A Legacy of Impact
At Aura, a spirit of citizenship and service has inspired our philanthropic work for more than 37 years. Today, informed by that legacy, we mobilize the resources of our company and the talents of our employees to make a positive social impact in the communities where they live and work.
From Philanthropy to Social Investment: A New Way of Giving
Over the last 40 years, philanthropic giving in the U.S. has grown to $427.71 billion, a tremendous achievement in generosity.1 In that time, institutions and donors have become accustomed to what could be called "traditional" methods of doing business. However, the philanthropic market — and indeed, the U.S. itself — is fast approaching an inflection point that will radically transform charitable giving and presents a challenge to institutions that have become set in their ways.
Demographic shifts are poised to bring about significant changes in the philanthropic market, and this evolution is being accelerated by the emergence of newer, more dynamic models for giving and changes to the U.S. tax code. It's imperative for both institutions and the individuals they serve to recognize how these changes will affect their philanthropic endeavors and learn how to navigate them in the most efficient manner possible.
OLDER GENERATIONS PASSING ON ASSETS, NOT NECESSARILY HABITS
It's conservatively estimated that as much as $30 trillion will pass from baby boomers to their millennial children over the next 30 years.2 This extraordinary transfer of wealth will have a tremendous impact on philanthropic giving. While the younger generations are poised to inherit their parents' money, it looks increasingly likely that they won't inherit their habits. Rather, they will seek to blaze their own path when it comes to addressing the problems in our society. Non-profit institutions need to be ready to handle this rising generation of philanthropists, because the old way of doing business may no longer measure up.
Older generations of givers, such as "traditionalists" (born mid-1920s to mid-1940s) and baby boomers (born mid-1940s to 1964), saw non-profit, philanthropic giving and investments in for-profit corporations as utterly separate pursuits. They expected the non-profits they engaged with to focus on providing a service or contributing social value and they expected their for-profit investments to do no more than simply provide financial return. This was simply the way things worked, and members of these generations typically saw little reason to rock the boat. Giving, in and of itself, was their way of having an impact and they generally trusted that the non-profits they gave to were applying their donations in the best possible manner. Rarely, if ever, did they seek out tangible evidence regarding the outcome of their giving.
YOUNGER GIVERS WANT MEASURABLE RESULTS
However, members of Generation X (born 1965 to 1981) and the millennial generation (born 1981 to 1997) do not share the preceding generations' trust in and deference to traditional institutions.3 This skeptical attitude affects how they perceive philanthropic non-profits. The media often presents a stereotypical view of these younger generations, but many of the habits and behaviors attributed to younger people are mostly unfounded. For instance, while millennials are often portrayed as device-obsessed and self-centered, in fact, they tend to be action-oriented, civic-minded and willing to experiment with new models of making change. In general, younger philanthropists are seeking ways to solve society's most intractable problems by investing their time and resources efficiently.
They look at the state of the world and our society and can't help but feel that traditional methods have failed to adequately address the problems we face. It leads them to wonder: If we haven't solved our biggest problems by now, why should we keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome?4 They are also a much more diverse cohort, and as such are likely to be interested in a wider array of social issues and causes than the generations that preceded them.5 In particular, young women are playing a bigger role in philanthropic giving. By 2019, two-thirds of wealthy Americans will be women.
To them, giving is not the end of the story. They want to be able to see the impact that their donations are having on the world. They want to be able to measure success, however they define it, and to hold those responsible for achieving that success accountable.
As of 2019, millennials and Generation X comprise 139 million people, almost double the size of the baby boomers (71 million people).7 Traditional non-profits cannot afford to ignore the preferences of younger donors, but will struggle to attract them unless they are able to address their need for greater transparency and measurable results. Already, newer, more dynamic models of giving are presenting non-profits with stiff competition.
SOCIAL FINANCE CONTINUES TO GROW
Though traditional philanthropy has shown continued growth in total dollars, it typically hovers around 2% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and rarely goes higher than that. Newer models, however, are showing that Americans' capacity for giving is not maxed out. According to the Global Impact Investing Network, measurable investments in impact vehicles reached $502 billion in 2018, which is 1.2 times larger than the philanthropic market of $427 billion.
