Over the last year, you probably heard about the work of some famous philanthropists—and for good reason: The Gates Foundation was instrumental in developing a vaccine to fight COVID-19; Jeff Bezos made the largest charitable gift of 2020, donating $10 billion to fight climate change; and former billionaire Chuck Feeney made headlines for giving away his entire fortune.
While these major gifts garnered press coverage, many family foundations across the United States were quietly distributing their wealth to support their local communities. Whether providing COVID-19 relief, supporting healthcare infrastructure, or helping students adjust to online learning, these foundations provided much-needed assistance during a difficult year. We’ve highlighted just three of them below:
Founded by businessman John F. Connelly and his wife, Josephine, the Connelly Foundation has been serving Philadelphians for more than 65 years. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation distributed more than $7 million in COVID-related grants and relief funds to local nonprofits last year. These grants included more than $2 million in emergency assistance to Catholic schools, a group hit especially hard by the pandemic.
The Connelly Foundation also donated $200,000 to Broad Street Ministry in order to deliver meals to the homeless, $100,000 to the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and PIDC Community Capital to support local cultural organizations, and $100,000 to the Philadelphia Foundation’s COVID-relief fund.
Even better, these donations were fast-moving and free of red tape. “These COVID grants did not require anyone to apply or jump through any bureaucratic hoops—the idea was to get cash to them as quickly as possible to help during the time of maximum need,” Connelly Foundation President Tom Riley explained.
Since its founding, the Connelly Foundation has donated more than $450 million to various nonprofits in the greater Philadelphia area with a strong emphasis on supporting Catholic education. Thanks to its support of Catholic schools during the pandemic, many were able to provide Chromebooks, scholarships, and other forms of support to deserving students—and those schools continue to keep their doors open.
COVID-19 may have stolen the healthcare headlines last year, but it wasn’t the only ailment in need of philanthropic help. Last year, the Marcus Foundation donated $80 million to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a hospital for patients suffering from brain or spinal cord injuries.
Shepherd Center CEO Sarah Morrison said the Marcus Foundation’s gift—the largest her organization has ever received—will allow the center to serve more people, improve patient experience, and provide even more advanced rehabilitation services for complex cases.
“Billi and Bernie believed in us from the beginning as we dreamed to do the impossible, establishing a specialized rehabilitation program following the catastrophic accident our son, James, experienced,” hospital co-founder Alana Shepherd explained.
More than a decade ago, Marcus also spurred the launch of a program to extend services to military veterans free of charge, which it is still able to do thanks to local philanthropists.
Bernie Marcus—the winner of The Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2012 William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership—launched the Marcus Foundation more than 30 years ago. Since then, it has primarily focused on health care and medical research, Jewish causes, free enterprise, and children and youth development.
Walton Family Foundation
While most schools across the United States shifted to online learning last year, many students were left in the dust. Teachers had little know-how and too few resources to provide effective remote education. That’s why the Walton Family Foundation, which has been funding education initiatives for more than 30 years, stepped in.
In partnership with the Charles Koch Institute, Walton created the VELA Education Fund, a financial resource for parents looking for new and innovative ways to school their children. While traditional schools struggled, many parents found viable alternatives in “micro-schooling” or “homeschool pods.” Launched with $5 million, VELA has directed funds toward an Atlanta homeschool co-op, a Baltimore STEM program, a literacy program for preschoolers, and hundreds of other successful educational initiatives.
The Walton Foundation was founded by Sam and Helen Walton, who had a particular passion for supporting K-12 education and developing their home region—Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. It awarded more than $525 million in grants in 2019, with more than a third of those grants going to K-12 education. Last year, in addition to VELA, Walton provided financial support to online learning resources such as Khan Academy, Wide Open School, and Zearn. It even partnered with PNC Bank to provide $100 million in loans to public charter schools, which have been some of the most successful educators during the pandemic.