Emily Dickinson lived much of her life isolated in a single room, and I’ve found her poetry coming to me a lot this year. Though her isolation was voluntary, I doubt it was easy. Her room overlooked a cemetery, and many of her poems are focused on death.
As the winter of 2020 approached, I might have expected one of those poems to keep floating to mind, but instead it was her writing on hope: “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” it begins, “/ That perches in the soul / And sings the song without the words / And never stops — at all -”
Maybe it was the unspoken question she posed at the end from her solitary room: “I’ve heard it in the chillest land / And on the strangest Sea / Yet — never — in Extremity / It asked a crumb — of me.”
So what does hope feed on?
This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling. Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.
It would be easy for all the people who drew the long demographic straws in this crisis to hole up at home feeling a mix of gratitude and guilt, and wait for it to be over — but that’s not what’s happening. The proliferation of community fridges, COVID relief funds, impromptu person-to-person Venmo gifts, viral debt relief campaigns, and mutual aid initiatives has been swift and uplifting. In March, a 19-year-old girl in Chicago sent a group text to her friends suggesting they buy supplies for people in their neighborhood who had lost their jobs. She posted two Google forms — one for people who needed help and another for people with help to give — and by two days later they’d raised $7,000. “We’re really excited,” she said.
After my post in July, I asked a team of advisors to help me accelerate my 2020 giving through immediate support to people suffering the economic effects of the crisis. They took a data-driven approach to identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results, with special attention to those operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital.
The result over the last four months has been $4,158,500,000 in gifts to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. Some are filling basic needs: food banks, emergency relief funds, and support services for those most vulnerable. Others are addressing long-term systemic inequities that have been deepened by the crisis: debt relief, employment training, credit and financial services for under-resourced communities, education for historically marginalized and underserved people, civil rights advocacy groups, and legal defense funds that take on institutional discrimination.
To select these 384, the team sought suggestions and perspective from hundreds of field experts, funders, and non-profit leaders and volunteers with decades of experience. We leveraged this collective knowledge base in a collaboration that included hundreds of emails and phone interviews, and thousands of pages of data analysis on community needs, program outcomes, and each non-profit’s capacity to absorb and make effective use of funding. We looked at 6,490 organizations, and undertook deeper research into 822. We put 438 of these on hold for now due to insufficient evidence of impact, unproven management teams, or to allow for further inquiry about specific issues such as treatment of community members or employees. We won’t always learn about a concern inside an organization, but when we do, we’ll take extra time to evaluate. We’ll never eliminate every risk through our analysis, but we’ll eliminate many. Then we can select organizations to assist — and get out of their way.
We do this research and deeper diligence not only to identify organizations with high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached. Because our research is data-driven and rigorous, our giving process can be human and soft. Not only are non-profits chronically underfunded, they are also chronically diverted from their work by fundraising, and by burdensome reporting requirements that donors often place on them. These 384 carefully selected teams have dedicated their lives to helping others, working and volunteering and serving real people face-to-face at bedsides and tables, in prisons and courtrooms and classrooms, on streets and hospital wards and hotlines and frontlines of all types and sizes, day after day after day. They help by delivering vital services, and also through the profound encouragement felt each time a person is seen, valued, and trusted by another human being. This kind of encouragement has a special power when it comes from a stranger, and it works its magic on everyone. We shared each of our gift decisions with program leaders for the first time over the phone, and welcomed them to spend the funding on whatever they believe best serves their efforts. They were told that the entire commitment would be paid upfront and left unrestricted in order to provide them with maximum flexibility. The responses from people who took the calls often included personal stories and tears. These were non-profit veterans from all backgrounds and backstories, talking to us from cars and cabins and COVID-packed houses all over the country — a retired army general, the president of a tribal college recalling her first teaching job on her reservation, a loan fund founder sitting in the makeshift workspace between her washer and dryer from which she had launched her initiative years ago. Their stories and tears invariably made me and my teammates cry.
This kind of chain reaction was captured perfectly by a longtime advocate for people with disabilities: “We work with people who have been marginalized for many reasons… Some of our greatest moments of success come through small gestures when a client’s hope is restored…. Feeling valued is an amazing sensation. I see the eyes of our clients light up when their efforts are appreciated…. Good begets good. I have always believed this, but I have been sorely tested over the past few years.”
Our hopes are fed by others.
Though I’m far from completing my pledge, this year of giving began with exposure to leaders from historically marginalized groups fighting inequities, and ended with exposure to thousands of organizations working to alleviate suffering for those hardest hit by the pandemic. Witnessing the determination, creativity, and compassion of people in a crisis has been inspiring: cash cards for farmers in Puerto Rico; direct deposits for furloughed workers without access to employer-based benefits; rental assistance for immigrant families without access to government relief; young volunteers stepping in for vulnerable older ones to deliver millions of meals to newly isolated seniors; shelters and counseling centers forming partnerships to handle the surge in domestic violence; two former debt collections executives enabling donors to anonymously forgive $1,000 in crushing medical debt for struggling families with every gift of $10.
If you’re craving a way to use your time, voice, or money to help others at the end of this difficult year, I highly recommend a gift to one of the thousands of organizations doing remarkable work all across the country. Every one of them could benefit from more resources to share with the communities they’re serving. And the hope you feed with your gift is likely to feed your own.
Feeding America member food banks
Meals on Wheels member programs
United Way chapters