These vehicles, which fall under the umbrella of "social finance," do more than just pursue a positive societal or environmental impact; they also seek to offer a satisfactory financial return, blurring the line between traditional charitable giving and investing. While traditionalists and baby boomers might find this hybrid approach to be unorthodox, younger givers see no conflict. To them, environmental, social and governance issues are intertwined with financial health and long-term, corporate sustainability.
Rather than limit themselves to writing checks to traditional non-profits, younger givers are looking across the whole spectrum of business models in pursuit of opportunities to make a difference. Traditional non-profits still have their place, but a "social investor" will endeavor to compile a portfolio of solutions that draws from both the non- and for-profit worlds. This means that traditional non-profits can no longer assume that they will be the most obvious destination for charitable giving as Generation X and millennials take over from their parents and grandparents.
TAX CODE CHANGES COMPLICATE GIVING
In fact, given the recent changes to the U.S. tax code, traditional non-profits could have even more of an uphill battle attracting donations from young givers.
Increase to the Standard Deduction
Legislation passed at the end of 2017 raised the standard deduction to $24,000 (for taxpayers filing jointly in 2018) or $12,000 (for single taxpayers in 2018). Along with caps on the deductibility of state and local income taxes and property taxes, this is expected to result in fewer taxpayers being able to itemize their deductions. As a consequence, some taxpayers may attempt to exceed the standard deduction in a particular year by bunching their deductible expenses — particularly charitable gifts — in order to maximize their tax benefit. Instead of giving an equal amount of charitable gifts over the course of several years, for example, they would try to give as much as they could in a single year and nothing at all in the other years.
Younger taxpayers are likely to be most affected by this change. Institutions that rely on small- to medium-sized gifts, like a college or university's annual fund, may find it difficult to get young donors to give outside of their bunching year. They will have to take steps to encourage regular giving by offering incentives that rival the potential tax benefits of bunching, such as offering donors networking opportunities and a monthly subscription giving model.
Temporary Increase in Estate, Gift and Generation Skipping Transfer Tax Exemption
The new legislation also temporarily increases the exemption for estate, gift and generation skipping transfer tax from $5.6 million (2017) to $11.18 million (2018) per person through December 2025. As a result, donors will be incentivized to develop a philanthropic strategy for their Generation X and millennial heirs rather than establishing testamentary charitable gifts. As such, non-profits will need to focus their planned giving programs on lifetime giving as opposed to soliciting bequests, and invest in developing a strategy that appeals to the next generation of donors by emphasizing new methods of providing impact.
Introduction of the "Newman's Own Exemption"
One new tool that the tax legislation provides foundations is known as the "Newman's Own Exemption." This allows private foundations to own for-profit companies without needing to pay taxes on the revenue they generate — provided that all revenue goes toward the foundation's mission. In addition to being a way to create a new revenue stream, operating foundations may be able to use this to experiment with different ways of executing their mission and to appeal to younger givers interested in pursuing opportunities outside of the traditional non-profit structure.
DONORS AND NON-PROFITS MUST EVOLVE TOGETHER
When it comes to attempting to solve the problems they care most about, non-profit institutions and philanthropists alike now have more options than ever before. The continued evolution of the philanthropic market, from a purely non-profit pursuit to one that blends both for- and non-profit methods, will have a profound effect on how we view giving — less as charity, and more as a social investment.
As philanthropists come to think of themselves as social investors, non-profits must also redefine themselves as "for-purpose" institutions. This must be more than a rebranding. An effective for-purpose institution must understand what social investors want and strive to provide it to them, positioning themselves as a collaborative partner that can aid in identifying opportunities across the investment spectrum. Together, social investors and for-purpose organizations can create blended portfolios that best reflect their specific value sets, with the goal of finding new ways of solving old problems.
"From Philanthropy to Social Investment: Funding the Ecosystem"
Finding meaning and purpose in how wealth is deployed for philanthropic ends is a balancing act. A “philanthropic portfolio" can help givers find that balance.
