Urban Wire Rapid response philanthropy can help multiple organizations support families at the border
Keely Hanson, Joi James
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The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” enforcement policy has forcibly separated more than 2,300 children from their parents at the border after they sought refuge in the United States. A powerful public outcry led the president to reverse his policy of separating families, replacing it with a policy of detaining entire families together.

This crisis has provoked a public outpouring of support via donations, particularly to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). The effort began with the goal to raise $1,500—the minimum needed to pay bond for a single migrant awaiting asylum—but has since raised more than $20 million, breaking Facebook’s fundraising record.  

These donations exemplify the power of individual donors rapidly deploying capital to help urgent humanitarian causes. But more than one organization has the capacity to help address this crisis.

Community foundations, for example, are well suited to receive large influxes of capital and then distribute this capital to diverse organizations responding to crises on the ground. This is one example of how different grantmaking vehicles can be leveraged to quickly support various organizations that can help these families in a rapidly shifting crisis with complex and urgent needs.

Rapid response funds can help the philanthropic sector respond nimbly

Responding rapidly might not come naturally for foundations that have strict due diligence processes and time-consuming policies for reviewing and approving requests. They also might only offer restricted grants that limit what grantees can and can’t do with the funds they receive

Responsive philanthropy is not new to the sector, however, and rapid response is often a key grantmaking strategy for social justice and humanitarian foundations. These funds typically have streamlined application processes, can take as little as 72 hours to 10 days to distribute funds, and are independent of traditional grantmaking cycles.

In fact, rapid response funds have been an emerging strategy in the current political and social climate. Models that have emerged since the 2016 election include the San Francisco Foundation’s Rapid Response Fund for Movement Building. Other instances include foundations allocating new funds to respond to the current climate, such as the Open Society Foundation’s $10 million Communities Against Hate initiative.

More foundations should embrace rapid response funds to address immediate needs resulting from the crisis at the border for these three reasons:

  1. Mobilizing resources to the front lines quickly. In grantmaking, the average amount of time between the grant application and notification of award of funding can regularly range between four and six months. As these families and children endure an urgent crisis, rapid response grantmaking can offer donors and philanthropy a medium to be immediately responsive and guide resources where they need to be in a timely manner.
  2. Minimizing barriers to entry. Rapid response funds often have streamlined grant applications, award notifications, and disbursements. It allows nonprofits to be nimble in securing funding as issues arise, plan better for both staffing and strategy, and spend less time filling out applications and more time doing the work.
  3. Increasing flexible support and adaptability. In areas such as immigration and a shifting policy landscape, it is important that funders trust organizers and community-based organizations to identify needs and provide resources so they can execute their strategies to support these families

Emerging research insights about responsive philanthropy  

There is limited research related to rapid response grantmaking, and foundations have taken varied approaches and practices to implement rapid response initiatives. To address the research gap, the Urban Institute has been conducting a preliminary landscape analysis of rapid response funds and has identified these key recommendations for funders on how to structure rapid response models:

  1. Promote access to less restrictive grants with open applications. Responding to unexpected or emergency situations often requires being able to pivot and adapt to varying issues, which is why emergency funds tend to be less restrictive. The financial flexibility of open access and unrestricted grants makes them more appealing for increasing the effectiveness and capacity of nonprofits and community-based organizations to readily respond to issues as they arise.
  2. Leverage collaboratives. Rapid response models can include collaboratives of multiple grantmaking institutions to collectively move money quickly to extend their impact and reach, such as the Defending the Dream Fund. This allows larger institutions that do not have the current infrastructure to distribute grants rapidly by partnering with organizations already positioned to do so. Some collaborative funds even allow grantees to receive funding from multiple grantmakers but only have reporting requirements for one institution.
  3. Partner with experienced funder networks and institutions already connected with organizers on the ground. Rapid response models often thrive through preexisting relationships with organizations closest to the issues. Funders should leverage the networks already established in the area and leverage their expertise to identify needs.
  4. Don’t forget about the long term. Every foundation has long-term goals for the impact they seek to generate in communities and our social fabric. Rapid response grantmaking can complement and advance these goals while making more immediate impact.

As the government faces questions about the formal process for family reunification, emerging reports reveal diverse needs resulting from this crisis. These include the need for legal services for families to navigate complex asylum proceedings and trauma-informed supportive services that address the serious health consequences of family separation and detention.

This crisis does not represent the first time the United States has forcibly separated families, but it does have unique needs that philanthropy is well positioned to address. Although rapid response grantmaking can be considered high risk for the field, it is an opportunity for the field to grow and better align its practices to meet families’ rapidly shifting needs for this and future crises.

Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy Immigrants and immigration
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy