Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has rarely, if ever, seemed like an apt metaphor for the field of philanthropy.

After all, philanthropy is largely insulated from many of the forces that drive adaptation in other industries and circumstances. Permanent endowments and strong long-term investment returns have buffered funders against the financial pressures faced by many grantees and communities. The legal and regulatory frameworks for most funders in the United States haven’t changed significantly since the Tax Reform Act of 1969. And while sustained public critique has the power to change the field, it’s hard to know what will actually stick—a brief skim of the thousands of articles that assert “philanthropy must” or “philanthropy needs to” change shows that most critiques simply fade away over time.

So, with relatively low financial, regulatory, and public pressure, what’s next for philanthropy usually looks a lot like what has been.

Yet while philanthropy is often insulated from change, the past several years have shown that it is not necessarily immune. The COVID-19 pandemic and growing demands for racial justice have spurred many funders to adapt to a changing context. Decades of entrenched practices, from spending rates to grantee reporting requirements to major programming decisions, changed in a rapid period for many funders.

Which brings us back to the idea of Darwin and evolution. As part of the Monitor Institute by Deloitte’s recent What’s Next for Philanthropy in the 2020s initiative, we engaged more than 200 philanthropy executives, professionals, donors, board members, experts, and grantees in thinking about the evolution and future of the field. We found that an often-misunderstood part of Darwin’s theory of evolution can be quite useful when thinking about where philanthropy might be headed.

For decades, many people mistakenly assumed that Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest” meant “survival of the most fit”—that the strongest, fiercest, toughest creatures will survive.

In fact, what Darwin was trying to convey was quite different: “survival of the fittest,” means “survival of the thing that fits best”—the species that is most in concert with the external local environment. Think a snowshoe hare camouflaged in an icy field, not a massive T-Rex stomping through a valley.

For adaptation to stick, it needs to help an organism—or an organization—better respond to the shifts happening around it.

Big Shifts

While the stakes for most funders aren’t usually survival, for those looking to maximize their impact, there is a similar pattern in philanthropy. Our research suggests that a handful of powerful social, economic, and political forces will continue to put pressure on funders to change. We’ve identified seven “Big Shifts” that have the potential to influence the philanthropic landscape over the next decade:

  1. Economic inequality
  2. Extreme political polarization
  3. Shifting demographics
  4. New momentum around racial justice
  5. Ubiquitous technology and access to information
  6. A state of climate, health, and social emergency
  7. A social compact in flux

Read the full article about what’s next for philanthropy by Gabriel Kasper, Justin Marcoux, and Jennifer Holk at Stanford Social Innovation Review.