One of the oft-mentioned benefits of philanthropy as practiced in the U.S. is the ability of private donors and foundations to be responsive to changing needs. Indeed, philanthropy can move quickly in response to natural disasters, for instance, or in the case of local emergencies like building fires or infrastructure failures. We saw countless foundations and individual donors and families leap into action as waves of coronavirus rocked the globe (for greater details, see Candid’s Philanthropic Response to Coronavirus (COVID-19) dashboard, n.d.).

One of the downsides of this flexibility, however, is the opportunity for faddism in philanthropy. In Philanthro-Fads: Trends in Philanthropy That Do—and Don’t—Work, Suzanne Skees (2014) identified philanthropy trends she saw from her position in a family foundation: prize philanthropy, micro-finance, funding women and girls, social entrepreneurism, and cash transfers each had their moments in the philanthropy spotlight.

A review of the conference themes for one of the largest state associations of grantmakers reflects these changes in attention. One can look over the list of keynote speakers and identify which book was published that year, with the author making the speaking circuit.

As one example, when Edgar Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth was published in 2018, land acknowledgments became common, and Villanueva was a popular conference speaker. But how many donors and foundations actually shifted their giving to support Native Americans? According to research by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, very few. Even at the height of the pandemic, when Native communities were suffering disproportionately, two-thirds of nonprofits serving these communities received no additional support (Buteau et al., 2021).

As another example: Anand Giridharadas was a popular speaker after his 2018 critique of philanthropy, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, was published. However, we have yet to see significant changes in payout rates or in regulations that address the concentration of wealth and the influence of megadonors.

That said, the evidence does show that fads in giving have their place — and their impact. Five years after the viral Ice Bucket Challenge “soaked the world” with $115 million in support for the ALS Association (2019), independent evaluators concluded that the one-time influx of cash had been transformative for the field. The ALS Association used that money to increase annual research funding by 187% by 2019, expanded its clinical network by 50%, and discovered five new genes related to the disease, among other major accomplishments. Interest from donors may have been short-lived, but their impact will be felt well into the future.

Philanthropy’s response to today’s racial justice reckoning raises the question of when foundations and donors are being truly responsive, reflecting on and changing current practices and priorities, and when they are simply jumping on a trend that might not last. The number of conference sessions, public statements, and research on racial justice has skyrocketed in recent years. But how much of this represents real change and responsiveness to entrenched and emerging needs, versus wanting to be seen as responsive and connected to community — to be part of a trend?

Read the full article about philanthropy and racial equity by Teri Behrens at Johnson Center.