The Power of Giving in the Face of COVID-19

It would be strange, given the pandemic that has descended upon every corner of the globe, to write a column on philanthropy about anything other than the extraordinary response to this challenge. For example, I recently read the May issue of a state-focused magazine, and there was nary a mention of the novel coronavirus. That felt inauthentic at best.

We find ourselves in unchartered territory in the modern age.  Not since the pandemic flu of 1918, also more commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu, has such a public health crisis tested our collective personal and global capacities to act and save lives. Many of us, myself included, have retreated for weeks on end into the haven that our homes provide while keeping tabs on friends and family both near and far. And inevitably, we hear the news.  The numbers.  The stories.  The despair.

Here in the pages of Polo Lifestyles, each month, we endeavor to create a space that celebrates luxury and allows the imagination to wander from the daily toils. So in that spirit, this month’s column will celebrate the power of giving and the extraordinary philanthropy that has flourished over the past months. If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it is evidenced in the triumph of the human spirit and the profound charity to which it is predisposed.

There is no substitute for the leading role of our governments and multilateral institutions to mount bold responses to catastrophes.  In fact, this is among the most fundamental reasons for their being.  However, the animating spirit of philanthropy – the desire to promote the welfare of others – has also blossomed in the private sector during the current crisis.

Take, for example, the large swaths of celebrities that have come forward to lend a helping hand and raise needed resources. On April 18, Lady Gaga curated and led a star-studded virtual benefit concert aimed at raising money for the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund of the World Health Organization (WHO). Promoted as a “love letter to the world”, at a presser promoting the event, Gaga said, “What we see tomorrow will not be the end…Let’s remind each other that this is a kind world.” 

With too many big names to mention all of them, the “One World: Together at Home” event drew everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Keith Urban, Pharrell to Lily Tomlin, Kesha to Michael Buble, Luis Fonsi to Eddie Vedder, and the venerable Rolling Stones also made an appearance.  Moreover, the event is reported to have raised $127 million USD for the WHO’s efforts to secure personal protective equipment and other supplies for countries most in need.

To Lady Gaga’s credit, even before she assembled the world’s artists and entertainers for the virtual bash, she had already raised $35 million USD for coronavirus relief efforts, prompting the magazine Vogue to publish an article with the more-than-apt title, “How Lady Gaga Became the Face of COVID-19 Relief”. How indeed!

We have also written previously in this column about the extraordinary philanthropy of Rihanna. When it comes to the current crisis, she is again at the forefront in putting her charitable dollars into action. For Rihanna, the pandemic hit close to home when her father, who lives in the singer’s native Barbados, was diagnosed with coronavirus. Even before this news, however, Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation donated $5 million USD to several international organizations working to fight the pandemic, as well as to her beloved Barbados. 

Rihanna also teamed up Jay-Z and his foundation, with each donating $1 million USD to address the crisis in hard-hit New York City and Los Angeles. A few weeks later, the two made a joint announcement with Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey with the trio announcing an additional $6.2 million USD in grants for organizations working globally and, in the U.S., In the U.S., grants will be focused on struggling New Orleans, where evidence suggests the holding of Madi Gras may have unwittingly contributed to the significant spread of the coronavirus.

Innumerable other acts of charity from the world of celebrity and sport are also powerful examples of leaning into the crisis.  Dolly Parton donated $1 million USD to Vanderbilt University for research toward a cure. The Golden State Warrior’s Stephen Curry and his wife Ayesha pledged to support 1 million meals for kids whose meals are usually consumed at now-closed schools. “Deadpool” actor Ryan Reynolds and his wife, Blake Lively donated $1 million USD to Feeding America and Food Banks Canada.  And the New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and his wife have pledged $5 million USD into efforts in the state of Louisiana. These are just a few of the examples reported in the press.

Leading foundations that have long invested in public health initiatives have also been at the forefront of mobilizing resources to find treatments for the coronavirus.  On March 10, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation coordinated $125 million USD to create the “COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator”.  Working with the Gates’ are the U.K-based Wellcome Trust, a private foundation founded by the medical entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Henry Wellcome, which has pledged $50 million USD to match the same amount of the Gates Foundation pledge, and the Mastercard Impact Fund, which has committed $25 million USD. 

In Asian countries (and beyond), the philanthropic activity of Chinese businessman Jack Ma and his affiliated foundations has been significant.  Ma, whose estimated worth exceeds $40 billion USD, has utilized both the Jack Ma Foundation and the Alibaba Foundation, to direct millions of pieces of personal protective equipment and other medical gear to the Middle East, hard-hit European countries, the U.S., Canada, Latin American nations and countries throughout Asia. A total of $14.4 million USD was also donated to research entities developing vaccines for the coronavirus. 

Finally, closer to home, where so many of us are spending more time than ever, local response funds have emerged to help at the most grassroots level, where too many neighbors are out of work and wondering how they will pay the most basic costs of living. I run a small community foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a gorgeous and world-renowned destination for art and exploring a unique milieu of cultures. We are assumed to be a wealthy community, but in a state with persistently high poverty.  

Our foundation, like so many other community foundations and United Way organizations across the country, began a coronavirus-focused response fund.  Over the past five weeks, we have raised nearly $1 million USD and granted out about half of that to nonprofits working to make sure food is available, health services are operating and accessible, that remote education is occurring across our region to ensure children continue to advance in their studies (and Seniors can graduate), and finally toward supporting individuals and families whose finances are in jeopardy.

I read every application for support, and I can attest to the sad reality that the needs are real here in New Mexico, and I hear from colleagues across the country that we are not unique. Of course, we are not. To that end, regardless of where you live, someone is out of work.  A family is hungry. A business is struggling to stay afloat.

The power of philanthropy is great. And not just at the scale of Jack Ma. In this time of great challenge, there is no more rewarding and more needed philanthropic engagement than to give locally.  Perhaps it is your local food bank or other non-profit you are already familiar with and support.  Or if you are familiar with your community foundation (they are global) or other similar entity, consider supporting their efforts to keep our communities and neighbors strong as we weather this situation and until the virus recedes.  And recede it will.  Until then, stay safe, and give generously.  

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