In "From Philanthropy to Social Investment: A New Way of Giving," I discussed how the emergence of new philanthropic funding models allows strategic philanthropists to have a greater impact on the causes they care about most. Alongside traditional non-profits, these newer models — income-generating non-profits; for-profit social ventures; socially responsible businesses; and carefully screened, traditional for-profit businesses — form an ecosystem that provides multiple ways of addressing a single problem. (Sophisticated philanthropists, like Bloomberg Philanthropies, often partner with the government to solve key issues, as well.)
In many respects, these five models are similar to investment asset classes, each with their own specific role to play. Just as no single asset class can provide the growth or asset protection necessary in a well-constructed investment portfolio, no one funding model can fully address the various complexities of a systemic social issue like homelessness, illiteracy or protecting the environment.
As in investing, donors are wise to construct a diversified "philanthropic portfolio" that utilizes these models to varying degrees in accordance with their long-term philanthropic and wealth goals. Doing so can help donors move beyond simply addressing the symptoms of a social issue to get at the deeper root causes.
DEVELOPING A FRAMEWORK
In order to build an effective philanthropic portfolio, a donor must first understand the strengths of each funding model, their unique applications and the differences between them.
The best way to illustrate this is to frame it in terms of a particular issue. Take homelessness, for example. A typical donor who is concerned about homelessness likely donates to traditional non-profit organizations, such as shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries. Organizations like these provide vital and necessary services to those struggling with homelessness, but they are primarily focused on addressing the symptoms of homelessness — not its root causes. It's only one piece of a very large, complicated puzzle.
For a donor interested in addressing the totality of homelessness and not merely its immediate effects, a broader approach is needed. Looking at the larger issue, the donor might identify a number of smaller issues that must be addressed to effectively combat homelessness: a lack of affordable housing, a poor job market, a lack of access to educational opportunities or affordable daycare. A multifaceted problem requires a multifaceted solution.
While designing such a solution might seem daunting, it's simpler than it may first appear. The key to this process is remembering that it is iterative. Donors should take a phased approach that starts small and gradually evolves into a full-fledged philanthropic portfolio that suits both the issue at hand and the donor's circumstances.
Start Simple and Be Strategic
Donors shouldn't feel compelled to jump in head first and start funding all five types of models immediately. Instead, they should choose the most familiar areas, which can serve as a foundation for the addition of more complex or advanced models down the road.
For most people, this will likely mean funding traditional and income-generating non-profits, as well as making selective investments in for-profit companies.
For example, a donor beginning to put together a philanthropic portfolio aimed at addressing homelessness might start by funding non-profit homeless shelters in their area and loaning money to an income-generating non-profit that operates a low-cost health care clinic for economically disadvantaged people or a job placement agency .
They may also wish to recalibrate their investment portfolio to ensure they are not investing in traditional for-profit companies that may be exacerbating the problem they wish to solve — for example, a financial institution that engages in predatory lending.
These first steps represent an entrée to the more advanced models, namely, for-profit social ventures and socially responsible businesses.
Profit for a Purpose
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between for-profit social ventures and socially responsible businesses, as they have a lot in common. However, the distinction is important.
Essentially, a for-profit social venture is a business that makes a particular social outcome — say, addressing homelessness — the centerpiece of its efforts. For example, Find Edmonton is a Canadian furniture company that sells furniture to consumers at a profit, and then uses those profits to provide furniture to people who are just emerging from homelessness free of charge. The profit motive and the charitable motive are one and the same. These ventures are sometimes referred to as double- or triple-bottom-line businesses, as they measure themselves not only on fiscal performance, but also on their social and/or environmental impact.
For a socially responsible business, profit is still the main motive. However, these businesses make an effort to ensure that their pursuit of profit takes social welfare into account. Fig Loans, a Houston, Texas based company, offers installment loans for low-income Americans who might otherwise need to rely on predatory payday loans. Fig Loans makes little to no money on the loans themselves; instead, they provide a fair price on small loans up to $800. This allows the recipient to manage a financial crisis without resorting to predatory lenders and repay the loan in the shortest amount of time available. By partnering with non-profit organizations, Fig Loans earns profit by building up their customers' credit scores over time and then referring them to traditional banks. Rather than taking advantage of a vulnerable group of people in pursuit of profit, their business model incentivizes them to better the lives of their customers.
