11 Trends in Philanthropy

What place should philanthropy hold in a democratic society?

Across our field, in politics, in business, and in our communities, Americans are questioning the very nature of philanthropy and probing its core value. These questions ask who has the responsibility — or the right — to tackle complex problems like poverty and climate change. They ask how nonprofits and funders are evolving in response to community needs. They ask what is just, and they ask what is kind.

These questions are not new; they have been at the heart of our sector since the beginning. Rather, they are renewed in our modern context. They are shaped by and interpreted through the spectrum of larger world forces — like justice, socioeconomic inequality, civil trust, and compassion — that we’re grappling with today.

Now, for the fourth year in a row, experts and thought leaders from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy explore 11 trends in philanthropy for 2020 to help you anticipate and embrace what’s next.


Explore all 11 trends for 2020:

Please note that these trends are not listed in any particular order. We consider them all to be significant.

1. Increasing Critiques of (Big) Philanthropy

by Tory Martin, M.A. and Michael Moody, Ph.D.

Go to any philanthropy conference today and the keynote speaker is likely to be the author of a recent work on how philanthropy has gone awry. These critiques are important and provocative appeals to hold big donors and major institutions accountable in a democratic society. Yet, some critics may run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

2. Data and Mapping Tools Come Together to Empower Community Decision-Making

by Kallie Bauer, M.B.A. and Rachel Borashko

Philanthropy and technology are changing rapidly, and as more and more data become available, the need for easy-to-use, accessible tools for organizing and interpreting that data is becoming more urgent. More organizations are now answering that call through a combination of mapping strategies and data visualization tools.

3. Collaboration and Consolidation in Philanthropy’s Infrastructure

by Teri Behrens, Ph.D. and Tory Martin, M.A.

A desire for greater impact and partnership is driving more of philanthropy’s infrastructure organizations to combine their efforts — and sometimes their staff. However, research suggests another possible motive for these changes: a lack of sustainable, significant funding for the work.

4. Data Science for Social Impact

By Adriana Paz, M.S.C.I.S.

Philanthropy’s embrace of data science has been slow, held back by limited resources, infrastructure, and staffing. However, a number of philanthropists and nonprofit organizations are using their resources to grow the pool of professional data scientists and support other nonprofits as they adopt data-informed decision making.

5. Millennials in the Nonprofit Workforce Present Challenges and Opportunities

by Teri Behrens, Ph.D. and Tory Martin, M.A.

Millennials are the most diverse U.S. generation ever to enter the workforce and, as of this year, they’ll make up more than half of it. This generation’s desire for greater flexibility, transparency, and meaning in their work is reshaping how nonprofit workplaces function — even as the lure of social enterprise companies may be presenting new opportunities for professional impact.

6. Increased Attention to Sustainable Development Goals

by Teri Behrens, Ph.D. and Jamie DeLeeuw, Ph.D.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that focus on providing a viable future for all humankind. Philanthropic funding in support of these goals has been shooting up every year since their adoption, and funders are increasingly collaborating to chart their investments and global progress towards the goals. Still, a projected $2.5 trillion funding gap persists — with no silver bullet in sight.

7. Tainted Money and Tainted Donors: A Growing Crisis?

by Michael Moody, Ph.D. and Michael Pratt

New examples of the “tainted donor” or “tainted money” problem seem to keep popping up — with common examples including the philanthropy of the Sackler family and Jeffrey Epstein. Some even argue that the “cleanliness” of any money gained through capitalist practices should be considered suspect. Yet, all of this puts the nonprofits who depend to varying degrees on private donations in an ethically complicated spot.

8. Alternatives to Strategic Philanthropy Are Emerging

by Teri Behrens, Ph.D. and Tory Martin, M.A.

Trust-based philanthropy and participatory grantmaking have emerged as alternatives to strategic philanthropy. These approaches are becoming increasingly well-defined paradigms for shifting the power dynamics in relationships between funders and nonprofit grantees — dynamics that may have been exacerbated by the strategic philanthropy approach in the first place.

9. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Employs Many Models to Strategically Align Business and Philanthropy

by Patty Janes, Ph.D. and Olivia Rau

The 2010s were bookended by two major events in the progression of CSR. The first offered guidance for companies looking to adopt socially responsible practices, while the second declared consideration of social and environmental impact to be part of a company’s responsibilities in the first place.

10. Inclusive Growth Requires Urgent Collaboration and Deliberate Patience

by Juan Olivarez, Ph.D.

While philanthropy and communities have been investing in inclusive growth efforts for more than a decade, these strategies and partnerships are increasingly coming in to focus. Lead by cross-sector coalitions in towns and regions nationally, these efforts are doubling down on place-based solutions, innovative investment strategies, and a focus on systems change.

11. Philanthropy Will Be on the Front Lines of Climate Change

by Teri Behrens, Ph.D. and Tory Martin, M.A.

As the effects of climate change become more powerful, nonprofit organizations and the funders who support them will be playing critical roles in disaster response, policy change, applying a sustainability and climate-focused lens to existing strategies, and advancing new ideas for mitigating and reversing ecological damage.


Explore Previous Years’ Reports:

Report Cover: 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2019

Trends 2019

Report Cover: 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2018

Trends 2018

Report Cover: 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2017

Trends 2017