines - those now in use - and begun to put them into production. This changed the landscape of the pandemic, as an international COVID-fighting manufacturing, regulatory, logistics, and distribution network began to emerge.


The Foundation noted that the buildup of this infrastructure is largely taking place in richer nations, with the developing world still without the supply chain frameworks to move vaccines to where they are critically needed. In fact, the BMGF estimated that only about one-fifth of the people in low- and medium-income nations will be able to receive vaccines in a timely manner.


By the close of 2020, the Foundation had committed a total of $1.75 billion to pandemic-response funding to meet all these needs.

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