Jennifer Chubinski, Assistant Professor, Xavier University
Allen Smart, Founder, PhilanthropywoRx
Interviewer: Miranda Wesley, Grantmakers In Health
Foundations play a vital role in the nonprofit sector, funding everything from safety net services to social innovation. Like many businesses, philanthropic organizations altered their ways of doing business in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The health sector, including hospitals and other health care settings along with public health organizations, were deeply affected by the magnitude of illness and the polarization of the pandemic response. To understand exactly how the business of health grantmaking shifted during COVID-19, Jennifer Chubinski and Allen Smart conducted in-depth interviews with health foundation leaders from around the country to learn what changed in their grantmaking strategies and practices. For a copy of the entire article please visit: Chubinski, J. C., & Smart, A. (2023, May 18). Examining shifts in grantmaking strategy and practice during COVID-19. https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/QH2JR.
The pair first met at the Terrance Keenan Institute for Emerging Leaders in Health Philanthropy (TKI) in 2016, where Chubinski was a TKI Fellow and Smart served as a faculty member. TKI is a biennial professional leadership development opportunity for health philanthropy’s next generation leaders. Grantmakers In Health’s Miranda Wesley spoke with Jennifer Chubinski, Assistant Professor at Xavier University, and Allen Smart, Founder of PhilanthropywoRx about their collaboration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer, how did the Terrence Keenan Institute prepare you for your career and build your skills and network?
Jennifer Chubinski: Philanthropy can be kind of lonely because there are few philanthropists, at least here in the Cincinnati area, doing similar work at the same kind of career level. The thing that TKI did for me was [provide space to connect with] people kind of in the middle. Most of my fellow fellows were not brand new. And most of them were not senior. We were all kind of “in the middle.” We were all trying to figure out our next step.
And for a couple of years after we had the TKI Institute, several of us kept in touch. And it was interesting to see how everybody navigated the “stuck in the middle” place that we all were in. Some got promoted—like, I was promoted and then left the field. Some people left and went to a different philanthropic organization. It was very interesting to see how everybody traveled differently.
Prior to COVID-19, what were some topics or themes of your mentor-mentee conversations?
Jennifer Chubinski: Well, I’ll let Allen answer from his perspective, but I have deep memories of feeling stuck professionally and exploring a lot of options. And Allen was a neutral—outside of the geography, didn’t know the exact players—sounding board for me. He had some really good advice along the way about what would work and what didn’t work. And even though I didn’t listen to him all the time, I remember him being almost always right. But I had to bang my head against a couple of walls before I started to realize where my future road was going to be.
Allen Smart: We had a number of discussions about where Jennifer saw herself in the broader field of not only funders, but of intermediaries and research organizations working with foundations. Ultimately, she’s ended up in a really great university role.
Hopefully, I provided some valuable advice about the breadth of the field, rather than just focusing specifically on being an evaluation person at a foundation or what’s the next job at the next foundation.
We also had a number of discussions about where evaluation was going in the philanthropic world. Depending on the foundation, the roles can be very different: the evaluation person within a funder being a broker or a purchaser of services using external partners and/or doing evaluation work internally yourself.
Jennifer Chubinski: Allen is an exceptional connector. [He] was always connecting me with projects, then positions and opportunities … It was really helpful to see what was happening and who was doing what. It helped me see beyond the blinders that I [had] on. He’s been a mentor to me, and I know, to several of my peers.
Allen Smart: Since I first got into the philanthropic space in ’98 or ’99, I have always been interested in how all these pieces of the puzzle fit together. I’m still surprised at how people—even [those] who are well known in the field—are not connected to others who are doing similar work or people who could advance ideas or introduce new ideas. And groups like Grantmakers In Health obviously serve a great purpose in that role. I’ve always taken [connecting others] on as something that both was interesting to me, but hopefully provided value to others.
Why and how did you begin researching how health grantmakers changed practices during the COVID-19 pandemic? And similarly, why did you connect with one another about doing this research?
Jennifer Chubinski: We were having lots of conversations. I was one of the COVID people who felt very stuck. And Allen I viewed as not being stuck. He was one of the people—his brain was going a million miles an hour with all sorts of ideas.
And somehow in our conversations, one of his ideas was: What are grantmakers doing? What’s happening at the management level? What decisions are being made and by whom? How is that impacting grantees? That really resonated with me and in some ways got me a little unstuck. And so together, we slowly worked on this project.
Allen Smart: From my position, I was observing this nonstop flurry of press releases about how funders were switching their practices, spotlighting new relationships, and stepping into new leadership roles. And I was wondering who, whether it be an individual or organization, was tracking or monitoring what was really happening on the ground beyond the funder press releases. And I think certainly the people I interviewed and the people Jennifer interviewed were very forthcoming about what they felt actually happened, and in some cases is still happening. And why they thought the environment accommodated that and why it was new or why it was disruptive, perhaps in a positive way.
Jennifer Chubinski: I think because of the relationships we had with most of the people we interviewed, we were able to have very long, transparent conversations with many of them. [Many of] our interviewees said “you can’t use my name with this” or “you can’t attribute this to the organization,” but as a whole, they gave us a lot of really deep insights about what was happening [inside philanthropy].
We had intimate conversations with people, mostly people that we knew relatively well. They were willing to give us a lot more honesty than you would get if you were filling out a survey or answering a cold call. And that’s what we tried to portray in an anonymous overall format and article.
What were the major findings of the research article?
Jennifer Chubinski: There were changes in the grantmaking process. A lot of funders moved into the trust-based grantmaking space, either intentionally or piecemeal. [Foundations] changed who they fund, and what they funded across the board. There was a lot more regional and statewide collaborative work and funding. But the day-to-day tasks of their staff changed dramatically. All of the organizations we spoke with made a transition to equity-focused work much more quickly than if the pandemic had not happened.
Allen Smart: That certainly reflects the folks I spoke to. I think my thematic takeaway is that funders stepped into leadership roles that either they had never thought about, or perhaps they hadn’t believed they had the capacity to pursue. And they have a broader sense now of the philanthropic tools in their toolbox and how they can be effective in ways that go well beyond grantmaking or well beyond running a program or initiative to really providing civic leadership at the local or state level.
I think it’s caused them to question in some cases: What other opportunities are out there for leadership that we haven’t thought about? Or [what] opportunities are sitting out there for someone to step in to be a leader? Because maybe we had too closely defined how we did our work or who our partners were, and [the pandemic] opened those discussions in ways that I think will have long-lasting implications.
Do you think most funders have remained consistent with the changes they made during the COVID-19 pandemic? Why or why not?
Allen Smart: I wish I had a linear answer, and it probably merits a longitudinal study on a broader scale of what stuck and what didn’t stick. What new ways of acting, new ways of pursuing leadership and impact have some funders pursued? Certainly, I think we’ve observed now that things have calmed down considerably, there has been slippage back to the traditional—we do grant cycles twice a year, we take months to turn around grantmaking decisions, we have a lot of formal reporting. Many funders have reversed to the norm but with an enhanced sense of being more open to feedback and understanding that practices don’t have to be set in stone.
During COVID, [the funders we spoke to] were making major decisions on a weekly or biweekly basis about new grants, new programs, or new partnerships. I think that’s reasonable to say they have not maintained that pace.
However, I’m hopeful that there are long-lasting impacts that go beyond, “We now turn our grants around more quickly.” I think the real impact is more along the lines of thinking about how foundation partnerships and civic leadership look differently than before the pandemic.
An interesting finding is how collaborations between philanthropic organizations, government, and nonprofits in various areas expanded. How did funders serve as the “convener” of these sectors to make the most effective impact?
Allen Smart: One of the statewide funders we interviewed had very little relationship with the State Office of Minority Health and specifically with tribal organizations in their state. For reasons that weren’t intentional, the relationship just hadn’t been a focus or hadn’t been elevated to a priority. This funder understood that a long-term relationship between a trusted state-wide intermediary and state government agency was going to be key to reaching their goals. I think many of those relationships have been sustained. And I am always advocating for funders to work closely with the knowledge brokers within state government. In this example, that has really served to broaden the funders’ thinking about just who their constituency is.
Much of my work is focused on rural, so reaching out to a state organization that has formal responsibilities for tribal health work, rather than trying to create this on your own, just seemed to be something you’d say, “Well, why hadn’t that happened before?” Well, it hadn’t happened before. There was a new impetus during the pandemic to reach people who were being burdened and in substantive ways.
Similarly, we talked to some funders who did a lot of tribal grantmaking already, but had not stepped in to be the connector between state government and various tribes. Funders acted as trusted brokers for what were probably very difficult conversations. And I think they did so in a really effective way.
