The year 2020 went from being a highly anticipated year of innovation and transformation to being nearly synonymous with the word “crazy.” The reality is that we are here largely due to a number of broken systems: our health system, our food system, our social justice system, and our education system, among many others.
On the positive side, 2020 also is the year when many of us finally grasped how very broken these systems are. While it took converging crises of a pandemic, economic insecurity, and racial injustice to shine the spotlight, it has all led to a loud and urgent call to change our broken, pre-pandemic ways.
Now that we are here, what are we going to do about it? While the problems that we are left to solve are big and daunting, causing many of us to experience a level of anxiety that we may not have felt before, worrying isn’t particularly helpful. As Erma Bombeck said, “Worry is like a rocking chair: It gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.” So, what shall we do?
The Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP) has created a series of resources to help those wanting to move out of the worrying phase, and into the solving phase so that we can build toward something better: something strategic, just, and sustainable. CSP has been investigating the pandemic’s impact on a number of issue areas—higher education, mental health, medical research, and environmental conservation. All of these systems, which were fragile long before the pandemic began, are buckling under its weight.
For example, the education system has been completely disrupted by the pandemic, from K-12 through graduate schools. College students in particular are bearing a high burden. Some of these students did not have stable homes to return to when campus closed in March and still don’t. Some are facing food insecurity or simply cannot complete coursework remotely because they lack internet access. Adults, children, and young people are navigating the tricky balance between staying safe while remaining socially connected to friends and family. By investing in skills that promote well-being during the higher education years, donors can ensure that young people stay resilient and strong, and can cope with the changes life inevitably throws their way.
The uncertainty and disruption brought about by COVID-19 has placed a huge mental health burden on all of us, young and old alike. The reported rate of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are skyrocketing as a result of the pandemic. Unfortunately, our mental health infrastructure was another broken system, now worse because it is overloaded and unable to help sufficiently the millions of people that are desperately in need. For example, people were struggling to access mental health care even before COVID-19. Pandemic-induced stresses, job losses that are continuing to take away insurance coverage, a shortage of mental health professionals, inadequate or non-existent broadband to take advantage of the telehealth trend, and so much more have compounded the burden.
Biomedical research writ large already struggled due to a consistently strained funding environment and a leaky talent pipeline. However, now due to the pandemic, labs have been shuttered, and emergency funding to keep labs afloat to pay staff, graduate students, and postdocs is dwindling as a large chunk of federal funding is being diverted to COVID-19 research. These shutdowns and funding shortfalls have stalled progress toward cures like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and more than 10,000 other diseases.
In addition, Earth, already overburdened by human abuse of the air, land, and sea, has been under even more pressure. It will take significant investment, coordination, and commitment to change behavior and policies to rectify the damage that’s been done and set us on a better path forward.
The good news is that there’s still time to course-correct the trajectory we have been on—and philanthropy can be the driver that galvanizes the major changes we know have been needed for decades. Imagine what could be possible if we take this moment in time and focus not on getting back to “normal” but, instead, putting time, energy, and resources into rebuilding systems and structures, and re-balancing the distribution of power to create equitable systems that lift us all.
To be fair, it’s hard to know exactly where to start, especially when the challenges are so big. This is why the Center for Strategic Philanthropy created this series: to outline the challenges and create a roadmap of solutions for change, led by strategic philanthropy.
As Fred Rogers wisely stated, “Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else.” While life as we knew it pre-COVID-19 has come to an end, we have the opportunity to write brand new chapters for ourselves and our society. New chapters that harness the beautiful parts of humanity, are fair for all, and, most importantly, are sustainable over time. The ideas in this COVID-19 philanthropy series are about how to re-imagine and ultimately rewrite the rules of existence that we hope high-impact philanthropists will consider, share, build upon, and, ultimately, help implement. Here’s to getting started on the great global reset—and working together to make a better future possible.