How 18 of the Largest Foundations and Financial Institutions Are Responding to COVID-19

No one in this country–and few around the world–remain untouched by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like others, Living Cities and our members–18 prominent foundations and financial institutions working together to close racial gaps in income and wealth–have been seeking the best ways to respond to the public health crisis and resulting economic upheaval. Living Cities’ members responses to the pandemic come in many forms and at different levels, helping individuals, institutions, communities, and broader systems.

As a long-standing collaborative, Living Cities’ executive committee asked us to survey our members and share a snapshot of our various member institutions’ emerging COVID-19 responses. This blog is a summary of that survey, with illustrative examples. This is not meant to be comprehensive of all activities undertaken by any one of our members, or even necessarily up to date as we know these responses are evolving as needs change and new partnerships form to address them. Yet we hope this list will give you a sense of what is out there to help you develop your own responses strategies if you are in the position to do so, or to offer support if you are someone you know needs it.

Supporting the Health & Financial Security of Employees

Organizations across this country have closed their doors to help “flatten the curve” of the spreading virus. Living Cities members are no exception, with most shifting their teams to telework arrangements and cancelling or delaying in-person meetings and convenings. Many are finding new ways to support staff in managing new challenges related to family needs and mental health. For example, the Kauffman Foundation, a Living Cities funder, also supports a #CoworkingWithKids slack channel to support each other and staff may have more flexibility in the hours they work to account for the demands of parenting. Other members have offered grants to employees facing financial hardship, such as Wells Fargo’s WE Care Fund or Citi’s payments of $1,000 to employees under a certain income cap. Citi has also chosen to make good on the job offers extended to new employees, even though the current times create real challenges to taking on new staff.

Flexibility and Stability for Grantees

Foundations recognize that all of their grantees are affected in different ways, but the common thread is the need for greater flexibility and stability. To that end, six of Living Cities’ members (Ford Foundation, JPB Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, McKnight Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Surdna Foundation) have joined hundreds of other foundations in signing the Council on Foundations’ pledge to loosen restrictions on current grantees, make new grants as flexible as possible, reduce requirements, communicate about decision-making, listen to community partners, support partners in seeking equitable and just emergency responses, and consider what they learn during this crisis that might be carried forward beyond the pandemic.

Grantees are being affected in different ways, but the common thread is the need for greater flexibility and stability.

In this spirit, Living Cities members have been reaching out to reassure grantees that there will be no penalties for cancelled events or changes to their plans based on their revised assessment of what is needed most, and that grants and timelines can be extended. All are listening more closely to the priorities and perspectives of grantees who are closer to the community and some, like the Ford Foundation, are converting some restricted grant dollars to general operating support to allow grantees to weather this difficult time and make the choices that are best for their employees and the communities they serve. Seeking to reduce the burden on grantees, the McKnight Foundation quickly implemented a three-month extension on all scheduled grant reports, and the Ford Foundation also delayed or suspended reporting requirements, expedited grant approvals or amendments, and front-loaded payment schedules as needed. The Prudential Foundation is leveraging their business expertise to offer pro bono support to grantees as they navigate financial management challenges, and the JPB Foundation is connecting grantees to supports to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program and curating other resources on financial sustainability and HR support.

Relief and Guidance for Customers & Clients

With businesses closing and millions applying for unemployment insurance, our member financial institutions are actively seeking strategies to relieve the immediate pressure on customers and clients and help them navigate the rocky shoals of this crisis. Common approaches include deferred payments on loans, waived or refunded fees for overdraft or similar fees for those experiencing financial hardship, and suspended foreclosure sales for homeowners. In addition, some of our members are offering more flexible hours and sharing guidance with clients on financial strategies for sustainability through this economic downturn.

