speaks: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, non-profit organizations have undergone significant changes to adapt to the crisis. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spokeswomen Amy Enright joined me for a Q&A to discuss the profound impact philanthropic and non-profit organizations are having in the current moment — and how the current moment is having a profound impact on them.

Anton Shenk
9 min readJun 3, 2021

Editors Note: The following interview was conducted on August 11th, 2020 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Anton Shenk (AS): To begin and contextualize our conversation, can you begin by describing the role that philanthropy and non-profit organizations have come to fill in society, domestically and globally? In recent years, have other segments of society — like governments — stepped up or stepped back in providing services we might traditionally assign to non-profits?

Amy Enright (AE): The comparative advantage of philanthropy is that it can take risks that governments can’t, and the private sector won’t. Philanthropy can catalyze new ideas and innovation with the potential to save lives, helping create successful initiatives that governments and industry can take forward at scale. But philanthropy doesn’t supplant the public and private sectors, it supports them.

“The comparative advantage of philanthropy is that it can take risks that governments can’t, and the private sector won’t.”

AS: I think we’d agree that the health and economic crisis taking place right now on a global scale is unlike anything nonprofits have experienced. Can you provide some perspective from past crises: perhaps like the 2008 financial crisis or the 2014 Ebola crisis? In what ways is the current pandemic similar to other past crises, and what makes it unique?

AE: The West Africa Ebola outbreak of 2014–2015 was somewhat of a wake-up call that the world was not ready for a global pandemic — and we learned a lot from that experience that informs much of our work in the face of COVID-19. For example, we know that when pandemics surge in low- and middle-income countries, health systems quickly get overwhelmed, and the delivery of essential, life-saving health services shuts down. During the Ebola outbreak, the number of women who died in childbirth far exceeded those who died from Ebola, because of women’s inability to access assisted delivery during the crisis. The number of children who died from measles and malaria far exceeded those who died from Ebola because of the temporary breakdown in routine immunization services and access to essential medicines. We knew this would likely be the case with COVID-19, so we made sure that our resources were supporting low- and middle-income countries to prepare for a surge in cases — and help ensure the continuation of essential health services.

June 2020 marked the official end of the 2018 outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

We also learned the importance of building coalitions that can develop safe, effective vaccines and treatments, get them approved, and deliver billions of doses within a few months after the discovery of a new pathogen. This was why we were the founding funders of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in 2017 and the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator in March. Both collaborations have helped accelerate research and development into new tools against COVID-19. After these new innovations are developed and approved, partners like Gavi, UNICEF and the Global Fund, which have a strong history of procuring and delivering health products to low- and middle-income countries, will be crucial to getting these tools to the hardest to reach places.

One thing that is unique about this crisis compared to the Ebola outbreak is that wealthier countries are being hit just as hard — and in some cases, harder — than low- and middle-income countries. This has created its own challenges as countries struggle to manage the crisis within their own countries — but it has also resulted in tremendous generosity and solidarity from governments. Because we know that pandemics do not respect borders — and a health threat anywhere can quickly become a health threat everywhere.

AS: Has the Gates Foundation had to pivot its work at all to areas of impact it may have never done before? If so, how has that pivot been? If not, why do you feel the work you were doing prior to the crisis adequately addresses the challenges COVID-19 presents?

AE: We remain committed to our core areas of focus including reducing infectious disease, eliminating extreme poverty, and improving U.S. public education. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all areas of our work and the ripple effects will be felt for years to come. We’ve announced more than $350 million in funding to date for the pandemic and are increasingly focusing the expertise of our staff and leveraging our partnerships toward the urgent efforts needed to end this pandemic. These are unprecedented times, but our belief that all lives have equal value and our commitment to addressing inequities across all of our work remains more critical than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also affecting programs that wouldn’t be immediately obvious. For example, it has exacerbated food insecurity — an issue our agriculture team works on — in some rural communities as people flee crowded cities. In our US education work, school leaders need support adjusting to an entirely different teaching environment, and some of the other work we were doing with them has had to be adjusted as they focus on those immediate challenges. All of our foundation teams are having to adapt their work in one way or another to ensure the pandemic doesn’t reverse important progress made over the past 20 years.

“All of our foundation teams are having to adapt their work in one way or another to ensure the pandemic doesn’t reverse important progress made over the past 20 years.”

AS: And as for the work your organization and others you support have been able to do, could you tell us how you have been measuring the impact your work has had on the COVID-19 crisis? Particularly when the crisis is moving so quickly and constantly evolving.

