A Profusion of Philanthropic Prognostication

The turn of the calendar to a new year inevitably brings a slew of predictions for what the new year will hold. The philanthropy and nonprofit sectors aren’t immune to the pull of the prognosticating pundit. In the past 30 days, I’ve read these pieces (in approximate chronological order):

So, were there any trends to the trends? Yes, a few that weren’t surprising:

  • The rise of alternate forms of doing social good – LLCs, B Corps, impact investments, and more
  • The increasing impact of mega-wealthy philanthropists and their willingness to be activist givers in number of issues
  • Opposite to mega-philanthropy, the broadened use of social media and online tools to engage large crowds of everyday people in giving and activism
  • Increasing attention to “effective altruism” and other philanthropy driven by metrics and impact analyses
  • The potential of increased scrutiny of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector, more likely by state regulators and the public than by the IRS and Congress
  • Public and political debates about tough issues carrying over to the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, including about racial equity, inequality, gun control, climate change, and campaign finance and voting reforms.

Of course, you could choose to ignore the predictions. Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, tweeted


Unfortunately, the sector lost one of most thoughtful (and occasionally aggravating) journalists and trend trackers, Rick Cohen. He was a long-time writer for Nonprofit Quarterly and former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. His predictions for 2015 are still issues to watch in 2016.

Did I miss any predictions for the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors?

Colorado mountain skyline

Is the Value of Place Declining in Philanthropy?

All of us walk around with default lenses through which we view the world. The lenses are created through our experiences and relationships, the communities and cultures in which we’re raised, and more. When we’re at our best, we’re able to separate when those default lenses provide helpful perspectives and when they limit our thinking.

One of my primary default lenses is the importance of place. Until I went to college, my family and most of my cousins lived in the same county in Indiana. My parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all active volunteers in local civic groups. The first 19 years of my professional career were focused on improving places, first through the State of Indiana’s community economic development department and then through the Central Indiana Community Foundation. The majority of the donors I worked with at the foundation focused on giving back to their hometown(s). And so far, most of my consulting clients have been focused on place.

The philanthropic sector is filled with associations focused on improving place – Grassroots Grantmakers, Neighborhood Funders Group, Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, Project for Public Spaces’ Funders Forum, and many more. And associations focused on issues such as education, arts, and the environment talk about much of their work through the lens of local communities.

This philanthropic focus on place – and on hometown – is likely declining.

One window into this decline comes from the new 2015 Trends Study* by the National Center for Family Philanthropy and Urban Institute. This statistically valid survey showed that 66% of family foundations currently focus their grantmaking on geographic locations. Their mental lenses are more about place than issue. However, younger foundations are less focused on place than older ones. Only 40% of foundations formed since 2010 focus their grantmaking on place, compared to 78% of foundations formed before 1970. This difference is magnified by the fact that almost 70% of family foundations launched in the 1990s and 2000s.

Bar chart of family foundation focus areas


The survey didn’t ask the reason for focus on place versus issue. NCFP and the Urban Institute wrote in their report:

Possibly younger family philanthropists are less tied to place than are their older peers because they have grown up in a more interrelated and global economy. At least for now, issues seem to capture their attention and philanthropic support more than does a place-based approach.

And the authors posed two questions for ongoing consideration:

Is the move toward funding issues solely a result of newer foundation motivation and behavior? As families move beyond the first couple of generations, will family dispersion—combined with a need to find common ground—lead to even more issue-based giving among older foundations?

Earlier this year, Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation posed a related challenge to the community foundation field in 21st-Century Community Foundations:

The shifting definition of what community means is creating a profound identity crisis for place-based institutions including community foundations.

He credits the shift in the meaning of community to two trends:  the increased mobility of Americans (more of us are living in more locations over our lifetimes), and the increased use of technology to maintain vibrant, non-geographic communities based on nationality, ethnicity, gender, and interests and issues.

The Monitor Institute issued a similar challenge in 2014 in its Shift Happens report for community foundations, a report that is equally useful to family and private foundations. In addition to the trends Carson cited, the Monitor Institute noted the potential impact on philanthropy of:

  • The new majority – by 2043, whites will no longer be the majority in the U.S. The philanthropic practices of immigrants and people of color are seen in the increased number of racial/ethnic identity-based funds and the growth of remittances sent back to home countries.
  • Millennials – the largest generation in U.S. history currently focuses its giving more on causes than organizations, and that giving often channels through crowdfunding platforms, instead of through nonprofit online donation pages, and to recipients that aren’t charitable organizations.