Addressing Critical Public Health Needs

To tackle the urgent health system needs aimed at controlling the spread of the pandemic and caring for those who have already contracted the virus, a number of financial institutions, such as Bank of America, Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Truist and Wells Fargo, are addressing critical public health needs through investments in key funding collaboratives, including:

  • The COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, a partnership of the UN Foundation and Swiss Philanthropy Foundation formed at the request of WHO, which works on rapid detection of new cases, stopping transmission, caring for those affected and providing needed support to frontline workers;
  • The CDC Foundation, which offers financial support to state and local health departments, logistics, personnel, data management, communications, protective equipment and critical supplies to healthcare workers; and
  • The International Medical Corp, which supports medical staff training, clinical guidance, planning protocols on screening patients, and enhanced infection prevention and control.
    The Gates Foundation has also made critical investments in a COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator to develop and provide access to key therapies for COVID-19, and supporting the public health systems in the Greater Seattle region.

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Emergency Response for Communities and Families

Some Living Cities members are contributing to local disaster relief funds in headquarter cities or key areas of focus, equipping institutions in the community – whether municipalities, United Ways, or existing collective action efforts – to manage the emergency response across public health, small businesses. For example, the Kellogg Foundation contributed to the United Way’s Disaster Relief Fund to work with nonprofit agencies and local governments in Battle Creek, Mich., to assess and meet basic needs such as food access, emergency childcare, and the impact of lost wages. The MacArthur Foundation is supporting the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund, providing essential aid to 42 organizations addressing emergency needs in the city. And Prudential supported community efforts in Newark, Hartford and El Paso.

In addition to community-based efforts, others are providing support to address specific short-term needs:

Household Basic Needs:

Beyond the devastating impacts on people’s health and the loss of life due to COVID-19, households all across the US are facing new or exacerbated challenges.

  • Household Financial Health: The Rockefeller Foundation is making a major commitment to supporting economic stability for low-wage workers, including connecting more families to federal supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC), and Wells Fargo is supporting national and local organizations that offer financial counseling and grants to those struggling to make ends meet due to loss of income.
  • Food: With millions of workers filing for unemployment as a result of the pandemic, and millions of children out of school, food insecurity is an urgent concern for families across the country. In response, Citi Foundation, Morgan Stanley, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the MetLife Foundation have offered support to national nonprofits (No Kid Hungry, Feeding America, and Meals on Wheels), and the MetLife Foundation is supporting food banks in several communities across the U.S.
  • Housing: In addition to the efforts of many banks to provide greater flexibility for borrowers or suspend foreclosure sales, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has provided support to the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition—a group dedicated to ensuring that federal support for disaster recovery prioritizes the housing needs of the lowest income people. Funding from Wells Fargo is also being allocated to critical housing needs such as helping renters and homeowners stay in their homes through foreclosure prevention assistance, eviction assistance and financial counseling and coaching.
  • Internet Connectivity: Critical for work or education during this time of social distancing, broadband remains inaccessible for millions of Americans. Truist, a Living Cities funder, has awarded grants to community partners across five areas of basic needs, including expanding broadband access to households in need.

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Small Business Sustainability:

Financial institutions are leveraging their expertise and capital to address small business needs; for example, Wells Fargo partnered with Opportunity Fund to provide needed cash along with financial coaching for entrepreneurs and their low-wage workers through SaverLife.

Nonprofit Sustainability:

In hard-hit New York City, multiple funders (including the JPB Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Wells Fargo and numerous others) have come together through the NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund to ensure the sustainability of the vital–and vulnerable–network of social service, arts and culture nonprofits that could otherwise be lost.

Civic Engagement:

One of the risks that the Ford Foundation is seeking to address is the threat this pandemic poses to crucial civic engagement opportunities, such as elections (including the Presidential election in November) and the decennial Census, that will impact our communities and our nation for years to come. Attention is needed to ensure that all Americans can participate in elections and be counted in the Census.

Special Populations:

Some members are ensuring we don’t forget the unique situation of special populations in our emergency response. For example, the Ford Foundation is developing specific strategies to meet the needs of those in prison or criminal detention centers where it can be particularly difficult to stop the spread of the virus if there are COVID-19 outbreaks. The Wells Fargo Pandemic Financial Resilience Resource Center provides accessible information and counseling to people with disabilities and chronic health conditions nationwide. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has given to the NDN Collective, an organization dedicated to building indigenous power, recognizing that indigenous communities in the US are disproportionately vulnerable to the disease due to structural inequities.

