As the sun set on a year that has inspired a whole new set of phrases for describing horrible events (“a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck” being my personal favorite), I made a point to avoid the negative and reflect on the good things I saw happening in the philanthropic and social impact space in 2020.
Here are a few that I hope we learn from and take with us into 2021 and beyond.
1) We began real conversations about systems change. The pandemic and the murder of George Floyd and other African Americans put a spotlight on the vast inequities that exist in our society. Philanthropic institutions and corporations can no longer shy away from conversations about the roles they have played in perpetuating those inequities and what they now must do to eliminate them. The conversations are just beginning, and there is much work to be done, but the fact that numerous mainstream funders and companies are engaging in this dialogue gives me hope that we will see collaborative efforts to change broken systems and address the root causes of our biggest social challenges.
2) We collaborated across sectors and industries. The pandemic’s devastating economic impact created needs far beyond what our “normal” methods of response could handle. The public, private and nonprofit sectors found creative ways to collaborate to leverage and mobilize resources more quickly, efficiently and effectively. From utilizing CARES Act funding to hire unemployed restaurant workers to prepare meals in closed restaurant spaces with food bought from local farmers and then delivered to seniors by corporate volunteers, to competing health care companies offering joint pop-up clinics to ensure all patients could safely access life-saving treatment during COVID 19, to offering displaced workers AmeriCorps positions to assist with contact tracing and environmental conservation on public lands, the focus was on utilizing strengths to make a collective impact. Let’s continue this trend and make collaboration our go-to strategy for social impact in non-crisis situations as well.
3) We (the people) took action. Whether it was virtual, by mail or masked-up and in-person, we saw tremendous levels of individual activism. Protesting racial injustice, advocating for climate change, turning out to vote in record numbers, promoting small businesses, promoting BIPOC-led organizations and BIPOC-owned businesses, the list goes on. People are using their voices and new methods of activism to influence change in communities, in government and public institutions, and within companies and industries. I hope this level of activism continues and that 2021 is the year when organizations truly listen and engage with stakeholders to create equitable positive impact.
4) We eliminated (some of) the bureaucracy in philanthropy. The urgent needs created by the pandemic led most funders to streamline or eliminate application procedures, to provide unrestricted funding, and to fast-track getting contributions approved and out the door. These are practices that nonprofit leaders have been requesting for years. If we can be effective without these cumbersome steps during the time of greatest need, why can’t we operate this way all the time? Nonprofits are constantly berated for high overhead costs and being inefficient. Yet, funders consistently require them to spend a significant amount of time on unnecessary bureaucratic and administrative requirements that take them away from work that makes an impact. A lot has already been written about Mackenzie Scott’s $4 billion in gifts made in four months. Let’s hope other philanthropists follow her lead and identify organizations that are making a significant impact that aligns with their values, provide them with significant unrestricted dollars, and then get out of their way so the real work can get done.
Shanda Vangas is the Founder & Principal of Fourth Wave Strategies, LLC, a corporate responsibility and social impact consulting firm that advises purpose-driven businesses and nonprofit organizations on strategy, communications and execution to maximize their impact and grow their businesses.