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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethical Giving in a Pandemic: Give Now, Give Generously, Give without Strings

outreached hands with money

outreached hands with money

Joan Harrington

Joan Harrington is the director of Social Sector Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

The San Francisco Symphony and Ballet Go Dark Amid Coronavirus Fears.”

Life and Hope nonprofit cancels Caribbean Nights Dance Party” benefiting a school in Haiti. 

Nonprofits are expecting dramatic increases in requests following layoffs and hours reductions.

As these headlines suggest, the nonprofit sector needs help. 

All nonprofits are affected by this pandemic but they fall into two categories. The first category includes the nonprofits that provide services directly related to the impact of the pandemic: health services, food security, shelter, and more. The second category includes nonprofits that are not involved in addressing the immediate needs but are critical to the long-term recovery of society. Think of the arts and humanities organizations, the civil rights and civil liberties nonprofits, those working in education, the environment, animal welfare, and others.

For those nonprofits combating the immediate effects of Covid-19, the response of donors has been impressive and the fundraising structure is in place. As of March 5, more than $1 billion had been pledged worldwide to combat the direct impact of Covid-19. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy established a COVID-19 Response Fund focused on supporting nonprofit organizations to help them respond to increased needs caused by the virus.Community foundations around the country, including the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation, have established funds and other support to help those nonprofits working to alleviate the harm caused by the pandemic.

But for nonprofits not being called upon at this moment to combat Covid-19, the struggle for funding is real and they will suffer long-term damage without donations.

Many of these nonprofits operate on a tight budget and don’t have a significant cushion in reserve. Many rely on fundraising events to provide funds for their services and those events have been canceled. Many nonprofits have employees who are at the bottom of the pay scale and cannot afford to be laid off. The fundraising capacity of these nonprofits is currently paralyzed.

Ethical giving in a pandemic looks different than in normal times. A donor might consider the following thoughts:

Give now. Give to nonprofits in both categories, those combatting the direct effects of the pandemic and those that will be called upon as the crisis abates. Be proactive and don’t wait to be asked.

Give generously. This is a financially challenging time for many so do what you can. For those who have donor advised funds (DAF), who together have an estimated $121 billion held in these funds, this is your moment. Holding money in a DAF for an emergency is a sound, defensible reason for having such a fund. This is an emergency. 

Give without strings. In this extraordinary time, give to nonprofits without restrictions. Allow them to spend the funds on overhead—salaries, rent, what they need to survive. In this moment, trust their commitment and professionalism to do the right thing. Confirm that they are legitimate nonprofits and give.


Mar 20, 2020