Coronavirus: How Can I Help?

You’re fortunate enough not to be sick right now. You have money, or you don’t. What can you do?

Our friend, who is an unemployed food stylist in New York, is making masks

We started looking into this because we saw a letter from President Jimmy Carter, who raises money and does a ton of good work around the world. But for now he’s asking his supporters to skip their next donation to his foundation and instead:

“Direct it to a local group that is reducing the suffering caused by this pandemic….Concentrate on the needs of your family, friends,neighbors, and all in your community. Your commitment will help stop this threat.

So where can we best contribute our time and money here, at home, in the U.S.?

We spent the last couple of days talking with and emailing friends or acquaintances who work in public health, or are diplomats, or legal scholars, or run charitable organizations.

And one thing kept ringing through. And it completely echoes President Carter’s message:

Help your neighbor.

With the virus moving all over the place in waves, grassroots ends up being incredibly crucial. A lot of times, like after a flood or hurricane, when people in specific places need big things like truckloads of bottles of drinkable water, or help relocating, big charities can come in and quickly make a huge difference. Because they already know how to do that.

For many charities, the Coronavirus landscape is something totally new. (It’s even changing the concept of volunteering, since you can’t really quickly amass a crowd of volunteers when they’re all being told to stay away from each other.) They want to compare it to Ebola or Hurricane Katrina. But it’s not comparable in terms of immediate needs, nor in magnitude. Charities want to have some idea of what probably works well before they start pouring buckets of money into it. But they don’t.

As one of our friends with years of experience making profound impacts on all kinds of world crises puts it:

It’s amazing how many large and important questions are not being answered.

That’s probably why the Red Cross’ first response seems so focused now on what they’re probably best known for doing: blood drives. There’s a critical need, and they have the equipment and people in place already to do that, and it’s what they do best. This infrastructure could also prove essential if therapies using antibody-rich plasma from people who’ve had the Coronavirus and recovered start becoming a major form of treatment.

Many charities that have worked on health crisis intervention overseas, have Information, Education and Communication and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programs ready to go. In fact, those programs and practices are already so well established, they have acronyms that are well-known in the field: “IEC” and “WASH.” Maybe they’re not 100% suited to the U.S. But why not roll them out here with whatever resources you got and then tweak as necessary?

Or take that knowledge and those programs and team up with Hollywood on a bunch of slick TV ads. And team up with TV station groups and major cable operators to make sure those ads are ubiquitous. (Especially at a time when we’re sure ad sales are down.) At least so people can start feeling like somebody’s got their backs.

A lot of us may be feeling like we’re on our own now, more than ever before. We were in Japan last year when the typhoon warning was raised to the highest possible level, and we were told by the Japanese government that we: “Must take measures to protect your own life”. Here, now too.

And that may be why, for the most part, so far, in this crisis, it seems the smaller and more targeted the effort the better. Especially if the response of little, individual, maybe not even official charities, can be nimble and laser-focused on a specific need. And most of that need didn’t exist (or was less visible) just a couple of weeks ago. Before the Coronavirus started wrecking everything in its path, both medically and economically.

And not have to worry about paying a year-round staff or maintaining an apparatus if that sudden need suddenly or gradually disappears. In fact, for many grassroots efforts in this time, we’d imagine going out of business because the disaster ends (and this will end!) will essentially be their goal. That’s when they can throw a party for all the people they’ve helped, and shut down. And then hopefully go back to their regular jobs.

At the same time we’re arguing big charities may be too big to react swiftly enough to the current crisis, several of the people we spoke with argue they’re also too small. How’s that?

Most simply, many charitable organizations are not big enough to meaningfully address a disaster of this magnitude. One person we spoke to gave us the example of the Ebola outbreak, which started in 2014 in West Africa, saying the large charitable organization Doctors Without Borders more-or-less ran the response at first; and while they were excellent at taking care of patients who had fallen ill, they didn’t have the resources to do all other kinds of capital intensive work such as massive construction of facilities, and huge stockpiling and distribution of equipment, as well as the outreach and public messaging required to really stop the spread. That multi pronged approach didn’t happen until the governments of the U.S. and France came in, with their far vaster resources.

Part of that also had to do with the fact that governments in Ebola outbreak countries were not fully functional, so couldn’t muster an effective and complete response until major industrialized countries got involved. Only then was Ebola virtually stopped in its tracks.

But the U.S. is a major industrialized country, so its government should be able to take care of its people without piecing together many little stopgaps provided by charities. Why do that limited work with limited funds, if the government can come in with almost unlimited funds (which we’ve seen are available based on the many economic interventions pushed through in the last few weeks) and do the whole job? The U.S. federal government should itself be big enough to really deliver on a major national response. It’s also their job: only the federal government has the spending power and other powers to ensure the public good. Especially now.

