(March 25, 2020) – As they work to serve the most vulnerable people, community services are encountering operational worries and concerns about lost fundraising revenue. Community foundations are in a unique position of understanding the needs in their area, and some are responding quickly to mitigate the damage and support social infrastructure. Rick Frost is the CEO of the oldest and one of the largest community foundation in Canada, The Winnipeg Foundation. By March 9th, he had assessed the probable impact of COVID-19. Shortly afterward, he and his staff began to identify where some immediate grants could go. In the following interview, Rick Frost talks about what the process was like, the role he sees for the community foundation, and how we are going to come out the other side.
Gail: When was it that you initially thought there was going to be an issue with COVID-19?
Rick Frost: I was on vacation in Arizona, in late February, the first week of March. I had been listening to various reports about what was happening in China in January and then how the virus was spreading to Europe. So, I would say when I was on vacation the last couple of weeks in February and first week of March, it was certainly on my radar.
Gail: And were you thinking about it in terms of your work, how this was going to affect your grantees and so on?
Rick: My first thoughts were about how we would be able to stay operational if we did have to shift down. I wasn’t thinking of closing our offices but thought we would go into some sort of a rotational routine. Because I was out of town in the first week of March, I was corresponding with a couple of directors, senior staff and other people, talking about what staff were feeling. I don’t think it was until I got back around March 9, I realized how serious this was going to be.
Gail: Once you realized the seriousness of what was about to unfold, in that week of March 9th, what did you do then?
Rick: First of all, we looked at the idea that if we’re going to make some immediate grants, what were we going to focus on? I was fortunate enough during the first week I was back to spend two hours at the Main Street project, which is a downtown shelter for the homeless.
I knew then that we were going to focus on the most vulnerable. And our grants team immediately raised the whole question of food services and how we were going to work in that area. There are a lot of suitable breakfast programs and how could we help them shift to box lunches or whatever they might need.”
Operationally, we were still scheduling a full staff meeting on March 12th, but I had pretty much made up my mind that there was no way I was bringing our entire staff into one room. And, of course, I wanted to get a note to our board about what we were doing. We were realizing the seriousness of the situation.
Gail: Were you working with your management team through all of this? Was that the core team at the center of it all?
Rick: That’s right. We had a management meeting fortunately, scheduled for the Thursday after I got back. I’d been talking to all the managers individually. Then we had a management meeting on Thursday and basically decided what we were going to do.
Gail: What are you most concerned about right now with your grantees? What are you hearing from them in Winnipeg?
Rick: I think the biggest concern right now is how long this will last. How much damage will it do? How much capacity do organizations have to basically survive during this crisis period? I think that that’s what’s on everyone’s mind. It’s disruptive to everyone.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the arts sector or you’re an environmental organization. Everybody is completely disrupted. The world has changed. We are living in a historic moment. We’re going to learn a lot. We’re going to change a lot as a result of all of this. I think people are sort of walking into the fog together and wondering how we’ll come out of it.
Gail: The foundation has been very active on the grants front. I think last week you did 25 grants.
Rick: We did. And we just mentioned this morning on a radio show that we gave $100,000 to Kids Help Phone.
Gail: Why Kids Help Phone?
Rick: It’s one of those organizations that is going to be a lot of help to a lot of kids. We’re trying to be strategic and look at the right place to put dollars right now. Because the foundation works strategically, we are, by our very nature, more likely to look at the recovery phase, as much as the immediate response. We’ve got to address them both.
Gail: Community foundations are so uniquely situated to help in this particular kind of crisis because they understand the needs of their community so well. On the other hand, a lot of people see community foundations as a collection of restricted Donor Advised Funds and endowments, so perceive them as being unable to respond in a crisis. But, of course, most community foundations have funds that are discretionary or that are restricted internally. Is the Winnipeg Foundation using any of its discretionary assets to bring to bear on this particular situation?
Rick: Oh yes. We’ve done about half a million dollars’ worth of grants so far, half of that from donor advised funds and the other half from discretionary dollars. And as we go forward, with the appropriate authority and consent of our board, I’m absolutely confident that we will be directing a lot of discretionary dollars into this response.
Gail: Have you been in discussions with other community foundations?
Rick: I called the Vancouver Foundation right away to get a sense of what they were doing and saying. Kevin McCourt is the CEO out there. Because if you remember, around the 9th and 10th of March, they were getting hit faster than the rest of the country. Community Foundations Canada has been very good about trying to organize some group discussions and, of course, the emails are flying back and forth.
I think foundations are uniquely positioned. In some ways, our situation is unique because most of the gifts we received tend to be endowed gifts.
But this is clearly not an endowment situation. We have a lot of capacity to do certain types of things, but it does require something of a shift of philosophy to being in a flow-through business. We are not endowing money, right now, that’s for sure.”
Gail: You have said you are going to use discretionary assets in order to address this problem. I’m interested in seeing how that’s going pan out across the country.
Rick: At the Winnipeg Foundation, I work with a collection of endowments, donors set up these funds and there are conditions. As an example, if someone set up a scholarship fund, you can’t take the money from that scholarship fund and convert it into something else. But some foundations have more discretion than others. In our case, we’re pretty fortunate that we have quite a bit of discretionary dollars. In addition to that, we have long time relationships with our donor advisors. But, certainly, the Winnipeg Foundation will be using discretionary funds. We’ve moved 25 or 26 grants out the door already.
I think it’s important that people see the foundation taking direct, tangible action. We will be doing that.”
Gail: Have you received a report from your financial advisers yet about how much you may have lost in the stock market in the last couple of weeks?
I think that that’s pre-mature. But, basically, we’re just not that invested in the stock market. We’re holding real estate, mortgages, government bonds, and are pulling from all kinds of different things. What’s happening in the stock market is not necessarily a reflection of what’s happening to our assets. There’s no question that we’re going to see a significant hit. But I think you have to appreciate that this is an event, it’s not structural. It’s an event and we’re going to get through this event, and then we’re going to have to pick up the pieces.
We’re here for the long run. Our policies are built to average good years and bad years. We will carry on doing the job that we’ve always done.”
Gail: You must consider communications to the broader community an important part of what you do. What do you think is the foundation’s role in explaining what it does to its community?
Rick: My view is, in some ways, less is better. If you look at what we’ve said about COVID-19 for example, it’s in three sentences. Defining where we will act, and where we will act quickly, with agility and flexibility. I also want to send a message of stability. We’re trying to blend a combination of swift, tangible action on the one hand with a message of stability on the other. The foundation’s been here for 100 years, and we’ll be here for 100 years more. We will deal with this, and we’ll be as supportive of our community as we possibly can.
We have one hundred years of donors that have given us the capacity to do what we can do now. We’re remembering them too.