News & Politics

Heroes of the Crisis: A Fund That Helps Struggling Arts Groups

Tonia Wellons of the Greater Washington Community Foundation is just trying to keep up.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins

This article is part of Washingtonian‘s feature “Heroes of the Crisis.” From medical professionals to social-justice activists to culinary stars, here are some of the people who have helped get us through these most challenging of times. Read about the 15 people making a difference during the pandemic here.

Tonia Wellons
President and CEO, Greater Washington Community Foundation

How she’s helping: 

Wellons’s organization helps match donors with nonprofits, serving as a conduit for more than $1.3 billion in donations since it began in 1973. When the pandemic hit, the foundation launched the Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund, which is helping nonprofits navigate the crisis by providing investments to pandemic-specific areas of need, such as digital-learning gaps, housing instability, and mental health. In July, the group helped launch the Arts Forward Fund. The $1-million initiative, backed by the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and other groups, will provide grants to arts-and-culture organizations struggling during the pandemic.

Toughest challenge: 

“Keeping up with the volume,” says Wellons. During a typical quarter, the group sees 250 applications for funding. The first three months of the pandemic yielded 1,600.

Biggest win: 

“Building trust very quickly. Trust with other members of the philanthropic community, trust with nonprofits that we would do our best to support them, and trust with the community by making sure our strategy was multipronged and responded to the most urgent needs of people being most impacted.”

Hardest moment: 

“Watching the tragic and preventable death of George Floyd in the middle of all of this.”

How she unwinds: 

Early in the crisis, she didn’t. “I’m doing better now. I’m part of a group chat where my girlfriends and I are devoted to exercising at least one hour a day. We hold each other accountable to that.”

Who’s inspiring her: 

Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation for his work on equity and justice and author Ibram X. Kendi for his influential ideas about antiracism. “There are so many amazing thinkers and writers and philanthropists who are thinking hard and deep about how we work toward justice and—as a society, with all these disruptions—put things back together in a much better way than we once knew it.”

This article appears in the October 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.