Because here’s the thing: almost across the board, the people we spoke to feel that the U.S. government is failing to provide anything close to sufficient or coherent leadership right now, partly because it’s been forced to spend so much of its time playing catch up on tests and masks and ventilators, and then working to distribute them efficiently against the backdrop of the President’s squabbles with Governors. So philanthropy and the private sector does–maybe unfortunately–seem to have a major role to play. Especially in areas where they can clearly, quickly make a difference and the government doesn’t seem to be able to.

Conversely, charities that receive large grants from foundations—often very big charities—are frequently very restricted in what they can do with the money they get, and are already very specialized. They are also often required to meet goals that prove they achieved what the donor of their original funding intended that money to do. And so they feel hamstrung now: even if they’d like to move resources somewhere else, they can’t. To that we say:

Do it anyway, move now, worry about that later, there’ll be a lot of room for forgiveness.”

But who are we to say that? And maybe that’s not a reality on the ground for them.

Here are a couple of suggestions we got from the “pros” on how big charities might best participate now and in the near future:

  • Set up, or work with public/private sector to make sanitizing stations mandatory at the entrance to every office building, supermarket, any public place.
  • Train volunteers, or recovered people, or people who might be out of work and willing to do it, on conducting COVID-19 tests, freeing up time for medical professionals to do other things. Right now, the issue seems to be a shortage of tests. But start training now, because lots of people are going to need to be tested every couple of weeks at least when tests do become widely available, and COVID-19 starts to subside. Also, home testing kits will likely be available at some point, and the urgency to deliver these to the people most at risk will be huge.
  • A less “extreme” version of this might be as more masks become available, and people may be mandated to wear them in public, create an army of volunteers or unemployed people to do contactless delivery of masks to people who can’t go out and get them, or it’s too high risk for them. Once supply catches up, demands for these services will be enormous.
  • Finding and transforming hotels, motels, workshare spaces, etc., into temporary treatment units. Find innovative solutions in areas where the government is falling short.

One person we emailed with, defined the most necessary areas of focus moving forward this way:

  • Hygiene Promotion
  • Information and Education
  • Encouraging Innovation

That may seem very broad. But that just depends on your focus. If you take each of those 3 things on their own, and think about what you might be able to accomplish in each of those categories, in your community, you’ll probably start coming up with a lot of ideas. Some of them may not be immediately doable because this is also a financial crisis. And also because it’s hard to run outside and just start volunteering when you’re being told to stay inside. But some may be. And this is where a lot of the most effective ideas are going to come from on ways to cope, and even prevail.

We also asked the people we spoke to for recommendations on where and how to donate. And we spent a good amount of time researching and reviewing those recommendations. We settled on furnishing what we think are a small group of very strong resources that deserve a look if you have a buck or two to donate (though some of these are very big, by no means is this list exhaustive, and there are plenty of other worthy places to devote your time and money):

  • The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has a COVID-19 response fund set up. It’s a very well run organization, and so on the ball. It is especially good if you want your donation to touch a multitude of bases. It will allocate to other groups it sees doing good things and unlike many clearing-house concept charities, it keeps very little money for itself. (We will donate any royalties we receive on this story to this organization.)
  •, which works to get protective gear to health care workers who need it, is an excellent example of a group that just decided to go out and do something. Now. Without worrying too much about technicalities or figuring they’ll figure that out later. They are able to accept tax-deductible donations by funneling them through an unrelated already-established charity, instead of filing for and waiting to get designation on their own. Interestingly, on their donation page, they make it very clear that none of the money will actually go to the charitable organization you are, on paper, donating to, only to them.
  •, which accepts donations itself, also has a list of various organizations that are involved in COVID-19 response in different, some very specific ways that you may feel more of an affinity for than just doing a blanket donation.
  • Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen does good work, and has a dual focus, both on finding employment for restaurant workers, and feeding people who are in need at this time. He’s launched COVID-19 related programs in New York, California, Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Spain, and the list is growing.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just in the last few days has set up a COVID-19 fund (in addition to committing $100-million dollars of their own money). And while it may feel silly to donate money to an organization run by somebody who has all the money in the world, in terms of knowledge about, and efficacy in fighting brutal diseases around the world, the Gates Foundation is without parallel.
  • As well as the folks we mentioned at the top of the story who are operating in smaller but significant ways: Alyssa Sarfity who’s in New York City making masks, and Common Table at Fox & Crow in Wellfleet, MA, which is providing and delivering lots of free food in an area with a huge senior population. Look for similar people/efforts in your neighborhood.
  • And please, be careful of fraudsters. At very least only donate through pages that link directly through your intended organization’s home page.

For now, the best advice we got and thus can give, is to keep your eyes open for needs that may come up in your specific community. Contribute where and how you’re comfortable, to the best of your ability. Let’s be safe out there, but that doesn’t have to cut into taking care of our people.