This has been a pivotal year in civil society. A number of real shifts and developments in the sector could change the way we work and amp up the generative power we have to help shape society at large. It brings us to an overarching theme: while it’s often been repeated that the nonprofit sector is there to help pick up after the failures of the state and the market, what we’re seeing is a pivot to a more generative design role in democracy. If that is true, we must hold ourselves to greater account when it comes to inclusivity and equity. It starts with us.
These trends reflect what is top-of-mind as we close 2019 and begin a new decade. But this list is clearly not exhaustive. That’s why we ask you to add your own thoughts in the comment section.
1. A new generation makes itself heard and felt in the public sphere.
It’s not for nothing that Greta Thunberg, age 16, was named Time Magazine’s person of the year. At NPQ, we have always urged caution about generational stereotypes. Truth is, most members of the post-millennial generation (often called Generation Z or “zoomers”) are not political activists, but it is also true that an unusually high percentage of them are. And their collective force has taken the world by storm. (At the same time, according to BoardSource, only 17 percent of nonprofit board members are under 40.)
We have covered this new generation of social movements widely. One of the first notable movements of this new generation was Black Lives Matter. Many of the most prominent victims of police violence—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice—were 18 or younger themselves. (12, in Tamir’s case.) So, it shouldn’t surprise us that youth were the ones to lead the response. Other notable examples, as a recent Teen Vogue article details, include the Parkland students who started March for Our Lives, and of course climate change activists, such as the Sunrise Movement that helped fuel proposals for a Green New Deal. What distinguishes many of these movements is a willingness to challenge the status quo and not accept as normal what have been considered mainstream, bipartisan, standard policy prescriptions. How this wave of activism is ultimately integrated in our society remains to be seen, but already these movements have upended many mainstream “common sense” assumptions.
2. Journalism embraces its largely nonprofit future.
It makes perfect sense to us that investigative journalism would eventually become a more significant element of the nonprofit sector—a free press and healthy civil society are both essential building blocks of democracy, and the news should ideally serve the public good. But, as we know, for-profit news organizations are set up to produce profit, and if this must be at the expense of real journalism—well, in too many cases, so be it. Both national and local nonprofit journalism sites began to hit their stride in a big way this past year, and an interesting trend took hold in the rise in reporting collaborations between them. These have produced real fourth-estate activity, as in the investigation of nonprofit hospital billing practices. Collaborations like these have not just produced change in individual institutions but raised policy issues to be addressed by government. Thus, even as the public is losing faith in the old organization of news, a new option is emerging, one that is nonprofit and networked.
We’ve also seen more conversions of for-profit news sites to nonprofit. This trend started to take hold in 2018, with Montréal’s La Presse converting to nonprofit status and a rebellion among battered newspaper staff in Denver and other US cities explicitly calling for a shift to nonprofit status. Newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times have nonprofit owners but are themselves for-profit business. It was in 2019, however, when the dam broke, as the Salt Lake Tribune filed its application for nonprofit status. Some doubted the IRS would agree, although we rather suspected it would. (Indeed, in November, the application was approved.) One could argue the incipient wave of conversions may be limited due to the dominance of monopolized entities, but that may end up as a useful distinction in the eyes of the public—who, we hope, will give to support news they can trust and use confidently in their democratic decision-making.
3. Exploration of narratives redirects our work constantly.
Although it started before this year, 2019 was a year in which those active in civil society began to interrogate their own “narratives”—the stories we use to support the attitudes and assumptions that underlie the way we work. At NPQ, we have seen this trend take hold in a new consciousness about how the structures of subjugation and colonization inform and shape the language and practice of, among other things, domestic and international charity and aid work, around the content and financing of museums, around the habits of philanthropy, and the exclusionary practices of the whole sector in terms of the demographics of its leadership. Surfacing these narratives can be uncomfortable for some but is liberating for others. Those who try to tread a middle ground find themselves pushed to make choices that matter, even if they feel destabilizing.
Power concedes nothing without a struggle. These struggles are internal as well as external, but they must be had, and the time is now.
