Philanthropy Roundtable Survey: Children’s Mental Health Funding in the Time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on our nation’s mental health, including a substantial impact on children and families. The pandemic has also caused increases in unemployment and financial pressures, and there have been questions about how philanthropic organizations might help alleviate the burdens this crisis has created. In an effort to better understand, inform, and support their members who give in this area, The Philanthropy Roundtable surveyed members who fund children’s mental health initiatives to determine if their plans for funding have changed, and if technical assistance is needed to meet their philanthropic goals and objectives.

The Roundtable partnered with The Hackett Center for Mental Health to develop, implement, and analyze a survey designed to obtain information about future giving. Here we present key findings and offer recommendations for next steps.

The survey was completed during August and September 2020 by respondents from 80 unique philanthropic organizations that were known to fund in the area of children’s mental health.

There was an incredibly high response rate of approximately 80% of those who were directly asked to participate, highlighting the importance of this issue. Responding organizations came from nearly half of the states across the country and annually fund children’s mental health initiatives at a range of levels from under $50,000 to more than $1 million dollars. We separate those funding amounts into three tiers: small, $100,000 or less (30% of our sample); medium, between $100,000 and $500,000 (32% of our sample); and large, $500,000 or more (38% of our sample). As shown in Figure 1, across all giving levels, 62% of respondents indicated that they planned to maintain current levels of funding, and 32% reported that they plan to increase funding.

Figure 1: Count of respondents who plan for their funding of children’s mental health to decrease, stay about the same, and increase going forward, separated into funding tiers.  

The responses reflect very real concerns about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s mental health. Figure 2 provides the five highest areas of concern: increased stress on families associated with children not being in school/returning to school; an increase in children with mental health needs; increased family stress due to parental stress and mental health needs; increased stress on families due to unemployment or changes in social supports; and greater severity of mental health needs among children.

Figure 2: Percentage of respondents identifying each topic as a children mental health concern. The five most common responses are shown. 

In response to these concerns, the respondents reported the intent to provide funding across a number of priority areas (See Figure 3). The top five were: implementation of evidence-based practices in schools, mental illness prevention services, mental health treatment services, community-based mental health evidence-based practices, and the implementation of integrated care (physical and mental health).

Figure 3: Percentage of respondents identifying each area as a funding priority in children’s mental health during the upcoming funding cycle. The five most common responses are shown. 

We were also interested in how funding organizations planned to engage with schools and asked respondents to report the type of schools they fund. Several respondents mentioned the importance of schools in mental health awareness and treatment and reported intentions to work with school systems to address children’s mental health needs. The majority of funders focused on K-12 public schools, and nearly half focused on early education or preschool, Title 1 schools and charter schools (See Figure 4). That focus, along with other mentions of social and emotional learning and school-wide systems of support, represent a promising direction for funders to positively impact the mental health needs of children across the country. 

Figure 4: Percentage of respondents who fund each category of school. 

Funders sent a similarly clear message when asked about the technical assistance support needs of their grantees. Four of the five most common responses identified evaluation and capacity for working with data as areas of need; especially true for large funders of children’s mental health projects. This common refrain likely reflects a growing understanding of the importance of rigorous evaluation efforts so that programs and projects achieve their maximum impact. Funders also reported a growing understanding of their own need for evaluation technical assistance to achieve more effective grantmaking.  

The Philanthropy Roundtable and The Hackett Center for Mental Health will continue to share these findings with the funding community and non-profit and governmental leaders. Educating and connecting these groups to facilitate collaboration will be a critical next step in addressing the complex factors associated with the impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health. We hope that such collaboration, along with a commitment to rigorous evaluation and the purposeful use of data, will lead to meaningful investments so that improvements in the mental health of children and families can be realized across the country.  

Patrick S. Tennant, Ph.D., LMFT, is a Project Manager at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Hackett Center for Mental Health. His work involves a variety of evaluation and analysis projects that focus on the collection and application of high-utility data.  

Gary M. Blau, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and serves as the Executive Director of The Hackett Center for Mental Health. Prior to that he was Chief of the Child, Adolescent and Family Branch for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) where he provided national leadership for child, adolescent and young adult mental health, and created “systems of care” across the United States. 

Anna Bobb is the Founder & Managing Partner of Vredeveld Strategies. Anna’s role centers on helping funders make strategic health care and mental health investments, and she has built high profile health, legislative, and industry coalitions and strategic initiatives for corporations, nonprofits, government leaders, and academic medical centers. 

This briefing first appeared at and