5 Questions with the Seattle Foundation: Community Pandemic Response & Recovery
July 27th, 2022
Back in 1999, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made its first grant to Seattle Foundation – creating a $30 million trust that provided matching funds to support the United Way of King County. More than two decades later, Seattle Foundation continues to be a critical partner for our local work, collaborating with the Gates Foundation to advance community-led solutions in education, homelessness, and other key issues.
When our local community started to feel the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew we could turn to Seattle Foundation for support. That’s why they were one of our Community Engagement team’s first COVID-19 response grantees.
Kris Hermanns, Seattle Foundation’s chief impact officer, answered a few questions about that work, including how important it was to let those most impacted drive the Foundation’s decision-making.
1. The pandemic required all of us to pivot quickly. How did Seattle Foundation approach this shift at the beginning of the pandemic?
Seattle was the first metropolitan area in the U.S. with recorded COVID cases and deaths. In early March, life as we knew it ground to a halt as the disease spread and the economy stopped. Many people lost jobs, working parents became teachers, and stress levels rose dramatically.
Amid this rapidly evolving situation, Seattle Foundation forged a coalition with local leaders and partners to launch the COVID-19 Response Fund on March 9, 2020. Our focus was getting money to the people most impacted by the pandemic as quickly as possible. Through this Fund, we eventually mobilized 60 institutions and corporations to contribute over $34.5 million.
In retrospect, it’s remarkable that we were able to get this Fund up and running in the earliest days of the pandemic. But that quick pivot reflects years of work. Seattle Foundation had been in deep partnership with Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color who experience the most harm from inequitable systems. We knew the most knowledgeable and respected leaders who were ready to respond to the crisis. We had also forged meaningful partnerships with private and public sector partners over the course of many years. All of these relationships allowed us to move quickly. Finally, the COVID Response Fund was grounded in a set of principles that already influenced the Foundation’s work: focusing on folks who are traditionally underserved by philanthropy, centering racial equity, and providing flexible resources that allow communities to do their best work.
2. You centered your response on those most impacted by the pandemic. What did you see/hear as some of the biggest barriers these communities faced?
We saw several pressing needs at the beginning of the pandemic, and those shifted as the crisis evolved. Many folks had difficulty getting the health support they needed, especially people with limited English language proficiency or folks lacking health insurance or sick days. There was also a lot of fear and confusion, especially among immigrant groups, about where and how to get information and support. In addition, many people lost jobs and income so they had difficulty accessing food, paying rent, or finding childcare for their children. The communities hit hardest by all of these challenges were the communities that were most vulnerable before the pandemic: Black and Indigenous folks and other communities of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and people experiencing homelessness. Our COVID-19 Response Fund was able to quickly get millions of dollars to hundreds of organizations supporting these communities.
3. What’s a big lesson that your foundation has learned over the last few years?
We have learned a tremendous amount during these 2+ years of the pandemic, coupled with our nation’s reckoning with racism and racial injustice. For Seattle Foundation, this time has reinforced how critical it is for the people who are closest to the problems to run things—they need to lead the solutions. In developing the COVID-19 Response Fund, we assembled an Advisory Group, including 22 individuals, representing a variety of community perspectives and voices. This group—working alongside temporary, issue-specific advisory groups—guided our efforts. Without their leadership, we never would have been able to quickly and efficiently identify the most pressing needs and determine which high-impact groups were addressing those needs.
4. Much of your funding is now focused on recovery. What are some of your core principles you led with in this new Fund for Inclusive Recovery?
The Fund is rooted in a core belief that, as we build back from the pandemic, we can do better than the old status quo of deep racial and economic inequities. We can reimagine our region as a place that’s better, stronger, and more equitable. We can seize this moment—it’s filled with possibilities and that’s exciting.
Seattle Foundation is doing our part by driving investments to Black, Indigenous and People of Color and immigrant leaders, organizations, and communities. These are the folks who have been most harmed by inequities. They’ve also been more severely neglected by philanthropy and hit the hardest by the pandemic and its devastating impacts. If we can help the folks who are most vulnerable, it will make our entire region stronger.
Like the COVID-19 Response Fund, the Fund for Inclusive Recovery attempts to embody community-led change. We want to ensure that the next time we face a crisis like COVID, it won’t disproportionately harm some folks in our community—and we can all come out of it better.
The Fund for Inclusive Recovery is focused on transforming broken systems—health, education, criminal justice, and more—that perpetuate disparities. This complements philanthropic support for groups that provide direct services and resources to people in our region. The Fund pools donor dollars to invest in movements and advocacy that address the root causes of inequities and advance systems-level change. The Fund is also centered on the people who are most impacted by inequities. A Community Advisory Group, consisting of leaders from communities of color across the region, guides our efforts and investments.
We’re trying to do philanthropy differently. That involves breaking down barriers that might have historically prevented some organizations or communities from receiving philanthropic funds. We’ve streamlined the application process for the Fund, making it more reflective of an organization’s work than a written application. We also provide organizations with flexible, three-year funding. We trust our grantees to utilize funding as they see fit.
5. In all the struggles our community has faced, are there any moments of joy or goodwill that stand out to you?
There are so many! Right from the beginning, it was amazing how quickly the public, private, and philanthropic sectors come together to start the COVID-19 Response Fund. Their collective generosity was truly impressive as was the willingness to work alongside community and get creative in responding to this unprecedented crisis. As needs evolved over the weeks and months of the pandemic, the commitment of the Fund partners remained steady. That goodwill fueled all of us who were trying to do our best in responding to great and growing community needs.
One of the most joyful specific moments was hearing about how grantees that serve Muslim communities came together to make sure that families could celebrate Eid al-Fitr in May 2020—the darkest time of the pandemic. This culmination of the month of Ramadan is traditionally such a joyful celebration—with food, family, and friends—but it was very difficult during the pandemic. This was especially true for families who were hurting financially or for seniors or people with disabilities who were isolated. Several of our grantees—including Somali Parents Education Board, East African Community Services, Living Well Kent, Muslim Association of Puget Sound, and Somali Family Safety Task Force—did everything they could to help families have some semblance of celebration. That included delivering meals, doing toy drives for kids, and running drive-thru food pick-ups. It was really remarkable and inspiring to see how these communities came together.
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