Momentum Fund Seeks to Help Nonprofits Overwhelmed by Relief Contributions

By Alex Daniels

Nearly 700 groups have applied for an $8.5 million pool of grant money to help administer coronavirus rapid-response funds equitably.

The large number of applicants to the Momentum Fund reflects the proliferation of emergency fundsduring the early months of the pandemic and the need smaller nonprofits have to bolster their ability to manage complex grant budgets, identify the needs of a particular group of recipients, and adhere to donor restrictions.

The Gates Foundation provided the money to start the fund, which is managed by the United Philanthropy Forum. Grantees will be announced in August, and priority will be given to groups that are led by people of color and serve historically underrepresented populations that have been disproportionately hit by Covid-19.

After a natural disaster or during periods of crisis, organizations sometimes are overwhelmed by an influx of support, according to David Biemesderfer, president of the United Philanthropy Forum.

"Often organizations will create a fund and we'll receive a tremendous response, and it will overwhelm their capacity," Biemesderfer said. "Maybe they can't sustain the fund for as long as it is needed, or they'll be so focused on getting the fund out to those in need that they don't have adequate support for their own internal infrastructure."

Bail Fund Case Study

The Minnesota Freedom Fund's bail fund is a case in point. In response to clashes between protesters and police that erupted following the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, the fund invited donors to contribute so protesters who had been arrested could make bail.

More than 900,000 donors answered the call and gave $30 million to the tiny fund, which during a normal day paid no more than $1,000 in bail payments.

The group was criticized because despite the flood of cash, it had made only about $250,000 in bail payments in the first two weeks after the protests began.

"Scaling up to put this amount of resources to use with integrity takes time," the group wrote in response on its website." Expect to see more from us this summer, with a larger strategy developed as we enter into the fall."

Amanda Misiko Andere, chair of the Momentum Fund's board of advisers and chief executive of Funders Together to End Homelessness, said people often criticize nonprofits that are inundated with cash after a crisis because they may have trouble disbursing money to those in need.

The pandemic and the national uprisings in support of racial justice demonstrate a chronic shortfall in investment in nonprofits that serve marginalized people, Misiko Andere says.

"The reality is this is not a new crisis," she says. "Communities are underserved all the time. We just pay attention to them differently when we're in a national and global crisis."

Misiko Andere and Biemesderfer say the grant recipients will be able to use the support for a range of activities, including hiring short-term accounting staff or consultants to manage the flow of grants or adding more organizers to discern the needs of people being served by the grants.

Misiko Andere hopes the fund lives up to its name and generates momentum for additional support from donors to strengthen grassroots organizations: "The goal is to inspire other funders."