Emergency funds at the Columbus Foundation and United Way of Central Ohio channeled philanthropic dollars to areas of greatest need.

On March 9, when just three diagnosed cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Ohio and many residents were still going about their business as usual, Central Ohio’s philanthropic groups began mobilizing to address a crisis of yet-unknown proportions. 

That very day, the Columbus Foundation set up a coronavirus emergency response fund, seeded with $500,000 from one of its unrestricted funds. “People immediately saw a need within the community, even though that need was undefined,” says foundation vice president Dan Sharpe. “We knew one way or another that was going to have a ripple effect.” 

The world now knows that the ripples from COVID-19 became a tidal wave. As the weeks progressed, businesses closed, ICU beds filled, unemployment rolls swelled and lines for food and other assistance grew. At the same time, the immediacy of the need inspired generosity in Central Ohio donors, from individuals to corporations. Within a week, the Columbus Foundation’s emergency fund grew to $3 million. The United Way of Central Ohio, a fund dedicated to fighting poverty, also created a COVID-19 Community Response Fund, to which 1,024 donors contributed $2 million in just two months. Gifts ranged from $20 to $250,000. President and CEO Lisa Courtice says people were “looking for places to give, wanting to respond to the need.” 

That generous response grew along with the crisis. In June, when the Columbus Foundation held its annual Big Give, a one-day fundraising spree for local nonprofits, the amount raised was $32.5 million from more than 44,000 gifts—nearly double the total in past years. 

Early grants from the emergency funds at both the United Way and the Columbus Foundation went to meet basic needs: helping space out shelter residents to prevent the spread of the virus, for instance; supporting the expansion of Meals-on-Wheels when senior centers were shuttered; providing rent assistance to those who lost work; or helping health centers gear up for telehealth delivery. Arts groups were, for the most part, left waiting for help from government sources. 

While assistance on a scale only government could provide was needed, the role of local philanthropy was to jump into the breach and help out while the wheels of Congress slowly turned. “That’s where philanthropy is great,” says Courtice, “because it’s so nimble.” 

Government aid did come, eventually, with a federal relief package that included $349 billion in forgivable loans to businesses, including nonprofits, as well as direct stimulus payments to individuals and families, unemployment supplements and funding to states and localities. At press time, Congress and the White House had not agreed on details of a renewal package. 

As the pandemic stretches on with no sign of abating, some community needs are becoming even more urgent. How long can laid-off workers get by on unemployment, now that the federal supplement that increased their payments has ended? How long can lawmakers prevent landlords from evicting tenants who are behind on their rent? Will the array of social service agencies and organizations be able to survive the series of body blows that just keep coming? 

“There were at least buoys along the way to help the organizations weather the increased expenses and decreased revenues,” Sharpe said during a mid-fall interview. “But now we’re about to be facing a giant question mark.”

Reprinted from Giving: A Guide to Philanthropy 2021.