In the early days of the pandemic, Juanita James had no doubts about the generosity that would ensue over the coming months from those who live and work in Connecticut, from the state’s corporations and millionaires down to kids wanting to make a difference in their towns. “It’s just exploding in terms of the demand,” the CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation says of the strains on nonprofits that provide basic services like food, health and family support. “That’s not going away any time soon.”
The conundrum is this: as nonprofits with hands-on coronavirus relief missions reach out for assistance, many others serving people with non-COVID-related needs could find themselves coming up short against their own fundraising targets. In Connecticut alone, nearly 8,000 nonprofits have annual reports on file with the candid.org website.
The Fidelity Charitable nonprofit to which Fidelity Investments provides services is among the organizations providing ongoing tips for giving during the crisis, including webinars for those wanting to give, whether locally or internationally. According to Fidelity Charitable, a few key questions anyone pondering donations should be asking themselves are what needs does one want their donations to address? What organizations are stepping up on that front? And, importantly, are any of the nonprofits you already support tackling those challenges?
New charities are being set up specifically to funnel dollars for COVID-19 relief, led by the multimillion-dollar Connecticut COVID-19 Charity Connector (4-ct.org) that Gov. Ned Lamont has promoted, with 4-CT soliciting donations directly online and promising 100 percent of proceeds going to the nonprofits it is supporting.
The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University is one of the organizations that has created an online map of accredited foundations raising COVID-19 support. It is a sea of blue dots from coast to coast, and in Connecticut border to border — from the New Canaan Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund, to the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, to the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, and many points in between.
But an unbroken sea of green is evident in another context, as dollars roll into coronavirus relief via crowdfunding sites like Charidy, GlobalGiving, GoFundMe and Indiegogo that provide a real-time glimpse into giving in ways not possible before.
Lilly school researchers took a running count of campaigns on GoFundMe and YouCaring through May 20, and found more than 250,000 that included the terms COVID-19 or coronavirus (remarkably, a fund to support lower-income students at Wesleyan University in Middletown raised the fourth largest GoFundMe total at that point, topped only by funds supporting Hollywood actors, Seattle artists and Virginia food pantries).
For anyone looking to make a small difference, crowdfunding sites can be good places to start, if one takes the time to vet the pages to get comfortable with the legitimacy of solicitations. And they fill the craving on the part of many of us for instantaneous fulfillment, tacking on the dollar figure one gives to a running tally against a fundraising goal and allowing donors to share the fact on social media.
If some of those campaigns beg questions — neighbors helping neighbors, maybe, with no real oversight for how the money is really spent — crowdfunding sites are being used increasingly by established nonprofits as well to broadcast needs to a larger audience beyond their existing donor bases.
Know that crowdfunding sites won’t do the homework for you. In the case of GoFundMe, the website advises donors to check how a fundraising organizer is related to the recipients of the money; whether upbeat commentary appears to be coming predominantly from family and friends; and whether the stated recipient can control withdrawals or otherwise has “a clear path” to the money, in GoFundMe’s words.
Common sense prevails here — if chucking a sawbuck or two to a local campaign, crowdfunding is fine. If you are talking a Benjamin or two, better to go with a trusted name or one you can check out conclusively on the spot.
The pandemic’s shock arrival makes the spot-checking chore a little bit more difficult, in that established watchdog groups like the Better Business Bureau (give.org) and Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) have yet to catch up with the campaigns that have mushroomed since March, with the sites otherwise providing handy grades on stewardship of the money nonprofits receive year to year.
The pandemic unleashed a flood of charitable giving that is ongoing still, and one unmatched in U.S. history, according to the Lilly school. And from prior years, we know that individuals account for close to 70 percent of all private charitable contributions, according to the Giving USA study published annually, with the rest split between corporations, private foundations and bequests.
It is not overstating things to say we all benefit from that generosity, as our communities find their footing amid a global pandemic that will exact demands until vaccines and cures emerge. And any number of more needs will surface, as we learned on the heels of coronavirus with the mass protests globally sparked by the death of George Floyd that channeled support to the cause of equality.
Martin Luther King Jr. put it best in 1957 in Montgomery, Alabama, in a statement that can be applied in so many contexts for the ages. “Life’s persistent and most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”
From casual giving to dedicated philanthropy, there are tiers of knowledge one should seek as gifts increase in frequency and size — both in the mechanics of giving and recording any tax benefits, as well as safeguards against fraud.
THE BASICS: For those who are in the habit of giving small amounts but have never brushed up on the basics, a few good places to start include the Connecticut attorney general’s “COVID-19 Wise Giving Tips for Donors” page and other cautionary information online at portal.ct.gov/ag; and the “Donating to Charity” guide from The Urban Institute and Indiana University online at urban.org.
NEXT LEVEL: If you commit hundreds of dollars already each year to varying causes, from schools and neighborhood initiatives to humanitarian relief, Fidelity Charitable maintains a “Philanthropy 101” tutorial with regular updates and how-tos online at fidelitycharitable.org. If you prefer advice from a nonprofit, Candid has newsletters, blogs and other information to keep you in the know at candid.org.
PRO TIPS: If you are a seasoned philanthropist or are considering establishing a foundation for the purpose, you are likely well along with the latest thinking. But there are multiple conferences to consider attending — some going virtual this year — to stay up to date with the very latest. Alliance is among the entities that keeps a running calendar of upcoming events online at alliancemagazine.org, as is the case with the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy online at ctphilanthropy.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Fidelity Investments as the source of a Philanthropy 101 guide and tips for philanthropic giving that were published by the independent nonprofit Fidelity Charitable, to which Fidelity Investments provides services.