It's safe to say that no person or organization is having the 2020 they expected. At the Tinker Foundation, the pandemic has caused us to shift course significantly as Latin America, the region central to our mission, struggles with a once-in-a-century health, economic, and social crisis. And while our home base is New York City, we are challenging ourselves to put our assets to work for the organizations and communities at the epicenter of the pandemic there.
Like many other foundations, when the coronavirus emerged we reached out to our current grantees to offer support. At that point, in mid-March, we questioned whether it might seem "U.S.-centric" to send a communication about a virus that had not yet reached large swaths of the hemisphere. In retrospect, that concern seems quaint. By mid-May, a New York Times headline, "Latin America's Outbreak Rivals Europe's. But Its Options Are Worse," was sounding the alarm. As of this writing, the region leads the world in deaths from COVID-19.
As we talked with our grantees, we noted how quickly many were mobilizing amid the uncertainty (and despite, in some countries, official denials that the virus was a problem). One grantee, the Argentine fact-checking and investigative journalism organization Chequeado, repurposed travel funds from a grant to prototype a website dedicated to combating misinformation about the virus. Within weeks, they had secured additional funding and launched a regional effort with more than twenty other organizations.
Within Tinker, we recognized the need to begin taking action — just as our grantees had — while at the same time laying the groundwork for more substantive grantmaking. We started small, reallocating funds from other budget lines to support rapid-response grantmaking. These early grants prioritized the immediate needs of vulnerable populations, including the millions of Venezuelan migrants and refugees unable to work as stay-at-home orders rolled out across Latin America. Two small grants to Tinker grantee partners in Central America focused on vulnerable children affected by school closures. Another sought to support civil society organizations working to shift strategies in response to the crisis.
As we began making plans for the remainder of the year, the scale of the COVID catastrophe in Latin America became clearer. Ecuador experienced a devastating early wave of infections that collapsed the health system in Guayaquil, its largest city. Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru all appeared in the list of seven countries with the highest incidence of COVID. A virus first introduced to Latin America by international travelers returning home from abroad was now tightening its grip on vulnerable populations across the region, from residents of crowded informal settlements, to migrants and refugees, to Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities.
As a midsize foundation, we knew we had to make the most of our grantmaking resources. But we had other important assets we could draw on, too, including longstanding relationships and networks, operational flexibility, and an engaged board willing to operate differently in response to a crisis. In addition to maintaining some longer-term grantmaking across our program areas, we decided it made sense to identify one COVID-related priority to focus on in the remainder of the year and give it our all.
Discussions with grantees, staff, experts, and board members all pointed to the impact of the pandemic on education, an existing Tinker program area. We learned, for instance, that by June, 95 percent of students in the region were out of school. As in other parts of the world, ministries of education, administrators, and teachers had quickly shifted gears — introducing online instruction strategies meant to replace classroom instruction. And yet past crises suggested that students would incur significant learning losses, and that many would not return to school at all, with the impacts likely greatest among students who had faced barriers to equitable education pre-pandemic.
In late June, Tinker launched a $500,000 funding initiative to help address the specific educational challenges generated by the pandemic. Over the coming months, we will partner with Latin America-based civil society organizations working to address the near-term effects of school closures. Many of these organizations have already hit the ground running, using their own resources to fill gaps, pilot innovative approaches, and support teachers and students. Additional funding can enable further experimentation and help consolidate and scale what is already working. Critically, the initiative will seek to complement and build on the priorities and initiatives of public education systems in the region.
The enormous response to our initiative highlights the urgent need for more funding for education as the virus continues to upend systems and the status quo. We received more than five hundred letters of inquiry, approximately five times what a typical call for applications from our Education program attracts. Following a review of a subset of full proposals, we will announce grants in September.
The applications we've received speak to the predictable but profound challenges of ensuring equitable access to education in a pandemic context — particularly in rural and low-income urban areas where students have limited access to the Internet or Internet-enabled devices. The proposed projects also demonstrate the resilience and creativity of schools, teachers, and civil society organizations, all of whom are imagining new ways to reach and engage students, as well as reinvigorating older tools like community radio. A number of applications call for investment in social-emotional learning and other efforts to address the trauma occasioned by the pandemic as a critical enabler of continued learning.
Following this round of special grants, we will work closely with our partner organizations to learn from their work and identify broader areas for research and innovation, larger-scale funding, and policy change. As a foundation that works across Latin America, we also hope to connect and convene local actors that share a commitment to protecting access to education throughout the crisis.
COVID-19 has created profound challenges across many domains — all of them competing for policy makers' and the public's attention. But when we look back on this challenging time, it may well be disruption to education that casts the longest shadow over Latin America. If millions of students fall behind or become permanently disconnected from school, the impact could last at least a generation. At Tinker, we will continue to support those in Latin America who are imagining and taking action to ensure a better future for the region's children and young people.
Caroline Kronley is president of the New York City-based Tinker Foundation. Prior to joining the foundation, she worked as managing director for strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation, leading the development of new programmatic initiatives, and before that she was a management consultant at Katzenbach Partners and at Booz & Company, where she served a broad range of clients on strategy and organizational performance.