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Threats and Threads in the Charitable Sector

November 23, 2015

This past year, Independent Sector conducted a series of 15 regional conversations with over 2,000 nonprofit and philanthropic leaders in exploration of the external forces that will play a role in shaping the future of the charitable sector over the course of the next 20 years. These "Threads" discussions were a manifestation of a new visioning process at Independent Sector, which was founded by John Gardner and Brian O'Connell over 30 years ago as an organization representing and leading the charitable sector.

Part of that visioning effort was a commitment to three strategies: creating opportunities for nonprofits and foundations to engage in open and productive dialogue; opening lines of communication among those working locally, regionally, nationally and globally; and sharing information broadly across the sector with those in other sectors committed to improving life and the planet.

Before launching this series of meetings, Independent Sector identified nine key trends affecting the charitable sector. They are:

  • Three assumptions about national and global-level forces
    • Disruption from inequality and environmental degradation
    • Greater ethnic diversity and new generations of leadership
    • Technology transforming learning, gathering and associations
  • Three assumptions about the context for pursuing social impact
    • Swarms of individuals connecting with institutions
    • Business becoming increasingly engaged in social and environmental issues
    • New models for social welfare and social change
  • Three critical uncertainties about government
    • Will there be a resurgence of the public's voice in policymaking?
    • Will the primary focus for policy development be at the local or national level?
    • How will government balance competing priorities and revenue pressures?

The Threads discussions yielded a set of society-level challenges that were similar to, but somewhat different from, those listed above:

  • Pervasive inequality, including profound economic disparity and structural racism
  • Dysfunctional government, particularly at the federal level
  • Democracy in peril, and fraying at the edges
  • Technology, communications and information overload (enough said!)
  • Weakening social compact and a transfer of risk from society to individuals
  • Fragmentation of society, divided by race, economic status, age, world view and political ideology
  • Distrust of institutions, including government, business and charitable organizations
  • Volatility of the economy

One of the most interesting perspectives came from Rachel Chong, Founder and CEO of Catchafire, at a plenary session that attempted to summarize these Threads conversations at the recent Independent Sector annual conference in Miami. Speaking as a Millennial, Ms. Chong described four things that the sector needs to know about Millennials and their views on philanthropy and the charitable sector (these comments have been used with her permission):

  • In the eyes of a Millennial, philanthropy isn't just something that you do when you are old. The Gen X/Boomers approach to building wealth when you're young so that you can give it away when you're old makes no sense to Millennials. They want to benefit from the endorphins and path to self-actualization that giving promises - and they want that NOW.
  • For Millennials, philanthropy isn't just about giving away money - it can be about making money too. If possible, Millennials want to do good and get a return on their investment. They believe that many of the world's problems can be solved best through market-based solutions. Millennials want to build these kinds of social enterprise businesses, and Millennial philanthropists want to invest in them.
  • They are told that they're "entitled" -- so maybe that's why they feel like it's their right to know exactly where their money to charity goes. If they are going to give away their hard earned dollars, they are going to choose exactly who it should go to and they're going to track its impact.
  • Millennials expect more from giving their time. 82 percent of LinkedIn's 350 million professionals say they want to volunteer their skills and most of these people are Millennials. Volunteering will be taken to the next level as Millennials demand that the time they spend volunteering is to their highest and best use.

The Threads discussions have been summarized in the comprehensive, yet readable, booklet, "Threads: Insights from the Charitable Community," available from Independent Sector, including numerous sector challenges, possible solutions to these challenges, and recommended roles for Independent Sector to play.

If you have a question or comment, follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and share it there.


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