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Lessons Learned During the Pandemic

By Tina Eshaghpour

Looking back at the last two years, there’s no denying that these have been incredibly difficult times – times that compelled us to change the way we do our work. We’ve learned a lot from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, catastrophic wildfires, and the racial reckoning in response to the public murder of George Floyd. In response, Cal Wellness modified how we operate internally and deepened trust with grant partners so that we could act with greater speed and purpose.

Like many other funders, we shifted into immediate, and ultimately sustained, crisis response mode in 2020 and 2021, and we believe the steps we took and lessons we learned may be useful for other funders assessing their experiences and performance during the pandemic.

Below, we detail how we pivoted and give a case study of how those pivots translated to real-world results.

  1. Build on Past Experience

These have been unprecedented times, but we still found lessons learned to inform our response to new challenges. We asked: How can past experience guide our actions today? Right after the 2016 election, numerous communities we serve were instantly marginalized and in jeopardy. In response, we launched “Advance and Defend Wellness,” an organization-wide effort that leveraged our grantmaking dollars and our institutional voice. We spoke out when we saw injustice. We looked at critical issues that cut across our portfolio strategies. We accelerated our grantmaking process to rapidly fund grant partners as they navigated a stepped-up deportation machine, forced separation of children from migrant parents, a new ban on Muslims entering the country, and heightened racial tensions. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we drew upon this experience and relied on the pool of trusted partners we’d cultivated in previous crises. Plus, we’d developed a muscle for working across portfolios, so we were able to quickly organize ourselves and respond quickly but strategically.

  1. Don’t Assume. Ask Grantees What They Need

Grantmakers reached out to existing grantees to ask what support they needed. In some cases, we were the first funder to reach out and ask. We heard that people needed dollars to meet basic needs, and they needed flexibility. We made $10,000 grants to 80 organizations who were most at-risk and in the most need of support, prioritizing those with smaller budgets serving populations disproportionately impacted by the virus. These funds proved crucial to businesses and community-based organizations trying to stay afloat. 

  1. Partner with People on the Ground

People in communities are seeing circumstances as they evolve. They know who the trusted partners are, and they know who is doing what in an evolving crisis. As a statewide funder, we relied upon public and community foundations that have deep roots in the communities they serve; they were best positioned to get resources quickly to those in need. In addition, these partners pushed us to think more expansively about who to fund to meet communities’ basic needs.

  1. Stay Flexible

We increased general operating support dollars and relaxed reporting requirements. We have a well-established practice of providing general operating support, but we invited grantees to request new uses of existing budgets and funds, and allowed grantees to adjust grant budgets without seeking prior approval. As grantees reprioritized their work and responded to the pandemic, we pivoted to allow greater flexibility in grant monitoring processes. We delayed or altogether suspended grant reporting requirements, which relieved the burden on trusted partners and allowed them to focus on their staff and constituents. We conducted virtual site visits instead of in-person visits and allowed grantees to extend their current grants beyond their deadline to eliminate the arduous work of preparing new applications.

  1. Center Racial Equity

In a crisis, risks to health and wellness increase along racial lines. The data have been clear from the beginning: The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and brown people. Informed by the facts, each of our portfolio teams prioritized aid to nonprofits led by people of color, serving marginalized communities – Black, Latino, Indigenous, undocumented folks, and agricultural workers. And we paid attention to the geographic locations of those most in need. First, we tracked communities where COVID was spreading rapidly, then we refined our focus to address growing disparities in vaccine distribution and access. 

  1. Be Willing to Transform Your Approach

Not everything we did was effective. While immediate cash grants seemed helpful, grantees explained that, though they appreciated the rapid $10,000 grants, they weren’t enough to make a substantial impact. And our staff quickly realized that making small grants takes almost as much time and attention as processing larger grants. So, we pivoted. By the end of 2020, our average rapid-response grant was $50,000 and in 2021, grants were in the $75,000 - $100,000 range.

What’s needed at the beginning may not be what’s needed later in a crisis. As time goes on, needs evolve. At the beginning, we were in emergency mode. What we originally envisioned as a short-term, immediate response strategy has become an ongoing approach, and we continue to adjust to on-the-ground events. The pandemic is not over – not for the most vulnerable among us, not for our grant partners, and therefore, not for us.

  1. Be Willing to Transform Yourself

Change begins with us. We need to continue to adapt to be effective. Here are just a few ways we’ve rethought our operations for the long term.

Rethinking basic processes. We’d started converting to electronic payments for grants before the pandemic, and we expedited this shift as organizations closed their physical offices and could no longer easily receive mail. This is one small example of an infrastructure shift that will support future rapid-response work.

Working across silos. When the pandemic hit, we were already in the process of staffing up, which proved to be a happy coincidence. We brought in new program officers as well as a director of program operations; more importantly, we established a work group led by our programs team that was tasked with rapidly vetting, then funding organizations. The group’s goal was to identify immediate needs arising within communities across the state. The programs team also worked closely with our grants management team to help create a process that got grants out the door quickly for organizations.

Building on strengths. Parts of our pre-pandemic approach proved critically important. At least half of our grantmaking is for direct service. This proved useful because we saw the urgent need of COVID meant that almost every non-profit, whether typically focused on advocacy, community organizing or direct service had to meet the basic needs of their community members. This included providing food, housing and shelter, in addition to purchasing personal protective equipment, providing bottled water in rural areas with limited access and setting up non-profit staff at home with technology to stay connected to each other and have the means to reach out to community.

Through this process, we’ve learned that we have to change and evolve as a foundation. The crisis led us to shift what we ask of grantees, and reinforced the need to be investing toward solutions, not band-aids. And it reinforced our conviction that we must lift up the people who are building toward transformation.

A Grantee’s Experience

UFW Foundation

Cal Wellness reached out to Diana Tellefson, executive director at the UFW Foundation, and offered funds with no reporting requirements.

“I was incredibly surprised,” Tellefson said. “There was a series of emails from them, unsolicited! They said, ‘We’re going to give you another grant and you don’t need to do anything.’ This was the absolute best type of email we could have received.

The temporary halt of grant reporting requirements translated to on-the-ground results.

Instead of filling out paperwork, they were able to use general operating support to bring in more staff, set up a call center for farmworkers and send others out into the field. They launched a communications campaign, centering the story of farmworkers and migrants in the national narrative about essential workers.

They also trained farmworkers on digital advocacy (which is how one farmworker found himself delivering a calf on-screen while Zooming with a state legislator and UFW staff).

The success of this intensive advocacy and storytelling campaign was realized when the state of California led the nation in prioritizing farmworkers for COVID vaccinations.


Tina smiles at camera in outdoor setting
Director of Learning and Innovation Tina Eshaghpour

Tina Eshaghpour is the director of learning and innovation at The California Wellness Foundation. In this role, Eshaghpour is responsible for fostering a culture of continual learning, improvement and innovation.

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