Now the Good News: Seven Trends in Philanthropy to Be Thankful For

If you read my Halloween piece on the five scariest trends in philanthropy, or my piece last week on why foundations are filled with control freaks that can't stop micromanaging grantees, you might think that I only see the underbelly of the charitable sector.

Not true!

We write all the time here at IP about the many good things happening in philanthropy. In fact, we write about so much encouraging stuff that, for this Thanksgiving week, we decided to flag all the positive trends we're seeingand that we're thankful forin one uplifting post. 

Some of these trends relate to how money is being given away, and some relate to what it's being given for. All links in this piece lead to pieces we've written in the past year. Let's dig in. 

1. The New Rich Who Are Giving Early and Often

We've been struck by the growing number of young winners from the business world who are jumping quickly into philanthropy, as opposed to leaving this for later in life. Recently, we wrote about how the founder of GoPro, Nick Woodson, set aside $500 million for philanthropy soon after his company went public and he became a billionaire. Not long before that, we wrote about Brendan Iribe, who gave his alma mater $31 million shortly after selling his company, Oculus, to Facebook. 

The biggest example of early giving, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg, who's built up a philanthropic fund with over $2 billion in assets and has made over $200 million in gifts over the past few years. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz is also deep into giving with his foundation Good Ventures. In contrast, Bill Gates barely even thought about philanthropy until many years after founding Microsoft. We're also seeing more finance billionaires hitting the ground running with philanthropy, like Bill Ackman, who at 49 already has a professional foundation moving big money. 

2. How Funders Are Responding Faster to Crises

Philanthropy has never been good at turning on a dime to deal with humanitarian disasters or other emergencies. But our sense is that it's getting better at this, and we've been thankful for that as we've watched a string of funders jump on the Ebola epidemic, where time is of the essence. The Gates Foundation gave $50 million, Mark Zuckerberg pledged $25 million, and in a huge surprise, Paul Allen has gone all in, laying out $100 million in Ebola funding. Another techie, Larry Page, also recently stepped up with a big Ebola give, and a range of other funders have given smaller amounts. 

Funders have done a much worse job in responding to perhaps the most urgent humanitarian crisis of the moment, the displacement of million of Syrians from their homes. But even here we've seen action. Just two days after we published a piece on how funders dropped the ball on Syria, the billionaire yogurt tycoon Hamdi Ulukaya pledged $2 million to the UNHCR and IRC to aid Syrian refugees. Earlier this year, the IKEA Foundation made a slighter larger pledge of in-kind supplies, including 150,000 mattresses. 

3. A Growing Race Consciousness

Events in Ferguson this year have reminded us that America's racial challenges are far from resolved. So we've been thankful to see how many funders are bringing a racial lens to their work, and talking about this issue, as foundation CEO Doug Stamm did recently. The White House's initiative on young men of color, My Brother's Keeper, has attracted support from many funders since launching in February, even as some funders have moved ahead with their own efforts, motivated by similar concerns. We wrote recently, for example, about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's push to improve the life chances of young men and boys of color in the South and Southwest, and have also covered the huge investment by Atlantic Philanthropies in rolling back punitive school discipline policies that funnel kids of color into a "school-to-prison pipeline."

More surprising, though, is just how many corporate funders are thinking in terms of race. Many are putting money into programs that aim to improve the education and work skills of kids of color who will make up the majority of tomorrow's work force. We write all the time about corporate backing of STEM education, and nearly every effort we see has an eye on students of color. Likewise, higher education funders are keenly focused on bolstering the college readiness and graduation rate of these students. 

4. The Drive to Improve Health

As 300 million Americans gear up to stuff their faces later this week, we're thankful that more funders want to fundamentally change the nutritional and exercise habits of the nation. The work of building what RWJF calls a "culture of health" is even more challenging than the heavy lift over recent years of expanding access to health insurance. But it could hardly be more crucial, with skyrocketing levels of chronic disease like diabetes promising to push healthcare costs into the stratosphere in coming decades and impoverish millions facing rising out-of-pocket expenses. 

A range of funders, with RWJF in the lead, are attacking this challenge in various ways, including bringing more healthy food choices to the inner city, financing playgrounds and bike paths, underwriting advocacy to change school lunch programs, and supporting experimental efforts to use health apps and data to change behavior. 

On another front, we've been tracking the huge funder push to find cures to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's which are projected to drive rising healthcare costs in coming years. Just the other day, we wrote about how privately funded researchers were able to replicate Alzheimer's in a lab for the first time, allowing them to test remedies. 

5. Heirs With a Mission

We've been struck by just how many heirs to great fortunes are emerging as capable and even visionary philanthropists, and we're thankful to see how much these kids of the wealthy care, in contrast to common stereotypes. In recent months, for example, we've written about the top-notch foundation that Jennifer Rainin is building in the Bay Area; the big and disciplined climate funding operation that Nathaniel Simons runs with his Sea Change Foundation; the sophisticated way that Dave Peery has reinvented his family's foundation; the creative energy of "philanthropunk" John Kluge, Jr., who imagines a "toilet in every home"; and how old money heir David W. Douglas has led the fight against cuts in U.S. development aid. 

Given the trillions of inheritance dollars that will be transferred in families in coming decades, it matters how heirs conduct themselves. And what we're seeing is many training themselves to be leaders in philanthropy, often with an eye to doing things differently than their parents did, either by backing edgier causes or embracing more sophisticated methodologies for achieving impact. 

6. More Transparency Among Big Foundations

I could name any number of large foundations that give out a minimum of information and routinely ignore inquiries asking for more. But this week I'm thankful for the slew of other foundations that do believe they have an obligation to share what they're doing and how they operate.

The Hewlett Foundation has been the most notable in this regard, with its still relatively new Work in Progress blog and its readiness to engage the media, including this publication, in a thoughtful way. But there are a lot of other examples, including the many foundations that make public the Grantee Perception Reports that they have commissioned from the Center for Effective Philanthropy. 

7. The Inexorable Rise of Impact investing

Years from now, it may seem bizarre that foundations harnessed only a fraction of their financial muscle to advancing their missions. So we've been thankful to see important strides this year toward more impacting investing.

We've written about McKnight's big step to move a tenth of its $2 billion endowment into impact investing; MacArthur's impact investments in important housing initiatives; the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation's growing embrace of this strategy; and how the F.B. Heron Foundation is far out ahead of nearly everyone with its effort to move 100 percent of endowment in impact investments. As well, we argued that Rockefeller Brothers Fund's historic move to divest from fossil fuels was just the beginning of an inevitable dumping of such stocks by many funders in coming years. 

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Other readers will have their own lists of bright spots in philanthropy. Mine is hardly exhaustive, and I can think of lots of other good stuff happeninglike how multiyear funding has recently ticked upward; how the push to empower girls and women grows stronger; how funders are thinking more creatively about how to revive cities; and how funders are getting more sophisticated about collaborating with each other and spurring collaborations among nonprofits in the quest for collective impact.

Philanthropy is endlessly evolving, and the pace of that evolution is picking up as a growing number of new funders arrive on the scene with ideas for doing things differently. Sure, we could write about something stupid and scary in this sector nearly every day. But this is a good week to be thankful for everything that is headed in the right direction.