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Looking Back, Looking Forward Part 4: Hopes and Dreams

Date: January 23, 2020

Phil Buchanan

President, CEP

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This is the fourth and final post in a series reflecting on philanthropy’s first two decades in the 21st Century and hopes for the next one. The first post discusses the public conversation about philanthropy during 2000-2010; the second focuses on 2010-2019; the third focuses on the practice of philanthropy during the first two decades of the century (as opposed to the discussions about it); and the fourth shares some hopes for the new decade underway.

I’ve spent the last three posts looking back at the past 20 years in philanthropy. In this post, I want to focus on my hopes, inchoate as they may be, for the next decade.

Let me start with my biggest hope and put it simply: I hope that the nonprofit sector, supported in significant part by philanthropy, more fully occupies its rightful seat at the table with business and government as a crucial part of the fabric of this country. Put another way, my hope is that nonprofits (especially small and community-based ones) and their staff finally get the respect and support they deserve!

I am fed up with the caricatures, the disses, and the falsehoods about the sector. As this great report from the National Council of Nonprofits reminds us, the typical nonprofit is small, with a budget of well under $1 million. For what it’s worth, even the typical grantee of a larger foundation is small (if a bit bigger) and community-based — nothing like the “nonprofit-industrial complex” some have claimed big foundations are supporting.

What are these organizations like? They’re like the ones I wrote about in Giving Done Right, and they’re in every community across the country, doing crucial work that business and government can’t or won’t. There are also, of course, vital national and international organizations doing crucial work, and they, too, need our support.

OK, so that’s my big picture hope. What follows here is a long list of related, more specific hopes for philanthropy.

In this new decade, I hope:

  • That we continue to increase our understanding of the most effective approaches to specific challenges — and that long-term, flexible funding follows that understanding.
  • That we respect and value nonprofit leaders and pay them accordingly — providing the benefits they need, too, to make a career in the sector.
  • That we improve both foundation and nonprofit governance by, among other things, radically diversifying boards to bring in the necessary range of experiences and perspectives that will yield better decisions.
  • That we embrace measurement as the crucial and important challenge that it is and reject dumbed-down metrics like overhead ratios that tell us little about results.
  • That we stop engaging in the “Sector Wars” and start recognizing that each sector is vital, distinct, and can play its role better than it does today.
  • That we grapple with the questions raised by Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation and others about the need both to address current problems and also change the systems that have produced such vast inequities in our country and around the world.
  • That we respect and are guided by the most valuable expertise of all — that of those who have lived through or are living with the challenges we seek to address.
  • That we focus on what we can learn from a history of specific successes and failures and stop assuming some new donor is going to “reinvent” philanthropy for everyone.
  • That we question orthodoxies and seek to engage each other across ideological differences.
  • And, most importantly, that philanthropy and nonprofits contribute to real, discernible progress on the tough challenges we face — from inequality in its various forms to criminal justice reform to climate change.

I believe we can do all this and more. What am I missing from this list of hopes? Comment and let me know.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, published by PublicAffairs last year. Follow him on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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