Gates Leaders on COVID: Liveblogging New IUPUI Series

On May 21st, attendees gathered for IUPUI’s first webinar in the Perspectives on Philanthropy Discussion Series. The series asks, “As we search for context in our transforming world, what role does philanthropy play? Broadly understood to encompass the human voluntary spirit, philanthropy is responding in a variety of ways to the current global crisis today. How is it doing and what role will it have in the world that is emerging?”

Gates leaders on COVID
Jennifer Alcorn and Victoria Vrana were the first guests on the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s new discussion series, Perspectives on Philanthropy. (Image Credit: IUPUI)

Today’s webinar started with an introduction from Amir Pasic of IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The morning’s guests were Jennifer Alcorn (Deputy Director, Philanthropic Partnerships) and Victoria Vrana (Deputy Director, Giving By All) of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Pasic’s introduction covered the main focus of the webinar.

“We at the Lilly School believe that philosophy-based research helps to illuminate the field,” Pasic said. “We also seek to engage leading practitioners as we are today, so that they can help inform the future of academic progress. Following your curiosity is not only its own reward, but it leads to more thoughtful interaction and philosophy.”

Pasic introduced the Foundation as a leader in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and introduced Alcorn and Vrana as leaders from the philanthropic landscape.

Gates Leaders on COVID’s Impact on Giving

Pasic began with context for the pandemic, as well as the trends the webinar would focus on. He asked Vrana about the Giving By All program, asking about its origin story and some of the milestones of its progress.

“The philanthropic partnership team that Jen and I are on has a mission to increase the impact of everyday to ultra high worth donors around the world. When people have access to better tools and inspiration, they’ll give more and give better.”

Vrana described the wide range of programs supported by the Gates Foundation and introduced the history of the Giving By All program.

“Can we play a role supporting everyday donors in the US?” she asked. “Donors with a net worth of one million and below actually give 45% of the everyday philanthropy in the country. Those are dollars without any kinds of ties, usually. They provide much-needed operating support for organizations, and provide a balance to other kinds of funding. They’re a critical part of nonprofit’s makeup.”

The Giving By All program funds research into giving strategies and trends, and partners with the Lilly School on a number of projects, including studies on women and people of color in giving.

“Our first goal was really to understand this donor landscape,” said Vrana. “Our second goal was to partner with other organizations across that landscape.”

Vrana shared the example of #GivingTuesdayNow, the recent giving program created to combat the impact of COVID-19. Since its inception, the original Giving Tuesday program has fundraised $3 billion, which has helped create a behavior of collective, frequent giving.

“Every year on Giving Tuesday, there’s some new idea. The viral nature of this generosity movement inspires me every time it happens. It was just amazing to see the world come together on May 5th in a response to this.”

Gates Leaders on COVID and Partnering

“I don’t know that the Foundation ever set out intentionally to engage high-worth individuals. It was a natural evolution of our work,” said Jennifer Alcorn. She spoke about the number of individuals and foundations that reached out to the Foundation, interested in particular projects, campaigns, and strategies, and starting conversations to get more involved in funding those projects.

About ten years ago, Bill, Melinda, and Warren Buffett started the Giving Pledge, and the Foundation has acted as a secretariat for the Giving Pledge. They facilitate peer connections, learning, and a sense of community for high-worth individuals committed to the Pledge.

“What we found is that there’s so much we can learn from partnering with others. There are places where we are really good at some things, and places where we need to rely on others to be able to come in and do the work. In the same way that we might fund Bloomberg for tobacco secession work, they fund us for polio vaccines. We leverage our partners’ expertise when we can, and are available for others to use ours to do the same.”

The Foundation’s Response to COVID

Alcorn’s next topic was a broader vision of how the Foundation has been responding to COVID-19. She noted that in late January and early February, the Foundation started to become very concerned about the pandemic, based on responses they were seeing from their offices in Beijing and China.

“We needed to get funding on the ground for preparedness in places where we work in Africa and South Asia.”

The Foundation worked with the African CDC and WHO Afro to strengthen communications on the ground, including communications with labs to process tests. The Foundation also strengthened emergency operation centers, drawing on their experience from the 2013 ebola outbreak.

