What is this Age of Philanthropy?

How should we characterize our current era of philanthropy? It’s not obvious which of the contradictory trends should be given pride of place. We have great concentrations of wealth at the same time as issues of equity have become ever more prominent in the discourse around philanthropy. Technologies that connect us also remove us from local connection and engagement, taking over more of the tasks we used to accomplish with a sense of dignity -- because they mattered to others. And, as always, much love, support and care occur outside of systems that formally count what matters for the public good.

Let’s start with the billionaire and elite philanthropy that occupies so much media attention. It seems a reversion to a past when mythic deities roamed the mortal realm. Billionaires are, of course, mortal though some seek to conquer death.  Yet their wealth gives them powers that distance them from the experiences of regular people. Their actions become fables, “fabulous” in the contemporary way that celebrity culture seeks to define what is remarkable. Some, with their distinctive personalities and ways they approach causes, occupy our contemporary version of Olympus or Asgard. We may be witnessing a new era of mythic philanthropy, amplified by technology and media, that is distinctive from the original Gilded Age.

Mythic Philanthropy

I would love to read an account of key billionaire philanthropists as their mythological exemplars, something akin to superhero movies such as those about Iron Man, said to be inspired by Elon Musk. With Musk’s prominent efforts to support Ukraine’s Internet connectivity in wartime, and his scoffing at conventional philanthropy, he contends that his companies are here to “do good for the future of humanity.”

Against his thundering presence, asserting his own vision of how good is done better through ambitious technology, we have the contrast of MacKenzie Scott. As she dispenses her wealth at an unprecedented rate, rather than asserting her will she is literally “yielding” her power to society’s powerless. Inspired not by technological control but by the humane insights of literature and poetry, she wields her extraordinary powers by seeding the talent and potential of those in marginalized communities. Notably, she does not prescribe how resources are to be used.

Her warnings about the civic and moral consequences of Artificial Intelligence (AI) go beyond the more technical approaches to its promises and pitfalls one hears coming from philanthropists at conferences like the World Economic Forum at Davos.

Acting in and perceiving the world are becoming pervasively mediated by machines. They are now “learning,” reducing human knowledge to algorithms that do a pretty good job of predicting what you or I will likely say or write next. There is a vision of AI that worries about its potential to destroy humanity as we know it. However, if the positive potential of AI delivers, it may lead to another level of human flourishing, perhaps a golden age of philanthropy for and by all.

With the advent of ever more powerful AI, the contributions many of us make to our communities are predicted to be outsourced to machines, or to a very small number among us who will manage and interact with the machines that can more reliably take care of all that can be automated. 

I think we will always ask what we can contribute to others in our world, and how we will be regarded by them. Sam Altman,  CEO Of Open AI, suggests, “As AI produces most of the world’s basic goods and services, people will be freed up to spend more time with people they care about, care for people, appreciate art and nature, or work toward social good.” So, philanthropy by all will be the path to human dignity and flourishing.

This sounds a bit like a utopian vision one might encounter in a 19th century social philosophy. What kind of concrete activity does it entail? Much of formal talk about philanthropy today is serious, emulating the strictures of disciplinary knowledge, appropriately reflecting deep ethical commitments. But creativity and humanity that transcend machines may be very much about play.

Philanthropy as Play

We’ve heard that one justification for philanthropy in a democracy, where giving is not subject to the democratic process, comes from its capacity to spur innovation -- new, breakthrough ideas intended to benefit the public good that are less likely to emerge from formal political processes.

To me that sounds very much like play. Given some basic rules, let’s see what we can come up with. In his classic work, Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga explored the centrality of play in human culture; its useful role in learning and socialization, but also in generating new ideas and possibilities.

Most professions provide elements of play through conferences and associational life. The many conferences and associations we have in philanthropy strive to bring fun (though not too loudly) to learning, working, and advancing one’s career. Still, we often overlook play in philanthropy because we spend a lot of time working to convince those outside of professional philanthropic circles that what we do is serious and not just an optional flourish for a world that is mostly driven by the competition for scarce resources, built on top of a geopolitical struggle for survival.

In a world where benevolent AI has freed us to imagine ever more creative ways to advance the social good, what better way to do this than through play.

I hope you will consider joining our events for the upcoming semester that will be hosted by the school and our institutes. They will provide opportunities to play with knowledge as you join us in exploring philanthropy in our emerging age. Embracing the possibilities of philanthropy is not limited to the semi-mythical figures that dominate the media. Playful discoveries of our common philanthropy are here for all of us.

