Philanthropy In The Age Of COVID-19

Susan Winer, March 17, 2020


The global COVID-19 crisis raises questions for a number of areas and philanthropy is certainly involved in this. Whether it be funding for medical treatment and research and care for vulnerable groups, a number of needs proliferate. A noted expert in how philanthropy works talks about the issues.

The following commentary comes from Susan Winer, chief operating officer and co-founder at Chicago-based Strategic Philanthropy, a global philanthropic advisory firm. Susan is a regular contributor to Family Wealth Report’s pages and is a member of our editorial advisory board. 

The topic here is self-explanatory: how should philanthropists address the coronavirus pandemic and the massive dislocations it has caused? So many questions for the wealth management industry are thrown up by the virus, aka COVID-19, and this news service intends to discuss these, as appropriate, in coming weeks.
The editors are pleased to share these views and invite readers to respond. The usual editorial caveats apply. Email the editors at and

We have been fielding numerous calls from clients and from financial and legal advisors on behalf of their clients to talk about the impact of the confluence of a global pandemic, tumbling stock market and potential recession, and the scrambling by world leaders and health officials to get ahead of the coronavirus which has been ahead of us thus far. For the first time everything appears to be grinding to a halt; travel has slowed significantly, unless by car. Everything is being canceled or closed: concerts, theaters, museums, conferences, meetings, schools and offices. Employees are working from home and people are afraid to go out to restaurants and other public places.

We are being asked what happens to the most vulnerable populations; seniors, economically disadvantaged, physically challenged, those living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. The full impact of what is happening hasn’t even hit. For larger companies with the resources to weather the current storm, there may be belt tightening, hiring freezes and salary freezes, but business will, with some adjustments, continue as usual. 

But for a significant number of people; low income, hourly workers, immigrant populations and others who are part of or on the fringes of the disenfranchised population it won’t be, can’t be “business as usual”. They face the potential of serious disruption to their lives; loss of income, hence purchasing power, loss of jobs, hence reduced productivity. On a more intangible level, erosion of the emotional and physical condition of a growing population. All of this will inevitably result in further, and longer-term damage to an already fragile economic environment.
For many people the only port in the storm is the nonprofit community, organizations which are on the ground and providing much needed support to a growing number of people. And it is this sector that is increasingly and rapidly being challenged. A large nonprofit had to cancel their annual dinner and the president of the organization was deeply troubled because the dinner accounted for 35 per cent of their annual budget. The chair of the board of a community-based food depository said that they are already seeing an uptick in the number of people calling or walking in seeking help with rent, food and childcare because of school closures and reduced wages. She said they may have to close their doors by June if they can’t meet their budget numbers. 

Every day we receive notifications of fundraising events canceled because of health concerns and the expediential toll of these cancellations on society is no longer anecdotal, it is serious. The “a light in the tunnel” may well be philanthropic dollars. But many funders have no idea how to begin, nor what the best course of action might be.  

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