AQF Views & Voices: Policy & Practice

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Thoughts on Philanthropy in Education During COVID-19

Marvin Erfurth

Global philanthropy’s tasks and responsibilities are changing with the wreckage that COVID-19 is creating, shaking up the ways we –as foundations– work. At the same time, philanthropic giving decreases during economic downturns, which will likely add pressure on the sector in the foreseeable future. So how can we address our communities’ needs in the face of shrinking budgets?

Research shows that philanthropic giving declines in recessions. In times like these, philanthropy is usually stripped of resources that it needs to keep working effectively. For instance, in 2008 at the beginning of the global financial crisis, total giving decreased by 7-8%, and by another 6-8% in 2009, depending on the source. In 2011, three years after the global financial crisis, it still remained below 2007 levels. In other words, philanthropic giving decreases in times of economic downturn. So how can philanthropy ensure to continue to address local needs – for our partners in the sector, but first and foremost our local communities?

Local needs, however, keep changing with COVID-19. As we work closely and predominantly local with our community in Ras Al Khaimah and the UAE, the feedback we get is quite rapid. To do this during times of social distancing, we have been engaging with our community online –also improving our use of many platforms– to exchange information, gather evidence and detect problems. What we see is that our community’s needs are continually and rapidly changing in ways we cannot even try to predict – and I imagine this is true for our friends at other foundations working in health and other sectors too. At the core, schools, universities, and governments continue serving their overarching purposes, but their immediate needs have drastically changed.

This ‘new normal’ requires us to be able to quickly gather reliable information. For example, we need to be able to get feedback from our students, parents, teachers, and administrators about what they need to make distance learning work. A pressing question for us and other philanthropies is: How will philanthropy reflect this complex COVID-19 shake-up in its operations and programming – at a time when we can expect both budgets and giving to be in decline for the foreseeable future?

A silver-bullet answer would be foolish, but there are four experiences we engaged with over the past weeks that I think are worth sharing. Firstly, we are focusing even more on conducting research that is locally embedded, and fast-tracking surveys and studies at a time where we need rapid feedback. In education, we hope to identify challenges for at-home learners and educators early on to then be able to address these with the means we have.

Secondly, our relationship management with local stakeholders has transitioned into being fully remote, and at the same time it has become all the more crucial in learning about immediate needs and helping understand research findings in a more in-depth way. But we are not the only ones doing this. We have seen entities come together across the country in virtual meetings that only a month ago were working independently. On the bright side, COVID-19 creates a greater interest and opportunity for collaboration locally, nationally, and regionally.

Thirdly, while the delivery of our programs has been interrupted and/or changed, we are trying to ensure that capacities we have built do not disappear because of this pandemic. For instance, we try to raise awareness of our partners’ needs online and through our networks. If this does not help, we try to mobilize the community around us. We think that philanthropies can utilize their extensive networks to connect people, donors, and those in need even more during these challenging times.

Lastly, we keep working on improving and strengthening our online presence and activities. We are writing more short and useful pieces on our blog, and we are working on podcasts more as we think this is a great format to discuss current challenges in in-depth conversations that help to unpack the complexity of current changes. Furthermore, we are making sure to share more useful content from other like-minded organizations than ever before, hoping that the information reaches more people who might benefit.

While these experiences are concise and context-/location-specific, I nonetheless hope that sharing them allows others to kickstart important, yet often difficult conversations, or maybe to even be inspired to act.

In our Education in Uncertain Times blog series, the Al Qasimi Foundation explores how COVID-19 is impacting students, teachers, administrators and education in the UAE. It presents insights into the current state of educationbut also into policy and funding. Moreover, it offers suggestions for decision-makers and the general public on how to sustain quality education for all students in these uncertain times. If you enjoyed this blog, we encourage you to read the other blogs in our Education in Uncertain Times series.