Fig Loans, like many socially responsible businesses, is a certified "B Corporation," which is a private certification that tracks and measures how effective a company is at achieving its social and environmental goals. The certification is administered by a non-profit organization, B Lab.
Organizations such as these need more direct help and involvement than those in the other categories. Donors may want to co-sign a line of credit or make a direct investment in return for equity in order to provide these ventures with the capital needed to get off the ground.
IDENTIFYING THE RIGHT FUNDING VEHICLE
Once donors determine what they want to fund with their philanthropic portfolio, they must then determine the right vehicles to carry out the funding. There are several options:
Each of these vehicles can be useful to donors interested in funding the ecosystem, though donor advised funds, private foundations and charitable LLCs offer the most flexibility. Charitable LLCs are perhaps the most flexible, as donors can take the income tax charitable deduction when they distribute from the LLC, rather than when they fund it, as is the case with a donor advised fund.
Ultimately, each of these vehicles can be invested according to a specific, values-based mandate set out by the donor. Utilizing multiple vehicles and aligning each with a specific funding goal within the ecosystem, known as "stacking," can be particularly effective.
While tackling large social issues and causes can be daunting, the framework that donors develop around these new funding models offers a greater sense of control and accomplishment. By recognizing the complexity of these issues, donors can confront each facet of their chosen issue with a purpose-specific tool that can make the overall mission seem less overwhelming.
In the end, finding meaning and purpose in how wealth is deployed for philanthropic ends is a balancing act, and the "philanthropic portfolio" approach is one method that donors can use to find that balance.
Refresh philanthropic strategies
Helping established organizations develop their overall and issue area-specific theories of change and theories of action, designing new strategies for investment portfolios, improving organizational alignment, and ensuring effective governance.
Launch new philanthropic organizations
Helping philanthropists achieve their vision by supporting the design of new philanthropic entities or projects—including foundations, limited liability companies, public-private partnerships, hosted philanthropic initiatives, and multi-donor collaborative platforms—encompassing strategy design, theory of change, and operating model.
Design major “big bets”
Developing the strategy and implementation plan for major marquee philanthropic initiatives that are deploying significant capital (from $100 million to more than $1 billion) focused on a targeted problem or issue area.
Develop corporate purpose strategies
Partnering with companies to implement strategies and initiatives that increase the social impact of their core business—and in the process, motivating employees, identifying and minimizing risk, and increasing their competitiveness.
Improve the performance of high-priority grantees
Working directly with the grantees of our foundation partners to support them in transforming their strategies, organizational models, governance models, and operations.
Launch multi-donor initiatives
Helping philanthropies partner with other donors or funders in order to amplify the scale of their impact and designing the strategies, operating models, and governance models of major philanthropic collaboratives that pool capital or facilitate strategic alignment among multiple donors.
Helping establish processes for sound measurement and evaluation, and determining impact through a clear understanding of what’s working and what’s not.
Helping philanthropic organizations strengthen their board structure, processes, and composition to ensure sound, strategic oversight.
The philanthropic response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the sector at its best. From the launch of community-based rapid-response funds to the development of diagnostics and vaccines, philanthropy is showing up both to help flatten the curve in the short term and to address the inequities the crisis will exacerbate over the long term.
What’s striking is not only the scale of capital being committed by major philanthropists (at least $10.3 billion globally in May 2020, according to Candid, which is tracking major grants) but also how it is being given: at record speed, with fewer conditions, and in greater collaboration with others. According to the Council on Foundations, almost 750 foundations have signed a public pledge to streamline grant-making processes, and individual donors are partnering with their peers to make sizable grants with less paperwork.
Confronted with the global pandemic, individual and institutional philanthropy has been responsive, engaged, and nimble. The challenge—and opportunity—for the sector will be to make those features stick. The gravitational pull toward old ways of working will be strong, especially as philanthropies grapple with the impact of an economic downturn on their own endowments. But many of the practices that have emerged during this pandemic, including the five that we highlight in this article, should be expanded and formalized as the world heads into the long process of recovery (exhibit).
