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Empathy is Infectuous

Let’s be clear: The Coronavirus pandemic is deadly serious, and we all need to observe the CDC’s latest guidelines for keeping ourselves and others safe. There’s good reason that Lowell’s home state (WA) and Mario’s (OH) are on virtual lockdown, and we have great respect for Governors Jay Inslee (D) and Mike DeWine (R) for making these calls. These two elected officials are demonstrating precisely what courageous, adaptive leadership looks like!

Meanwhile, people from all backgrounds and walks of life are doing their part, summoning their better angels at a time when our world really needs it. As the writer and historian Anne Applebaum recently said, crises like this “have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact.” On the whole, we’re encouraged by what we’re seeing.

We’ll center this post on Lowell’s home of Seattle, given that it’s considered the first epicenter in the U.S. We’re seeing kindness and generosity spreading even faster than the virus. Here are a handful of inspiring examples:

  • Individuals: Rallying behind the hashtag #SeattleWeGotThis, neighborhood message boards across the city are flooded with offers of help for vulnerable members of the community—running errands for anyone who is house-bound, providing child care for overwhelmed parents, sewing medical masks for hospitals, delivering boxed meals for homeless families (while being vigilant to not inadvertently spread the virus). Healthy residents have been quick to volunteer to participate in the first clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate and perform any task to help a local company working 24/7 to produce as many ventilator units as humanly possible. KUOW, a local NPR affiliate, has been “flooded with amazing stories” about the ways individuals are supporting each other, including many efforts to support all the brave healthcare providers putting themselves at risk and working themselves to the bone. Activist Lashanna Williams is hosting CDC-compliant community breakfasts to make sure students won’t go hungry and raising money for families in desperate need of rent assistance.
  • Donors: The local philanthropic community is mobilizing in a big way. Bill Gates, who for years has been writing and warning about the inevitability of a pandemic just like this one, stepped up instantly with emergency grants: The Gates Foundation is joining with other funders to accelerate development of and access to therapies, and it committed $5 million to help Seattle-area public health agencies “enhance their capacity to detect and treat COVID-19 and guide public health efforts to reduce transmission.” The Seattle Foundation acted just as quickly to set up a COVID-19 Response Fund, a flexible vehicle for channeling resources to members of the community who are getting hit the hardest in a city with deep inequality. And many other donors are creatively looking for ways they can lend a helping hand. For example, one of Lowell’s clients is reaching out to all organizations in his portfolio and pipeline to ask about their emergency needs—and getting checks out within 48 hours.
  • Nonprofits: Many local nonprofits are on the frontlines of the search for treatments and vaccines that can benefit people all over the world. Infectious Disease Research Institute is using its unique assets, including “adjuvants” that greatly heighten the immune response to vaccines, to help develop, test, and eventually manufacture an effective vaccine. Seattle Children’s Hospital will now serve inpatients through age 21, to relieve the strain on other hospitals in the area. Hundreds of other nonprofits are pitching in with their own assets. For example, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is using its legal skills to fight in federal court for the immediate release of sick and elderly immigrants being held in detention.
  • Companies: Amazon pledged serious money to help small businesses reeling from Amazon’s office closures, offered no rent to retail tenants in its many local office buildings, and said it will support its network of independent delivery drivers and seasonal employees. Local small-business owners are sharing complimentary services and other forms of support to keep each other afloat. Local grocery stores and restaurants are leaving boxes full of sack lunches at their doorsteps for the benefit of anyone who needs one. Thirty Washington distilleries are making hand sanitizer, with one focused on supplying hospitals at no charge and one giving it away to individuals in exchange for a donation to a nonprofit.

In Mario’s beloved Cleveland, there’s also been an outpouring of acts of kindness across race, ethnicity, religion, and orientation. We suspect you, too, are seeing this where you live. We’d love to hear from you about the acts of kindness and empathy you’re seeing in your community.

