Ringing in 2021 certainly wasn’t the same experience as other New Years Eves. And even as we navigate tough times that feel almost endless, it's still important to think ahead learn what we can from times past, and plan for something better as we move forward.

From our perspective at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP), the need for preparedness and planning is probably one of the biggest lessons that came out of 2020. The world was unprepared for something we’d been warned about, and collectively, the entire planet has paid a heavy price.

From a philanthropic perspective, in studying the way in which the pandemic unfolded, there were invaluable lessons learned and examples of strategic philanthropy that should guide future philanthropic endeavors. After all, two things are abundantly clear: First, there’s still much to do to navigate the next stage of this pandemic. Secondly, philanthropy can help ensure that the world is better prepared when the next threat hits.

Where do we begin our analysis, and our recommendations? This year’s Inside Philanthropy’s IPPY awards are a good start. This yearly reflection highlighted not only the donors who are leading the way to better philanthropic practices — it also points out the trends to watch. These are trends we’ve been watching too. As we at CSP begin the new year, here’s what we want to see more of.

  1. Unrestricted funding for nonprofit partners. Nonprofits were on the front lines of the pandemic from the start, stepping up to bolster communities by providing food, tools to improve financial security, technical support such as laptops and broadband access so students could learn and access to telehealth, and so much more. In the sciences, nonprofits funded research to keep labs open and researchers employed so that progress could continue. Nonprofits have been asking for flexibility in funding for years. Donors heeded the call in 2020, and we hope they continue to fund in this way.
  2. Strategic spending of funds held in Donor-advised Funds (DAFs). As Inside Philanthropy notes, DAFs have been under criticism for quite some time. We at the Milken Institute have also consistently called on donors to unlock these funds and put them to work. Good philanthropy is more than writing checks, however, and with a little support, donors can ensure their DAF funds are working toward an intentional purpose.
  3. Diversity in the philanthropic sector, and the causes philanthropy supports. At long last, the call for racial equity in the United States and around the world, has become too loud to ignore. Philanthropy must strive for diversity in our own sector, and ensure the causes being supported create equity and justice for those who have been denied both for far too long.
  4. Transparent collaboration with peers and other sectors. The speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were developed took a multi-sectoral, transparent way of working that should be applied to other sectors and causes. The desire for philanthropic collaboration reached new heights — so much so that more donors are innovating and finding ways to collaborate with other sectors like never before. There were a number of tools to enhance collaboration launched in 2020 — and we hope donors take advantage of them.
  5. Investments that enhance philanthropy’s vision. Donors and nonprofit advocates are calling for greater attention to ensure that entire investment portfolios are working toward a greater good. This is especially true for environmental philanthropy. There isn’t enough philanthropic capital to reverse the degradation of the planet. Donors must take a hard look at how all of their capital is being invested, and be sure their financial investments are not undermining the work of their philanthropic ones.

Better days and brighter times are ahead. We’re living in a time of heightened awareness about the challenge before us. Everyone, and the planet we live on, are in an ideal position to benefit from the prosperity that lies ahead. And philanthropy can lead the way there.