Promising Aid to Arts Organizations, Five Charitable Foundations Will Give an Unprecedented $1.7 Billion to Nonprofits Worldwide

Three of the organizations have made the exceedingly rare decision to raise money for the effort by selling bonds.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Courtesy of the Ford Foundation.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Courtesy of the Ford Foundation.

In a bold joint effort, five major US charitable foundations have come together to pledge more than $1.7 billion to stabilize and sustain nonprofits around the world that have been battered by the devastating combined effects of the coronavirus outbreak, the resulting financial downturn, and the social unrest triggered by systemic police violence against the African American community.

The Ford Foundation, which is leading the initiative, has promised $1 billion for the endeavor, and is joined by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which is pledging $300 million); the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation ($200 million); the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ($125 million); and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation ($100 million).

“This is a story of something that doesn’t happen enough in philanthropy: collaboration,” Ford Foundation president Darren Walker said in a press call announcing the initiative. “I don’t think there’s been a greater day for American philanthropy than today.”

“We want to make sure our communities and organizations survive this pandemic and come out stronger,” agreed Kellogg president and CEO La June Montgomery Tabron.

The Ford Foundation has also made the exceedingly rare decision to raise its $1 billion by selling 30- and 50-year bonds. (The organization also plans to separately give $550 million in grants it was already planning to distribute this year.) The MacArthur and Doris Duke foundations also plan to issue bonds.

Debt financing, which is common practice in for-profit sectors, is unusual in philanthropy, but the foundations say that unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. The organizations are looking to take advantage of low interest rates, which also allows them to spend more money without digging more deeply into their endowments.

“When our staff approved this, it was jaws dropping,” admitted Ed Henry, president and CEO of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

“Issuing debt at this scale is a new approach for the field,” said the MacArthur Foundation in a statement on its website. “This is an unprecedented collaboration that points the way to a more nimble, high impact, and equitable approach to grantmaking.”

The five organizations will individually handle the distribution of funds according to their own grant-making guidelines and priorities, and hope that their bold initiative will inspire others to act similarly.

“We hope other foundations will join us in creating a different model where foundations step up more, not less, in the times of greatest need,” MacArthur president John Palfrey said. (At least two organizations that were approached to join the effort, the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, declined to participate, according to the New York Times.)

The effort comes at a crucial time for nonprofits around the world, which are struggling under the weight of closures, staff reductions, and damaged investments. Many arts organizations have only two months of cash reserves, and cultural institutions are on track to lose a total of $6.8 billion this year. Even more dire, the American Alliance of Museums predicts that up to 30 percent of American museums could close permanently.

“We’re all aware of the degree of need in our country and the perilous situation of nonprofits across the county,” acknowledged Henry. “The challenge for all of us now is how do we move from relief to recovery.”

“The partnership that we’re announcing today happened with unprecedented speed and unprecedented scale,” added Mellon president Elizabeth Alexander. “Many organizations don’t have any kind of endowment at all. Addressing that issue of longevity is a longterm structural challenge. But one of the things that’s extraordinary that we see in the arts sector is an unparalleled resilience.”


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