4. A progressive policy agenda emerges in the US.
For decades, progressive policy in the US, such as it is, has been full of half-measures. Health insurance is one example. In the US, Obamacare hangs on by a thread. Meanwhile, in the UK, after Conservative Boris Johnson won a landslide victory, he pledged to increase national health spending by £33.9 billion a year (US $44 billion). Let’s do the math now, shall we? Given that nearly five times as many people live in the US, that would be, on a ten-year basis, equivalent to the US raising health spending by $2 trillion. But, of course, Medicare for All—which the UK has had since 1948—is seen as radical here.
What is new, however, is that US progressive policies—which have so often been penny-ante fare—have now been laid out plainly for all to see. At NPQ, we have covered not just Medicare for All, but also the Green New Deal, a $500 billion proposal by Senator Elizabeth Warren to provide for housing affordability, a proposal for full student loan forgiveness by Senator Bernie Sanders, calls by Warren and Sanders for wealth taxes that could raise up to $2.75 trillion over 10 years, and more. Whatever one thinks of the individual proposals, what is clear is the disappearance of progressive timidity, a necessary step if there is to be any hope that the solutions proposed might be sufficient to address the scale of the social problems our society faces.
What has made this shift possible in large part is the remarkable emergence of women of color running for and gaining office both locally and nationally. While there is no typifying the leaders involved, they have brought a boldness of language and a difference in perspective that provides anchors to a more progressive national agenda. Unfortunately, this is not being reflected in the presidential race. This use of communities of color (and women) for ballast rather than direct representation is insupportable the same way in political life as it in in the rest of the civil sector.
5. Cultural revival gains ground in Indian Country.
“We are still here” has become a rallying cry among many American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians, who are increasingly make their voices felt and are piercing through the veil of invisibility. Cultural revivals take time and it is notable that many of the changes under way in Indian Country today are the fruits of efforts that have developed over decades since the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which led to a policy breakthrough that restored basic sovereignty rights, granted by treaties often more than 100 years old, but rarely honored. More recently, the movement to defend Standing Rock and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline galvanized many Indigenous nations.
Still, 2019 was a year of breakthroughs. It is notable that it was in 2019 when Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), D-New Mexico, and Rep. Sharice Davids (Ho Chunk), D-Kansas, were the first two Native American women ever seated in Congress. It was in 2019 when Native Americans in Philanthropy and Candid launched a web platform on investing in native communities. It was in 2019 when the first high-profile presidential forum hosted in Indian Country occurred. It was in 2019 when the Associated Press distributed the first article ever published by a Native media outfit. And speaking of that Native media outfit, 2019 was a year when Indian Country Today saw its readership triple from 160,000 visitors a month to 500,000. We fully expect to see this wave to proceed even further in 2020.
6. Reparations for slavery enters mainstream political discussion.
As the saying (sometimes misattributed to Mohandas Gandhi) goes, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.” Back in June 2014, when Ta-Nehisi Coates authored the “Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic, the article received favorable press, but it was not taken seriously by mainstream politicians. Fast forward to 2019—and the picture has certainly changed. As NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez wrote last spring, “You’ve probably noticed that in the past few months reparations, as an idea, has moved from the fringe of public consideration to the center stage that is the next presidential election. To date, at least six Democratic candidates have voiced support for it.”
Plenty of resistance persists. And many of those candidate statements leave a lot to be desired. Still, some movement has occurred. In April, students at Georgetown voted to assess themselves a fee to create a modest fund “to directly benefit the families of the 272 slaves that were owned and sold by the Jesuit priests that operated Georgetown.” And in June, Congress held hearings on a bill to create a commission on reparations after decades of ignoring the issue. There is a long path to go before reparations will be the law of the land, but there is little doubt that a cultural shift is under way here too.
7. Puerto Rico says, “¡Basta ya!” (“Enough already!”)
In Puerto Rico, when 889 pages of chat transcripts became publicly available in June, there was no impeachment process launched against Governor Ricardo Rosselló. Instead, civil society took to the streets. A month before, in May, NPQ had hosted a webinar in which Puerto Rican panelists discussed the need for Puerto Rico, in the wake of bankruptcy and hurricane Maria, to rebuild its own economic system. In this context, the unveiling of a chat transcript that revealed disrespectful, secret conversations among government leaders was the last straw.
As NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez points out, the song “Afilando los cuchillos (Sharpening the Knives),” which was coproduced by the singer iLe (Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar), rapper Residente (Rene Juan Perez Jolgar), and the Latin Trap artist Bad Bunny (Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio), become an unofficial anthem for protests in San Juan that involved hundreds of thousands. The governor resigned in late July and was out by early August. The really interesting part, however, is what has happened since—the emergence of a network of democratic assemblies among Puerto Rican civil society, which Suarez notes, are “moving towards creating working groups tasked with designing and implementing action plans, and workshops to educate people on participatory democracy.” As NPQ observed in September, the focus is on “auto-gestión” or self-management.
8. The public awakens to the danger of mega-donor dominance in philanthropy.
Trends NPQ has been tracking for a long time—the growing use of donor-advised funds, the rising dominance of mega-donors—broke into the public consciousness in a big way in 2019. Credit for this goes partially to publications like Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas and Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva. Their books came out in 2018, but their arguments were popularized this year and once the attention of the media was galvanized the pieces of the puzzle began to form a whole view of philanthropy that was quite disturbing.
Also in 2018, NPQ helped to surface research by Dr. Patrick Rooney of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI that revealed a major “dollars up, donors down” donation trend that now has extended over more than a decade. This research revealed that small to midsize donors are disappearing at a rapid rate even as the amount of money given by the ultra-rich increases. Additional work this year by Rooney and his colleague Dr. Una Osili confirm the depth and persistence of the trend, suggesting that the colonizing, rather than democratizing, nature of philanthropy is emerging as dominant. Can that be reversed?
Accountability flouting behavior by high-wealth individuals, such as Google cofounder Larry Page, who is using his DAFs to avoid the required five-percent private foundation payout, also was attention-grabbing. And when high-profile comedians like Hasan Minhaj take on the topic of philanthropy’s control by the wealthy… well, you know something in the popular culture has shifted.
9. In community development, a shift to leadership of color.
As NPQ has written for years, every year nonprofits say they will diversify their boards and leadership, and every year this does not happen. NPQ’s Marty Levine noted not long ago that, “If organizations want to diversify their leadership, they need to be willing to challenge their past and shake their foundations, upending assumptions of who is capable of leading and managing.” But in at least one sector, community development, something did happen. Earlier this year, our friends at Shelterforce hosted a virtual “panel” that featured five leaders of color, Priya Jayachandran of the National Housing Trust, Lisa Mensah of the Opportunity Finance Network, Tony Pickett of Grounded Solutions Network, Lisa Rice of the National Fair Housing Alliance, and Akilah Watkins-Butler of the Center for Community Progress. As Keli Tianga put it, “over the past two years that a significant number of national organizations in the community development field were not only experiencing leadership transitions, but were going from white organization heads to people of color (not always for the first time, but for the most part)…given concerns spanning decades about racial diversity in the field, we believed this represented something of a watershed moment.”
In October, at a joint conference organized by Pickett’s and Watkins-Butler’s organizations, the two joined a panel, led by Don Chen, President of the Surdna Foundation (also a leader of color), which also included Rice, Calvin Gladney of Smart Growth America, Marietta Rodriguez of NeighborWorks America. The Surdna Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation are supporting peer mentoring to help the new leaders succeed in their positions. Much might be learned by the rest of our sector, which, as Mistinguette Smith notes, is facing a crossroads regarding whether our organizations make the transition to leadership of color—or fail to do so.
10. Repeated, effective exposure of the systematic use of philanthropy to cover for dastardly deeds.
Over the past decade, there has been a growing public understanding of the way corporate evildoers use philanthropy not just to prop up their reputations but to keep themselves in positions where their networks are dynamic and their influence is high. But this year has seen a surge of protest by those who want to pull the veil off that game. This has been driven in part by the continued revelations about how the descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler—the nation’s 19th-wealthiest family as of 2016, and leading arts philanthropists—earned