Our Top Philanthropy Obsessions in 2015

As the New Year gets underway, we could conjure up a list of "top trends" in philanthropy for 2015 or make a bunch of predictions that we would probably regret twelve months from now, along with all the junk we ate over the holidays. 

But we're going to skip such exercises and instead offer up a quick tour of the obsessions, favorite causes, and pet peeves that we'll be indulging this year. If you're still wondering what the agenda is at Inside Philanthropy, you've clicked on the right post. 

Here's what we'll be banging the drum about:

Control Freak Funders

Along with most grantseekers, we're tired of hearing funders give lip service to the importance of general support and then micromanaging through program grants. As long as only a quarter of grant dollars take the form of general support, we'll keep pounding away at controlling funders who think they're smarter than the nonprofits they give money to. 

Foundation Bloat

If foundations mainly wrote large checks for general support and didn't micromanage, they wouldn't need armies of micromanagers. And while we admire many program officers, we'd love to see many fewer of them as reformer CEOs take an ax to legacy foundations. 

Nonprofit Waste

We'd also like to see many executive director jobs cease to exist as duplicative nonprofits are forced to merge because funders are investing bigger sums in fewer groups. It's crazy how much waste and inefficiency exists in a fragmented nonprofit sector where few organizations ever get to scale. 

The Lean Foundation

Meanwhile, we'll keep the spotlight on a new wave of foundationsmany piloted by living donorswhich are doing things right, moving tens of millions with minimal staff by placing a small number of big bets on leading nonprofits and trusting those outfits to spend the money wisely.  

Band-Aid Giving

We're going to continue arguing that funders should move away from direct service grantmaking and address the causes of the problems they work on. While vital lifelines to service groups can't be abruptly severed, funders stuck in the soup kitchen will always be playing defense. 

Risk Taking

We're excited by newer foundations like Good Ventures that embrace risk taking as part of their strategies and we will do what we can to turn up a long-percolating conversation about failure in philanthropy. Maybe it's time for a "FailPhil" conference modeled on the tech world's FailCon

Getting Political

If funders think they can duck taking political stances in a nation where the public sector accounts for over a third of GDP and touches every issue you can think of—both at home and often abroad—they're dreaming. We'll keep making the point that engaging policy is essential to fostering systemic change. 


The other reason to engage policymakersand corporations, toois that it allows funders to leverage their scarce dollars more effectively. Count on us to remind funders that it's better, where possible, to convince government or business to tackle a problem than to try to tackle it themselves.  


That said, it's unnerving to watch the growing influence of private money over public life—this trend has risen to the point that even practitioners of Big Philanthropy like Gara LaMarche are (ironically) raising the alarm. We'll be sounding the tocsin ourselves, as we did in our look at the "scariest trends" in giving. 


If funders can quickly open their checkbooks to contain epidemics, how come they're so unable to deal with conflicts, and the human misery that war generates? Last year, we pointed out how funders have dropped the ball on Syria (and praised the few who didn't). We'll do the same this year. 

Promoting Growth

Benjamin Friedman has rightly argued that economic growth is a key driver of most other forms of human progress. So we're rooting for more grantmaking that directly aims to foster new businesses and job creation. A challenge, of course, is ensuring that growth is both equitable and ecologically sustainable. 

Impact Investing

Years from now, it may go without saying that foundations should deploy all their capital to advance their missions, not just a tiny slice. F.B. Heron is one funder already on a path to do exactly that and we're hoping more follow its lead. Among other things, impact investment is a great tool for promoting equitable and sustainable growth. 

Climate Divestment

If the heirs of Standard Oil can dump their fossil fuel stocks, any foundation can. We've predicted "falling dominoes" on divestment, similarly to the dynamic around tobacco. And we'll be doing our part to tip whatever dominoes we can, including calling out climate funders that still invest in oil companies.  

Untapped Fortunes

Few things fascinate us more than a big pile of money sitting on the sidelines and how it might one day be given away. Last year, we obsessed about the Mars family ($60 billion), Steve Ballmer ($22 billion), and others. This year's watch list includes Larry Ellison ($53 billion) and Carl Icahn ($24 billion). 

