Seattle Foundation Blog

Equity at the Center of Disaster Response

The COVID-19 Response Fund meets the evolving needs of an unprecedented crisis.


October 22, 2020

Surge. Social distancing. Quarantine. PPE. Racial disparities. Masks. Police brutality. Racial justice. These are just some of the words that have become commonplace since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seattle was the first metropolitan area in in the U.S. with recorded COVID cases and deaths. In early March, our rapidly growing, tech-fueled economy quickly ground to a halt. In a pattern that became all too familiar across the country, many people lost employment, working parents became teachers, people fell ill or had to care for loved ones, and stress levels dramatically rose.

Amid this rapidly evolving situation, Seattle Foundation forged a coalition with local leaders and partners to launch the COVID-19 Response Fund. Through this Fund, we have mobilized 60 institutions, as well as thousands of individual donors, and corporations to contribute over $34.5 million since its inception on March 9. Early and influential partners including Alaska Airlines, Amazon, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co, Microsoft, The Starbucks Foundation, and many more quickly solidified the collective power of our efforts.

The COVID-19 Response Fund is grounded in a set of guiding principles – including a recognition that the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced our region’s long-standing inequities due to racism in a glaring and painful way. Black, Indigenous and people of color are more likely to contract and die of COVID. People of color make up a higher percentage of the essential workers who continue to work through the pandemic– working hard in our region’s hospitals, senior care facilities, grocery stores, and restaurants. The pandemic has further complicated the experience for immigrants and refugees who have difficulty finding pandemic information in their language or culturally appropriate emergency food and healthcare. Families living in poverty struggle to pay rent, put food on the table, and get the basics they need to survive.

In responding to the crisis, we centered the COVID-19 Response Fund actions on those most impacted by the pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects, coupled with the urgent need for racial justice, have many in our community experiencing incredible hardship and loss,” said Tony Mestres, President & CEO of the Seattle Foundation. “We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis – crisis affecting the Seattle region, our country and the world.”

The goal of the COVID-19 Response Fund is to assist families and workers who are most impacted by the pandemic. To reach this goal, execution of the Fund was split into phases. Phase 1 of the Fund launched in late March – deploying more than $10 million to 128 nonprofits to provide rapid, flexible resources to community-based organizations already meeting a variety of urgent needs, including rental assistance, food, child care, and more. Phase 2 grants focused on deepening community disparities as the crisis wore on into the summer months. Phase 3 will remain community-centric and address the evolving needs in the coming months as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.

Initial Approach: Phase 1

Efficiency and speed were paramount as we gained insight into the early and harsh impacts of the pandemic. The fund worked to move resources quickly and relied on working relationships and knowledge of on the ground partners; rather than a formal grant process that would have burdened already extended grantee partners. We collectively considered the track record of each organization and gave priority to groups that focus on people unable to access traditional services. Organizations like Community Passageways, which works to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, or the Refugee Women’s Alliance, which provides refugee and immigrant women and families with culturally and linguistically appropriate services, were just two of the many grantees that received more than $10 million in emergency assistance grants from the Fund. A full list can be found here.

As the pandemic continued, so did the devastating impact of food insecurity in our region. With long lines and limited stock, food banks struggled to meet the skyrocketing demand as unemployment rose. In April, the Fund provided a lightning round of grants totaling $850,000 to address this need. These food security grants complemented the work of the WA Food Fund, providing auxiliary support while our region waited for federal resources to arrive. They also helped people overcome transportation barriers, access culturally specific food, and maintain religious dietary restrictions, such as those observed during Ramadan. The full list of grantee partners from this lightning round can be viewed here.

Addressing Deep Inequities: Phase 2

As summer approached, another set of events shined an even brighter light on pre-existing racial injustices. On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking international protests against police brutality. As similar incidents continued to emerge, Seattleites took to the streets demanding change.

