Foreign Policy Blogs

Philanthropy: 2009 In Review

Open Hands


Looking from both sides of the border, the state of the economy certainly stayed top of mind in the philanthropic sector.  In the U.S., there was great energy as the administration opened the Office of Social Innovation and set aside $50 million for a fund in the same name.  Yet, spirits were tempered as the actual use (and amount) of funds became foggy – and as non-profit organizations dealt with the real implications of the economy.

In Canada, there were no sweeping federal changes to the Income Tax Act or charity law – even though many continue to call for these.  Organizations kept a wary eye toward government funding – particularly as Canada and its provinces found themselves in a deficit situation.  Lack of clear communication around cuts kept organizations speculating for most of the year – and some are now finding themselves having to help pay back the deficit through cuts to existing contracts and non-renewals of funding.

The heaviness of funding is real.  The reality of reliance on government funding, and even private philanthropy, opened up a wealth of conversations around the “socials” (enterprise, innovation, finance…).  Organizations and their allies asked themselves, how can we start making money?  How does the sector start showing its value?  What do we need to change structurally (theoretically & practically) to make a shift in this direction?

Similar to what we heard in the financial sector, this is an opportune time for reform.  If we don’t take it, we could easily find ourselves back in this same place – in the not too distance future.

In tackling the fundamentals, we may find the future.

Person of the Year:

(Such a fun and completely subjective question.)

Based on my prior paragraph, its likely no surprise that I’m choosing Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable.   Pallotta called foul to many of the power structures non-profit organizations operate within  – from economic to regulatory to social  He asked us why we are working under rules that were devised 400 years ago – and pushed us imagine a place where the sector no longer relies on the “outstretched open hands” image to identify itself.

He’s not the first to have challenged the status quo, but his voice brings the challenges to the mainstream – clearly and passionately.   Whether folks agree with Pallotta is almost besides the point.  His words have got sectors on both sides of the border talking – and more importantly, doing.

Most Unexpected Event:

NBC’s The Philanthropist.   Though I probably *should* have seen it coming.

While I was never a fan, it did have us asking the question “how should we be represented”?  In an increasingly professionalized sector, its easy to hide behind the jargon and wonder why the general public doesn’t *get* what you are doing. 

The Philanthropist pulled us out of our shells – both in support and dismay – of how donors and grantmakers were being portrayed by Teddy Rist & friends.  For eight episodes, it had us wondering if we really want our sector to be as sexy and action-packed as NBC allowed us to be.  As summer turned into fall, we seemed to answer, tucking our heads back into our recession-evaluation-transparency jargon.

Will we see a new season in Summer 2010?  And if so, will our dialogue this year been worthwhile?

What to watch for in 2010:

Futher discontent.

That’s a bit extreme, but its also useful.  There is a lot of innovation happening right now – amazing conversations about how to move forward, shake the status quo, and come out of our shells.  One of the most interesting thought-pieces is around how does the social sector use design thinking to move itself out of the box.  Move away from asking the question of “how can non-profits become more business-like”, but think of how we actually solve social issues by having a inter-disciplinary team at the table.  (Philosophy majors – your time is now!)

This innovative thinking/doing can be spurred on by our discontent with the status quo – if government continues to ask the sector to help pay its deficit, if private donors continue to feel the weight of a sporadic stock market, and if the sector finds the ridiculousness in following 400-year-old rules.

Is it dismal that I don’t anticipate 2010 as the Heyday of Philanthropy?   At the same time, it’s not a year to simply wallow in our predicaments.  Being a bit discontent with our status quo allows us imagine the (im)possible…and maybe, opens us up to being as sexy and action-packed as Teddy Rist.