A recent Sunset over the city of Portland Oregon. Thye-Wee Gn/shutterstock

A recent Sunset over the city of Portland Oregon. Thye-Wee Gn/shutterstock

In a year rocked by a global pandemic and racial justice uprisings, it’s no wonder those developments—which have led to massive new commitments by U.S. foundations and major donors—echoed throughout Inside Philanthropy’s recent national survey of people working in philanthropy. 

Respondents shared their thoughts on the major trends in giving, with COVID-19 and racial equity emerging as clearly dominant themes, and climate change a distant third. They also answered questions on who is donating right now, with many reporting increased giving, but certain sectors being left behind, notably the arts. And they reflected on how the ongoing racial justice reckoning has impacted philanthropy, with some highlighting change, others hearing only talk, and many harboring doubts about whether it will persist. 

The survey results offer insights into the opinions of a broad swath of professionals working in a sprawling philanthropic scene. It was conducted last month in conjunction with a narrower survey of foundation program staff, which we reported on in a recent series of articles looking at how grantmakers view such issues as impact investing, participatory grantmaking, and racial justice.

The wider survey went out to a much larger group, including IP’s subscribers and a separate list of fundraisers working across the United States, including in many local nonprofits. We received 1,276 responses. Almost 60% came from development professionals, 15% from foundation personnel, and the remainder a mix of donors, consultants and other related roles.

Trending Topics in Philanthropy

With more than 1 million nonprofits and 100,000 private foundations in the U.S., ranging from unstaffed, small groups to national behemoths—organizations addressing a kaleidoscope of issues—the civil society sector is a widely varied landscape for which little overarching opinion data is gathered.

We asked all survey participants what were the most important trends in their field. Naturally, the two dominant themes of 2020, COVID-19 and racial justice, were mentioned the most, along with correlated topics such as health and education—with many responses focusing on the disruption caused by the pandemic—close behind. 

With wildfires only just starting in California as the survey was going live, and a busy hurricane season already underway, climate change was another major theme. In fact, several respondents cited the growing recognition of intersectionality across major national and global threats, particularly as they overlap with climate change, as a trending topic in itself. 

Many respondents mentioned the challenges and opportunities of going “virtual,” including working to repurpose events such as film screenings, and supporting online learning from kindergartners to college students. Declining support for the arts was another major topic that we’ll cover in a future post.

Although 2020 is a presidential election year, and many funders have put money toward voter registration and other investments in democracy, few respondents highlighted such giving as a theme.

The pandemic and racial justice protests have triggered an outpouring of giving, creating both winners and losers as institutional funders and individual donors alike have rejiggered priorities in a period of crisis. Respondents were evenly split on whether their focus area was receiving more or less attention and funding. About 40% said the issues they work on are gaining momentum with funders, while 42% see their issues as losing traction. Nearly two-thirds of those reporting a decline in interest say the current funding environment, particularly the shift to funding COVID-19 response and racial justice, is the cause. 

“I find it very hard in this climate to get funders/foundations to focus on anything but either the election or racial inequity. Women are getting left behind again,” one survey taker wrote. 

The remainder reported no change, though some noted this still left them hustling. “When I say ‘about the same,’ doors open and close, due to priorities changing and fickle nature of priorities by many foundations,” one wrote.

Advocacy and Movement Building

Advocacy, policy work, and movement building have long been talked up as funding trends. But it doesn’t seem the field thinks philanthropy is walking the talk. More than half of respondents said there’s a lot of funder discussion about those topics, but not a lot of resources moving that way, versus only a quarter who do believe more funding is going to advocacy and movement building. 

“Funders aren’t courageous enough to fund what really builds a movement and instead fund things on the periphery,” wrote one respondent. Another survey taker said: “Folks talk a big talk and then make measly one-time grants to support some supposedly systems-changing project. They need to put their money where their mouth is.”

In terms of what’s ahead, respondents said the current economic downturn and its impact on vulnerable communities will have the most far-reaching impact on nonprofit fundraising in the years ahead, more so than declining government support, the growing influence of the mega-wealthy, prioritization of justice and equity issues, or increasing use of donor-advised funds.

Racial Justice & Democratization: True Change or Flash in the Pan?

In a year of historic uprisings over systemic racism, which have prompted countless foundation statements and some major funding announcements, racial justice was overwhelmingly recognized as a philanthropic priority by survey takers, but how they believe it is playing out among their peers varies. 

When asked how engaged they thought the sector is on issues of racial justice, respondents offered a range of views. 30% said that most philanthropic professionals have come to believe that this area needs to be near the top of every funder’s agenda, along with other equity considerations. Another 14% said they thought their peers went even further, believing it’s “absolutely necessary to center racial justice in every philanthropic organization’s decision-making process.” But 46% percent said their sense was that, while philanthropy professionals agree that racial justice should be a key priority for the sector, “most believe that not every foundation has a mission such that it makes sense to take on racial justice.”

“Many organizations believe racial justice is important, but don’t understand what it is and aren’t actually working towards it,” wrote one respondent. Another offered a more pointed take: “Most are waiting for it to go away. They are uncomfortable with the issue and afraid of making a mistake.”

A lot of comments expressed concern about whether the attention to racial justice would last. “I think that this is an incredibly important topic that is gaining long-overdue momentum, but I fear that it will be a non-issue in about six months,” one person wrote. Some were more cynical: “It’s performative and window dressing so that they deflect criticism and go back to business as usual.”

