How the Pandemic is Changing the Work of Foundations in Richmond

September 17, 2021

“All the things we said we could never do, a crisis is teaching us that we can.”

~Richmond Funders Collaborative and COVID-19 Fund participant


This past year has been one of the most demanding and challenging in our history. We are still contending with COVID-19 around the globe, and we will continue to feel the impacts of the pandemic for years to come, especially in areas like employment, education and mental health. We are experiencing a large-scale trauma, and yet, crisis has a way of creating clarity, moving us to action and dispensing with the idea of “business as usual.” That is certainly the case with Richmond’s philanthropic community, and the Richmond Funders Collaborative, a small group of funders that came together at the onset of the pandemic to deliver rapid aid and chart a new course for supporting our nonprofits in the larger Richmond region. 

As the pandemic began to take hold in the United States and around the world, several different foundations in the Richmond community joined forces, many working together for the very first time, to ask what could be done to lessen the impact on the region and its communities. What has resulted is a collaboration that, unfortunately, is rare in the world of philanthropy. 

The Richmond Funders Collaborative is made up of representatives from nine different philanthropic foundations in our area: Bob and Anna Lou Schaberg Foundation, Brookfield Foundation, Cabell Foundation, Community Foundation for a greater Richmond, Herndon Foundation, Jackson Foundation, Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation and Robins Foundation

As the reality of the pandemic and the long road ahead began to set in, the group quickly dispensed with barriers and hesitations to cooperate on the Community Foundation’s Central Virginia Covid Response Fund, which distributed $7 million dollars to Virginia’s nonprofits at an unprecedented pace, often moving from request to funds-in-hand in less than a month. 

The impact of the Covid Response Fund and the aid it distributed was significant. The collaborative philanthropic model worked, and its efficacy paved the way for continued collaboration among our foundations and a shared learning journey. We have flexed and grown over the past 18 months, learning how to collaborate quickly, deeply and in ways we did not know were possible before faced with a crisis. “Without question or hesitation, people knew they wanted to collaborate and just came together. Duties were parcelled up and people just did it. All the things we said we could never do, a crisis is teaching us that we can. The no-can-do attitude is no longer valid,” said a participating member of the group. 

Part of the group’s growth is due to the learning journey we decided to embark upon together, in response to the intersecting crises of the pandemic and the racial unrest that erupted after George Floyd’s murder. This learning journey has brought about not only new perspectives, but significant collaborative actions as well. Said a participant, “This truly is the first time that the funders have come together, not only for rich discussion about how to be more effective, but to put discussion into action.”


Unearthing what we do not know

Encouraged by the success of the Covid-19 Fund, our collaboration as a group broadened and deepened. What followed that first step was the opening of a space in which funders could come together to discuss challenges and knowledge gaps, vulnerably. One participant said, “We thought we knew certain communities. We thought we knew the Black, Hispanic, Latino and LGBTQIA+ communities. As a group we began to say, maybe we don’t get it. We’ve been acting like we understand, but there is so much we do not know.” Many of our foundations had received past critiques that we were not listening to our region’s nonprofits well or often enough. Vulnerable conversations showed us that those criticisms were valid, and we sought help and education from those who best know the communities we serve. 


Seeking expertise from diverse leaders

Following Richmond’s and the country’s racial reckoning, the Richmond Funders Collaborative participated in six sessions with Glen Harris, President of Race Forward

Harris has highlighted the power of collaboration and vulnerable conversation, particularly in regard to racial justice work: “One of the things I find most inspiring is watching communities coming together in resistance. And even beyond resistance, talking in a proactive way about what’s possible. In our work on racial justice, the only path forward for us is finding better ways to have these discussions, and the ability to name how we got here. Challenging each other on what we can do better is the only way we can get to the world we all want to be in. We are greater than the sum of our parts.”

Continuing our shared journey of open discussion, our group also met with local leaders of organizations serving the LGBTQIA+ community, who provided feedback to the funders group. Community leaders gave us an unvarnished glimpse into the struggle nonprofits face when attempting to meet time-consuming funder demands and adequately support their communities while understaffed and underfunded. Receiving direct and open feedback from this group was an eye-opening introduction into just how much support was needed by the nonprofit community, and the ways funder collaboration might significantly ease their burden. 

Motivated by partner needs and the opportunities we saw, we participated in sessions with Christopher Cuevas, LGBTQ Equality Program Officer at Laughing Gull Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on LGBTQ equality. The group also began work with Gladys Washington, an experienced philanthropic leader, as well as coach and consultant for organizations that want to invest more deeply in capacity building and grassroots organizations, particularly those led by people of color. RMHF is continuing work with Washington who recently joined the organization as a Senior Fellow

Paying forward the knowledge the group was gaining, the Jackson and Robins Foundations developed and organized a series of Resilience Training seminars for Richmond’s nonprofits, on assessing and mitigating risk in their organizations. The trainings were funded by the Robins Foundation and led by national speaker Ted Bilich, founder of Risk Alternatives. Ninety organizations participated.


Creating streamlined processes and taking concrete actions

These learning and coaching sessions led to collaborative and concrete actions among our group. For instance, several of our group’s foundations have created a common application for the area’s nonprofits, which drastically streamlines the application and funding process. In describing what a common application means for nonprofits, one funder said, “The nonprofits can focus more time on their programs and on their clients. As it stands now, a nonprofit is submitting, just locally, 10 to 20 different grant applications a year. It’s overwhelming. The process is so demanding. Think how many more people nonprofits could help if they are getting back the time we used to eat up with different applications.” 

