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Barra Reflects on Grantmaking to Learn, Adapt and Look Ahead

Reflecting on 2020 grantmaking to consider how to move forward in 2021 and beyond

As we move further into 2021, many institutions are sharing how they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic shaking the world in 2020, with its swift and destructive wave transforming life as we knew it. That new way of life was changed even more after the murder of George Floyd, with a renewed and robust demand for action to combat racial injustice.

It was clear these two crises would call for philanthropy to change throughout the year —particularly with so much uncertainty and enormous need. Foundations would have to and should have to take on an unprecedented role. Given its size and nimble and transparent grantmaking approach, Philadelphia’s Barra Foundation had the flexibility needed in 2020 to act quickly, with little bureaucracy and a historical nature to take risks when necessary. Their culture offered the foundation an opportunity to balance a more rapid response with some longer-term thinking about what recovery might look like.

Barra’s longtime practice of listening intently to many voices in the sector to inform how to best deploy resources was a well-toned strength that paid off during the crisis. No one was fully prepared for what happened in 2020, but an approach like Barra’s allowed the staff and Board to quickly respond to the evolving needs of a region that was jarred and traumatized.

Barra’s shift in its grantmaking in 2020 enabled grantees to continue strengthening communities throughout Greater Philadelphia while learning some lessons along the way, too. In the same spirit of learning, this story reflects on Barra’s 2020 grantmaking to consider how to move forward throughout 2021 and beyond.

Phase 1: Pivoting to respond to an emergency.

With COVID-19 on the rise in March, grantees and foundations alike faced a very specific challenge: How do we change our operations and continue to serve with impact? Case counts were skyrocketing. Indoor spaces abruptly closed, including most locations where nonprofits served their communities. Only essential workers were allowed to continue to go to their workplaces.

When the Philadelphia region (and the country) shut down, Barra quickly made small general operating support grants to a network of nonprofits of former and the most recent Barra Awardees. This was a group of exemplary organizations that had been identified through Barra’s unique peer nominator process. This rapidly disbursed emergency support in the early days of the pandemic went to grantees that had a reputation for leading, performing, and adapting to give them a chance to breathe then, refocus and move forward.

“Like many others, we were in a forced timeout because we could not use our building. It was really difficult to figure out what was next,” said Anne Iishi, executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI).

“It was not just the amount of financial support; it was the fact that the emergency grant was open-ended. I could make the decision about how to use it in a way that was beneficial to AAI. It afforded us a moment to think,” said Iishi.

The African Family Health Organization (AFHO) had a similar reaction to the emergency funds. AFHO works with African immigrants and refugees, many of whom are at a predisposed risk for infection.

“When the pandemic started, many of our clients were first responders, small businesses. Most were not given education about the pandemic or basic supplies. As a result, many got sick with COVID,” said Oni Richards-Warity, AFHO’s executive director. “We had to scramble and figure out how we were going to do this in a virtual setting.”

Contributions were also made to the collaborative joint COVID Emergency Aid funds in all five Greater Philadelphia counties. Rather than having nonprofits seeking funds from multiple foundations, Barra believed emergency funds to the county foundations would be a one-stop-shop for stretched nonprofits and closer to the on-the-ground needs of communities.

By late spring, it was time to consider what the next phase of recovery and response would look like as the crisis changed course, even though most nonprofits were still operating in an emergency mode and a constant state of unpredictability.

Phase 2: Addressing dual pandemics.

With the murder of George Floyd in late May, a racial reckoning came in the U.S. amidst COVID. The country was now facing two pandemics. Barra recognized and wanted to acknowledge the interconnectedness of systemic racism and COVID-19.

Barra quickly shifted to prioritize its next round of funding for nonprofits and communities of color being disproportionately affected by these interwoven crises. And they continued to see that it was more crucial than ever to relax funding guidelines and place trust in organizations knowing what they needed to survive.

This began with continuing to provide unrestricted operating support that did not require a formal application. Instead, Barra turned to an informal network of diverse peers to identify organizations already addressing these interwoven issues within the foundation’s four fields of interest: Arts and Culture, Education, Health, and Human Services. Barra re-purposed more than $1 million to provide unrestricted support in this next phase of Recovery and Response Efforts.

New Day Drop-In Center, a women’s center focusing on victims of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, notes the importance of continuing to function as a safe space for all at-risk women regardless of their backgrounds—even as spaces were less than safe for under-resourced communities.

Executive Director Heather LaRocca recalls shifting services to respond to the changing needs of those they serve. With the drop-in center closed, staff engaged with participants at outdoor meal distribution sites and joined community partners in ensuring individuals had consistent access to emergency food assistance. Case managers turned to a primarily telehealth model.

“Thanks to Barra, every client gets a mask, and we do temperature checks. We were able to think through all the measures we could take to operate safely,” said Larocca.

Richards-Warity of AFHO, which received both emergency and recovery funding from the foundation, calls Barra’s general operating funds an “unprecedented” opportunity to provide direct cash assistance to clients.

“We could help families with rent, phone bills, food, and household supplies,” said Richards-Warity. “We have undocumented clients who were hesitant or ineligible to seek assistance. Families survived because of this support. Perhaps most important, this support renewed their faith in humanity.”

AFHO found itself a touchpoint for its families in a new way. The organization began to conduct its services by phone while providing comfort to families with limited English or mistrust of the health care system.

