At the Johnson Center, we think of philanthropy as an ecosystem of nonprofit organizations, individual donors, formal foundations of all types, and corporate giving programs. Essentially, it includes all of the nongovernmental entities who work toward improving our lives — that is, whose overall purpose is to express love of humanity.

The concept of an ecosystem comes from biology, where it is defined as a complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and their relationships in a particular unit of space. Increasingly, the word is being used to describe how organizations interact with each other and their environment. As Hwang (2014) noted,

An ecosystem … is about the dynamic interactions between things. It’s about how people meet, talk, trust, share, collaborate, team, experiment, and grow together. When an ecosystem thrives, it means that the people have developed patterns of behavior — or culture — that streamline the flow of ideas, talent, and capital throughout a system. (para. 11)

The concept of a nonprofit ecosystem got a boost from a 2008 article, “Cultivate Your Ecosystem,” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Paul N. Bloom and Gregory Dees. The authors argue that rather than finding gaps to fill, a social entrepreneur ought to understand where they fit as an entity within a larger, complex system.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in dynamic forces that are disrupting this philanthropic ecosystem. In previous years and in other trends we revisit in this report, we’ve described how some of these forces are affecting the sector. While complex systems are continually adapting to change, what has become apparent is that these trends are interacting in ways that were unforeseeable a decade ago.

Read the full article about philanthropic barriers by Teri Behrens and Michael Layton at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy,