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Innovative COVID-19 Response Dashboard yields lessons for future disaster philanthropy

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

By Hilary Rhodes, Wes Somerville & Sidney Hargro

When the coronavirus hit Philadelphia, the impact on our region’s economy and welfare was immediate. Businesses and schools closed, basic essentials were in short supply, and thousands began losing income and employment. The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors sprang into action. The need was great, and philanthropy responded by establishing more than a dozen charitable funds to support the community.

Within weeks, tens of millions of philanthropic dollars were distributed for emergency COVID-19 relief in this region. The rapid infusion of funding was critical, but also raised basic questions about what the flow of support looked like: Which organizations received support? What needs were being addressed? What communities were being served? And perhaps most importantly, given the well-known social and economic disparities: are there communities that were left out?

With these questions in mind, the Lenfest Foundation and William Penn Foundation funded Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia and the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania (CHIP) to gather and examine data about the relief grantmaking and develop a regional COVID-19 Response Dashboard that compiles the data in one place.

What is the COVID-19 Dashboard?

The dashboard ultimately seeks to use data to support a more informed, coordinated, and equitable regional response to the COVID pandemic among funders. The dashboard integrates both grant-level data from foundations with government statistics about community needs; this is the first effort we know of where grants data from multiple pooled funds is mapped against demographic and economic data to examine what the needs are, where they exist, and how collaborative relief funds responded across the region. The dashboard has the potential to help funders identify community needs that have not yet been met, and target funding to where these needs are greatest. In addition, it can help assess the extent to which philanthropic funds were distributed equitably, key to a racially, socially and economically just recovery.

The dashboard analyzed data provided by 13 collaborative philanthropic funds in this region, representing the majority of those that were created immediately after the onset of the pandemic. In less than four months between March and June 2020, these funds made 4,892 grants across 10 counties for a total of $40,133,289. Most recipients were businesses (48%), followed by nonprofits (33%) and individual sole proprietors (18%), such as artists. Here’s what the dashboard indicated about how the funds met real-world need:

  • Most grant dollars went to nonprofits based in Philadelphia. This finding suggests that the funding was distributed in alignment with need, at least at the macro level, as Philadelphia has the highest average CDC Social Vulnerability Index rating (a rating based on 15 U.S. factors that help identify communities that may need support during or after disasters) and the fourth highest COVID-19 death rate across the 10 counties.
  • Giving in counties outside of Philadelphia was mostly aligned with need and population, with some exceptions. For example, Cumberland County in New Jersey had the lowest grant awards per capita ($0.62) but the highest average CDC Social Vulnerability Index rating after Philadelphia. This finding suggests that funders may have needed to pay more attention to this county.
  • The top three needs addressed by the shared funds were: Economic Activity ($13.2M), which were frequently used for businesses’ payroll and rent expenses, Education ($11.9M), and Health ($11.4M, including $5.1M for agriculture, food and nutrition aid). Fewer dollars targeted Arts and Culture ($4.1M) and Housing ($2.4M).
  • Funding targeting special populations focused most intensely on Children/Youth/Young Adults ($12.0M) and Small Business Owners ($10M). Far fewer amounts were specifically given to address the needs of immigrants ($644k) and undocumented individuals ($229K).

Advancing Equitable Philanthropic Practices

Philanthropy’s focus on racial and social justice has intensified, related to both increased awareness that COVID-19 is disproportionally impacting people of color and recent nationwide social unrest. Stronger data can help philanthropy and nonprofits better align resources with need to more effectively serve marginalized communities. But, as we learned through this project, that requires changes to philanthropic practice.

Given the unprecedented nature of this crisis, the collaborative funds understandably did not have systems in place to track grant applicants or even a standard application that all could use and that would ensure the necessary comparable data were available to examine these questions effectively. As a result, key data were missing that is needed to answer important questions such as: Who applied for and received grants? Who didn’t apply or receive grants?  Who do the funded organizations serve? What communities weren’t served? And, what do the answers to these questions imply for equitable relief and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic? Answers to these questions would reveal who might not be benefitting from philanthropy, enabling funders to course correct to ensure fair funding.

The process also revealed a few simple ways we can improve shared funds’ ability to increase the community’s resilience when the next disaster comes. For example, we can develop a template for grant applications that standardize the data essential for addressing these questions. If all funders included a question on organizational service area, in addition to organizational address, we could quickly understand both the demographics and need of the population served, since service area can be linked to publicly available indicators on race, ethnicity, and vulnerabilities such as housing and food insecurity. And if funders asked for demographic data for organizational leadership, we would understand how well the demographics of organizational leadership matches the demographics of the populations served. Such data would provide a much clearer picture of how equitably relief funds are being distributed.

Beyond COVID-19 Relief and Recovery

The dashboard was created in response to philanthropic aid amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it could be an incredibly useful tool far beyond this crisis. With uniform data standards in place for funders to collect, this tool could help philanthropy assess and adapt as necessary to ensure equitable funding every day, not just in specific times of crisis. This would involve a widespread adoption of such data standards. The dashboard also has the potential to reflect a more comprehensive real-time capture of need, incorporating support from both private and public sources. There is also the challenge of identifying community needs and engaging with communities in a rapidly changing context, such as we saw this year as life as we knew it was upended by the pandemic. We are interested in continuing the conversation to evolve this tool for ongoing use.

In the meantime, we can continue to collaborate and share data with other funders in the region so that we can more equitably distribute scarce resources in response to the continuing COVID crisis and its aftermath. The dashboard is now publicly available at Learn more about the project findings, methodology and recommendations for funders in the report, Charting Impact: Findings from the COVID Dashboard and Lessons for the Road Ahead.


Hilary Rhodes is Director of Evaluation & Learning at William Penn Foundation; Wes Somerville is Director of the Lenfest Foundation; and Sidney Hargro is President of Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia.