Philanthropy in 2014: More Optimistic, More Collaborative and More Than Grantmaking

Philanthropy in 2014: More Optimistic, More Collaborative and More Than Grantmaking


Editor’s note: we’re leading off the year with a special blog post co-authored by Philanthropy Northwest’s new CEO, Jeff Clarke, and outgoing CEO Carol Lewis, in which they recount some of the themes they’re hearing in conversation with Philanthropy Northwest members.

by Jeff Clarke and Carol Lewis

With the advent of each new year, we often pause to reflect on where we are and where we want to go. Sure, some of our thoughts drift to diet and exercise, but mostly, we think about purpose and work. As part of our transition over the past two weeks, we’ve met in person with many Philanthropy Northwest members. These thoughtful conversations reveal some common themes emerging for 2014:

Optimism and energy are returning to philanthropy. Philanthropy is always defined by its optimism, but the recession caused all of us to pause and consider how to work with fewer assets.  While the market recovery may not be sustainable, the good news for foundations invested in equities is that 2013 was a banner year. Wall Street closed at record highs—the best year for the Dow since 1996. Businesses are back and booming. Capital is flowing more freely. This translates directly into more dollars for philanthropy. Atlas of Giving suggests that U.S. charitable giving increased nearly 13 percent over 2012. The Chronicle of Philanthropy tells a similar story with reports of year-end online charitable giving up 16 percent over 2012. In 2013, crowdfunding platforms were projected to nearly double the $2.7 billion they raised in 2012. Akhtar Badshah, senior director of global community affairs at Microsoft, summed it up this way when he told us, “It feels different now when I talk to people.”

Philanthropists are working together more intentionally. Talking to our friends at Social Venture Partners, Social Justice Fund and Washington Women’s Foundation, we hear another exciting story: more people are pooling their philanthropic dollars in order to increase their effectiveness. Washington Women’s Foundation crossed the 500 member mark in 2013.  Social Venture Partners has seen its membership ranks grow 20% in each of the past two years. And, perhaps most notably, Social Justice Fund has quintupled its membership in the past three years. And it gets better: cooperation is not just for individuals, it’s for organizations, too.  The Giving Practice, Philanthropy Northwest’s consulting practice, now supports nine funder collaborations. In many cases, these collaborations are cross sector efforts, including foundations, corporations, government, individuals and nonprofits who believe they can be more effective working together.

Philanthropy is much more than making a grant. Our partner Mission Investors Exchange continues to grow quickly as people across the public, private and philanthropic sectors come together to develop new vehicles for investing—both charitably and at market rate—in sustainable businesses and healthy communities. A headline-grabbing coalition of bankers, foundations, private investors and public leaders is working to stabilize and reinvigorate Detroit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Meyer Memorial Trust recently announced its Invest Oregon program which, in addition to its charitable work, commits the Trust’s market-rate investment assets  to improve the lives of Oregonians. And finally, demonstrating the variety of strategies available to our sector, the Campion Foundation last week announced the Campion Advocacy Fund, a 501(c)(4) organization that will build upon the strengths of the foundation by significantly ramping up advocacy and political engagement around issues the founders care about.

These first three themes give us heart. But there is also a fourth, more troubling theme:

The prolonged pace of economic recovery is not lifting all boats. The nascent recovery has neither helped everyone nor provided the basis for shared optimism. Income disparities in our nation are at an all-time high. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the incomes of those in the top 5 percent of the income range are nine times the incomes of those in the bottom 20 percent. More than 47 million Americans—more than 15 percent of the U.S. population—live in poverty. Here in our region, Alaska, Wyoming and Washington are doing better than the national average but poverty in Idaho, Montana and Oregon exceeds the national rate.

The hardship is also disproportionate. On both Martin Luther King’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, consider news this past week from the research group Center for American Progress:

  • One in three adult women is living in poverty or on the brink of it.
  • The poverty rate for children under the age of 18 is among the very highest percentages in the developed world at 21.8 percent.
  • 38 percent of African American children lived in poverty in 2012, compared to 33.8 percent of Hispanic children and 12.3 percent of white children.
  • The African American unemployment rate in November, 2013 was 12.5 percent and youth unemployment stood at 20.8 percent, while the white unemployment rate was 6.2 percent.

With these dispiriting figures, it is easy to be discouraged, but we must hold onto our sense of optimism and possibility. And this leads us to the fifth and final theme we offer:

Philanthropy and civic leadership have never been more important. Philanthropy in the Pacific Northwest reflects the wonderful legacy of optimism, entrepreneurial risk taking and civic leadership that has defined our region from its earliest days. Blessed by rich natural resources, populated first by self-reliant and culturally rich Native communities, and later by adventurous, entrepreneurial pioneers, the communities in our region have rarely looked for outside help to achieve their dreams and aspirations. Instead, people have come together to figure out how to make their dreams real.

This hasn’t changed. Sure, the world is shrinking. Technology is changing at mind-numbing speeds. Businesses are repositioning themselves daily. Demographic change is exerting its inexorable long-term pull. But certain things do not change—chief among them the fact that communities work best when people who live in them feel they have a stake in how the community functions. As society grapples with the real-life hardship that an uneven recovery leaves in its wake, philanthropy has a critical role to play. We can ensure that all voices are heard in the work to build strong communities. We can invest in the infrastructure and programs to ensure sustainable communities. We can help seed optimism among the communities that have grown weary and rightfully discouraged. In short, we can bring our intellect, energy, commitment—and, yes, our money—to the table. This is the work for philanthropy in 2014 and it has never been more important.