Jennifer Chubinski: I would add that, in some cases, the funders had money they could provide more quickly than civic and government organizations.
Allen Smart: In another example, a foundation we interviewed became a conduit for funding sources outside of their region and brought in millions of dollars. That outside funding may have never materialized because the funders would have reasonably said, “We don’t really know who to give the money to,” and “We’re going to go places [where] we have more experience or a higher comfort level.” But the foundation successfully became an intermediary and regrantor. And they did so in a way that ensures they will continue that practice. Now they can market themselves to other funders as having both the back-office experience as well as the network to effectively conduct a grantmaking program on behalf of other funders.
Tell me about trust-based philanthropy and its amplification during the COVID-19 pandemic. What are the positive impacts of loosening grantee requirements regarding applications and reporting processes?
Allen Smart: There are many, but I’ll just touch upon one. Certainly, something that funders we interviewed learned is that by—we’ll call it “loosening,” although I’m not sure that’s a word a funder would appreciate in some cases—but by changing or adapting the requirements for what it takes to be an applicant and what it takes to be a successful grantee allows more grassroots and smaller organizations into the pool. Small, community-based organizations may feel intimidated by a lot of philanthropic jargon about how to be an applicant and how to be compliant. But if you loosen the language and loosen the deadlines and at least try to set the stage for more ongoing dialogue, you’re going to meet different people, you’re going to meet people doing great work. And so there can only be positives from that.
That’s one of the things I wonder in terms of further research or further observation—will relationships with smaller, grassroots organizations accelerate and strengthen or fade away? What are the reasons for these relationships flourishing or in some cases becoming just a one-note song?
Jennifer Chubinski: It was when I spoke with the bi3 organization that they gave me the language to describe all of the phenomena we were seeing: trust-based philanthropy. But that label kind of came later as we put the pieces together, and I learned from the bi3 journey, what trust philanthropy looks like from start to finish. And it was a big “aha,” for me.
Another important finding is that foundations began funding more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)-led and -focused organizations and engaging people of color in decision making processes during the COVID-19 pandemic and after George Floyd’s murder. How can philanthropy stay committed to racial equity?
Jennifer Chubinski: If I have a one-sentence answer, the answer would be look at the boards of directors of foundations—do they represent the communities that they serve? That’s step one in my mind. And secondarily, looking at the distribution of funds and how that compares to making movement on racial equity. So that’s the Jennifer Chubinski answer. I think some of our respondents would agree with that. And some would not.
Allen Smart: I’ll combine mine. So, this is both Allen’s perspective and that of some of the funders we interviewed. The pandemic, combined with the trust-based philanthropy movement, combined with perhaps some other forces, have caused a number of funders to be more present in community. As a result, program officers, CEOs, [and] board members have more firsthand awareness of what’s going on.
Over the past three years, I also think funders engaged in conversations that provided a much broader perspective or engaged with a much broader group of BIPOC folks, and not just with people connected to nonprofits, but with people in local government, people in the faith community, people who were being impacted directly by the pandemic, and with business leaders.
I hope that knowledge-seeking behavior will continue and that foundations will continue seeking out and learning from a wide range of BIPOC voices and experiences. Anything funders can do to broaden their inputs from BIPOC communities or rural communities or anyone is always going to make them better.
It’s easy to work with a group that has a perfect audit and talks to you like you want to be spoken to. But the real effective work comes with shaking that up. The pandemic caused a lot of funders to do that, and maybe they didn’t want to, but they were presented with all sorts of people and situations to respond to that broadened their perspective. And hopefully, not just the program officers, but the CEOs and board members and others will continue to be more present in those communities than they were before.
Lastly, is there anything else you would like to share?
Allen Smart: This is kind of core—what changed, why did it change, and what will sustain? And from my side, it shouldn’t just be thought of as operational, it should be something almost like the DNA of the funder should have changed or should have shifted and how they think about doing their work. And I think certainly some of the folks I know, in one case, I’m thinking about a statewide funder with a relatively modest amount of money. Their work had been restricted by the amount of money they had. And now they see that their work need only be restricted by the need to prioritize and focus. It’s not restricted by their grantmaking budget at all. They can be really effective in all sorts of other ways like regranting, raising questions, elevating issues, and serving as a conduit to local and state government, as examples.