Johnson Center urges attention to philanthropy trends

Report stresses need to confront societal questions such as wealth inequality, systemic racism.

The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University released its fifth annual 11 Trends in Philanthropy report, identifying trends that will shape the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors in the coming months and years.

The Johnson Center is an academic center within Grand Valley State University’s College of Community and Public Service dedicated to understanding, strengthening and advancing philanthropy. The center provides competency-based professional development, applied research and evaluation, and resources and tools aimed at transforming communities for the public good.

In the 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2021 report, the Johnson Center identified how, in 2020, long-running themes from previous reports manifested in critical social issues that led experts at the Johnson Center to identify trends for the sector that they said must be addressed “more forcefully.”

The trends report includes essays from industry and thought leaders in the philanthropic sector and the nonprofit sector sharing ideas on trends they see for 2021.

According to Johnson Center experts, some of the most critical issues to address include:

  • The sprawling impacts of wealth inequality
  • The systemic racism permeating so many aspects of our society and democracy
  • The bright and dark sides of technological proliferation
  • The next generation’s differing priorities and perspectives on the role of philanthropy 
  • Significant declines in public trust in institutions and in each other

The report further identified other important trends to watch in 2021, including how data is coming of age in the nonprofit sector, how philanthropy is working to right the wrongs of our institutional histories through reparations, how philanthropy and government are increasingly playing overlapping roles in the public sphere, and how it’s getting harder to distinguish between philanthropy and business.

Teri Behrens

Teri Behrens, executive director of the Johnson Center, spoke to the Business Journal this month about some of the standout trends from the report.

“The philanthropic sector is an important part of our life and our economy, and as such, it’s influenced by all the same trends that the rest of society is,” she said. “Nationally, we’re having a conversation about race and systemic racism in our country, and philanthropy is having conversations about how that plays out in philanthropy, both on the giving side — for foundations and for nonprofits, the concentration of wealth has been a big topic of conversation among policy folks — and as part of the left/right economic discussions in the country.”

Behrens cited the group Justice Funders — which includes some of the largest foundations in the country, e.g., the California Endowment, Marguerite Casey Foundation and Irene S. Scully Family Foundation — and how it’s committed to seriously looking at how wealth and power was accumulated over generations and working to redress those wrongs.

“Much of the concentrated wealth that I was just talking about came from exploitation of certain populations — money that was made on the basis of slavery or taking land from Native Americans — and now those institutions are coming to a reckoning with how they address that, so sharing decision-making with communities who have been marginalized or disenfranchised, turning grantmaking responsibility over to communities. … So we’re definitely seeing some more thoughtful conversations in the sector about that,” Behrens said.

She noted that as social justice movements like Black Lives Matter progress from grassroots individual giving to more support from philanthropic institutions, the risk is that as the movement establishes formal structure, its original goals may become diluted and the organization could shift focus from amplifying suppressed voices to bowing to what its funders require. One of the ways to mitigate risks like this is emphasizing unrestricted giving rather than strings-attached gifts, which could include a shift away from donor-advised funds to more of an emphasis on trust-based philanthropy, where the donor chooses a nonprofit that works on issues they care about and then trusts them to do the work.

Another area in which issues of racial equity showed up in philanthropy in 2020 was in access to technology infrastructure such as data and broadband. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted disparities in high-speed internet access across the U.S., especially in school districts and communities with high poverty rates. The term “bitlining” — a spinoff of “redlining,” which is a systemic denial of services, especially housing, based on race — describes this phenomenon of high-speed internet access bypassing communities of color, rural areas and areas with high unemployment.

Behrens said this “digital divide” is nothing new, but the pandemic has brought forward conversations about how this plays out on a nonprofit organizational level, surrounding “who has access to what services (and) who has access to what data.” If the divide is to be narrowed, philanthropy will have to address the inequities of technology access in the way it structures its services.

The pandemic also highlighted a blurring of lines with how philanthropic institutions stepped in to cover what many would argue should be the government’s job — distribution of PPE and food; access to housing; creating internet hotspots; boosting access to health care; and more, Behrens said.

“Philanthropy is never going to have the resources that government has,” she said. “Take all of the philanthropic dollars and they supply only about 13% of the funding for the nonprofit sector. Government and individual giving are by far the biggest sources of support for the work that the nonprofit sector does. So, from that perspective, government is able to have the biggest impact on what services can be provided. Where the line gets drawn exactly, that needs to be renegotiated, but certainly it’s clear that for the large-scale issues we’re facing now, government is going to have to play a bigger role.”

The lines aren’t just being blurred between the roles of government and philanthropy, but between business and philanthropy, as well, the report showed.

Whether it’s companies becoming benefit corporations, or B Corps, to commit to the good of people and the planet instead of only being concerned about profit; whether it’s an increased focus on corporate social responsibility; or whether it’s nonprofits launching social enterprise businesses that offer job training and experience as a tool for reducing poverty, Behrens said the coming together of business and philanthropy is a trend that shows no signs of stopping, particularly because the next generation — millennials and Gen Z — demand it.

“They are coming into leadership positions, and they like to see less of a divide between their work and their philanthropy. It’s definitely a generational shift there,” Behrens said. “(Whether it’s) environmental issues, racial justice issues — how can they be part of the solution? We live in a capitalist society. How do you use the tools of capitalism to help promote social good? We’re seeing the next generation really finding creative ways to do that.”

In 2020, Behrens said a big trend was the erosion of public trust in institutions as the country becomes more polarized and partisan. With studies such as the Edelman Trust Barometer showing that adults trust charities and nongovernmental institutions more than corporations and governments, there’s an opportunity on the table for nonprofits to help build trust.

“Hopefully, nonprofits and the philanthropic sector more broadly can help us come together in some ways around, ‘Let’s focus on the problems and how we can all contribute to the solution’ rather than on what’s dividing us,” she said.

The full report detailing all 11 trends can be read at

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