Key Points

Public and private systems worldwide have been disrupted by COVID-19, cutting across all types of philanthropic priorities. Amid this uncertainty, some philanthropic strategies have struggled to find their footing while others have adapted easily, harnessing previously unanticipated opportunities to achieve change. Why have some philanthropic strategies been more successful than others? What wisdom can we draw from this moment that can help us prepare for the future?

During times of crisis, the concept of resilience is frequently applied to nonprofit organizations and their leaders. This article flips the vantage point toward funders, proposing a theory to explain what makes some philanthropic strategies more durable than others in the face of disruptions. Drawing on case examples across diverse settings, literature on resilience, and the authors’ own observations, it proposes five elements of resilient philanthropic strategies: They release control over pathways and outcomes; support networks rather than solutions; address systems, not symptoms; focus on transformative over transactional capacity; and align philanthropic power to supplement, not supplant.

Recognizing that COVID-19 is only one of many disruptions our world is likely to face, this article seeks to offer a new way of thinking about strategy resilience that centers people and organizations instead of the power of financial resources. At the core of this theory is the assumption that given today’s complexities, philanthropy must use its power differently — releasing control over organizations and their change strategies while using its unique position, reach, and voice to work in solidarity with community leaders.

Open Access