Several funders from the group are also collaborating on targeted funding efforts, realizing that more collaborative support means a bigger impact. Robins Foundation, RMHF and Bob and Anna Lou Schaberg Foundation have created a collaborative funding initiative to distribute two-year general operating support grants for nonprofits focused on supporting social emotional learning and behavioral health through a racial and ethnic equity lens.  

The CDC Foundation gave a $500,000 grant award to Richmond, with RMHF as the fiscal sponsor, to distribute to grantee partners who focus specifically on the Hispanic and Latino communities, who were hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 virus and its economic impacts. Other members of the Richmond Funders Collaborative jumped in to contribute to the Latino Health initiative, which collectively raised over $2.7M. 

In addition to targeted funding efforts, our group is responding to the need for more direct and immediate support. Robins Foundation created the Family Crisis Fund in response to the emergency needs of our region’s most vulnerable children and families. The Fund, seeded with matching $500,000 contributions by both Robins Foundation and the City of Richmond, disbursed gifts to families with children, allowing for immediate financial relief and the meeting of critical needs. As was the case with other initiatives, members of the Funders Collaborative jumped onboard, supporting the Robins Foundation’s efforts through grants of their own. The results showed just how impactful philanthropy can be when Mayor Stoney, inspired by the success of the Family Crisis Fund, announced Richmond’s guaranteed income pilot in partnership with Robins. Richmond’s government referred to the partnership as a “crucial element of the city’s pandemic response”. 

As a group, participating in shared actions and witnessing their success, moved many of us to a more progressive and inclusive place when it comes to the ways we think about grantmaking. For instance, several of the participating organizations in our Collaborative that have only made capital grants in the past, have begun investing in programmatic or general operating support for strategic partners.  

Our collaborative efforts have taken on even more meaning as local nonprofits take notice of the new model. Said Karen Legato, Executive Director at Health Brigade, “We felt incredibly supported by the Richmond Funders Collaborative’s efforts to build capacity and sustainability for non-profit service providers. They provided a safety net for safety net organizations—enabling us to continue services and be responsive to the additional crises resulting from the pandemic.”

Our community continues to feel the impacts of the pandemic as we contend with the challenges of the Delta variant and strive to heal the damage of the first wave of the virus. We know our work is not done, and we intend for the collaboration and partnership of the Richmond Funders Collaborative to continue. 

Over the past 18 months, several themes that will inform the direction and strategies of our group moving forward have already made themselves clear:


  • We are getting vulnerable and transparent about what we do not know. We could not seek new knowledge, until we were willing to admit we did not know enough about our own city and its diverse communities. Being vulnerable about our knowledge gaps as a group opened the doors for new relationships and conversations with so many communities and organizations we were not in touch with before. Those relationships are still newborn. Much trust-building needs to occur, and we still have a great deal to learn, but we are years ahead of where we would have been otherwise.


  • We are listening to and incorporating lived experience. Just as our nonprofit partners have encouraged in the past, we are intentionally incorporating listening and community engagement into our own strategies and even our grant processes. Admitting that we do not have all the answers has shone a light on our responsibility to engage in deep listening with those most proximate to the issues we seek to address. We need our on-the-ground nonprofit partners to tell us what their communities need, what needs to be funded and how to best support them, rather than relying on a typical top-down funding approach. That is a profound and positive shift in the traditional model of philanthropy.

  • We are paying more attention to possibilities than barriers. During this past year and a half, many partnerships and processes that seemed impossible before, have blossomed. We came to admit that many of the barriers we thought were there, were only perceived. From our boards, to our missions, to our priorities and values, as a philanthropic community we are very much aligned in many more ways than we originally believed, and we are more connected and impactful as a collective.

  • We are breaking down the barriers between public and private organizations. This past year we watched the barriers to public/private partnerships fall away. Leaders in both public and private funding organizations are crossing long-held boundaries in the name of public good. Many of us are collaborating for the first time with government offices, health districts, education systems and political leadership. It is our hope that the public/private partnerships established during the pandemic will continue to grow.

  • We are questioning the traditional model of philanthropy. As we contend with and take action to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we see our role as philanthropists in a new light. It is our job to remove as many barriers and hurdles as possible for our nonprofit partners doing important work in the community. Collaboratively operationalizing our activities as funders makes it easier for nonprofits to gain support, which is a huge win for the community as a whole. We hope our nonprofit partners feel the hurdles for them have been reduced, and that there is a greater depth of understanding among the philanthropic community when it comes to their needs and struggles.


  • We are committed to seeking out continued collaboration. Each foundation in the Richmond Funders Collaborative will tell you that none of us are willing to let go of this new way of working. We have found our collaborative model to be energizing, eye-opening and, most of all, effective. We are committed to intentionally seeking out opportunities to collaborate, increasing our impact and minimizing the burden on our nonprofit partners. Says one member of the group, “There is no going back to the old way.” 


As our community braves a new surge in cases, and works to envision a hopeful future, the Richmond Funders Collaborative is continuing to pursue new relationships and collaborative efforts among Richmond funders. We are continuing to learn and listen in deeper ways, and continuing efforts to dismantle barriers for our nonprofit partners. The past 18 months have been anything but easy, and we are not sure what the future holds, but we have seen how much good can be accomplished when we choose collaboration over stagnation. Sometimes it takes a crisis to break down walls and positively reorder priorities. We are hopeful for the path we are on as a sector, and we are more ready than ever for the collective and crucial work that is to come.