Mapping Trends in Philanthropy

Philanthropy is changing, and I want to contribute to creating the best of all possible worlds for the social sector. Today, I’m launching a series on Mapping Trends in Philanthropy, to share what I am learning and invite a conversation with leaders in the field.

As I’ve been gearing up to offer consulting services to the non-profit and philanthropic world, I’ve been reading widely and talking to dozens of smart folks to take in the scope of new trends, opportunities, and challenges in what I’ve begun to think of generally as the altruistic economy.

Today, I’ll start with a basic taxonomy of these trends, and unpack each one over time. All of these trends are interdependent, often reinforcing the others, so as I approach the end, I hope to synthesize them into some working hypotheses and best practices for social impact leverage.

There are a lot of smart folks working on philanthropic innovation. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, and I expect I’ll miss key things during these early passes. I hope readers will help fill in gaps and share resources, either in the comments of these posts or by contacting me directly.

Without further ado, a bulleted taxonomy of philanthropic trends…

  • new media and technology adoption
  • communities and crowds
  • sectoral hybridity
  • generational shift
  • economic uncertainty
  • and a possible #6:

  • Global engagement

Read on for a quick breakdown of these trends. I’ll be exploring each in much more detail in future posts.

New media and technology adoption

Last week, The Communications Network released a study, Foundation Communications Today, reporting on a survey of 155 foundation communicators. Among their findings, they reported that 47% of their respondents’ employers have blogs. At first, I was underwhelmed – less than half? However, a similar study from 2008 reported that less than 24% of foundations used blogs. An even more impressive indicator from this year’s study – 76% of respondents said their foundation is using online video. It’s safe to assume that new media use is on the rise.

Communities and crowds

I’ll go on at length a bit here. Adopting social network-enabling technology is a prerequisite to a deeper change in behavior and values. In a connected society, our technology drives down the costs of coordinating people. And then, brilliantly strange things begin to happen that industrial-era social models don’t anticipate.

Internet theorists have given us a generous smorgasbord of buzzwords to describe this cultural shift: the wisdom of crowds, smart mobs, web thinking, cognitive surplus. I’m calling it the rise of communities and crowds. Put simply, it’s easier now for people to share – knowledge, money, time, even cars – and they are doing just that.

This tendency has already reshaped entire industries – entertainment, software, political campaigns, and more. And slowly, finally, philanthropy and the altruistic economy are starting to feel the effects of this shift.

Outside of traditional funding institutions, we find successful crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. On a more community-driven level, giving clubs like the Awesome Foundation, The Next Generation Giving Project, Detroit Soup, and 5X5 Night are a nascent, but fast-growing trend.

And foundations are learning about the potential of the crowd as well. Examples include Seattle Foundation’s recent Give Big and Minnesota’s Give to the Max campaigns, both of which leveraged the social networks of local non-profits and philanthropists to great success. It’s worth noting that these efforts came from community foundations, rather than privately endowed foundations.

Beyond crowdfunding, many are investing in a new level of transparency in philanthropy. The Foundation Center’s Glass Pockets project is one example.

These are some of the new behaviors, but they represent a shift in values – towards engagement and conversation (over “informing” and “educating”), collective determination (over professions and institutions), transparency (over knowledge-hoarding), to name just a few.

When behaviors and values shift, so does the fitness landscape in which human organization evolves. And I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg in the evolution of the altruistic economy.

Sectoral hybridity

Also referred to as the new “sector agnostic” tendency. People are impatient for positive change. More and more, they don’t care if the catalyst for the change is a traditional non-profit, government or corporate entity. In this environment, hybrid entities and partnerships are on the rise. B Corporations, L3Cs, program related investments, public-private partnerships, government investment in social innovation, social enterprise, venture philanthropy, triple bottom lines… it’s as if the organizational forms of the last 100 years are liquefying and then crystallizing into new configurations all the time, creating new opportunities and pressures for social change leaders.

Generational shift

Baby boomers are retiring, reflecting on their legacy, and seeking opportunities to mentor new leadership. They will also oversee a massive, $41 trillion dollar inter-generational wealth transfer, leading some to predict a “golden age of philanthropy” to come. Generations X and Y are taking the helm of non-profits and philanthropies, and their life experience and style is reinforcing the 3 trends above.

With life spans increasing, Gens X-Y will enjoy the benefits of boomers’ active participation in family and civic life for decades to come, and the inter-generational dialogue can draw from the wisdom of experience and the progressive energy of innovation. 21/64 and Resource Generation are two relatively new initiatives to tackle multi-generational opportunities head on.

Economic uncertainty

Even if we enter a golden age of philanthropy, the economic crisis isn’t turning around any time soon. Unless we see a major shift in political will, government services and safety nets will continue to dwindle. On the one hand, traditional philanthropy will strain to address immediate hardships and execute successful strategies to address systemic inequity. Perhaps more hopefully, communities will continue to turn to local, collectively determined solutions, as in the giving circle examples above.

Global engagement

It’s an easy truism that we live in a globally connected world. Since I want to focus on trends that impact all actors in the social sector, regardless of whether they work at the most local or international levels, I hesitate to include this trend. However, it is worth considering what it means for local altruistic economies when we are increasingly exposed to humanitarian crises around the world and urged to give sporadically through easy channels like text messaging.

So, that’s the basic map of trends, as I see them. I’ll explore all of them in more depth in future posts, but some final notes for now:

I don’t want to suggest that these trends represent a new, already established status quo. In fact, these are novel factors entering a broader field of established practices, and they will sometimes be in conflict with those practices.

At this point, I am neither booster nor critic for these trends. This is simply an attempt to map the terrain. I think there difficult questions arise from all of them. Will foundations find tailored solutions in social media or mistakenly mimic practices from other sectors? Will enthusiasm for social enterprise diminish support for community organizing and political strategies? Can crowdfunding find strategic focus and giving circles scale their impact?

Finally, if you’re still with me, I hope you will join in a conversation. I’m looking for resources, suggestions, tough questions and examples I might flesh out into case studies to dive deeper into these trends.

Please add your thoughts in the comments section or contact me.

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2 Responses to “Mapping Trends in Philanthropy”

  1. Ron Strauss says:

    ‘Sectorial Hybridity’ as you describe it, will play a huge role in the future of the ‘altruistic economy.’ Corporate Social Responsibility is becoming a key board level initiative that many companies are beginning to realize powerfully impacts their value creation network and key stakeholders via their brand’s value.

  2. nathanj5 says:

    Thanks, Ron. You should check out the project that has grown from this work: http://www.AdventuresinNewGiving.com

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