21st Century Challenges in Philanthropy

At the end of the first decade in the 21st century, philanthropy is experiencing both technical and substantive challenges. The technical challenges revolve around the actions to be taken to secure charitable contributions. The substantive challenges are more about the “end,” the purpose that propels and inspires giving. As we close the decade and begin a new one, there is a looming consternation about the fact that small and medium sized donations have been declining. While the gap in donations is increasingly being filled with contributions from big donors, charitable organizations will continue to be challenged if this trend persists. This shift in giving has prompted many in the field to express their views and opinions surrounding course corrections to be made in both the areas of the means and the ends. I propose that we must reconnect with our end purpose in order to navigate changes in the means.


Reconnecting to our Philanthropic Roots

The pressure caused by a decline in giving is felt most by those who are charged with raising money for their nonprofits. Fundraising is a demanding vocation and takes a lot of endurance and resilience, and the fundraising environment continues to be highly competitive. In this environment, the work itself has become too transactional and divorced from its original motivations surrounding a commitment to mission and meaning. How will the tension between these deeper commitments and the demand for sheer output in a competitive landscape be reconciled?

I listened to a podcast recently in which the speaker affirmed that philanthropy is a response to the human condition. Furthermore, she states that fundraisers are mission-makers. Fundraising work requires connecting to who you are and how you respond to being a channel and a conduit for the “love of humanity” (i.e. philanthropy). She argued that this “love of humanity” is in a state of turmoil which is why we need to step back and reaffirm our core beliefs and principles as well as our vision for the future.   

As someone involved in providing training to fundraising professionals through the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy at John F. Kennedy University, I would like to offer the following set of guiding principles to help us reconnect to our roots in the love of humanity in order to address some of the challenges we currently face in advancing philanthropy. These ideas have helped to ground my own thinking and commitment. I do not necessarily expect a carte blanche acceptance of them, however, I hope they will provide clarity, stimulate further conversations, and overall reinforce the importance of remaining steadfast in our deeper goals at a time when philanthropy is undergoing scrutiny and adaptation caused by a range of factors, legal, economic, political, and demographic in nature.

Five Guiding Principles

First, philanthropy is a “sacred” mission; it represents a solemn act of compassion and justice. The services we render as professionals in the field are also “sacred” acts;

Second, philanthropy is not a “transactional” business; it is a “relationship” business, the focus of which is to move the heart, passion, and values of individuals and groups. This process is very dynamic, not static, and this interaction between heart, passion, and values creates synergy and interconnectivity.

Third, philanthropy is a conduit for achieving not only social impact but social transformation.

Fourth, philanthropic work requires careful tending and cultivation so that it grows and can be sustained.

Fifth, philanthropic work is one of the most unifying and powerful forces we have that humanity depends on for its survival. It cannot be ignored.

A 21st Century Vision

With these five guiding principles in mind, I propose a vision for this decade in which:

  • Giving and contributions are showing a steady resurgence, more people in society are involved in philanthropic acts of giving, and philanthropy is growing and expanding on a global scale;
  • We are closing the divide between donors and the organizations seeking their help as we advance our collective, human agenda of fairness, equity, access, and inclusion;
  • Nonprofits are finding new ways to collaborate and cooperate;
  • We have greater commitment to and clarity on accountability, authenticity, and transparency;
  • The new generation of donors are rightfully taking their place in society as socially responsible citizens to ensure philanthropy’s legacy into the future;
  • We have forged a more interdependent philanthropic sector of individual donors, foundations, and charitable organizations working together, each realizing that they are part of the fabric of the philanthropic landscape that we are quilting together.

The stakes for advancing philanthropy are higher today, presenting all the more reason why we need to bind together in the core values and principles that have defined our enterprise in the “love of humanity” since the beginnings of time. We can reimagine the trajectory of philanthropy in this decade if we are guided by principles that will enable us to create a brighter and more promising future. Let’s do it!

Solomon Belette

Director, Sanford Institute of Philanthropy, JFK University