How many times in the last 12 months has it felt like we’ve entered a new reality? Events we may never have thought possible have crashed over us, wave after wave. When our team set out to formulate our 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2021 report, this turmoil was only beginning to ramp up.
We got to work in May 2020, much earlier than we typically begin. Knowing this would be the fifth edition of the annual report, we wanted to take a deeper look backward, as well as forward, to reflect on the trends we’ve highlighted since 2017 and to see what progress (or regress) they’ve made. We also knew each trend now needed to be considered within the context of a global health and economic crisis with huge diversity, equity, and inclusion implications.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery launched a new era in the fight for racial justice. As we finalized our trends, we witnessed a series of attacks on our American democracy and reconsidered our analyses as these events unfolded.
“[T]he critical questions we face in the aftermath of the chaos and trauma of 2020 are ones the sector has been wrestling with for years, but must now address more forcefully.”
What we found was that many of the through-lines we’ve been tracking in philanthropy for five years have new meaning and urgency as 2021 begins — but they’ve been there all along. We think you’ll find among these essays that the critical questions we face in the aftermath of the chaos and trauma of 2020 are ones the sector has been wrestling with for years, but must now address more forcefully, including:
Each of these trends has real implications for our day-to-day work, how we carry out our missions, and how we broaden our frame on the public good. Many of our colleagues and communities have been hard at work on these issues for years, even generations. Others have embraced shifts in focus and practice in response to a remarkable year. This work gives us hope, and we’ll be keeping an eye out to see whether these shifts prove permanent or more temporary.
In the meantime, we’ll just say it — good riddance, 2020!
The following trends are not listed in any particular order. We consider them all to be significant.
Many of the forces driving the 21st century broadly — increased wealth inequality, the astronomical growth of data, a renewed attention to the reality of racial inequities — are driving significant change within philanthropy’s ecosystem, as well.
Our communities are facing a crisis of trust, one both deeply rooted in our national history and increasingly disruptive in our daily lives. Research suggests the nonprofit sector — more so than business, government, or the media — is well positioned to help rebuild the public’s trust in each other, and reinforce public trust in philanthropy.
The year 2020 saw large donors and funders implement a number of policy changes designed to “decolonize” their wealth and hand over more control to the people and organizations receiving that wealth. History, however, presents a caveat: as movements and funding streams formalize, they may experience pressure to tone down or redirect their aims.
Who is giving — and who isn’t? How much, or how little? Who is receiving, and how is the money spent? Many of the forces we examine in this year’s report, and in previous years’ reports — such as the global concentration of wealth and the marginalization of BIPOC communities — are driving crucial conversations about the haves and have-nots.
Nonprofit organizations have long provided the space for healing and resilience-building with the trauma-informed care model. Foundations, too, are showing up strong, deploying trauma-informed grantmaking and setting in motion cross-sector collaborations and community-centered investments in resilience-building, even before the world-shifting events of 2020.
Across our sector, family donors and institutions are wrestling with the roots of our collective inheritance: much of philanthropy’s corpus has its history in exploitative acts. While philanthropy may not be set up to support reparations in the form of direct cash payments, there are many steps funders can take — and currently are taking — to rebalance that scale.
Philanthropy and government have always shared a goal to advance the public good. Since the 1970s, their dynamic has been shifting, as they play interchanging roles as policy advocates, service providers, and financial backers. This trend raises questions about the part each sector should play in addressing longstanding challenges.
The trend we first noted in our 2019 issue of 11 Trends in Philanthropy is accelerating beyond even what we were seeing then — perhaps in significant part due to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19. With more examples to review, the pros and cons of this blurring boundary are becoming more apparent.
Rather than other nations conforming to a U.S model of philanthropy, we are more often seeing philanthropy itself globalizing — a dynamic process in which actors exchange ideas and practices and engage in shared learning to find forms of giving that are authentic for different cultural contexts.
In the last decade, data has become much like the air we breathe: it surrounds us, but often only makes itself known when it’s either polluted or there’s not enough of it. How individual organizations balance privacy and transparency, address equity of access, and act upon data to create and share actionable knowledge will be key for philanthropy going forward.
The next-gen-driven transformations in philanthropy seem more dramatic than just normal generational succession. Philanthropy’s next generation is reconfiguring the donor landscape, upending norms in nonprofit organizational practice, and even blurring sector boundaries in ways that are redefining how people think of the best way to “do good.”