Living Cities will work with our members to prioritize racial justice as we collectively seek to reimagine and rebuild our nation in the wake of COVID-19…

Systemic Responses

As foundations and financial institutions address urgent needs created by the pandemic, they also recognize the need to tackle the fundamental flaws in our health, economic, and democratic systems that have been laid bare by this crisis. The Kauffman Foundation reaffirmed that their strategies remain oriented toward “helping individuals build wealth and close race and income gaps,” and support a more inclusive community-based economy over the long-term, and the Rockefeller Foundation declared that “[t]here is no investment in America that gets a better ROI than investment in an equitable future for America’s workers.” Some of these systemic responses entail the expansion of solutions that have been shown to work, such as paid sick leave, access to affordable health care, rental assistance or refundable tax credits, while others will require new approaches and a willingness to deeply listen to the concerns and ideas of people—particularly people of color—who are most impacted by the challenges that COVID-19 has thrown into stark relief.

This moment in our history presents enormous challenges, but also a significant opportunity. Living Cities will work with our members to prioritize racial justice as we collectively seek to reimagine and rebuild our nation in the wake of COVID-19 so that all people can be economically secure, building wealth and living abundant, dignified and connected lives.

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What Redlining Had to Do With the 2008 Financial Crisis

At a Georgetown University forum in September 2008, then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about the major economic story of the day: the roots of the exploding global financial crisis. This was the month that Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy and the federal government had placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship. What was behind the bust?

Bloomberg’s answer: The implosion of the nation’s housing market was the result of the prohibition of redlining, the discriminatory practice by which lenders denied African-American homebuyers access to loans in the same neighborhoods where white homeowners lived. “It all started back when there was a lot of pressure on banks to make loans to everyone,” Bloomberg said. “And once you started pushing in that direction, banks started making more and more loans where the credit of the person buying the house wasn’t as good as you would like.”

Bloomberg is now a Democratic candidate for president, and his campaign is working to reframe the former mayor’s comments, which the Associated Press resurfaced on February 12. The story arrived as Bloomberg tried to contain fallout from the revelation of a speech he made in 2015 defending the New York Police Department’s racist stop-and-frisk policy; he released a new statement apologizing for the policy on February 11. Campaign spokesperson Stu Loeser told the AP that, as mayor, Bloomberg fought predatory lending, and that as a candidate he has a plan to expand homeownership opportunities for African American buyers. CityLab reached out to the Bloomberg campaign and will update this story with any new comments.

But fair housing experts are pointing out that Bloomberg’s past understanding of the roots of the financial crisis matters a great deal now, since the next person to occupy the White House may be responsible for rewriting fair lending rules. And his comments point to enduring myths about race and responsibility—assumptions that both predate the financial crisis and persist today.

(Disclosure: CityLab was recently acquired by Bloomberg LP. Michael Bloomberg is the company’s founder and majority owner.)

“I think that Bloomberg’s comments are a kind of cynical way of shifting blame back onto communities that were most victimized by the unchecked practices within the banking and real estate industries in the late 1990s and through the early aughts until the crisis exploded,” says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor at Princeton University and author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, in an email.

Bloomberg was hardly alone in his conviction that unqualified minority homebuyers triggered the financial crisis by being so susceptible to predatory lenders: That idea took root on Wall Street even as the meltdown was in process, according to historians.

The facts of the financial crisis, however, don’t fit an account that puts the blame on minority buyers or fair-lending reforms. More than half of the subprime mortgages originated between 1998 and 2006 were loans for refinancing, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a grassroots organization working to end discrimination in lending. Fewer than 10 percent of subprime loan originations went to first-time homebuyers.