Urban Philanthropy

We'll keep writing this year about the cool things funders are doing to revive cities, such as supporting innovation at city hall, bankrolling arts initiatives, supporting affordable housing, and creating new green spaces and bike paths. Great stuff, as long as it doesn't fuel negative gentrification along the way. 

Alumni Giving

If you think this is a pedestrian corner of philanthropy, think again. We're obsessed with the fascinating back stories, intense loyalties, and grand hopes that motivate gifts to colleges and universities. And we're certain this area will keep heating up as more fortunes are harnessed to giving. 

Progressive Ed Funders Push Back

Move over Walton, Broad, and Gates: Progressive ed funders have stepped up their games, and new faces are arriving on the scene, like George Lucas. We'll be tracking this fight, even as we continue our steady stream of posts about the center-right money in ed, particularly that coming from finance. 

The Buffett Universe

Last year, we called the Buffetts the "most powerful family in U.S. philanthropy," and this year we'll continue to track how America's second largest fortune is being spent and what Warren's three kids are up to with their interesting foundations. 

Funders: Answer Your Fucking Email

Please excuse the first ever profane word to appear on this site, but it's required to fully channel the sentiments of tens of thousands of grantseekers whose entreaties to funders disappear into an electronic void. We know funders can't respond to everyone, but they've got to do better. 

And Get a Website, Too

What makes rich people think they can get a fat tax subsidy from the IRS and then operate with the secrecy of the NSA? Actually, even the NSA has a helpful website, which is more than we can say about giant funders like the Susan Thompson Buffett, Marisla, and Robertson foundations. That has to change. 

Let There Be Light

While we're on the topic of dark money, we're going to keep exploring ways to bring more transparency to philanthropy, particularly giving which advances a policy agenda. And we'll be raising more questions about what's happening within the black hole of donor-advised funds. 


We're fascinated by the number of capable heirs stepping into philanthropy, and we'll be digging deeper here in the coming year. Many of the tycoons of the Second Gilded Age will leave vast fortunes behind when they die. So we're boning up now on the kids who'll control this cash, or already do

"I Want My Money Back"

This year, we'll be focusing a lot of attention on the strings attached to major gifts, with the help of Frank Monti, a CPA who has spent his career working with nonprofits and is now writing our Gift Adviser blog. Frank is especially intrigued by the imbroglios that can spring up around misspent funds. 

Hypocritical Corporate Funders

Whether it's PepsiCo fighting soft drink bans with one hand while funding anti-obesity efforts with the other, or Walmart supporting food banks while it's workers rely on food stamps, we'll call this hypocrisy out at every turn. 

Brave New Corporate Funders

On the other hand, we're going to keep singling out the new breed of corporate foundation leaders like Michele Sullivan at Caterpillar who are engaged in bold and important giving, including spending to help some of the most vulnerable and forgotten people in the world (see also: Ikea Foundation). 

Affordable Health

Obamcare is a step forward, but Americans remain morbidly unhealthy and the U.S. healthcare system is criminally wasteful. Which is why we'll write often about the titanic battle some funders are waging in this areaRWJF most obviously, but also newcomers like Pete Peterson

The Whiteness of Philanthropy

How many foundations do we stumble upon with all-white program staff? Quite a few, including some that focus their grantmaking on majority non-white urban areas. We liked it when a (white) foundation CEO called out the race issue in philanthropy last year and will do our part to generate more dialogue here. 

Tougher Watchdogs

It hasn't mattered whether funding emperors are wearing any clothes, because there have been few critics to say as much out loud. That's changing, and we'll keep cheering on Philamplify, the watchdog initiative by NCRP. As well, now that we've gotten our sea legs, Inside Philanthropy will start to hit harder. 


Of course, new issues are sure to come along in coming months, just as Ebola became a huge focus of philanthropy last year, and we'll be writing about these fresh challenges. As always, we'd love to hear suggestions from our readers of issues to cover, people to spotlight, and trends to track. 


Philanthropy Awards, 2014

The Most Interesting Foundations, 2014

Philanthropy's Greatest Hits, 2014

Our 10 Most Popular Articles in 2014

David Callahan is Founder and Editor of Inside Philanthropy (davidc@insidephilanthropy.com)