The COVID-19 pandemic took us all by surprise and changed how we interact, engage, and move through the world. We went into survival mode in a way that we’ve only seen in movies. Relationships became even more precious as we shrunk our universe of interactions down to very small pods of people. Who knew I’d ever consider my parents and my children my pod? Despite all the tumult, there are a few important lessons we’ve learned that I hope never go “back to normal”.
The pandemic forced us all to adapt and create systems to interact remotely. I am proud that the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation quickly jumped into action and allocated more than $2,500,000 in support for our partners and grantees in the SCI community. We trusted that our colleagues with “boots on the ground” knew how to best meet the immediate needs of their communities. To provide the resources they needed to respond, we built a funding process that was as simple and immediate as possible. Taking what we heard from our partners to heart, we focused on providing the SCI community with basic necessities; and, as the months went on, we prioritized solutions addressing isolation and mental health. To make remote engagement possible, we supported the purchase of basic equipment, the transition to virtual programming and peer-support, offset costs to build up Wi-Fi capability, provided adaptive devices, and even underwrote the cost of Zoom accounts. These grants, which the Foundation had limited in the past, became a necessity.
With our partners in research, our immediate response was to continue supporting investigators in whom we had already invested, even as they were barred from entering their laboratories. As shutdowns dragged on, we recognized that adding time to these grants would not be sufficient. We heard concerns about how labs would keep their staff members employed if there wasn’t additional funding. What would happen to the studies suddenly forced to shut down mid-stream? How could we support the field as weeks off campus turned into months? To help ensure researchers had the capacity to complete their projects, and to highlight the importance of SCI research, our Board of Directors generously approved up to $6,000,000 in support through supplemental funding to active Neilsen Foundation grants. The strong partnerships and trusted relationships that we built with our grantees became very apparent throughout this process. Staff was heartened to see researchers ask only for what was needed rather than every dollar that was available.
As we move forward, we should use the knowledge we’ve gained to shift our collective mindset. I hope that employers see that working remotely is not only possible, but sometimes more efficient, and that it provides additional employment opportunities for people living with spinal cord injury. I hope that universities, our partners in research, see their spinal cord injury laboratories as institutional priorities and that they ensure continued support for those labs. And, I hope that the concepts of Trust-Based Philanthropy are embedded ever more deeply into our culture, with the understanding that we can best meet our goals when we build trust with one another.
No one will come through this pandemic unscathed. Our mental health has been shaken, trust in science questioned, and we have seen those we love impacted in unimaginable ways. But I am an optimist, and I believe that we will use these hard-earned lessons to strive to do more, to do better, and to remember that being willing to change “business as usual” might just make us stronger.
Craig H. Neilsen Foundation