“An emergency operation center can stop an epidemic from occurring, because of their experience and impact on the ground.”

“How would we remove the bottlenecks from getting things developed?” Alcorn asked.

Gates Leaders on Value of Accelerated Research

The Foundation dove deep into research through a worldwide accelerator, drawing on resources in pharmaceutical libraries and other unexpected avenues to find ways to get a vaccine or other treatments into clinical trial as quickly as possible. By accelerating research that started ten weeks ago, the Foundation hopes to have a vaccine available to the public by the end of 2020.

“We’re all fortunate that we’ve had your preparation and rapid response,” said Pasic.

“We started with the places we knew, where we had people on the ground and partners on the ground,” said Alcorn. “We trusted that we could do this work, and do it quickly.”

Vrana covered the methods the Foundation’s team members and partners have been using to pivot due to COVID. The Foundation’s first and primary response was around global health.

“Bill and Melinda have been worried about pandemics for some time, and investing in programs to help the world be prepared,” said Vrana. “In addition to the global health work, every program officer has been reaching out to their grantees. One of our first important priorities was to check in with those grantees to see how they were faring, how they were adapting, and how we could help.”

“How is our work going to change in this time?” Vrana asked. She cited an incredible outcome in generosity and requests from individuals and foundations looking to fund campaigns and looking for instruction, partners, or ways to get involved through the Foundation’s programs.

The Foundation set a goal to connect high-worth individuals with vetted, impactful campaigns. They launched a platform that ties together campaigns from all of the Foundation’s partners, and also have worked to power the infrastructure behind giving—they made $10 million in new grants to infrastructure, including sector advocates in legislation, volunteer match programs for virtual volunteering opportunities, and the United Philanthropy Forum, which is providing a public RFP to support the emergency COVID funds around the country.

“We’re funding the funds, so they can continue to accelerate this work,” said Vrana. “Funding the connectors, the conveners, and the communicators is so important now more than ever. Frontline organizations are just as important, but funding the facilitators is so critical.”

The Foundation’s Part in a Global Conversation

“How is the prominence [of Bill and Melinda Gates] in the news affecting the Foundation’s engagements?” asked Pasic.

“We joke that we see Bill on television more often than usual in the office,” said Alcorn. “We’re seeing partners who don’t necessarily have R&D expertise or an understanding of the pharmaceutical landscape wanting to partner with us more because we DO have that expertise. That’s where the Therapeutics Accelerator has come in. We also very quickly stood up what we call the Combatting COVID-19 Fund within Gates Partners.”

Alcorn spoke to the increase of calls the Foundation received from potential partners desperate to make an immediate or long-term difference.

“We were able to provide that opportunity for people because we had that Fund set up and ready to go. What we’re seeing now is that people have done their immediate response, and they’re looking at what comes next.”

Alcorn challenged donors to think about the short and the long term: where is your funding needed now, versus three months, six months, or a year in the future? She cited the need for a vaccine around the world, and the staggering expected cost for worldwide distribution. Because of this, she noted that donors have been very strategic about predicting the best impact of their funds around the world.

“We’re seeing people give more, and giving unrestricted funding more than we’ve ever seen before. It’s been so inspiring, and it makes us optimistic that the funding will continue to flow after this pandemic.”

Pasic shifted the conversation to focus on the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, asking how the Foundation is keeping a focus on women and girls in the midst of a global health crisis.

Vrana pointed out the statistic that there are more women donors online, and that online giving is increasing.

“There is no doubt that digital is going to continue to be incredibly important for nonprofits. If they haven’t pivoted now to have an online fundraising strategy, that needs to be a top priority. How do nonprofits make sure that women have the opportunities they want to online?”

Filling Gaps in Global Crisis Support

Vrana spoke to the impact of funding for women’s organizations on filling in gaps in philanthropy where other COVID-focused funding opportunities are missing out. The Foundation is aiming to support many domestic violence organizations, as well as support vulnerable populations, and they are leveraging their partners in women’s foundations to reach women and girls on the ground. She also pointed out that women make up a huge percentage of primary caregivers, so they are supporting women’s foundations that support those populations.

