Johnson Center defines trends for nonprofit sector

Cryptocurrency, culture wars and donors of color all will be prominent in 2022.
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Teri Behrens. Courtesy Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy

What’s new in philanthropy? Turns out quite a bit is happening in the giving sector, ranging from cryptocurrency and culture wars to motivated donors of color and better ways to gather data.

The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) released its sixth annual 11 Trends in Philanthropy report, exploring trends that are expected to impact the nonprofit and philanthropic fields in the coming months and years.

According to Teresa “Teri” Behrens, executive director for Johnson Center, one of the overarching themes of the 2022 report is thinking expansively about what giving means.

“So much of what gets researched and talked about is the dollars and, you know, increasing the mega-donors in this sector, getting a lot of the press. But when we look at these trends, it’s really kind of the smaller acts of giving, giving us not just money, but time and talent, that are really critical and would actually help create a sense of community (and) bring communities together,” Behrens said.

According to Johnson Center’s team of research experts, some of the 2022 top trends to be expected include: 

  • Cryptocurrency and philanthropy: new donors and new questions for nonprofits
  • Philanthropy is increasingly embroiled in culture wars
  • Donors of color are mobilizing for their communities — often at the forefront of emerging trends
  • Expanding the definitions of philanthropy and philanthropist
  • Nonprofits are finding new ways to get the data they need

“So, I think sort of that expansion in the way we all think about philanthropy and think about ways we can give can be really important. I think the technologies (like) cryptocurrency, it’s kind of a double-edged sword for the nonprofit sector, in particular,” Behrens said. “So, it’s opening up the paths for giving, but is also creating some new risks and challenges.” 

The uncharted use and potential of cryptocurrency largely remain a question for those in the nonprofit sector. Philanthropy report experts, however, noted the importance of learning how to move digital money as crypto donations continue to emerge.

Behrens spoke to the Business Journal following the January cryptocurrency market decline in which the price of bitcoin, the largest digital asset by market value, was trading for roughly $38,538, 43% lower than its record-breaking Nov. 10 peak of $69,006, according to Forbes.

“I think in 2022, in particular in the next year, as we’ve seen, the cryptocurrency market is quite volatile. So, for nonprofits and foundations, I would keep a close eye on what happens with that in the coming year. I think the nonprofit sector, like the rest of the world, is in a learning mode about cryptocurrency and the role it’s going to play,” Behrens said. “And you know, nonprofits that have tight operating margins might want to be especially cautious about keeping assets in cryptocurrency.”

Though Behrens said cryptocurrency opens paths for giving, it also, like other technologies, creates new risks and challenges to be mindful of. Privacy concerns and community impacts of social media also have brought up their own set of unique challenges for nonprofits to consider. 

According to sources for the 2022 center trend report, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s recent testimony before Congress exposed that the tech giant is well aware of the harm its products cause, yet it continues to pursue questionable data collection practices while optimizing an algorithm that bolsters the spread of misinformation. These findings have presented nonprofits with a difficult ethical question relating to their use of social media platforms like Facebook.

“It’s opening up a path for giving but is also creating some new risks and challenges. So, whether it’s the risks of social media and privacy concerns and the way data gets misused, or it’s the financial risks of cryptocurrency, that technology is your friend — except when it isn’t,” Behrens said. 

Another overarching theme Behrens points to is the relevancy of “culture war” issues including privacy, property rights and human rights in the nonprofit sector, and its tie to donors of color coming to the forefront of emerging trends and mobilizing their communities for greater good.

“We’re also seeing a lot of areas where philanthropy is really making huge strides toward a greater inclusion, whether it’s from recognizing the contributions of donors of color and the marginalized communities, or thinking about how we help people who’ve been incarcerated get back into communities and into the workforce. There’s sort of a theme there around thinking inclusively about different kinds of communities and different kinds of giving,” Behrens said.

Though report sources point to giving trends related to new currency variations or emerging and growing funding sources, the report also points to new focus areas of giving.

While philanthropy remains overwhelmingly human-centric, the field also has shown an increased awareness of animal and environmental welfare over the last decade. According to report source Giving USA, the growth in giving to animal and environmental organizations tripled that of human-centric recipient organizations from 2010 to 2020. In 2011, support to these types of organizations escalated from 2% of total USA donations amounting to $6.15 billion of total giving, $290.89 billion, to 3% of $471.44 billion in total U.S. donations, amounting to $16.14 billion in 2020.

Researchers point to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s One Health Initiative, a local to global effort to achieve optimal health outcomes by focusing on relationships of people, animals, plants and their environment, as one source of the shift.

“We’ve seen there’s been increasing attention to animal welfare as we’ve seen the CDC creating the One Health Initiative. We’re really deepening our understanding of the interdependence of animals and humans as we see diseases that can get transferred back and forth,” Behrens said. “So, I think that’s one example where heightened attention to animal welfare is kind of accelerated a bit by the pandemic.”

While companion animal welfare continues to grow, a shift toward farmed animal interests and a heightened focus on food systems, specifically, also is increasing as it continues to contribute to climate change and disproportionately negatively affect communities of color, according to the study. Report sources from Humane Society International “estimated funding for all farmed animal issues had grown from roughly $5 million to $50 million over the past 15 years — a 900% increase.” 

“The sort of ongoing theme across all our years is ‘what is the role of philanthropy?’ And so, if we define philanthropy as private action for public good, who gets to define what public good is? And that, I think, is a tension that goes across time,” Behrens said. “So, when we look at some previous trends, reports have looked at, for example, the relationship between businesses and philanthropy, or government and philanthropy, and this year we’re looking at culture wars and different communities within our society. How do we arrive at what is our common definition of public good? I would say that’s kind of an ongoing discussion, that’s just part of the democratic society.”

A library of Johnson Center’s philanthropy trends reports is available at johnsoncenter.org/collection/trends.

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