Reduce the burden for grantees
Over the past 20 years, the philanthropic sector has adopted a more data-driven and rigorous approach. While those developments have strengthened the field in many ways, they have made the process of seeking and managing grants more cumbersome, especially for small, community-based organizations. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated moves to reduce those hurdles, prompting many foundations to relax grant requirements, speed up decision making, and give recipients additional flexibility in how they use funds.
What would it take to simplify further the processes for grant approval and reporting? Looking to college admissions for inspiration, imagine a common application for grant seekers, similar to the Common App platform that enables students to apply to many colleges using a single application. There could be a central clearinghouse with data-collection tools that nonprofits could use to share information with any donor, thus eliminating the burden of bespoke application forms and different data-reporting requirements. The platform could also store each organizations’ grant-approval history, as well the reviews of those grants. It could even spur donors to adopt a shared calendar of application and decision deadlines, allowing nonprofits to plan their annual budgets. If such a platform could trim just 15 percent off the cost of raising money from foundations, US nonprofits could save at least $4 billion a year.
The barrier to such innovation is not cost but collective will. Some efforts are already underway—for instance, the JustFund web platform allows grassroots organizations to connect with small foundations and giving circles through a common proposal. But the real transformation can occur only if leading foundations collectively adopt a single platform. The pandemic offers proof that philanthropies are willing to bypass their unique vetting processes in the interest of speed and impact. As the crisis abates, donors should question whether their processes produce enough impact to justify their costs—and whether it might be time for a sector-wide effort to ease nonprofits’ administrative burdens.
Accelerate the pace and volume of giving
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a number of donors to dig deeper into their endowments and change their grant-making approaches to deploy more capital than they had planned. Some have doubled or quadrupled their payout rates, others will distribute 20 percent of their total assets this year, and others have committed as much as $1 billion to COVID-19 relief.2 All are recognizing that this historic pandemic demands an extraordinary response.
If ever there was a time for foundations to consider permanently accelerating the pace and volume of giving, it’s now. At present, US foundation assets total almost $1.1 trillion, according to Candid, while another more than $120 billion sits in donor-advised funds (DAFs). Foundations typically pay out around 5 percent of those assets each year to meet the federally mandated minimum, and DAFs have no such payout requirement, prompting many to demand faster distribution of dollars that have already produced tax benefits for their donors.
If ever there was a time for foundations to consider permanently accelerating the pace and volume of giving, it’s now.
In 2002, our colleagues Paul Jansen and David Katz argued in Aura Solution Company Limited Quarterly that donors should assess the time value of philanthropy in the same way an investor does: putting more value on a dollar deployed today than one spent in the future. The conclusion was that delaying grant making in favor of capital accumulation often exacts a significant cost. While an increasing number of philanthropists have since committed to giving away the majority of their wealth in their lifetimes instead of conserving their assets to exist in perpetuity, the average annual spend down of foundation endowments has barely budged.
As we enter the long recovery effort, boards and leadership teams, as well as individual philanthropists, should have explicit discussions about the rationales for their giving horizons. Does perpetuity help achieve your social-impact objectives, or is it serving another objective, such as family unity or founder legacy? If family connection is the primary goal, is setting up a permanent foundation the best way to achieve it? What do you believe your giving will be able to do better 50 or 100 years from now? If you have already received the tax benefit for your giving, why not disburse more of the funds sooner?
With approximately 112,000 foundations in the United States alone, a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions is neither appropriate nor desirable. But for philanthropists tackling issues that are compounding and getting harder to solve with every passing day—among them, racial inequity, weak public health and education systems, and the climate crisis—accelerating spending may make sense.
Partner with other donors to go further faster
Private investors typically look to investment managers who have specific expertise and a successful track record; private-equity investors frequently deploy their capital alongside others they trust, following others’ due-diligence efforts rather than conducting their own. Yet when it comes to philanthropic giving, many individual donors—and institutional foundations—often go it alone. They build sizable teams that develop expertise, create new initiatives, and deploy grants largely in isolation from other donors.
The pandemic response has demanded a different approach, bringing donors together at the local, state, national, and global levels to pool resources, align on priorities, and deploy funds rapidly through collaborative funding platforms. For instance, seven foundations partnered to create the Families and Workers Fund, providing flexible funding to organizations working to prevent people from falling deeper into poverty because of the effects of COVID-19. Similarly, the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator was formed to develop treatment options, anchored by $125 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and Mastercard. It was quickly supported with follow-on funding from others.