Vrana also spoke to the fragility of women’s organizations—up to 30% of women’s foundations may have to close their doors because they are unable to hold the usual fundraising events that carry them over to the next year. The Foundation is sending emergency grants to these foundations in the most danger to try and keep their doors open.

Alcorn added a programmatic perspective on gender equality and how we think about women and girls. “Gender equality and the issues that women and girls face are so critical to the overall goals of our Foundation. We’re all working from home, making a huge push to introduce a gender lens across all of our programs.”

“Equality can’t wait, not even in a pandemic,” she added. “We’re pushing this forward.”

Alcorn mentioned that Melinda Gates will likely raise her voice in the next few weeks about the impact on women and girls during the pandemic. “It’s never far from our line of sight,” she said.

The Foundation has created a new division for women and girls and is actively seeking a new President to lead that campaign.

“This work is a continuation of Bill and Melinda’s beliefs that women are at the core of communities, and are important to every aspect of economic health and leadership. This division will start to bring all of that together in one place, and make it a more cohesive part of the work that the Foundation does at large.”

Racial and Economic Equity in COVID

“Those things very much come together in our Economic Vulnerability and Mobility team,” said Vrana. “Traditionally, the Foundation in the US was focused on education as a way to create opportunity for everyone. We also focused on our backyard in Seattle, with numerous programs throughout the Pacific Northwest.”

Vrana cited the importance of working with partners who look at inequities and racial justice, and find ways to address those. On the donor side, Vrana mentioned partnerships like the Foundation’s with the Lilly School, which are invested in research on racial, gender, and economic inequity.

“There’s an untapped opportunity and potential in donors of color, and we really want to help our donors be able to support and influence those opportunities.”

Alcorn spoke to the increasing awareness of issues of race and inequity in high-value partners. She mentioned the importance of boosting education, as well as an increasing focus on inequity and class differences in different populations of color. In global partnerships, the Foundation is seeing an interest in equity that’s more focused on gender equity than other lenses, specifically in issues of safety and education for girls.

“It differs on who you’re talking to and where they’re interested in,” she said. “Across the board, we’re seeing so much interest in gender lately. There is so much interest in women in leadership: the need to ensure that women’s voices are heard by leadership, and that they are part of leadership as well. That’s been an interesting twist to the conversations we’ve been having, particularly around COVID.”

“If you can’t see how COVID is unequally affecting populations in the US and how people of color are at such a higher risk of both getting the virus and, frankly, dying from the virus, that has to raise to the level of extreme attention to how these inequalities are playing out in our country,” said Vrana.

She added that donors are finding new answers to questions about how to address those inequalities and support the most vulnerable populations in the most effective ways. “There’s a strong interest and concern in getting the data that’s going to allow that funding to reach these populations. We can’t do this alone—we need governments, corporations, and businesses to join us in a full partnership if we’re going to tackle these issues.”

Alcorn spoke to the ways COVID has uncovered massive inequities in health and economics in the US. She pointed out the fact that many people with underlying conditions like asthma and hypertension don’t have access to the same healthcare resources that others do. She called for support from both philanthropists and the government to repair this “inherent unfairness” that we are only just starting to see in the US.

Trends in Volunteerism

“It’s the expression of generosity that’s so important, and there are so many ways to express it,” said Vrana. She pointed out the giving of time and goods, such as making runs to grocery stores or food banks for vulnerable relatives and neighbors. A VolunteerMatch survey said that 93% of organizations are seeing cancelled volunteer opportunities, but that the population with the most volunteers is now the Baby Boomer generation.

“Our grant to VolunteerMatch helps them open up virtual volunteer opportunities to other platforms, and also help nonprofits transform to manage these virtual opportunities,” said Vrana. “It’s one of those things I hope will continue after COVID, but the more virtual volunteer opportunities there are, the better.”

Pasic pointed out the correlation between volunteering and giving, and asked if there was a similar correlation in high-net-worth individuals. Alcorn said that there definitely is, especially when their kids are involved—when someone’s kids are interested in an issue, the parents are more likely to support it.

