Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Back to the Future of Philanthropy

I received a kind email from Erik Anderson, of the Donor Dreams Blog, suggesting I take on the subject of The Future of Philanthropy for this month's nonprofit blog carnival. Easy peasy, right? Well maybe not.

In Erik's call for Future Philanthropy blogs he links to a TED Talk from 2007: Katherine Fulton on You are the future of philanthropy. I've watched the video a couple of times now, and Ms. Fulton makes some great points on several philanthropic trends (and I recommend you also watch it), but it didn't really help me answer the question of what I viewed the future of philanthropy to be.

Ms. Fulton begins her exploration with the establishment of the modern foundation form in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century by the Rockefellers, Carnegies, et al, but, indeed, the concept of philanthropy goes back to ancient Greece, meaning "love of humanity," and encompasses the giving of time, heart, and soul, as well as currency.

Even the story of "modern philanthropy" predates Rockefeller by at least 150 years, with the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in London. Established for the "education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children," the Foundling Hospital is considered by many to be the first modern charity.

Wikimedia Commons
Not long after, "a group of London merchants and gentlemen" met to "discuss a plan to supply two or three thousand seafarers for the navy," founding the Marine Society. They, of course, sought sponsors and donors to support their efforts. Certainly that qualifies not only as philanthropy, but as professional fundraising, and maybe even crowd-funding.

Ms. Fulton references Warren Buffet, and another of her slides bears the image of Richard Branson, but what really differentiates these modern philanthropic leaders from Rockefeller and Carnegie, or even from the gentlemen who founded the Marine Society? Is it their motivation, is it their philosophy, or is it their tools?

Ms. Fulton describes the philanthropy of 100 years ago as "closed-small-slow-fragmented-short" and contrasts that with the "open-big-fast-connected-long" world of today's philanthropy.

"Closed-small-slow-fragmented-short" may seem a somewhat apt description of old philanthropy from today's perspective, but there's no evidence that it was seen as such in 1905, or that it was meant to be "closed-small-slow-fragmented-short" by intentional design.

What draws that comparison is not any change in the concept of philanthropy, it is all about the tools. 120 years ago, Andrew Carnegie building libraries across America was very open, connected, big,  long, and somewhat radical (okay, it probably wasn't "fast," but what was then?). Today his approach might be to distribute iPads to students instead, but his philanthropic ideals would likely be the same.

Even the much vaunted "democratization of philanthropy" is nothing new. If you read my blog, you know I absolutely love crowd-giving sites such as Benevolent, etc., but at their core, they are simply using new tools to expand upon the giving circles of previous decades that were, themselves, just updates of the old mutual aid societies that go back at least 250 years.

I guess what I'm saying is, the impulse to philanthropy is as old as society itself, and that the forms it takes always includes both, the "small and informal" (mutual aid to crowd-funding), and the "large and influential" (Carnegie to Gates). What evolves are the methodologies and tools.

There are certainly trends - I've lived through several: money for technical assistance, money for programs only, highly focused outcomes, more data, less data, forcing mergers, encouraging cooperation, and a few others - but those are changes in bureaucracy, not philanthropy.

So, I suppose my predictions for the Future of Philanthropy are as follows:
  • New developments in technology - particularly communications technology - will continue to drive changes in how nonprofits and donors discover each other and build relationships.
  • Trends in giving will continue to be driven by "thought leaders" emerging out of the currently dominant business sector (IE: Carnegie's steel then, Gates' high tech now).
  • Despite the attention given to the "thought leaders" above, the real work of creating social change and improving the lives of ordinary people will always come in the form of peer-to-peer giving and assistance.
  • Solutions-based philanthropy will continue to lose out to empathy-based charity (IE: eliminating poverty versus assisting the poor) as long as total giving remains at only 2% of GDP.
Solve that last problem, and then we can talk about real change and a brighter future.

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