By the numbers: How philanthropy responded during the Great Recession

Written by: Ryan Schlegel

Date: March 13, 2020

Editor’s note: The charts and graphs in this post are best viewed on a computer or tablet.

With nonprofits feeling the financial impact of the current coronavirus outbreak, many leaders are wondering how the philanthropic sector will help grantees manage the current crisis.

If the past is any indication, foundations must begin talking about how they’ll fund new and existing grantees if they are to improve upon the level of support that they gave during the most recent economic downturn known as the Great Recession.

Use the drop down to see how your favorite funder performed.

A rough start, especially for overall giving

An NCRP analysis of Candid foundation data of domestic giving behavior from 2007-17 reveals that overall sector funding dipped as much as 10.5% at the height of the Great Recession. In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that levels matched 2007 giving levels.


While some foundations’ giving plummeted, some grantmakers like The Susan Thomson Buffet Foundation (85%), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (51%), the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (26%) and the Walton Family Foundation (22%) increased their giving that year.



On the whole, social justice groups saw an initial increase of 16.5% in 2008, before experiencing an 8.8% drop in 2009. Groups began to recover in 2010, slowly increasing their donations through the rest of the decade. Once again, The Susan Thompson Buffet Foundation was a strong contributor in 2008 and 2009, as were The California Endowment and the Carnegie Foundation, helping to solidify that space for communities.



However, a deeper look into these social justice numbers and giving to people of color and the poor reveals some differences in support between the types of funders.

TYPE COMPARISON – For social justice groups and groups of color

From 2008-10, corporations (and to a lesser degree, independent donors) were mostly able to insulate their social justice giving from funding cuts. Community foundations, on the other hand, cut their social justice giving more than they cut overall giving.


In the worst year of the Great Recession, 2009, independent donors insulated their giving for communities of color from grants budget cuts, while corporate and community foundations cut their grants to communities of color more than their overall grant cuts.

One thing all grantmaker types did was keep their overall spending cuts from negatively impacting grantmaking to people. While community foundation giving to poor people dipped 2.2% in 2009, it was sandwiched by increases of 31.2% and 36.5% in 2008 and 2010 respectively.

Here are the trends highlighted another way – as a percentage of total giving changed compared to the 2007 baseline.

General support comparison

As many in the sector know, general support dollars are incredibly helpful in helping nonprofits stay afloat. So how did foundation giving as general support fare? Well, that depends.

During the Great Recession, independent and corporate funders gave general support less often when they were giving to benefit poor people, people of color or social justice. As the graphs below indicate, their general support giving for those vulnerable populations and causes *diverged* from overall general operating support during the recession.

The interactive graphic below allows us to visualize the change in the percentage of funding given as a general support during the Great Recession (with 2007 as the baseline) for specific regions and specific types of funders. Adjust the filter and the top 10 funders by total giving for your selected criteria.


The difficult but morally clear road ahead

The mission before us is clear. Just because some groups and movements survived past cutbacks doesn’t mean they will this time. Responsible CEOs and trustees must begin planning for an increase in funding, instead of passing on the economic shock of the crisis to grantees. They should resist the sector’s ephemeral notion of preserving perpetuity and prioritize the real, immediate needs of their grantees and the communities they serve.

We shouldn’t need too many numbers to see that the current COVID-19 crisis is seeding an economic depression that could be an extinction event for many organizations. Let’s buck up, break the emergency glass and roll up our sleeves to do tough job that lies ahead.

Ryan Schlegel is NCRP’s Director of Research. Follow @r_j_schlegel and @NCRP on Twitter.