Community foundations step up to lead rapid coronavirus response efforts in UK

Three people stand next to tall carts of food boxes in the middle of a sunny and airy food bank room.
A grant from Foundation Scotland is helping a team of volunteers at Cosgrove Care offer essential food shopping support to older people in their local community. Photo: Courtesy of Cosgrove Care

As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, donations and aid have poured in to help the people hardest hit cope with the fallout. But how do you ensure an effective and efficient response that provides emergency aid to those who need it most? In the United Kingdom, one of the best answers has been local community foundations.

In March, the National Emergencies Trust (NET), a public charity in the U.K. that raises funds to support domestic emergency disaster response, launched an appeal with the British Red Cross to support coronavirus response efforts. The campaign is aimed at helping local organizations quickly provide vital support to people facing physical, economic or emotional hardship.

The coronavirus appeal marks the first time NET has mobilized to help communities nationwide. Until the pandemic hit, its activities were localized, supporting communities affected by major natural disasters or terrorist activity, such as the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.

NET tapped UK Community Foundations (UKCF) and its network of 46 community foundations throughout the U.K. to distribute funds. Already leading efforts to respond to the unique challenges facing their local communities in the wake of the pandemic, UKCF immediately stepped up to serve as a key partner in the NET appeal.

“Our network covers the whole of the U.K. and has an unparalleled reach into local communities,” said Rosemary Macdonald, interim CEO of UKCF. “Each community foundation has an in-depth understanding of its local area, what the priority needs are and how best to address these issues, so they can ensure the funding goes where it is most needed and can make the most impact.”

NET has raised £80 million so far for pandemic relief efforts and is expected to reach at least £100 million. In just a few short weeks, £32 million has been distributed by local community foundations to thousands of front-line nonprofits. Macdonald said their immediate priorities for the NET funds are ensuring people in need have access to food and medicine, as well as supporting those who are socially isolated due to stay-at-home orders.

“UKCF’s work on the NET coronavirus appeal has been very impressive,” said Shannon Lawder, director of the Civil Society program at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which has supported UKCF since 1992. “Their ability to quickly mobilize to distribute the funds highlights the value of having a strong network of community foundations ready to respond to local needs in a crisis.”

Migrant Workers Sefton Community received a £2,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Merseyside to provide a helpline and food bank vouchers for residents. The organization’s mission is to support international workers and their families who may face financial hardship or other negative impacts to their well-being due to discrimination or unfair treatment.

A volunteer that is wearing a facemask and a colorful sweater stands in a driveway while holding a box of goods that is ready to be delivered to people affected by the coronavirus shutdowns.
Migrant Workers Sefton Community organized volunteers to deliver food and supplies to people affected by coronavirus shutdowns. MWSC's aim is to help migrant workers and their families to integrate into the local community. Photo: Migrant Workers Sefton Community

“The funding from NET for the Liverpool City region is greatly welcomed,” said Rae Brooke, chief executive of Community Foundations for Lancashire and Merseyside. “The national aid alongside local giving has been incredible and much needed. The funds have made a positive difference to the lives of so many who are vulnerable and in need of support.”

Distributing the funds through community foundations that have an in-depth understanding of their geographical area, as well as the residents therein, also allows local agencies to decide how best to deploy emergency resources. While many people face similar challenges due to the pandemic, others are grappling with urgent needs that may require specialized services or approaches.

In Hertfordshire, the community foundation made a grant to Future Living Hertford to help the organization adapt their services to provide virtual counseling for people experiencing domestic abuse or recovering from addiction. Foundation Scotland used the NET appeal funds to support Cosgrove Care’s food shopping and telephone friend programs, allowing the organization to provide elderly people in the communities of Renfrewshire and North Lanarkshire with both essential groceries and vital human contact to help stave off loneliness.

A young counselor appears to be sitting on a couch with a laptop in her lap with her image on the left side of the screen as she is typing and chatting with a patient (not visible) via a video-call.
Future Living Hertford is using NET appeal funds to adapt their services to provide virtual counseling for people experiencing domestic abuse or recovering from addiction. Photo: Future Living Hertford

“The strength of community foundations lies in the relationships they have built over many years,” Macdonald said. “Being well-established in their communities, they hold a position of trust.”

While the emergency response has been effective in helping nonprofits provide much needed aid at the height of the pandemic, the NET coronavirus appeal is ongoing, and community foundations will continue to serve as vital fund distribution partners. At the same time, UKCF is beginning to think about how its members can support long-term efforts to revive local communities.

Macdonald said they are supporting their members to work collaboratively with local resilience forums, voluntary sector forums and local authorities. UKCF is also partnering on national efforts with the Voluntary and Communities Sector Emergencies Partnership, the government strategic working group and the philanthropy collective to support the recovery phase of the pandemic.

“In addition to funding, community foundations support voluntary sector organizations with capacity building,” Macdonald said. “Their local expertise will be instrumental in supporting these groups and helping the communities they serve recover and revive.”