Best regards,

Amir Pasic signature

Amir Pasic

Eugene R. Tempel Dean

Research Insights for Policy and Practice

Start your 2023 work off well with key learnings from 2022 research. From donors’ preferences and perspectives to women’s philanthropy, and from assessing U.S. and global giving trends to Muslim philanthropy, new studies shed valuable light on navigating today’s philanthropy landscape.

What do donors want?

Three donor-focused studies in The Giving Environment series provide new insights about demonstrating donor impact, fostering donor empathy, and the relative strength of competing donor communications channels. The findings make clear that donors not only want to understand the impact of their gifts but value organizations that intentionally foster meaningful relationships with them. Donors have increasing expectations for how organizations build connections with them and communicate the scope of their impact. They prefer to support organizations with a demonstrated focus on affecting systemic change within the donors’ communities.

Women and philanthropy

Women Give 2022: Racial Justice, Gender and Generosity explores how gender and demographic factors affected giving to racial justice causes in 2020, such as Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name. It’s the first study to explore attitudes toward the 2020 racial justice movement through a gender lens, examining who is giving, how much, and how that generosity relates to various demographic variables. The report finds that single women, Black households, LGBTQ+ households, and younger households demonstrated greater levels of support for the 2020 racial justice protests and were more likely to give money to these organizations. Fundraisers and nonprofit leaders can use this research to better engage donors interested in racial equity, and donors can leverage the findings to refine their personal giving strategies.

While nearly 50,000 organizations are dedicated to women and girls across the United States, the Women & Girls Index (WGI) consistently shows that less than 2% of total charitable giving goes to these organizations. WGI is the only comprehensive index that measures charitable giving to organizations dedicated to women and girls in the United States, including the amount of philanthropic support they receive from individuals, foundations and corporations. The WGI data is accessible to researchers, practitioners, and the general public through its website, where the full list of WGI organizations can be searched and downloaded. In conjunction with the release of the 2022 WGI, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute launched the inaugural Give to Women and Girls Day, an actionable national step toward closing the gap in giving to women and girls.

The giving environment in the U.S…

 Giving USA 2022: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2021 reports that individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations gave an estimated $484.85 billion to U.S. charities in 2021. Total charitable giving in 2021 grew 4.0% over the revised total of $466.23 billion contributed in 2020. However, while giving increased in current dollars, it remained flat (-0.7%) after adjusting for inflation. The report includes a new chapter dedicated to understanding giving patterns of donor-advised funds (DAFs) and their donors, featuring new, original research on DAFs. Giving USA is published by Giving USA Foundation, a public service initiative of The Giving Institute. It is researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

…and around the world

Despite slight improvement in the global philanthropy environment between 2018 and 2020 (the latest year for which data are available) the 2022 Global Philanthropy Environment Index(GPEI) finds that key hurdles continue to threaten the philanthropic ecosystem. The GPEI provides tools for policymakers, civil society leaders, philanthropists, and the public to understand and, ultimately, shape the state of philanthropy on a global scale. It reports on the philanthropic environments of 91 countries and economies spanning all levels of economic development, representing 85 percent of the world’s population and 95 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP).

Findings from the 2022 GPEI suggest that the global philanthropic environment is slightly more favorable than in 2018, with three-fifths of the 91 countries and economies studied reporting a favorable environment for philanthropy. Yet among the 79 countries and economies studied in both 2018 and 2022, this improvement was inconsistent, with nearly 30 economies reporting a shrinking space for philanthropy as a result of their political environments. Dozens of countries and economies continue to report regulatory burdens that limit cross-border donations. Technology and other innovations opened opportunities for giving and collaboration. Country experts report that the philanthropic infrastructure globally is becoming more institutionalized, even as donors increasingly embrace long-standing practices such as mutual aid or other forms of direct giving.

Muslim Philanthropy

Muslim Americans gave $1.8 billion in zakat funding in 2021, the Muslim American Zakat Giving 2022 report finds. The average Muslim American household donated $2,070 of zakat funds to charity. Zakat, the third of five pillars of Islam, is an obligatory act of giving. The report also suggests that Muslims consider philanthropy to consist of a wide range of acts in addition to cash or in-kind donations. These include acts such as smiling, doing something from good intentions, helping relatives, encouraging right actions, furthering good causes, abstaining from harmful acts and advocating for the oppressed.

The Pluralism in Muslim American Philanthropy 2022 Report finds that U.S. Muslims report similar or higher levels of tolerance and pluralistic values regarding why, where and how they give compared to non-Muslims. The report indicates that U.S. Muslim donors are more likely to give to nonprofits that demonstrate greater diversity, equity and inclusion in boards, staff and programs. The findings suggest that nonprofit organizations that demonstrate greater diversity, tolerance and pluralism are more likely to gain the support of U.S. Muslims.