Current Giving Landscape Calls Attention to Emergent Donor Behavior

Over the course of the last year, the world has witnessed unprecedented challenges—the unexpected presence of a devastating pandemic, growing awareness of longstanding racism and pervasive systemic inequality, and a movement to restore democracy. We are in a season of change…and philanthropy is not exempt.

When donors were called to action in March, many responded without hesitation, shedding old patterns of well-worn behaviors and shifting towards more effective philanthropic approaches. Donors acted with a sense of urgency—something that is often lacking in the sector. Families reconsidered their relationship to risk by acting boldly, centering community needs, and revisiting their values against a backdrop of significant turmoil. They recognized the burdens grantee partners carry and acted accordingly by embracing trust-based practices. And, among the many pivots in behavior, donors truly began to leverage collaboration, and in many instances, the use of trusted intermediaries.

While these changes are perhaps not as seismic or comprehensive as some of us would like, by all accounts this appears to represent an unprecedented move in the right direction and should be recognized as such. Through our conversations with giving families, the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP) has identified top trends that characterize the 2020 Giving Landscape and is helping to catalyze major changes in the field of family philanthropy.

Each trend holds significant potential to positively impact the trajectory of the sector, and NCFP will continue to encourage donors to maintain these practices beyond these tumultuous times. Here are three of the most noteworthy trends.

1. Advancing the Concept of Stewardship

The pandemic and movement for racial justice brought national attention to the systemic inequities present in our social fabric. Criticisms of wealth and the disparity it continues to create are finally being elevated and philanthropists are being scrutinized more than ever before. In response, philanthropic families are reflecting on their role as stewards of dollars that are earmarked for the public good. They are being asked to be more transparent, more effective, and more informed in their role as a fiduciary. Philanthropy is also challenging where the individual ends and community begins, and how the responsibilities of stewardship fit into that continuum.

In April, NCFP hosted a webinar entitled Beyond 5%: Increasing Support in a Time of Crisis, during which Mary Mountcastle, trustee of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, asserted, “as trustees we need to recalibrate how we talk about what it means to be a good steward of the resources with which we’ve been entrusted.” The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and many others have accelerated their giving in response to the disproportionate need of communities in the wake of the pandemic; moreover, they are seizing an opportunity to advance a conversation on equity and justice at a time when the nation is seemingly more receptive.

The comments of Mary Mountcastle echo and reinforce a fundamental shift in how philanthropic families are reflecting on their responsibilities of an effective steward. Foundations and donor-advised fund holders have a duty to move capital wisely and with the input of their communities. Accordingly, families are reconsidering their personal goals for philanthropy and prioritizing social impact, responsiveness, and trust-based practices.

2. Family Engagement and Values

This moment in time has also challenged families to reconsider their motivations for giving and encouraged them to reflect more deeply on how their philanthropy carries forward their values. Values often serve as the north star of effective giving practices. History has proven time and time again that in the midst of unrest, donors who established clear shared values were able to return to those guiding principles, allowing them to make quick, informed decisions. A clearly defined, values-based, decision-making framework is an essential tool for philanthropic families to ensure that their grantmaking and governance are in pursuit of goals that advance their mission.

Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, trustee of the Russell Family Foundation, thoughtfully addresses values in the publication Splendid Legacy 2: “As holders of the public trust, we have a mandate to articulate and share our values. It’s simply the responsible thing to do. The more the world understands the values that inspire us as philanthropists, the more we elevate the field of family philanthropy as an important part of civil society. And the more we hold steady to the values we create as families and as groups, the more we practice ethical decision making and intentional grantmaking.”

We are also witnessing notable shifts in how family members are choosing to engage in their respective family philanthropy efforts. Emerging leaders—often next generation members—are feeling inspired to elevate their opinions and help direct critical grant dollars. Moreover, they are encouraging families to employ adaptive and innovative approaches and techniques. Lastly, the virtual environment borne from the need to physically distance in recent months has promoted more widespread—and often times, more meaningful—participation across family units. Geography is no longer a limiting factor.

3. Racial Equity Lens

Traditional philanthropy has its critics, many of whom spent years naming legitimate issues in the sector. However, following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many other Black lives, there is—finally—widespread acknowledgement of the systemic, centuries-long oppression of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Philanthropy is critically reflecting on how its current practices are perpetuating inequities. Donors are being asked to conceptualize equity and social justice not only as issue areas to fund, but as a lens applicable to all grantmaking and governance practices and approaches.

For many giving families, this year marks the first moment of genuine reckoning with their own privilege, biases, and ineffective (and sometimes harmful) approaches to philanthropy. Yet it is important to recognize the profound shift in the sector’s collective willingness to dive deep into difficult conversations, undertake a learning journey around race and power, and apply an equity lens to personal and philanthropic perspectives. As NCFP Fellow June Wilson said, “it doesn’t matter where you start, it matters that you start.” We are thrilled so many are starting.

This year has been heartbreaking, but it’s also been heartening. Donors seized the opportunity to replace existing habits of traditional philanthropy with practices that better serve end beneficiaries. The ten trends are available here. I invite you to consider how your philanthropy can build off of the changes it has made this year to be an even better partner in the years to come.

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