While donor collaboratives existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic, they were more the exception than the rule. Going forward, what if each foundation and donor aimed to allocate at least 25 percent of their funding to support initiatives led by other donors? Building nimble, impact-oriented governance models is no small feat when there are multiple donors with their own strategies involved. Yet such partnerships are highly effective when they rally donors around concrete and measurable goals—and when they collaborate to scale, share expertise, and combine diverse networks.
Invest more in local communities
Philanthropists are often drawn to global problems, leading them to invest in the well-being and empowerment of people living thousands of miles away. While these contributions are critical to address global inequities and injustices, the pandemic has rightly turned many philanthropists’ attention to the severe inequities in their own backyards, producing a swell of local giving. According to Candid, almost 600 state and local community-focused COVID-19 funds have cropped up around the United States, attracting contributions from private foundations, corporations, and individual donors alike.
While such local giving has often been deprioritized by philanthropists focused on national or global issues, the current crisis is a reminder that we each depend on—and have an obligation to support—the strength and resilience of our local community. All philanthropists should consider increasing the percentage of their giving that is truly local, looking beyond organizations that primarily serve elite interests. Donors should look to local organizations that support communities of color and those that are led by people of color, particularly women. Structural racism has left these organizations chronically underfunded, yet they are often doing the most vital work to strengthen local communities and reduce inequality.
Upending power dynamics and empowering grassroots leaders will require many foundations and donors to shift their mindsets and build new capabilities. Local giving is an opportunity for philanthropists to test and learn from a range of community-led and participatory grant-making models, which they can then apply in their work across their countries or around the world.
Support the public sector
While philanthropists have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with record levels of support, the massive responsibility for leading the response and recovery falls primarily on the shoulders of the public sector. Philanthropists have rightly coordinated with city and state governments during this crisis—for example, in the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund launched by the Chicago Community Trust, the United Way of Metro Chicago, and the City of Chicago.
While a handful of foundations collaborate with government at the state and local levels and an increasing number seek to influence government policies by supporting advocacy, the vast majority of foundations have steered clear of investing in public-sector capacity building. This is a significant missed opportunity. Given the vast scale of government (which dwarfs the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors), the use of philanthropic dollars to improve the efficacy of government is a potential high-return investment.
The vast majority of foundations have steered clear of investing in public-sector capacity building.
There are several ways that private philanthropy can help make government more effective. First is to double down on its role of providing risk capital to support innovative programs. Now is the time to collaborate with public-sector partners to plan, test, and validate new approaches, which agencies can then adopt if proven effective.
Second is to support cross-agency efforts that address underlying problems. Government agencies tend to focus on delivering against their particular mandates (for instance, financing affordable housing and policing). They find it challenging to address root causes across departments (for instance, getting the homeless into permanent supportive housing instead of police placing them in temporary shelters).
Third is to address talent and personnel constraints. That can take a few forms: training government employees and leaders who are in critical positions, helping governments identify and attract top talent, and supporting the creation or expansion of positions that fill specific skill gaps (for instance, data analytics and supply-chain management).
In addition to supporting government agencies’ effectiveness, perhaps philanthropy’s most crucial role is to support the public-policy ideation that is necessary for the recovery stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a historic moment to make major changes to our economic and social orders; private philanthropy can help drive the reimagination by funding the analysis, debate, and advocacy of new ideas, with a particular focus on ensuring that vulnerable communities are not left behind. To help safeguard public-sector accountability and community involvement, donors can strengthen the ecosystem of the think tanks, advocacy organizations, movements, and media needed to ensure that the public policies that drive social and economic recovery are responsive to community needs.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, donors and foundation teams have been working around the clock, drawing upon their missions and values to guide them through uncertainty. With this renewed sense of purpose comes an opportunity to reshape priorities and practices for the next era of giving. The pandemic has demonstrated that the sector can and will pivot quickly in a crisis. The challenge for leaders working in philanthropy is to expand and institutionalize the practices that emerged during the crisis for the work that lies ahead.