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As the Gates Foundation’s Victoria Vrana just wrote, “As challenging and overwhelming as the current moment is for all of us, we all have opportunities to help and lead.” So please take a moment to think about how you can do so. For those of you old enough to remember 9/11, think about the way that crisis motivated billions of acts of kindness—from giving blood and donating to relevant nonprofits to providing pro bono mental health services or volunteering for military or national service. We must summon those better angels again—and keep them aloft far longer than we managed after 9/11.


Spread kindness and stay safe,

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell


Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap Ambassadors Community.


Updates From Around the Leap Community

We’re deeply impressed with the hard-won insights in “How to Lead Through Rapid, Unexpected Change (Responding to COVID-19).” (Mario forwarded the article to 40 close colleagues who are decisionmakers on the frontlines of this crisis.) “A crisis reveals who you really are, and often you may not like what you see. I’m regularly disappointed by my first instincts,” writes pastor and leadership expert Carey Nieuwhof. “But you don’t have to act on your first instincts, which is where real leadership comes in.”

In “Health Philanthropy Will Play a Critical Role in Responding to COVID-19,” the Urban Institute’s Faith Mitchell outlines steps foundations are taking today to address our current emergency and can take in the future to strengthen our public health infrastructure. We learned a lot. For example, we hadn’t realized that the Ford Foundation is allowing organizations to convert any project grants to general support. So smart! Nor had we been aware of the insightful work of the de Beaumont Foundation (started by the founder of Brookstone) to help primary care and public health groups work together to improve health and reduce costs.

We have another compliment for Ford. Working with the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project and the Council on Foundations, Ford launched a pledge to encourage all funders “to act with fierce urgency to support our nonprofit partners as well as the people and communities hit hardest by the impacts of COVID-19.” We’ve both signed the pledge. We encourage you to join us and the 300+ other organizations that have done so.

Please take a few moments to peruse this interview with the Claneil Foundation Executive Director Mailee Walker, who models the relationship-based approach to philanthropy. How’s this for candid?: “We in philanthropy unconsciously create trauma for the organizations we want to support. Research shows that foundations are the number one roadblock to nonprofits’ success. We don’t typically think of ourselves that way.” (These insights illustrate why the pledge above is so important!)

If you’re a funder, read the wise guidance in Bridgespan’s “What Philanthropy Can Do Today to Support Grantees Through the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis.” We’ll summarize the message here: Reassure your grantees that you’ve got their backs (despite the market declines that hurt your endowment), give extra attention to vulnerable populations (who are at the most risk from the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic), and then respond fast (putting aside our normal—often sluggish—processes). Another good resource, with guidance on specific organizations on the frontlines of the crisis, is Fidelity Charitable’s “How to help: Coronavirus (COVID-19).”

In “Funders, the Time Is Now to Talk Recession Planning with Grantees,” the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Ethan McCoy shares CEP data showing that last year the vast majority of nonprofit leaders were aware of the likelihood of recession but only a third of them had an actual plan for managing through one. In the midst of our last recession, we collaborated on two columns—“Saving the Ship by Rocking the Boat” and “Don’t Check Your Courage at the Door”—with guidance the core questions that should guide recession and crisis planning. Not to toot our own horn, but we think these columns are just as relevant today.


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Mar 26 — Online
Primary Season: How Super Tuesday and Critical State Primaries Elevate Policy Choices” webinar; Columbia University School of Professional Studies

Mar 26 — Online
Disaster Philanthropy: A Starting Point!” webinar; Foundation Source and Center for Disaster Philanthropy

Apr 9 — Online
Incorporating an Equity Lens into Your Hiring Practices” webinar; GrantSpace by Candid and Borealis Philanthropy

Apr 16 — Online
Improving Your Data Management to Drive Donations” webinar; GrantSpace by Candid and EveryAction

May 7 — Online
Boards and CEOs: The Secrets to Effective Governance” webinar; GrantSpace by Candid and Leap Ambassadors Community