Against this backdrop, in mid-June, the COVID-19 Response Fund’s Phase 2 grants deployed $9.2 million to 220 nonprofits and coalitions, focusing on organizations that provide childcare, mental and behavioral health, and emergency financial assistance. Throughout this process we consulted with the COVID-19 Response Fund Advisory Group, a group of 22 experts representing a variety of community perspectives and voices. Their leadership, alongside that of temporary, issue-specific advisory groups, will continue to guide the Fund.

Each funding track prioritized different populations, including undocumented immigrants and essential workers. There was a particular emphasis on Black communities that face compounding needs in light of recent and persistent racialized violence.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for many in our community, we have seen the Seattle region come together quickly—responding to needs in a way that is led by community voice and centered on equity. Seattle Foundation’s approach to grantmaking through the COVID-19 Response Fund has always focused on communities most impacted by this crisis.

“Organizations that are deeply rooted in community do the best job identifying and responding to their most urgent challenges. Seattle Foundation has spent decades building trusted relationships with these local groups, particularly groups that serve Black, Indigenous and communities of color. The generous support of donors has allowed us to leverage these relationships and get money out the door where philanthropy could have a significant impact,” said Kris Hermanns, Chief Impact Officer at Seattle Foundation.

Keeping this community-centered concept in mind, as well as our guiding principles, the Seattle Foundation collaborated with various aligned efforts and philanthropic campaigns, which are highlighted below.

  • All In WA is a coordinated statewide relief effort that mobilizes resources to provide immediate critical and emergency support for workers and families most impacted by the pandemic. Over one million viewers tuned in this June and July to the All In WA COVID Relief Concert, presented by Amazon – raising millions for the All In WA coalition. So far over $71 million has been raised to support over 50 cause and community funds. Learn more about these partners across the state here.
  • All In Seattle was formed by a group of community members who wanted to quickly deploy resources directly to proven nonprofits helping those most in need. By the end of March, more than 250 pledgers committed more than $30 million to COVID relief efforts across the state.
  • The Black Future Co-op Fund serves as a collective hub for efforts to support the Black community in Washington state with a focus on eradicating poverty, building generational wealth, preserving Black Culture, and celebrating resilience. Launched in June, the Black Future Co-op Fund has mobilized more than $10 million—demonstrating the community’s support for this new, Black-centered model of philanthropy.
  • The Schultz Family Foundation founded The Plate Fund, which worked to serve restaurant workers in King County. With support from more than 3,100 generous donors, The Plate Fund raised $7.8 million to serve 15,600 restaurant workers in King County.
  • Finally, the East King County Community Fund is dedicated to the unique needs of East King County, which saw some of the first COVID-19 cases and deaths—and where the pandemic has amplified inequities. $400,000 has been raised to support this effort.

Seattle Foundation’s team helped focus additional public attention on these high-impact initiatives, such as the Black Future Co-op Fund. Michelle Merriweather, President & CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, is one of four Managing Partners leading the Black Future Co-op Fund. This community initiative was created in recognition of George Floyd’s murder, and she shared her thoughts on the significance of this moment, "This is a dream come true for the four of us. We have shared ideas, frustration, and thoughts about 'what could be' if we were able to scale good work being done. It is important that we don't allow this to end in this moment, but leverage this to change a generation and those future generations yet to be born."

Next Stages of Fund

The severity and long-term nature of the COVID-19 crisis is humbling and demands further action. As the effects of the pandemic continue, so will Seattle Foundation’s efforts to respond. Phase 3 grants from the COVID-19 Response Fund will launch by the end of 2020 to address the ongoing needs of our region’s most vulnerable families and workers.

With your support, our coalition will continue to act rapidly and effectively in the face of this unprecedented crisis. Donate to the COVID-19 Response Fund today. Learn more about our work in 2019 and how it prepared us to address the formidable challenges of 2020 in our recently released impact report.

Please join us on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, 2 – 3:30 p.m., for a full briefing on the COVID-19 Response Fund, our lessons learned, and how we see the forthcoming phases of recovery and reinvention. RSVP here.

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