It’s remarkable to reflect on how much has changed since 2019, when big philanthropy was wrapped up in self-critique prompted by a range of high-profile critics.

But the pandemic and the racial justice reckoning of 2020, and the sense of urgency they created, rendered the sweeping, generalized critiques of donors a bit less relevant, at least for the moment. People needed help, and crucial nonprofits needed support to provide that help, whether it was ideal for donors to be funding what government arguably should be funding or not.

The challenges of the crisis, crises really, also made some of the specific shifts in practice that had been much discussed in Philanthrolandia — but less often implemented — that much more relevant. Rather than focusing on the meta-level critiques, leaders zeroed in on the specifics of what their institutions could and should do better in a moment of great need. Hundreds of grantmakers signed onto a pledge, hosted by the Council on Foundations, to shift practices to be more helpful to nonprofits. There was an overwhelming sense, prevalent at long last, that donors shouldn’t hamstring nonprofits.

CEP’s research showed, as we documented in four separate reports, the degree to which practices really did change. As my CEP colleague Ellie Buteau and I have observed many times, including in this Chronicle of Philanthropy piece from earlier this year, we saw more shifts in practice in the two years following March 2020 than we had in the previous 20, including stepped up spending levels, more general support, streamlined processes, and more thoughtful engagement with questions of racial equity and systemic racism.

Foundations and nonprofits — not all, but many — stepped up in a time of need, demonstrating their value in a crisis and calling into question some of the more extreme and unhelpful hand-wringing about whether philanthropy could even be a force for good. Sadly, this performance appears not to have translated into greater public appreciation for nonprofits or philanthropy. Trust in nonprofits among the general public has only declined, as I discussed here earlier this year, even as foundations and big donors, like MacKenzie Scott, operate with higher levels of trust than have typically characterized their ilk.

So, even as the sense of acute crisis fades, or maybe evolves would be a better word, philanthropy faces some big questions. I will try to lay them out as I see them — recognizing that others would have different questions and that my perspective, inevitably, is subjective.

  1. Will the changes in how foundations and donors support nonprofits be sustained — and implemented thoughtfully?
  2. Will racial equity be prioritized, or will an orchestrated backlash and complacency push it back down the priority list?
  3. Will philanthropy step up on climate change?
  4. How will philanthropy balance the need to counter polarization with the need to call out extremism?
  5. How can philanthropy best act to protect our democracy?
  6. Are we headed into a recession? What will be the effect of a more tumultuous market for investors, as well as continued high inflation?
  7. Related, will household rates of giving to nonprofits continue to taper off? How will that affect perceptions of legitimacy of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy — and will that translate to legislative changes?

Read the full article about big questions for big philanthropy by Phil Buchanan at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.