See the Forest and the Trees: 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2020

  • By Tory Martin, March 2, 2020

On January 15, 2020, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy released its annual 11 Trends in Philanthropy report. Read the full report here.

The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy recently released 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2020, our fourth annual trends report.

At the Johnson Center, we have the unique advantage of working closely with every variety of actor in the philanthropic ecosystem – nonprofits, donors, foundations, peer philanthropy support organizations (PSOs), and others. When we set out to develop our annual trends report, we considered the full landscape of our field to identify the main themes.

From October through January, it seems our inboxes are jammed with different takes on “trends” – lists for fundraisers, for policy advocates, for equity-based grantmaking. Trends reports tend to be “trendy” themselves. Report developers are often trying to strike a balance between the entertaining listicle approach and a substantive review of current events. When we first set out to develop our publication in 2016-2017, we had to decide which way to lean, and why. We chose to produce a report that could provide big-picture context through the use of specific examples, data points, and insights.

As an academic center for philanthropy, we take the use of research very seriously. We challenge each other to “prove” our arguments and assessments through extensive research, conversations with colleagues, and a review of examples and partnerships wherein our stated themes play out. The larger goal of this approach is to ensure we’re including both individual stories and the larger context they exist within, ultimately pulling out a nugget of understanding that can help us all “anticipate and embrace what’s next.”

We committed to this goal because we believe that an understanding of field-wide trends can provide a window into complicated situations. If we can put a story into context and understand some of its components, then we can begin to understand how things happen – and how we can affect outcomes in the future. Ultimately, we feel that while each trend is a significant force in its own right, it can be even more enlightening to consider trends as they interact with one another. We encourage readers to consider how the ups and downs of different moving parts can become entangled in the real world.

“Alternatives to Strategic Philanthropy Are Emerging”

This year, we noted several trends within philanthropy that are pushing organizations to include more community voices in their decision-making. As Stellah Wairimu Bosire, Rose Longhurst, Katy Love, and Diana Samarasan wrote in a December article for Alliance, “The perspectives of those directly affected by the issue enhances any initiative, first, because those closest to an issue understand it best and, secondly, because participation creates buy-in from the community. This then increases sustainability (accountability is better when it is community accountability!).”

To explore these developments, Teri Behrens and I dug into the rise of trust-based philanthropy and participatory grantmaking. Both of these strategies offer an alternative to “strategic philanthropy,” an approach that was once “trendy” in itself and which is now well established. While the pillars of strategic philanthropy – including theories of change, prescribed outcomes, and clearly articulated goals – have taken root with many funders and can offer significant value for philanthropy, there are many voices now (including Edgar Villanueva, the Whitman Institute, and others) that are calling for an evolution beyond these practices and towards more shared meaning-making and goal-setting.

A parallel trend this year – “Inclusive Growth Requires Urgent Collaboration and Deliberate Patience” by Juan Olivarez – looks at an expanded emphasis on inclusive growth in community development plans. Movements for inclusive growth call for increased cross-sector collaboration and innovation in how we design and implement community investments.

Fortunately, we’re seeing this work evolve and expand from when we first reported on place-based philanthropy in our 2018 Trends report and began more closely tracking our sector’s advances in lifting up community voices. As the Whitman Institute’s Trust-Based Philanthropy Project points out, philanthropy is only beginning to rebalance the distribution of power towards those doing the work and living in the communities we hope to impact. But it’s a start.

“Data Science for Social Impact”

Two trends in this year’s report look at the many pathways by which the nonprofit sector is working to support the expanded use of data in short- and long-term decision-making.

Data and data science remain open frontiers for philanthropy, as Adriana Paz points out in “Data Science for Social Impact.” Individuals and organizations are simultaneously laying the groundwork for the future of data science (e.g., through massive gifts from major donors to data science programs at higher ed institutions), and rushing to catch up with the business sector’s already sophisticated systems.

Others are trying to visualize those frontiers and convert them into user-friendly tools that can support many nonprofits at once. In “Data and Mapping Tools Come Together to Empower Community Decision-Making,” Kallie Bauer and Rachel Borashko look at so-called “equity maps” or “equity atlases” that are providing new ways of visualizing life on the ground for different populations living side-by-side. Community members, program staff, municipal entities, and researchers alike can use this information to target investments and collaborations to promote equitable outcomes.

The Lens of Climate Change

Several additional trends in our 2020 report highlight how philanthropy is responding to urgent challenges from within and without. Two articles, both of which are authored by me and Teri Behrens at the Johnson Center – “Increased Attention to Sustainable Development Goals” and “Philanthropy Will be on the Front Lines of Climate Change” – together offer a wide-angle view of philanthropy’s role in supporting global efforts to increase sustainability, and highlight individual examples of the work being done on the ground to respond to climate change.

A critical insight from our research reveals that philanthropy is taking steps to adopt climate resilience and disaster response as a lens on other areas of focus. The impacts of global warming will not be felt as individual, discrete events. Rather, they will affect every issue we already care about in complex and immediate ways.

Similarly, nonprofits and funders are taking this approach when it comes to racial justice. These issues touch every aspect of our lives and society, and as a result they are increasingly touching every aspect of our work, as well.

See the Forest and the Trees

Philanthropy is a complex system trying to solve exceedingly complex problems – many of which, we know, will never be solved in our lifetime. Rather, they will evolve for new generations to understand and address. Today, much of society seems eager to divide situations, people, and ideas wholly into one camp or another. But our society and our challenges are far too complex for that.

There is no one trend that can prevent or solve all of the issues we wrestle with in philanthropy on a daily basis. That’s essentially the point. What a trends report can offer is a means of viewing the world, or a particular situation, through many lenses at once. When we pay attention to the forces and nuances at work around us, and work to see the impact they can have together, we can deepen our understanding, strengthen our resources, and advance better solutions.

Click here to explore past issues of our 11 Trends in Philanthropy report.


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Tory Martin

Director of Communications and Engagement

Tory Martin is the director of communications and engagement at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy. She is responsible for steering the Johnson Center’s messaging and brand expression across digital and print platforms, and oversees efforts to connect our work and mission with a growing community of philanthropists and nonprofit professionals.

Martin previously held positions with National Public Radio (NPR) and the Smithsonian Institution. She currently serves on the Steering Committee for EPIP Michigan, and on the board of the Progressive Women’s Alliance. She also volunteers regularly with the YWCA West Central Michigan.