Will innovative philanthropy always be a niche?

In preparation for the Feast Debate that I’m moderating next week, I was having a conversation today about trends in the philanthropic space.  Someone made the offhanded remark, “Well, there’s clearly a trend of philanthropic dollars being harder to come by and philanthropists being more interested in new models and in financial sustainability.”

Are we talking “trend” or “Trend” with a capital “T”?

Here’s how I think about this question, in terms of total dollars and how they are deployed: without a doubt the “trendsetters” in philanthropy (especially individual philanthropy) are the Buffett/Gates Billionaires who have pledged to give away at least half of their wealth and who are, by and large, younger, more active, and more wealthy than the previous generation of mega-donors.  It’s also clear that the talk in professional philanthropy circles continues to be around results, new approaches, more transparency and accountability.

But how people talk in philanthropy circles and forums and conferences and how actual real live philanthropists behave is not the same thing.  And part of me wonders – and fears – that the amount of talk is getting ahead of the amount of change, and at a certain point we have to ask ourselves what we think the future will look like and what we WANT it to look like.

Graphically, if there’s a leading edge of innovative philanthropy today (which there is…and let’s put aside the question, for now, of whether more innovative is more effective), do we expect and hope that 10 years from now there will be a slightly larger, more established group of innovative philanthropists (v1 in the chart below), or do we think we’re engaged in shifting the whole curve?

What kind of future do we want to create – one with a bigger niche of progressive philanthropists or, instead, do we want to see a shift in the center of gravity?  Because the actions we’d take, the measures of success, the audiences we’d address would be very different depending on which future we hope to see.

My hat’s in the ring for the wholesale shift, but if we’re going to get there we have to spend a lot more time working directly with philanthropists themselves – and not only the most active and engaged ones, but all across the spectrum.

One thought on “Will innovative philanthropy always be a niche?

Leave a Reply