What to Consider When Giving Back During COVID-19

Caitlin Gassert, Senior Director of Client Marketing, Boston, First Republic Bank
April 2, 2020

While the full impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) is still unfolding, the nonprofits that allow our communities to function — and thrive — have been severely impaired. From food banks that provide meals to neighbors in need to health clinics for the underserved to cultural institutions questioning their financial future, there are many worthy organizations to support during this uncertain time.

As the worldwide philanthropic response to COVID-19 exceeds $2 billion and continues to rise, many people are seeking guidance on where — and how — to give in this time of need.

Disaster-relief giving is different from charitable giving, and it’s valuable to explore the subtleties that can inform your giving strategy. Below is a breakdown of what to consider before donating.

1. Determine what type of impact you want to have and where.

The what:

There are three categories of nonprofits especially in need at this time.

COVID-19 relief funds

Small and large agencies alike have created dedicated funds to combat the effects of coronavirus. While the priorities of each fund vary, most focus on supporting local nonprofits that are directly responding to the pandemic. Other organizations are seeking donations to provide services for those individuals most immediately affected by coronavirus: healthcare workers, students, hourly employees, low-income families, the elderly and undocumented immigrants, among others.

To determine which COVID-specific fund you’d like to support, take a look at this comprehensive list from Candid, an organization that provides data and research to help nonprofits fuel their missions.

Critical social services that must operate during COVID-19

While larger corporations and small businesses have closed their doors for the foreseeable future, this is a time when social service organizations are needed most. The challenges faced by individuals prior to the COVID-19 outbreak are magnified by the stress and uncertainty, as well as a lack of resources, in the current global environment. Consider donating to nonprofits tackling homelessness and food insecurity or to clinics supplying mental health services during this isolating time. Just because our everyday routines have shifted doesn’t mean the everyday needs of our most vulnerable neighbors have too.

Organizations that will be disproportionately affected by COVID-19

This is an unprecedented moment for our global community. Organizations that depend on daily visitors, ticket sales or events to fund their programming are losing out on critical donations. Canceled or postponed galas, for example, will have a seismic effect on the spring fundraising season. Don’t feel guilty for supporting an arts or a cultural institution — they need help, too, and are facing challenges unlike any before.

The where:

Once you’ve decided on an appropriate channel, consider at what level you’d like to make an impact. It’s ultimately your decision where you want your financial gift to end up — locally, nationally or globally. No gift is too small; each and every affected community needs support.

The how:

According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, there is a life cycle to disasters of this kind, which should be a factor in how you give. When disaster strikes, individuals often give a one-time, reactive donation throughout the “response” phase, while the long-term needs to recover and then prepare for and mitigate future emergencies are overlooked.

 “Seek to incorporate the entire disaster life cycle in funding efforts, from preparedness through recovery,” recommends the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “Strategic, long-range planning cuts down on waste and duplication of efforts.”

You have the opportunity to decide how your gift shapes the ongoing relief efforts: immediately or for the long term. Whichever you choose, know that your contribution is directly supporting the containment of COVID-19.

If you want to consider making a recurring gift and you’re uncertain of where to begin, learn more in our article “What to Consider When Giving Back.”

2. Do your due diligence.

It’s critical for nonprofits to operate foremost with efficiency and sustainability. The simplest question to ask when picking an organization is: For every dollar donated, what percentage reaches those benefitting from the mission?

The best way to determine this is by looking at a nonprofit’s profile on Charity Navigator, which has rated more than 9,000 organizations, and GuideStar, which provides financial information directly from IRS sources. These reputable external agencies offer insight into how efficient an organization has been with its funds compared to other nonprofits in the same sector.

During your research, keep the following in mind when evaluating organizations:

  • If you’re giving locally

Organizations with an annual total revenue under $1 million aren’t typically rated on Charity Navigator. However, this doesn’t mean they aren’t deserving of your support. Review their websites, dig into their annual reports and take a look at their GuideStar profiles. If you still have questions or hesitations, pick up the phone and call their team. Speaking with staff can provide essential information and confirmation that their work is making positive changes.

  • If you’re giving to a COVID-19 response fund

Make sure you research the parent organization to understand how responsible they have been with donor dollars in the past. For example, the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund was created by the New York Community Trust, which has a four-star rating on Charity Navigator, indicating solid financial health, fundraising efficiency, accountability and transparency. You can feel confident that your gift will directly go to those that need it most.

  • If you’re planning on making a major gift

Everyone defines a major gift differently, so it may be worthwhile to speak to or (virtually) meet with someone from the organization. A discussion on giving is a good litmus test for how well the organization interfaces with donors, and, if you’re looking for a longer-term commitment, it will be beneficial to start building those connections now.

  • If you’re drawn to an organization that doesn’t have the strongest rating

Don’t let that dissuade you. One caveat is that ratings aren’t everything; a nonprofit may be transitioning or investing in the future, which may not be reflected in its score by external agencies. If you’re drawn to an organization, but their rating isn’t top-notch, don’t be afraid to call their development team and ask why that is.

3. Donate your time.

Volunteer virtually

Although many in-person volunteer programs may be on hold, organizations are leveraging technology to make the most of their volunteer force. For example, All Stars Project in San Francisco — part of a national nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities to youth and economically disadvantaged communities through the power of performance — brought together over 40 volunteers to virtually mentor high school students and review their résumés. Participating in such a virtual activity is not only incredibly impactful but can also be easily done from home.

As organizations move their programming online, regularly check their website — or volunteer boards — to see how you can be of most help and to identify the perfect activity for you and your abilities at this time.

Get creative

Brainstorm other ways you can give back. Purge your closet of gently used or unworn clothing and shoes, and have bags ready to be donated. Foster a pet to mitigate the need for animal shelter workers and volunteers. Or, if you feel comfortable doing so, offer to go grocery shopping for your at-risk neighbor. There are endless ways to effectively and safely give back throughout this crisis — it’s all about finding what works for you and your community.

4. Be empathetic and manage your expectations.

Similar to individuals in a rapidly evolving environment, nonprofits are feeling stressed too. Under normal circumstances, donors should respect responsiveness, acknowledgement and quick follow-up. While it’s normally appropriate to call an organization and ask questions of their development staff before making a donation, be mindful that this is an unusual time. Nonprofits may be short-staffed or employees may be on furlough, and entire teams are trying to quickly adapt to big changes in their personal and professional lives.

During a crisis, it’s easy to lose sight of the positives. People tend to focus on the unknowns and what-if scenarios. It can be daunting to invest resources, time and energy into improving the world.

Now more than ever, it’s a time for compassion — for yourself, loved ones and strangers alike. Join the cause that keeps you inspired to help those around you, and give back wholeheartedly. However you choose to contribute, ensure that you’re doing so in a way that’s personally meaningful and has a significant impact on the communities that matter most to you.


The strategies mentioned in this article may have tax and legal consequences; therefore, you should consult your own attorneys and/or tax advisors to understand the tax and legal consequences of any strategies mentioned in this document. This information is governed by our Terms and Conditions of Use.