News last week that Donor-advised Funds (DAFs) saw a surge in March disbursements (up to 120 percent) in response to COVID-19 is just one indicator of an edge that individual donors, typical DAF holders, possess in the face of this crisis: they can increase philanthropic giving fast, without constraints of endowment payouts and trustee votes.

But it’s not the individual donor’s only edge. As valuable as cash can be, connections – to other donors, innovators, and professionals who can help plan contingencies and more - are also hugely valuable. Fidelity Charitable finds its DAF holders often engage directly with the causes they support as volunteers, board members, or social media promoters and as such have a strong basis for connecting their causes to natural allies.

Three effective individual donor strategies that are making use of both fast cash and connections amid these health and economic crises are 1) co-investing to crack COVID 2) investing in community supports for the most vulnerable and 3) supplying emergency cash to low-income wage earners.

Cracking COVID: Philanthropist Bill Gates, who made a study of epidemic preparedness on the heels of the Ebola outbreak, is calling for investments in COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccine development. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced this week that it will increase its commitment to $250 million, and individual donors can co-invest via giving to Gates Philanthropy Partners – a public charity that invests in the same areas as the foundation.  In an webinar last week, GPP official Jen Alcorn reported donations so far from 10 dollars to $25 million. Meanwhile, DAF provider Schwab Charitable lists organizations on its site that the Center for Disaster Philanthropy has identified as responders to the global pandemic. In a Chronicle of Philanthropy interview last week, Schwab officials said account holder dollars to those organizations grew nearly 450 percent.

At the same time, connecting philanthropy and researchers directly to the best ideas around the world for addressing COVID-19 is critical. Government agencies should be communicating, but individuals can speed the process. As a native of Vancouver, B.C., this week I had a chance to play connector to U.S. interests for a Canadian solution on the treatment side, the COVID-19 Supplier Hub, which is ensuring hospitals have the supplies they need, when they need them to treat coronavirus patients. Any individual close to cutting edge solutions in their city, state, or country has an opportunity to spread the word and rally investors and implementers.

Community Supports to Relieve Suffering: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s $1 billion stock pledge last week to his DAF-housed charity, Start Small, to fund nonprofits helping with COVID relief, may be the most visible individual gift to community supports. But, it joins a surge of individual giving to Community Foundation (CF) COVID-19 Response Funds, which now number about 400 across the U.S. The pandemic and its effect on the economy have positioned many CF’s as a hub of expertise in local, dire need and the organizations best positioned to respond, e.g.’s homeless or domestic violence shelters, food banks or health clinics. This expertise is giving Community Foundation’s own DAF holders reason to write bigger checks and incentive for all to consider giving through their local CF.

Meanwhile, individuals can leverage personal and business connections to weave public-private partnerships and build bridges between sectors. For example, with school closings in Washington, this month Seattle family philanthropies combined forces with leaders of nonprofits and government to create a fund to provide support for the state’s up to 50,000 homeless youth for whom schools had been their lifeline to critical services, meals, housing, and safety.

Directly Aiding Low-Income Wage Earners: The pandemic has created a world of risk for low-income wage earners experiencing layoffs, furloughs and lacking sick leave. This differentially impacts African Americans, overrepresented in ten of the lowest-paid, essential services that risk contagion (e.g. nurse assistants and orderlies). Many are one missed rent or medical bill away from homelessness.

This week, Blue Meridian Partners, a philanthropic investment platform committed to economic mobility, announced a COVID-19 emergency response fund and five grant recipients, well-positioned to give direct-cash assistance to those at risk of falling through the cracks, (Family Independence Initiative, GiveDirectly, National Domestic Workers Alliance, One Fair Wage, and The Workers Lab). Individual donors can follow their lead (with more BMP-vetted organizations to be announced within two weeks) and use social media connections to draw other donors to join them.

Despite philanthropic aspirations, stock market gains of the past 10 years have left masses of individual wealth sitting on the sidelines. Today, cracking COVID-19 and easing the suffering it’s caused is challenging donors to double down, strategically. But that’s only the short game. Looking ahead, DAF holders and other individuals with cash and connections will have an edge, through all they learn in the current crisis, to address inequities for the long run.


By Katie Smith Milway, a columnist for Giving Compass, principal of philanthropy and nonprofit advisor Milway Consulting, and former head of the Knowledge Practice at The Bridgespan Group. Follow her @KatieSMilway.