Flexibility and Agility: How Funders are Responding to COVID-19

COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March 2020 and has had wide-reaching implications for our health, the health systems we depend upon, the global economy, and individual liberty. Shape History’s Strategy Director looks specifically at how funders are adapting to meet new challenges and needs in the social impact sector.

Authors: Lewis Parker
  • Reading time: 5 min.
  • Posted on: April 2, 2020


As COVID-19 unfolds day to day, we are already witnessing the significant impact on charities and social enterprises. Global institutions, like the WHO, have begun raising vital funds with public funding rounds. Institutional funders face the challenge of securing their endowments to ensure survival and longevity, while organisations and programs on the ground are faced with a choice to either pause or scale up operations that support the most vulnerable. The uncertainty and response lies at every level. The impact will not only be short term, but will likely span the next few years – if not decades. 

Globally, civil society and charity leaders are calling for urgent government support and funding. In the UK, with the population on lockdown, funding streams that predominantly came from initiatives such as the London marathon and high street charity shops have disappeared. It is estimated that at a minimum, the charity sector will lose £4.3 billion in the next 12 weeks. 

The response from private and institutional funders 

The private and institutional funding world is having to learn and adapt to meet many of these new pressing challenges. While some have postponed meetings and funding rounds due to their own financial uncertainty, the majority of funders are quickly getting to grips with the situation and responding with one key underpinning principle: flexibility.

More than 60 funding bodies in the UK including Nesta and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation have pledged to reassess previously agreed deadlines and are allowing grantees to use their funding to cover sickness and alleviate the pandemic’s effect on their finances. Similarly, London Funders, the membership network for funders and investors in London’s civil society, has echoed the same flexibility, and have co-ordinated the London Community Response, a £5m pot for emergency financial support for organisations across the city.

Funders’ support isn’t just limited to the grant making. Philip Wilkinson, a London-based entrepreneur and investor has created the COVID-19 European Investor status list, an open source resource showing all investors still accepting pitches via email or video call. For socially responsible founders attempting to raise funds in these uncertain times, this is an invaluable tool to identify the investors who are still open for business. 

We can see a similar response in the US where many top funding foundations have signed a pledge co-ordinated by the Ford Foundation to ensure flexible funding to grantees. Family and community foundations, which make up over half of all private foundations in the US, have also stepped up. They’re springing into action from state to state to support local communities and nonprofits.

So far over 200 confirmed  ‘response funds’ have been created to channel funding to aid in response to the crisis by providing financial flexibility and meeting increased demand for food, healthcare, and shelter. 

The above are heavily skewed towards local, in-country funders. But the global scene is also responding with the same principles of adaptiveness and flexibility. Within the Shape History network, we’re proud to see two of our partners have emerged as shining examples of global organisations leading the way in responding to the pandemic.

The Fund for Global Human Rights (FGHR) provides financial and strategic support to catalyse trailblazing activists around the world. They have an innovative approach to advancing community-driven and grassroots initiatives, knowing that the people most affected by human rights abuses are best equipped to develop solutions. This approach means that dynamic response and flexibility in funding has been a cornerstone of their strategy, ensuring they were already fit to meet the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic before it hit. The Fund is also prepared to make more emergency actions if needed during the spread of the virus.

Fondation Botnar is a Swiss based foundation working globally to champion the use of AI and digital technology to improve the health and wellbeing of children and young people in growing urban environments. The foundation is a catalyser of action on both the global and local level, supporting research, connecting diverse partners, and investing in scalable solutions. Last week they announced they are providing flexibility to all grantees, giving grantees the peace of mind that projects will still be able to be completed and staff will still be able to be paid.

They are also going further. Recognising the role funding foundations can play, and also for the need for agility and flexibility, the foundation is joining the XPRIZE Pandemic Alliance and also committing CHF 20 million to international research efforts to accelerate the global health response to the crisis

The next few months and years are going to be tough for the social impact sector. In order to weather the storm, it is vital that funders continue to lead the way by coordinating responses, adapting to the situation as it unfolds, and providing flexibility to grantees. At the same time, funders can’t hold up the sector entirely on their own, and governments must step up to provide emergency relief and support. 

Shape History is a social impact communications agency. We nurture purpose-led institutions, charities, campaigning groups and social impact leaders with strategic design and communication to accelerate social impact.

Get in touch if you would like to work with us.

Want to connect with the Shape History team?

Get in touch today