3 Big Donors Talk About Giving in the Time of Covid, Racial Unrest, and Recession

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by Maria Di Mento

When the pandemic hit back in March, Chicago area philanthropist Liz Thompson knew that the charities she and her husband, Don, support through their Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education would likely see a big drop in donations while the needs of the primarily low-income students of color it serves would only grow.

“The first thing we thought about was how can we leverage the resources and the assets we have and what can we do uniquely in order to help the most people,” says Thompson, whose foundation also provides professional development and mentoring programs for adults who want to advance in their careers.


Organizations that can synthesize information about how the pandemic and social unrest affect the lives of the people they serve and then get that information to donors quickly will have the best chance of capturing donors’ attention. It’s also critical to let donors know exactly what your group needs to do its work.

Communication, however, needs to be authentic rather than highly curated or overly distilled. Otherwise, it could come across as phony marketing copy. Donors are more likely to respond when a letter or email sounds genuine.

Let donors know when large pledges fall through because supporters had to pull back on their giving. That doesn’t mean you name them. But it is OK to let other donors know the organization is worried about how to make up the shortfall.

Don’t overdo the calls and emails to donors. It is good to let donors know what your organization is doing and what it needs, but don’t hound donors with multiple requests for gifts. Many are dealing with their own concerns about elderly parents, children at home, and their businesses.

Don’t assume that the wealthy donor you talked to a year ago is still as wealthy — or in the same frame of mind — as the last time you spoke. Some rich donors have been hit hard by the economic fallout of the pandemic and may not be able to give as they did in previous years.

Keep in mind that some donors may have lost loved ones to the pandemic. Approach them with care and from a place of concern before sussing out whether to ask for their support.

So she and her husband increased their giving to the college-access and career-readiness groups they regularly support through the foundation, a charity that they fund but that also raises money from others. Thompson also got to work making the most of her business and nonprofit networks in an effort to encourage others to donate and to help nonprofits get the word out about their missions.

The Thompsons have an extensive network of contacts from which to draw. She worked for the Ameritech Corporation for a decade before moving on to lead nonprofits, and he retired as chief executive of McDonald’s Corporation, the fast-food chain, in 2015. Together they founded Cleveland Avenue, a venture-capital firm.

Liz Thompson serves on the board of a large outdoor-advertising firm and saw that many of the company’s billboards were sitting empty because businesses were spending less on advertising in the wake of the pandemic. Rather than wasting all of that space, she worked with the firm to place public-service announcements about charities on its vacant billboards. She got the firm to advertise not only the work of the nonprofits her foundation supports but other local charities as well, including groups that were helping local organizations understand how to get assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program.

“For us, it’s not a matter of getting more involved than we already are seven days a week,” Thompson says. “What has changed is we’ve been paying more attention to where the education landscape intersects with other issue areas.”

The economic freefall and the racial inequity laid bare by the pandemic and recent protests have spurred many wealthy donors to step up their giving. For some, that has meant giving more money to charities they’ve previously supported.

“We definitely saw that in March and April the volume of grants [from donor-advised funds] was two times the previous year’s,” says Kate Guedj, chief philanthropy officer at the Boston Foundation.

Most wealthy donors are getting bombarded with requests for donations from charities. Many philanthropists want to make a big difference, but the unprecedented amount of need has left some of them overwhelmed and unsure how to do it, says Guedj. That’s why it’s important that nonprofits understand what wealthy donors are thinking when they are considering how and where to give, she says.

“What they’re concerned with is twofold: They want to give to immediate needs and to rebuilding from the disasters of the multiple pandemics we’re facing,” says Guedj. “They also have a real clear devotion to the organizations they’ve been giving to already, so I counsel nonprofits to deepen their relationships with their existing donors. Deepening those connections at this point is paramount.”

Letter-Writing Campaign

Avery Tucker Fontaine, who leads BNY Mellon Wealth Management’s strategic philanthropy division in Atlanta, is advising seasoned philanthropists to do more than just write checks.

Thompson’s efforts are a good example of the kinds of nonfinancial resources Fontaine says wealthy donors can offer to struggling charities. Fontaine counsels rich philanthropists to take the time to learn what kind of special aid charity leaders need most. That could mean offering to co-sign for a loan or helping a nonprofit leader think through ways to overcome a cash crunch, she says.

“Donors should be direct and ask nonprofit leaders what’s giving them heartburn, what’s making them concerned about the future of the organization, and if they could ask for anything, what would it be,” Fontaine says.

She is circumspect, however, about encouraging wealthy donors to ask their peers directly to support their favored charities. Few rich donors, even in the face of the ongoing pandemic and intensifying social unrest, are comfortable in that role, she says.

“That is the hardest thing to do, bar none,” Fontaine says. “There is a unique personality who is comfortable and good in that area.”

Thompson says she doesn’t usually raise money directly from her peers, but now is different. Because this is such a difficult time for the charities she supports, she is “100 percent comfortable” tapping other wealthy donors to give right now. “I know in the end a whole lot of young people are going to benefit,” she says.

She isn’t simply asking one or two rich friends. Thompson started a letter-writing campaign in late April, driving other donors to her foundation’s website and linking them with the roughly dozen charities the foundation supports. Thompson says she wrote one letter a week for six weeks. Each letter highlighted the work of two or three of the foundation’s grantees. Donors could give to the groups by contributing to Thompson’s foundation or they could give directly to the charities.

While she wasn’t able to track how much the charities have collected directly, Thompson says the foundation raised several thousand dollars for grantees from that letter-writing campaign, which was more than she expected. She thinks the healthy response was the result of two things.

