5 min read

Looking back at 2021, here are the big themes we discussed. We are scrapping the “best of” for a more thorough list.

Dear Reader,

Another (strange) year has come to an end, which means another chance to look back on a year’s worth of writing and thinking about philanthropy and civil society . . . in hot pursuit of the five or ten best pieces.

And it means another opportunity to admit defeat, unable or unwilling to pick just five (or even just ten!) articles worth revisiting.

So I want to try something new for this year’s “best of.”

Instead of grabbing the titles and subtitles for a few articles that I think were the best, I want to draw out a few themes that ran throughout the year. That way, you can find your way into whatever topic you find most interesting. 

There’s a lot here, but as our readership and our content grows, I don’t want to be too narrow. So here’s a look back at some important themes so that you can take a few minutes to revisit (or maybe visit!) a few articles on topics that concern you.

As always, thank you for being a Philanthropy Daily reader—and more than that, thank your for all that you do for civil society, whether as a nonprofit professional, a donor, or a member of your community.

Our communities have been stretched and tested this past year (and more), but the nonprofit sector and the diverse associations that form American civil society have often stepped in to fill many and sundry needs. There is much to be thankful for ane hopeful about in American life today.

Here’s to another year, thinking about and fighting for civil society. And if you’re not yet a regular Philanthropy Daily reader, you can sign up for our newsletter here. Every Friday, we’ll send you the best writing on philanthropy and civil society that we’ve got, and we will keep you updated about free events and training opportunities that we offer throughout the year.


P.S. Please feel free to be in touch with comments, questions, or ideas. What are we missing? What would you like us to cover? What would you like to read more of or learn about? Shoot me an email!


This year we wanted to take some time to recognize those organizations out there doing important work strengthening civil society. Back in February, Mark LaPalme, founder of Isaiah House in Kentucky, reflected on the increasingly important work of addiction treatment centers during the pandemic.

In May, Emily Sammon told us the story of Hope Women’s Center in Phoenix, which is working to meet the needs of vulnerable populations in Phoenix. That’s very good work already, but their local focus and human-scale goals (striving to help specific people, rather than effect “systemic change”), makes Hope a very admirable organization.

Finally, we’ve all heard of Big Brothers Big Sisters, a flagship American institution more than a century old. Matt Smith took up the task of reflecting on his time with Big Brothers Big Sisters and showing the important role that organization plays in strengthening civil society.

We also heard about a unique botanical garden in New England, an important research project by the American Bible Society, and how two philanthropic foundations transformed their communities.


Maybe you’re into how tax policies affect charitable giving. We are, too, because it’s an important question—and we’re doing our best (along with the Giving Review) to cover all sides.

During the pandemic and the lockdowns, the CARES Act had some small changes to the tax policy to incentivize charitable giving when times were tough and the American people really needed nonprofits. Jonathan Hannah reflects on the benefits of those changes and shares his thoughts on keeping (and improving) them for the long-term.

The other interesting thread in tax policy this year was the much-discussed “Accelerating Charitable Efforts Act” from the Institute to Accelerate Charitable Giving. This bill primarily concerns donor-advised funds and family foundations—and it’s got vociferous critics and proponents.

Hannah, again, reflects on the value of DAFs, which certainly pertains to this issue. More on the nose, though, Craig Kennedy and William Schambra applaud the efforts of the “ACE” Act, and I respond with some hesitations. Richard Graber and Elise Westhoff also respond in defense of DAFs and against the ACE act.

(And for a more controversial take on the question of taxes and charities, you can revisit this piece by the pseudonymous “John Smoke.”)


Putting a premium on your communal life and local living is close to our hearts. If you’re here to think about the importance of a localist perspective, here’s some of the top hits from 2021.

Kristen Hermes revisits the virtues of philanthrolocalism, telling us about a small nonprofit in the Chicago suburbs that started small and grew to serve hundreds of families in the community, some in life-changing ways.

On the opposite side—criticizing rather than celebrating—Hayden Ludwig tells us about those billionaire philanthropists whose “community foundations” exhibit no community affiliations, as they jet-set the globe focused on global and national causes, rather than local issues.

Finally, in a very interesting piece about newspapers, you can read about a study showing the role local papers can play in reducing polarization. It’s a fascinating story—and related to philanthropy, insofar as those much-needed local papers are much in need of financial support.  


Many of you are here to get some tips, tricks, and insights to help you with your work. Well, I hope we are helpful!

You may not have noticed, but 2021 was our most action-packed year yet for practical advice for fundraisers. There were three big themes I want to look back at: going digital, communicating better, and knowing your database.

The “digital acceleration” is real. Millions of Americans spent months on end not only indoors, but unusually glued to their phones and the news. These are changes in habit that stick around—and if you want your organization not to get lost in the noise, you need to have a substantial digital presence, integrated with your non-digital communications. If you’re just getting started in the digital space, here’s an essential primer on digital acquisition.

While you’re going digital and trying to stand out in your space, you might work on improve your communications. Iain Bernhoft had a lot to offer this year on improving your donor communications, but pay special attention to his most recent: “It’s not about you.”

And last but not least, databases are too often overlooked at nonprofits. They might be felt as pain points, but they don’t receive the attention they deserve, and so we fail to get the mileage out of them that we could if they really worked for us. Well, enter Devon Ironside’s four-part series, “Everyone’s database sucks.” It’s a nearly ubiquitous feeling, so here are parts one, two, three, and four to help you address your database. (And keep an eye out in the coming weeks for an encore!)


The growth of “wokeideology in the philanthropic sector had no small amount of attention this year.

We continue to hear more gnashing of teeth about higher education—its demise and its abuse of funds. Here are some thoughts on how to better support higher education.

Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports emerges as a philanthropist responding to needs created by the lockdowns. The story is interesting because of the way Americans rally to support the needs of their neighbors.

I was glad to see that the “pro-grantee revolution” that we started to see in 2020 has carried some traction through 2021. Count on more coverage on this topic going forward.

And, of course, Givers, Doers, & Thinkers—our podcast on civil society and the people working at the heart of it, thinking about it, and fighting for it—ran season two and started season three in 2021. If you aren’t caught up yet, you can find GDT wherever you listen to podcasts—and catch some really fascinating conversations about all aspects of American civil society.

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