Globally, Alcorn points out the increased giving around the world, particularly in funding coming from China. She also spoke about how the pandemic is falling during Ramadan this year, and as such, we’re seeing an increase in giving from Muslim populations—even more of an outpouring than there usually is during Ramadan.

Vrana also discussed the trends her team is seeing in unrestricted funding around the world, as funders have made pledges to their grantees with very few strings attached.

“We’re also seeing some of the same challenges,” said Vrana, such as the difficulty for large foundations and organizations to collaborate when they’re accustomed to working on a more personal level.

How Can We Prepare for the Future?

Pasic asked about what will be changing going forward, and how we can best prepare ourselves.

“There are going to be some hard things ahead for the sector, and we’re already seeing some of them,” said Vrana. “Some nonprofits are going to be hit very hard.”

She pointed out that many nonprofits are getting more funds than usual, but also have to handle much larger expenses than ever before. She predicted that we will be seeing many more acquisitions and mergers as nonprofits try to find ways to stay in operation, despite layoffs and dwindling budgets.

“Those are trends that we all have to keep an eye on,” she said.

Vrana also mentioned that it’s very likely everyday donor activity will decline as the economy continues to decline. Currently, there is a huge increase in direct cash transfer donations to floundering organizations, and she hopes to see those continue.

Alcorn added that she hopes there continues to be a willingness to move quickly with less parameters in place, and giving more. She wants there to be an increased attention on undiscovered or understated diseases that could cause pandemics, so we don’t find ourselves in this situation again.  

The Inspiration Behind the Work

Pasic wrapped up the webinar by asking about Alcorn and Vrana’s inspirations behind devoting their lives and careers to philanthropy.

“I never intended to work in philanthropy,” said Vrana. “I wanted to work in the field of social change.” Through her work in grassroots organizations, she learned about the strengths, weaknesses, and dynamics in on-the-ground work, and applied that to her eventual work on the facilitation side of philanthropy. “I’ve been passionate for many years now toward making that system better. I am really inspired by being able to empower so many organizations to do such great work.”  

Vrana highlighted the important skills the Gates Foundation looks for in employees and partnerships: subject-matter expertise, the ability to communicate and build partnerships, creativity to find the best ways to use resources at all times, and strong written communication skills.

Alcorn also never expected to find herself in this line of work. Her focus has been on empathy, fairness, and equity her entire life. In early jobs in philanthropy, she discovered an ability to make matches between organizations and funders, and developed that skill over time, leading her to where she is today. “That intuition and empathy made me a really strong partnerships person.”

In terms of people she’d like to work with, she’s always looking for people who have done many different things but not necessarily the exact thing the Foundation is hiring for. Bringing on different points of view and experiences helps the Foundation approach problems holistically.

“Our best epidemiologists had liberal arts degrees before they decided to go into medicine,” she said. She added a joke: “We’re pretty much all Type A. It can be a challenge to manage, but we are all very motivated.”

“If we’re always around people who make us comfortable, we wouldn’t be learning,” said Pasic.

Pasic wrapped up the webinar by thanking Alcorn and Vrana for their perspectives and inspirational words.

About The IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy: The IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is globally recognized as the first of its kind. School faculty and staff train and empower students and practitioners to innovate and lead—and to create positive and lasting change in the world. The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy increases the understanding of philanthropy and improves its practice worldwide through critical inquiry, interdisciplinary research, teaching, training, and civic engagement. It is also home to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, a leader in research and education for women’s leadership in philanthropy.

About Victoria Vrana: Victoria Vrana is a deputy director on the Giving By All team and joined the Foundation in November 2011. Previously, she served as the vice president, communications and assessment at Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP), responsible for the organization’s overall internal and external communications and assessment of VPP and its portfolio’s performance.

About Jennifer Alcorn: Jennifer Alcorn has spent over a decade with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation working across its global advocacy and philanthropy portfolios. In her current role, Jennifer manages a team that works directly with philanthropists to support their giving across a range of issues. Where areas of interest align with the Gates Foundation, the team facilitates partnerships, co-funding, and matchmaking with the goal of accelerating progress on must solve issues.

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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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