Foundations’ early international responses to COVID-19

15 April 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

Think tanks and non-profits worldwide are facing greater financial needs in the face of the COVID-19. Over 67% of organisations surveyed by CAF America reported decreased funding or difficulties reaching donors since the pandemic began.

Devex recently wrote about some of the large funding announcements from governments and international financial institutions. Candid is capturing many philanthropic funds, but most of them are in the United States (US). So what are philanthropies doing internationally?

We scanned the websites of almost 30 major foundations to gather information on funding or activities outside of the US and Europe. We also looked more generally at their new commitments and any statements about policy work. Here’s what we found.

Funding and activities

As of early April, most major foundations are focused on emergency response to COVID-19 by joining or setting up rapid response funds in the cities in which they operate, such as Chicago and New York.

Fewer than 15 had reference to international work, often either to supporting humanitarian organisations or funding international scientific research. Others had made announcements, but it was not yet clear where the funding would be spent, including Jack Dorsey’s announcement of $1 billion for philanthropy and Azim Premji’s donation of $7.5 billion to his eponymous foundation.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies have made specific announcements about larger international programs, with most of them building on their pre-existing global health work:

Other philanthropies and corporate foundations have announced smaller increments of funding. Here is a sample:

  • The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $20 million for global pandemic preparedness and vulnerable communities with a focus on cities where it has offices (including Nairobi and Bangkok).
  • The Omidyar Network announced $1 million for a rapid response window in India for proposals to address the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.
  • The Packard Foundation is supporting the Ethiopian Public Health Association and the CDC Foundation.
  • The Nike Foundation plans to give $1.1 million to the King Baudoin Foundation, which has emergency response funds for social services in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

We expect more announcements about global work over time. Philanthropies that focus more on development, rather than health, are likely to announce their plans over the next few months.

As the President of the Moore Foundation said in response to a question on what other philanthropies were doing, ‘It’s a little soon to know the answer. […] We’ll see philanthropies that will look at what’s interested [them] at the core, what they are trying to accomplish, and see how that could be adapted and strengthened by efforts that would simultaneously improve society’s response to the pandemic.’


In addition to emergency response, hundreds of philanthropies have signed the COVID-19 pledges hosted by either the Council on Foundations or the London Funders Group. These pledges commit funders to listen to others and make grants more flexible and adaptive.

Beyond these commitments, philanthropic organisations and networks are calling on philanthropies to spend more than planned, ‘even if it means dipping into endowments’.

In addition, most of the foundations’ statements mention how they are changing their operations and supporting their staff. Travel, including conferences and field and grantee visits, are on hold. Most staff are now working remotely.


On policy, again, most of the announcements are focused on immediate pandemic response.

The Council on Foundations pledge also has a section on policy, calling for funders to ‘support, as appropriate grantee partners advocating for important public policy changes to fight the pandemic and deliver an equitable and just emergency response for all. This may include its economic impact on workers, such as expanded paid sick leave; increasing civic participation; access to affordable health care; and expanded income and rental assistance’.

We saw relatively few mentions of these dimensions, but again, it is likely that the funders that engage on broader policy work will eventually turn to some of these needs, such as longer-term health and economic policy and financing structures.

For now, self-funding pilots (originally suggested by Hans Gutbrod and Till Bruckner) and looking for government, bilateral, and research funding may be better options for think tanks. After the initial wave of emergency response, more and more funders will look for ideas and partnerships relevant to think tanks, including policies and financing for poverty alleviation, job creation, education, and health.