“When people were looking for answers for why mortgages seemed to be falling into default at the rate they were, there were corners of the financial community that had a ready narrative about creditworthiness,” says Nathan Connolly, director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program at Johns Hopkins University.

The foreclosure crisis dealt tremendous damage to black and Latino neighborhoods. But white investors were disproportionately responsible for foreclosures in minority neighborhoods, according to a 20112 paper from John Gilderbloom at the University of Louisville and Gregory Squires at George Washington University. Their research shows that, in Louisville, there were approximately 2,000 foreclosure sales each year in 2007 and 2008. This figure breaks down to roughly 39 foreclosures in black communities (measured as census tracts) compared to about 20 foreclosures in white communities. Yet on average, 15 of the foreclosures in black communities happened on properties owned by non-occupant white investors, while white communities saw on average just two foreclosures on investor properties.

The bipartisan U.S. Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission also concluded that fair-lending regulations were not to blame for the financial crisis (with one dissenting conservative saying otherwise). Bank of America’s then-chief executive Brian Moynihan defended fair lending law.

Still, commentators at Fox News and The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page often insisted that lax standards that encouraged uncreditworthy minority borrowers were to blame. Former presidential candidate Steve Forbes and former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey propped up an astroturfed site, AngryRenters.com, that claimed to represent the voice of renters infuriated with mortgage bailout efforts. Fox Business’s Neil Cavuto said that “loaning to minorities and risky borrowers is a disaster.”

“It was a myth that tore around the country like wildfire,” says National Community Reinvestment Coalition CEO Jesse Van Tol. “It was a myth heavily promoted by a group of fringe conservatives who wanted to promote a narrative that something other than market forces caused the financial crisis.”

The Community Reinvestment Act, the 1977 banking reform law that ended redlining, remains a target of ire among conservatives and big lending institutions. The Trump administration has proposed changes to the rule that would streamline and vastly simplify what banks are required to do in order to meet fair lending standards. Civil rights advocates warn that Treasury is designing reforms that would water down the law.

Discriminatory lending practices did not end after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, a cornerstone of civil rights law passed after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Lenders in California in the late 1970s would write “COLORED” backward on mortgage applications—“DEROLOC”—in order to flag them for denials, Connolly says. Even today, more than 40 years after the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act, black homeownership rates are dismal. African Americans have rarely had the combination of living wages and non-predatory mortgages to support homeownership.

Another related myth informs Bloomberg’s worldview, or at least as he expressed it during the financial crisis, Connolly says—that credit scores convey an objective truth about renters or owners. Here Bloomberg has an opportunity, even in light of his gaffe, to embrace policies that will undo the “mythology of credit,” he adds. (In January, Bloomberg outlined his plan to boost black homeownership in part by pushing lenders to change their credit-score models.)

In the decades that followed the end of redlining, Taylor notes, lawmakers weakened the regulations meant to protect black communities from speculation and predatory practices. That made historically marginalized communities more vulnerable to predatory practices that emerged specifically to target these renters and owners.

“All of these factors would contribute to the notion that these were places that could be considered ‘risky’ and with risk came the supposed colorblind pretext that Black buyers should be treated differently: higher interest rates, more expensive loan products and all of the other tools of what I refer to as ‘predatory inclusion’ into the conventional real estate market,” Taylor says by email.

More than a decade out from the financial crisis, myths about its cause still endure. As do myths about work, welfare, safe neighborhoods, and credit risks. Wall Street is still susceptible to many of these myths. “The notion of the undeserving poor,” says Connolly, “migrated directly into the notion of the undeserving buyer.”

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Foundations and Financial Institutions Recommit to Work for Racial Equity

I don’t have to look hard at the world around me today to find reasons for despair. We are being confronted daily with the fragility of institutions and norms that many of us took for granted. Inequality and racial gaps continue to grow relentlessly despite decades of well-intentioned work. A shockingly large number of Americans seem, at best, indifferent. The weight of these challenges and the complexity of their solutions can feel overwhelming.