Democratization of philanthropy, while not in the same spotlight as racial justice, has also received increasing attention in recent years, and the current reckoning on race may add weight to those discussions. Most survey respondents, however, said democratization is happening slowly, if at all.

More than a third agreed that although there are some “good examples” of democratization, it is a trend that “will happen very slowly over time.” Another quarter agreed with the statement that it does not “constitute a significant trend.” Another 19% of respondents said they didn’t see “any significant examples of real democratization.” 

“Absolutely a chimera. A few large connected funders and foundations control the purse,” wrote one respondent. Another said the trend is moving in the other direction: “I actually think philanthropy is undermining democratization right now by applying disruption and Silicon Valley mentality to giving. It’s creating big funding organizations that drive change from the top down instead of from the bottom up.”

Where Should Funding Go?

Asked to decide what issues deserved greater support, survey takers unsurprisingly seemed to focus close to home. Education and health were the two issue areas that survey takers were most likely to work on, and the ones respondents were most likely to say were neglected by philanthropy and in need of additional funding. 

Outside of those areas, the arts rose to the top. Many respondents expressed concern about the sustainability of the sector. “With such a heavy focus on basic human needs, I don’t think funders realize how critical the arts are to local economies, children’s education, racial equity work, and the mental health of the country,” wrote one survey taker.

Some expressed concern that funding for basic needs was crowding out important work, but affordable housing was also frequently brought up. “If you don’t have stable housing, you can’t attack other issues such as health and education,” one wrote. Another area many said deserved more funding was climate change and the environment.

Many also turned to tactics in their responses. Advocacy was widely mentioned, with respondents suggesting it both as a blanket approach for greater impact and as a means of advancing causes like transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy and improving nonprofit employee compensation. “Philanthropy can’t ‘solve’ housing; only the government can,” wrote one respondent. “Hence the need for more advocacy.” Many also returned to a long-time demand that has gained traction during the pandemic: the need for unrestricted funding. 

Asked explicitly what strategies deserve increased attention and commitment from philanthropy, the top two responses were “centering racial justice”  and “public-private partnerships,” each chosen by three in 10 survey takers, seeming to reflect the current reckoning on race, and perhaps the expansion of philanthropic partnerships with government amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other popular strategies included grassroots movement building and cross-movement organizing; impact investing; and climate change, each of which was selected by about a quarter of respondents, who could select up to three strategies. 

Changes in Funding Patterns

There’s been enormous flux in the world of philanthropy over the past decade as a growing number of billionaire donors have arrived on the scene and as donor-advised funds have emerged as a major source of funds for nonprofits. New funding intermediaries have also appeared, and some legacy foundations and corporate funders have shifted their grantmaking strategies.

Judging by survey responses, though, most philanthropy professionals aren’t seeing first-hand evidence of a major disruption in funding patterns. Only 30%, for example, reported that new wealthy donors are having an impact on the issues on which they work.

That said, many respondents did mention new billionaire donors and also reported an increase in giving by institutional funders.

When asked what are the most important sources of new funding, there were a few runaway winners. Two foundations with living donors—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative—and one of the most storied philanthropies in the nation—the Ford Foundation—were by far the three individual institutions most often cited. 

Ford, notably, took out $1 billion in bonds earlier this year to expand its giving. Two of the other foundations who did so, MacArthur and Andrew W. Mellon, were also frequently mentioned. Other major philanthropies that were mentioned included Bloomberg Philanthropies, Emerson Collective, the Knight Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Many respondents also pointed to corporations, particularly tech companies, as new sources of funding. Several said COVID-19 and the widening awareness of racial inequity had driven new engagement by companies. Donor-advised funds were also frequently mentioned, with about four in 10 saying their giving had increased. 

But not all respondents saw any new investment flowing into their area. “There aren’t any, which is part of the problem,” said one respondent in the performing arts space. A respondent focused on poverty shared a similar sentiment: “New? None that I can think of. We’ve lost more than we have gained due to constantly changing priorities.”

Although divorced, Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott were the two most-often mentioned individual donors, mentioned both together and separately.

Skepticism on Funder Collaboration

Asked whether funder collaboration is becoming more common, respondents’ replies depended strongly on where they worked. Half of all funders and staff of philanthropy supporting organization said more institutions are working together, while a third or less of the respondents working in other roles agreed with that sentiment.

Overall, a majority of all respondents said the level of funder collaboration is about the same on the issues they work on, though they were divided on whether enough collaboration is taking place (21%) versus believing more is needed (32%). 

Some of the direct feedback offered up was quite pessimistic on this point. “Funders mostly collaborate as a way of avoiding responsibility, not as a way of super-powering their efforts,” wrote one person. Another asserted: “I think funders are terrible at collaboration and it’s not getting any better.”

Notes on Who Took the Survey

Respondents worked on a wide array of issues, with two perennial foundation priorities—K-12 education (19%) and public health and wellness (16%)—easily the most well represented. Other leading issues included civic life and democracy; higher education; climate change and energy; housing and community economic development; and work and opportunity, each of which were cited by 12% to 14% of survey takers. (Respondents could select more than one category if applicable.) 

The responses mostly came from fundraisers (60% of the pool) and foundation professionals (15%). A small sliver of respondents were either staff at philanthropy supporting organizations (4%) or major donors (2%). A significant portion (19%) of respondents marked their role as “other,” with most indicating they were either consultants or nonprofit executives and board members.

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