Throughout the pandemic, the virus has disproportionately affected under-resourced communities of color that struggle with meeting basic needs. Black and Latino people have become infected with the virus at three times the rate of whites and have died nearly twice as frequently. Many have jobs that prevent them from working at home, rely on public transportation, or live in cramped homes that increase the risk of exposure. Black and Latino individuals are more likely to suffer from underlying health problems that raise the risk of hospitalization and death. There has been increased violence against all non-dominant groups, with targeted attacks on Asian and Pacific Islander individuals.

For AAI, the past year has been about coalition building and working with other Asian organizations.

“We were already seeing effects of bias against our community well before the shutdown. At the beginning, it was a communications issue. It was a challenge to say: We are still open, and it is not our fault. Then combatting outright acts of violence throughout this shutdown has been a challenge to the entire community,” said Iishi.

Phase 3: More than money.

In thinking about a just recovery and issues of systemic racism, Barra and its partners knew they needed resources in addition to money.

To tap into the collaboration and partnership that Barra values and works to foster, ImpactED was engaged to bring together nonprofit leaders to share lessons learned throughout the past year and discuss and discover new ideas and approaches for tackling challenges. Those resources also included Barra collaborating with Dr. Ken Hardy, President of the Eikenberg Academy for Social Justice and Director of the Eikenberg Institute​. He facilitated racial awareness training with grantees, partners, and the Board to deeply foster and enhance the will and skillset necessary to address race-related issues in the workplace and beyond.

“Race is one of those issues like air. We know there’s air, but we can’t see it. We can’t touch it. Part of what our sessions did was assess the ability to see race in a very nuanced way,” said Hardy. “Subsequent to George Floyd’s murder and in the middle of a pandemic, folks needed a place to come together for some semblance of community to regroup.”

Barra funded four virtual public sessions that brought together hundreds of demographically diverse attendees. Intensive workshops allowed the groups to explore race relations in a way that would inform their future work. Here Barra partnered with a few other foundations to reach a wider network of grantees.

“Barra’s humanism and their humanitarian approach foster authenticity and openness that I haven’t seen with other groups. They could have gone in any direction, but this is the direction they wanted to go in. They did it in a way that I thought was really a testament to who they are and what Barra accomplishes,” said Hardy.

Phase 4: Planting seeds for recovery.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the impact on small businesses – especially those that play critical roles in communities—was evident. Barra made both grants and impact investments to support a move toward economic recovery. Barra gave a 0% interest loan of $100,000 to Women’s Opportunity Resources Center (WORC) to enable them to provide PPP dollars to small businesses owned by women and people of color while they waited for federal dollars. That loan has already been re-paid to Barra.

In moving deeper into recovery efforts later in the year, Barra funded a few more projects focused on fortifying small businesses led by and/or serving people of color.

Community First Fund (CFF) is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) supported with one of these grants. It seeks to revive distressed neighborhoods, replace empty storefronts with active commercial spaces, and increase local economic activity.

“Our lending and services are directed at meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged, often operated by African American and Latino entrepreneurs who are regularly turned away from most banks,” said CFF President and CEO Daniel Betancourt. “Instead of underwriting loans based on credit scores, we look at all of the factors contributing to those low credit scores.”

CFF came to Barra to start a $20 million Economic Justice Fund to support lending to BIPOC entrepreneurs in the Greater Philadelphia region. Historically, this subset has weak relationships with banks—almost all of the entrepreneurs CFF serves have been turned down by traditional lenders. During COVID, many banks only considered PPP applications from existing customers, meaning most BIPOC-led businesses could not get aid.

“This is about human dignity,” Betancourt kept saying. “Community Development Financial Institutions like CFF uses a combination of government funds and private donations to seed businesses that banks won’t deal with because they view their owners as too poor and too disconnected from the financial system to qualify for standard loans. That’s how we are all going to get back on our feet.”

Phase 5: Listening, learning and moving forward.

Learning is a must at Barra; the foundation recognizes that learning can and must happen in the face of adversity to create change. Barra took the pandemic as a chance to move more quickly, to experiment with application processes, utilize more tools like impact investing, and identify resources to be more skilled at addressing racial equity in all work. Across the region, funders also came together to create a more significant impact. It was time to walk the walk just as nonprofits are asked to do.

Barra also considered its particular mission around innovation and where this may add value. Some partners expressed concern that there would be no dollars left beyond recovery for novel thinking and projects that involve risk-taking. Barra kept its Catalyst Fund open because times like this can fuel ingenuity. There will be creativity that comes out of these crises, and Barra wants to be ready when those “aha” moments emerge. Beyond adapting and re-building, Barra anticipates that some will be re-imagining better and bolder solutions.

Philanthropy is trying to find new ways forward as well. Barra has been participating in the Mission Aligned Investors cohort run by Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia. This is a group of nine foundations learning how to apply a racial equity lens to impact investing. In addition to a 5% grant distribution to charitable organizations, how can foundations invest the other 95% of their assets—sitting in their investment portfolios—to better align with their missions? More specifically, the cohort is finding ways to use this other 95% to advance racial equity.

As nonprofits and the communities they serve embark on the next chapter, Barra will continue to balance short-term response with longer-term recovery, striving to incorporate the lessons learned during this time in Greater Philadelphia and the country. No one has all of the answers yet, but Barra’s goal is clear: Keep moving forward toward greater change and the transformation that the past year has proven to be long overdue.

More information about Barra’s 2020 approach and grantees can be found here.