AE: Our greatest measure of success is lives saved. For example, since 2000, the number of children who die before the age of five has fallen by nearly half, even as the population has gone up by approximately 25 percent. Many of our foundation’s partners have helped contribute to this. Gavi has immunized more than 760 million children since 2000. The Global Fund, which helps countries tackle HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, has saved more than 30 million lives since 2002. While it’s too soon to see the impact of our COVID-19 response, we are encouraged by early examples of progress. At the start of the year, for instance, only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa had the ability to test for COVID-19. But in early February, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started training health workers and lab technicians for how to test for the virus. We were proud to support that work, and now 40 of 54 African countries have the capacity to analyze COVID tests.

AS: Now to touch more on how specific subsets of the non-profit space have been impacted dramatically differently, we’ll begin with the very first image many have in their mind of a non-profit: organizations supporting those on the lowest rung of the social ladder (ex. food banks, clinics, and shelters). Though these, surprisingly, only represent a small piece of the $2 trillion charitable nonprofits spend each year, could you tell us more about the impact COVID-19 is having on that subset of nonprofits?

AE: Many nonprofits are facing the tremendous pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent analysis from Candid found that nearly 40% of U.S. nonprofits are at risk of permanently closing.

“Nearly 40% of U.S. nonprofits are at risk of permanently closing.”

We’ve been really impressed with the speed and flexibility with which these front-line organizations have responded to this crisis, especially since they are addressing some of the deep societal cracks that have been laid bare by the pandemic. In March, we funded a few local funds and homeless service providers in the Greater Seattle area. The goal was to help people who are feeling the effects of this pandemic disproportionately- immigrants, refugees, people experiencing homelessness, and families who may have gone from low-income to no-income because of social restrictions and closures. You can read more about this work — and the effect of the pandemic on social service organizations — in this piece written by Amy Carter, our Director of Community Engagement.

Many non-profits are seeing huge demand for their services right now, but they are in crisis mode, struggling to meet people’s needs while protecting their own staff, raising money, and moving their operations online. The foundation recently helped create and launch PowerOf.org, a website where anyone can find vetted local opportunities to support nonprofits combating the impacts of COVID-19 in areas including health and education. PowerOf also elevates those non-profits and gives them a new way to connect with potential volunteers and donors.

The Gates Foundation has also provided over $10 million in grants to bolster the administration of more than 700 coronavirus emergency funds, as well as to fund nonprofit advocacy work related to the pandemic. The largest is a $9.1 million grant to United Philanthropy Forum, which will distribute $8.5 million of that to nonprofits managing emergency funds across the country. You can read more about this work in this piece written by Caira Woods, a Senior Program Officer at the Gates Foundation.

AS: Next, some components of education — including much of higher education — operate on a non-profit basis. Could you tell us how COVID-19 has impacted educational initiatives, and the challenges which might be ahead and not getting much attention with just a few weeks between now and schools reopening in the United States?

In a viral photo posted on Twitter, students crowd a hallway at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga. The school now has at least nine coronavirus cases and has reignited dialogue on what US schools could look like in the fall (Twitter via AP)

AE: Schools are having to adjust to an entirely different teaching environment and the pandemic is having an especially devastating effect on communities of color and students experiencing poverty. Early in the pandemic, through our U.S. Program, we moved $4 million in our K-12 and Post-secondary strategies to support emergency aid efforts. We also supported states as they expanded K-12 online learning, coordinated meals and other support for students, and advocated for greater flexibility in federal funds to meet emerging priorities. We funded emergency aid to post-secondary institutions to help lessen the financial shock felt disproportionately by low-income students due to lost housing, food and wages.

The biggest challenge that communities are facing now is decisions about whether and how to safely reopen schools. We, along with other funders, supported the creation of school reopening guidance, led by some of the nation’s topic experts, to help district and state leaders as they make decisions about how to reopen their schools safely. We also funded the development of actionable guidance for school and system leaders around social-emotional learning, CASEL’s SEL Roadmap for Reopening School. Ultimately, we believe the decisions about reopening schools should be made by local leaders in partnership with parents, teachers and community members, and in accordance with guidance from public health and safety experts.

The foundation’s U.S. Program is focused on the needs of our education system, both within the context of COVID-19 and as we plan for recovery. We, and other philanthropies, can’t make up the gaps in state education budgets caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. What we can do is support states and districts to improve teaching and learning in whichever format it occurs: online, in-person, or a hybrid approach. Every student in the U.S. deserves the opportunity to learn, grow, and get ahead — this is our core belief, especially in these unprecedented times.

AS: In closing, what advice might you give to donors or others looking to mitigate the impacts of this crisis on the non-profit sector to maximize their impact during this crisis?

AE: There is still a long, arduous road ahead in the battle against COVID-19. We encourage those who can join the fight to do so — by, for example, supporting non-profits doing critical work or — for organizations with greater resources — collaborations like the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator or the ACT Accelerator. Once the crisis passes, we urge organizations, foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals to think about ways to reduce inequality at home and abroad.



Anton Shenk

Anton Shenk is a researcher and social entrepreneur. AntonShenk.com is the home of his writing and work.