It’s impossible to live in America today without being conscious of the ever-growing racial inequities, and the racism that has been in the groundwater of the country since our founding.

But for me, my role as president and CEO of Living Cities has served as a source of hope and optimism in these pretty dark times. That’s because I am seeing 18 of the world’s largest and most powerful foundations and financial institutions honestly grapple with how to effect change closer to the root causes of today’s mess. By acknowledging the limitations of working alone, exploring ways of collaborating differently, and confronting difficult realities around historical and ongoing injustice, the impact of members’ collective efforts may actually stand a chance of being commensurate with the scope of the problems we face.

This past May, those 18 institutions agreed to fund and govern the collaborative for another three-year period. This was the tenth time—dating back to 1991—that members have made this commitment. In fact, almost all of the foundations and financial institutions making up the Living Cities collaborative today have been at the table for more than half of our 28-year history. Just like the previous nine times they have been at this juncture before, the board recognized the ongoing importance of taking the long view, and having the patience to invest in and observe real, long-term change.



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However, unlike previous periods, the stated purpose of their work together is very different. For most of Living Cities’ history, our mission was broadly defined as achieving better outcomes for low-income people in US cities. But it’s impossible to live in America today without being conscious of the ever-growing racial inequities, and the racism that has been in the groundwater of the country since our founding. As we dug into root causes of economic inequality in the United States, we couldn’t escape the fact that race remains one of the strongest predictors of life outcomes. Without putting race and racism at the center of our work and our analysis, we simply had no hope of achieving our mission of achieving economic security for all. Therefore, today our collaborative is unapologetically about race and closing the racial gaps in income and wealth.

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The board’s willingness to stay together for more than two decades, fund in three year rounds, and focus squarely on closing racial gaps is an anomaly within our current system. Our board recognizes that change takes time; the results we set for ourselves, and the partnerships and programs we develop to achieve them, are oriented around a ten-year or longer time horizon. Importantly, board and staff members have also been reckoning with and strengthening our analysis of the history and legacy of structural racism in this country and in our own institutions. I am encouraged by the way this collaborative model goes to the heart of criticism that philanthropy incentivizes programmatic, short-term fixes that don’t upset the status quo and have little accountability to achieving results.

Working together differently—centering race and a focus on a shared result—has also opened the door to different types of questions around the boardroom table: What could we do differently as an institution—or, perhaps, stop doing—to bring us closer to our shared goal? As individual leaders, what research, resources or relationships do I have access to that could support our collective progress?

What could we do differently as an institution—or, perhaps, stop doing—to bring us closer to our shared goal?

This has resulted in anything but business as usual. Over the last three years, sparked by these kinds of questions, board members and their staff have collaborated on issues ranging from racial inequity within the halls of local government—giving rise to our Racial Equity Here initiative—to shifting narratives in corporate America to promote equity as a business imperative. Participants in these narrative change efforts have used their own personal relationships to connect with C-suite leaders in the private sector, and begin to build a coalition of the willing.

Individual board members have shifted internal practices within their own institutions to combat the racism in our groundwater—interrogating hiring practices, measurement and evaluation practices, procurement and more within their own institutions. One member vastly increased funding for racial equity competency building among the foundation’s grantees. In the last year alone, we’ve co-hosted Undoing Racism workshops around the country with a variety of partners including the City of Austin, the Ford Foundation, the Boston Federal Reserve, and the Collective Impact Forum. These workshops were aimed at supporting changemakers in our networks to center race in their work, to see themselves as anti-racist organizers within their institutions, and to connect them to a broader cross-sector movement. Through survey responses, we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the value and impact of this training for participants in their own work.

We have a long way to go. But the ambition and commitment of member institutions, the Living Cities board of directors, and their staff is a source of inspiration for me as we continue working toward a world where race is no longer a predictor of outcomes. It’s on all of us—within philanthropy and beyond—not to rest on good intentions, but to hold up the mirror to our own institutions and to ourselves in order to create renewed hope in the promise of America, this time very intentionally for all.

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