How climate change, millennials and tainted donors are impacting philanthropy

Johnson Center Director of Communications and Engagement Tory Martin discusses trends in the nonprofit sector with Johnson Center staff.
Johnson Center Director of Communications and Engagement Tory Martin discusses trends in the nonprofit sector with Johnson Center staff.
Image Credit: Courtesy Photo

Climate change, millennials becoming a majority of the workforce, and increasing critiques of tainted donors are changing the nonprofit sector in profound new ways, according to experts and thought leaders at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

Those concepts are just a sampling of emerging trends in the philanthropic sector identified in the Johnson Center's annual 11 Trends in Philanthropy report, which analyzes upcoming and developing issues in the nonprofit industry.

A significant change to the nonprofit sector in 2020 will be the people working in it. This year, millennials will make up more than half of the workforce in the United States, and the generation's desire for greater flexibility, transparency and meaning in their work is reshaping how nonprofit workplaces function. Those wants, coupled with the lure of social enterprise companies, may be presenting new opportunities for professional impact.

Nonprofits will also be on the front lines of a global issue: climate change. As the impacts of climate change become more apparent, nonprofit organizations and those who fund them will play critical roles in disaster response, policy change, applying a sustainable and climate-focused lens to existing strategies and advancing new ideas for mitigating and reversing ecological damage.

Another major trend that continues to develop is the increasing number and frequency of so-called tainted money and tainted donors. Common examples of this trend include the philanthropy of the late Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy financier and convicted sex offender, and the giving of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, which is linked to the opioid crisis. Some experts in the field even argue that the "cleanliness" of any money gained through capitalist practices should be considered suspect. But all of this concern puts the nonprofits who depend, to varying degrees, on private donations in an ethically complicated spot.

Other trends, which are also analyzed in-depth in the report, include:

— Increasing critiques of "Big Philanthropy"

— Data and mapping tools come together to empower community decision making

— Collaboration and consolidation in philanthropy's infrastructure

— Data science for social impact

— Increased attention to sustainable development goals

— Alternatives to strategic philanthropy are emerging

— Corporate social responsibility employs many models to align business and philanthropy

— Inclusive growth requires urgent collaboration and deliberate patience

"The philanthropic sector is undeniably sharing in this time of marked upheaval and uncertainty,” said Teri Behrens, executive director of the Johnson Center. “Yet, we still see philanthropy as being best positioned to help unite us, domestically and internationally, to address some of the global challenges we face. We are a sector that focuses on solving problems."

The full 2020 11 Trends in Philanthropy report is available online at