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11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2021

Anticipate and embrace what’s next.
11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2021

Front cover of “11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2021”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:

  • the sprawling impacts of wealth inequality;
  • significant declines in public trust in institutions and in each other;
  • the bright and dark sides of technological proliferation; and
  • the systemic racism permeating so many aspects of our society and democracy.

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!

As always, we welcome your thoughts on these and other trends at work in our sector today. Connect with us on Twitter and LinkedIn, or send us an email at

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11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2021

The following trends are not listed in any particular order. We consider them all to be significant.

Photo of a large Banyan tree with a complex root structure

Dynamic and Disruptive Forces are Increasingly at Work

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.

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Illustration of two people carrying a large puzzle piece toward a wall with a puzzle piece missing

The Nonprofit Sector has a Unique Opportunity to Build Public Trust

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.

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Photo: Black Out March social justice movement in protest against police brutality leaves the United States Capitol on Independence Day, 2020

The Growth of Social Justice Funding and the Risk of Movement Capture

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.

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Photo of a businesswoman analyzing financial data with a magnifying glass

Increasing Attention to How Much and Where Money Flows — or Doesn’t

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.

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Photo of a woman standing in the dark holding a heart-shaped neon light

Trauma-Informed Philanthropy Builds Community Resilience

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.

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Illustration of the scales of justice shown over a background of silhouettes of human faces in different colors

Philanthropy and Reparations: Righting the Past

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.

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Close-up photo of blue cords woven together

Philanthropy and Government Play Increasingly Overlapping Roles in the Public Sphere

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.

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Illustration of a white cube, a black cube, and a cube in the middle that is half white and half black

It’s Getting Harder and Harder to Distinguish Philanthropy and Business

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.

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From International Grantmaking to the Globalization of Philanthropy

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.

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Photo of a Black woman standing next to a bank of servers and looking at a laptop

Data Comes of Age in Philanthropy

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.

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Photo of a group of diverse young professionals talking at a conference table

Philanthropy’s Next Gen is Starting to Make Big Changes

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.”

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