The coronavirus pandemic created urgent, unprecedented need for relief in communities across America. Local officials had to respond quickly to both public health and economic crises, and they called on partners in philanthropy to support their efforts. Examining such rapid-response efforts can help us collectively understand how philanthropic organizations can work effectively to support government agencies and communities going forward, in times of critical need and beyond. Our recent experience in Oakland, California provides a case in point.
Facing the coronavirus emergency, the Oakland mayor’s office asked the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation (OFPI) to create a rapid-relief fund on March 17, the same day the governor issued a shelter-in-place order. With support from the New Venture Fund and a team at Arabella Advisors, that fund was operational and able to accept donations within three days. By day seven, the Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund had $2.5 million in the bank and had already disbursed its first grant to support COVID-19 testing. By day 10, the fund had disbursed multiple grants for economic relief across the community. Examples of grantees receiving support through the Relief Fund include:
- Keep Oakland Housed, where 113 families received an average of $3,000 per family to retain their current housing and prevent homelessness
- Oakland Starting Smart & Strong, providing 450 HeadStart families $500 each
- One Fair Wage Campaign/Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which gave 1,193 Oakland restaurant/service workers $500 each
- Working Solutions, distributing 185 grants of $5,000 each to extremely low-income small business owners to date to cover immediate operating expenses such as payroll and rent
Thanks to established relationships in the community and collective expertise across all partners, relief was able to flow immediately to many of those in greatest need, and initial results show this relief had immediate impact across Oakland’s low-income families. The public-private partnership model allowed for quick bridge building between funders and communities, as each partner brought necessary experience—funding, community understanding, compliance and operational capacity, etc.—and each element was crucial to the rapid response.
Our experience with the Relief Fund suggests the following four lessons that funders can use in future rapid-response contexts and beyond.
Funders should support local infrastructure that can quickly scale during crises
The Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund relied on established partnerships between a variety of partners, particularly several local anchor nonprofits throughout Oakland. These anchor nonprofits were community groups with existing relationships with OFPI, and the established trust facilitated their serving as “master grantors” that could help distribute funds to other smaller community organizations. The ability to harness existing relationships allowed for much-faster-than-usual grant making, allowing the fund and compliance partners at the New Venture Fund to vastly shorten due diligence turnaround times while still ensuring trusted partners would be able to carry out the work.
Community leaders must inform grant making to ensure they meet the greatest needs
When COVID-19 struck, many individuals immediately found themselves in desperate need of assistance, and some large funders didn’t know how to best help in the face of such dire need. The call across the philanthropic community was to listen to leaders on the ground, and the Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund embraced this emphatically, including nonprofit and other community leaders in the process of identifying priority needs and potential grantees. The fund created a community advisory group from a representative group of leaders in public health, philanthropy, business, education, arts and culture, and other sectors, representing a diverse mix of ages, races, and neighborhoods.
This group, with input from the mayor’s office, was able to identify four priority areas of need: food security, homelessness, community health and education, and economic security. Within these priorities, local leaders encouraged direct financial assistance for Oakland residents. The Relief Fund spent just over half of grant funding on this direct assistance, granting cash aid for vulnerable populations including very-low-income individuals or those experiencing housing instability. Community input ensured the Reflief Fund was responding to the greatest local needs.
A focus on equity is crucial
The Relief Fund prioritized organizations serving those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, namely unhoused individuals, immigrants, LGBTQ people, domestic violence victims, seniors, very-low-income workers, and people of color. Organizations receiving funds and able to report demographics of households served ranged from serving 83 percent to 95 percent people of color, including 87 percent of small business owners supported, 83 percent of service workers receiving aid, and 95 percent of housing-unstable individuals.
Grants accounted for barriers to accessing support and aligned with the City of Oakland’s priority of eliminating racial disparities. A main focus was ensuring equal access to COVID-19 testing in the Bay Area. Funds supported two anchor partners in East Oakland, including the Roots Community Clinic site, which was the first pedestrian-only testing site in California and enabled individuals without cars to safely access reliable testing. Other grants addressed anti-Asian racism, technology access gaps among school-aged children, and LGBTQ individuals with housing insecurity. This focus on equity ensured support reached already vulnerable populations.
Short-term efforts can’t ignore long-term structural reforms
OFPI’s commitment to equity in COVID-19 grant making was crucial, but the coronavirus pandemic has further exposed existing structural deficiencies. Long-term support is needed to begin addressing these structural issues and the disparities the crisis is exacerbating. The Relief Fund is in the process of making final grants that will work to address structural reform, working long term to address racial disparities, economic recovery, and the digital divide. For example, we’ve launched the Racial Disparities Task Force to address the social factors that have caused disproportionate impacts of the virus among different races. Additionally, the fund helped create an Economic Recovery Advisory Council to help support economic reform that will allow Oakland to rebuild a post-COVID-19 economy that more concretely centers equity.
The pandemic tested the ability of traditional philanthropy to respond to urgent, pervasive need that the dual economic and public health crises created. The Oakland Fund, through its COVID-19 Relief Fund, was able to demonstrate how an innovative public-private partnership could help fill gaps the pandemic exposed. Lessons from this work can help both philanthropic and public-sector leaders better prepare effective and inclusive responses to future crises.
Kiran Jain was interim executive director of the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation when overseeing the Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund. She is now general counsel of Replica, a company spun out of Alphabet, and continues to serve as an active member of OFPI’s advisory board.
Jessica Robinson Love is an Arabella Advisors managing director and played a crucial role in the Relief Fund effort.