“Number one, everyone was feeling the urgency of the moment, and, number two, quite honestly, people give to people. As philanthropists, we know that,” Thompson says. “When I have a colleague or a partner on a board and they reach out to me to give, I know them and how thoughtful they are on an issue and how much they vet an organization, so I’m tons more inclined to give if they ask, and I think that’s what happened with us.”

Call to Give

Many big donors say they feel an extra weight of responsibility to do more than at any other time in their lives and to push other philanthropists to do the same.

“To stand by and do nothing would be horrifying,” says Jean Shafiroff, a New York philanthropist who is known on the city’s charity gala circuit as much for her fundraising moxie as she is for her colorful couture ballgowns. “Those who have the resources have an obligation to give during all times — but especially right now, we really have an obligation to try and be as helpful as we can.”


Jean Shafiroff normally connects nonprofit leaders with other wealthy people at galas, but during the pandemic, she has had to find alternative ways to encourage people to give.

Shafiroff serves on the boards of six nonprofits. While she declined to say how much she and her financier husband, Martin, have donated to charity personally, Shafiroff estimates that she has helped raise at least $10 million for the various charities she has been involved with over the years.

One of the main ways she does that is by connecting nonprofit leaders to other wealthy donors at the formal charity galas she so loves. Shafiroff says it has been harder to make those kinds of introductions since the pandemic hit and galas have been put on hold or shifted to smaller online affairs. That hasn’t stopped her, however, from finding alternate routes to encourage people to give to charity.

One of those is a weekly public television show about philanthropy where she highlights the work of charities by interviewing their leaders. A recent segment featured Ana Oliveira, the head of the New York Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit Shafiroff has supported for a number of years. During appearances on network television and New York area radio shows, she also urges donors to help nonprofits that are struggling because of the economic fallout from the pandemic, and she talks about the ways people can help their local charities.

And Shafiroff hasn’t given up on galas completely. She says while virtual charity galas may not be as much fun as the real thing, they’re still useful fundraising tools and ways for charities to keep donors engaged.

“There’s a tremendous place for the virtual gala because it brings people together, and it keeps that cause in the minds of people who attend,” she says. “It provides a way for people to stay connected and to give and a way for charities to keep people up-to-date about what they’re doing.”

Since virtual galas can’t provide Shafiroff with the same natural, in-person opportunities to introduce a charity leader to wealthy potential donors right now, she has taken to doing more direct fundraising and simply trying to keep in touch with other big donors by email and telephone. She says while she tries not to push people, she has primarily turned to philanthropists she knows have foundations because they have been easier to ask since they are required to give away a certain amount of money every year. And for those who say no?

“It’s best to just thank them very much for their past support and then say, ‘Well, perhaps you’ll consider donating next year,'” Shafiroff says. “Not everybody can give to every cause, and it’s all about courtesy and respect and understanding.”

‘A Little Bit Paralyzing’

One reason some major donors might say no when asked to give is the sheer volume of donation requests they are getting from charities right now.

“It’s very difficult because you kind of want to give money to everybody, and you can’t,” says Lisa Greer, a Los Angeles philanthropist and businesswoman who, along with her husband Joshua, has given about $4 million to charity in the last nine years. “Making those choices is more than frustrating; it’s a little bit paralyzing actually.”


Lisa Greer has taken a scattershot approach to giving — contributing to charities she hears about that are helping people in dire need.

Greer’s charitable response to the current crises has been wide-ranging. In the early days of the pandemic, she and two friends created the Greater Los Angeles Hospital Registry. The service allows area hospitals to list the personal protective equipment their medical staff needs. Donors can give directly to specific hospitals or to a group that works with vendors to get supplies like N95 masks, medical gowns, and gloves to medical centers.

Greer and her friends saw that although many donors were giving to help hospitals buy protective gear, hospitals in the wealthiest parts of town were getting more donations than those in low-income neighborhoods because, Greer says, the wealthy were giving only to the hospitals they knew about. The registry was an effort to encourage equity and has so far raised more than $275,600, mostly from individuals and corporations.

When it comes to her personal giving, Greer says she is taking a scattershot approach — giving when she hears about a charity that is helping people in dire circumstances.

“Major donors should be giving to people in their community, whether that’s in their city or to their religious community, but give to the people who are not getting enough money to put food on the table or are struggling to put a roof over their head,” Greer says. “That’s the most pressing thing right now.”

Greer says she also looks to what other wealthy donors are supporting to make decisions about where to give. She credits the staff at the Progressive Jewish Fund, which administers her family’s donor-advised fund, with providing regular updates and information about a variety of charities and social-justice groups that other donors with DAFs are backing.

“It makes you feel like, ‘OK, I’m not here on my own trying to figure it all out.'” Greer says. “These groups have been vetted, and other people are supporting them.”

No Strings

In response to an onslaught of donation requests in recent months, Thompson says she and her husband, who usually make contributions of anywhere from $500 to $1 million, have increased their support by giving a little more and giving sooner this year than they had planned — both to the organizations they back through their foundation and to the other types of charities they support, including groups that address food and housing insecurity.

Thompson, a former executive director of two nonprofits — City Year Chicago, and an Early Head Start Montessori school in Denver — is also sticking to her commitment to give without placing restrictions on her donations.

“Having led two different nonprofits, I know the value of unrestricted gifts,” she says. “The best thing I can do is say, ‘Here’s my support. Use it as you see fit.'”

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