The three reports all provide evidence of decreased philanthropic focus on place over time. But I wonder if that shift is more about a decreased focus on a shared sense of hometown within a family or group.

Opinions ahead…

Even as I attempt to set aside my own default lens, my sense is that place is an important part of most people’s identities. People express a passion for place through efforts to “buy local” or support neighborhood businesses through crowdfunding campaigns. They participate in corporate volunteer days at a local park or community center or volunteer through their congregation at a local shelter or food bank. They advocate to their friends to join them in supporting the local music scene or local food movement. Place can be a compelling cause, even if it isn’t a primary driver of a family’s charitable giving.

And, younger generations might be delaying their philanthropic connection to place. Perhaps they’ll be more likely to give and grant in a community in which they’ve raised their kids, built their own business, or enjoyed an active retirement. When I worked for the Roy A. Hunt Foundation, its fourth generation of trustees were ages 21 through mid-30s. Only two members of that generation lived in the founder’s and foundation’s hometown of Pittsburgh and few had settled down for the long run in any community. Perhaps in another 10 or 20 years, their patterns of giving will combine issues and places.

I’m now living in my third metro area after leaving the county in which I was raised. (The picture at the top is the view from my current place in Colorado). Along the way, a portion of my own philanthropy has shifted to each new geography, driven by the importance of place in my own values. The NCFP and other reports give me the sense that I may be more of an outlier in my giving as time goes on.

How about you? Are you seeing trends in giving and grantmaking that are focusing less on place?


* Full disclosure:  I served on the advisory committee for the NCFP 2015 Trends Report.


Revealing Risk in Philanthropy – part 1

Inviting Your Feedback!

Hey there – The National Center for Family Philanthropy and I are asking for your thoughts on risk in philanthropy.

  • For donors and grantmakers: What type of risk most concerns your board and staff? When does philanthropy feel most risky to you?
  • For nonprofits: What types of risk seem to most concern your funders and donors?

By October 11, I encourage you to add your response to the comments below, or via the social hashtag #NCFP15Risk on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.


Philanthropy is often described as society’s risk capital. However, grantmaking and giving are highly influenced by the risk tolerances of the people involved. Those personal risk tolerances and personal assumptions about risk usually remain obscure during grantmaking conversations.

Our views on risk are partly hidden because all of us are lousy at understanding the mental shortcuts and hidden biases influencing our decisions. Many books and articles have been published in the past few years on this subject. Two recent publications related to philanthropy include Understanding Risk Tolerance in Grantmaking and How Shortcuts Cut Us Short.

Our views on risk are also hidden because grantmakers and philanthropic families rarely take the time to fully discuss risk in a strategy or in individual grants and investments. Those groups lack a common internal understanding of the individual members’ views on risk and how those views add up to a collective picture.

One challenge to creating a common understanding of risk is terminology. Philanthropy doesn’t have a shared framework for discussing and assessing risk. Some terms and ideas are borrowed from corporate culture, others from strategic planning, and others from specific issue areas such as the environment. Many overlap. A few definitions of types of risk I’ve found in grantmaker publications include:

  • Evidence – the ability to measure results, let alone attribute them very directly to an organization
  • Idea – the idea’s track record and the logic connecting the activities to the desired result
  • Implementation – some board members may perceive this as performance risk – “Will the organization do what it said?”
  • Industry – the likely stability and trajectory of a market segment
  • Investment – the likelihood that a funder will lose some or all of the intended social impact of their investment as a result of disruptive events
  • Project – the likelihood of disruptive events occurring which interfere with the successful conduct of a project or program (businesses would call this assessing externalities)
  • Operational – risk of not having the right operational approach to support sustainable impact
  • Strategic – risk of not having an accurate strategic perspective on the social problems
  • Reputation – the perceived potential damage to the reputation of a board or staff member, or to the organization, because of a decision

I’m facilitating a session on risk in family philanthropy at the 2015 National Forum on Family Philanthropy. John Bare, VP of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, wrote a terrific article as a preview of the session. Laurie Michaels, founder of the Open Road Alliance, and June Wilson, Executive Director of the Quixote Foundation are participating in the session. Members of all three foundations have been terrific resources in shaping the session.

We’re hoping to use the session and your feedback to begin shaping a common framework, or at least a good set of revealing questions to ask internally. I’ll keep you posted on our progress after the session!