These trends and predictions reflect what is top-of-mind as we end 2017 and begin 2018—but this list is clearly not exhaustive. That’s why we ask you to add your thoughts in the comment section.

Seven Nonprofit Trends of 2017

  1. Spontaneous collaborations were the order of the day as activist organizations were forced from the very start of 2017 to respond to the whack-a-mole policy atmosphere that threatened the hard-won human and civil rights of various ethnically, racially, and otherwise disenfranchised groups. Other efforts have reflected this fluid networking toward purpose, like the loose coalition of nonprofit infrastructure groups bringing the “overhead myth” to a steady painfully slow demise and the successful lobbying to stymie the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. What distinguishes these new, more dynamic collaborative alliances is their temporary, goal-oriented, “get-’er-done” nature, their dependence on loose but increasingly intersectional ties, and the resonance among individuals who sign on to the campaigns mounted.
  2. More activist/constituent giving and doing. Again, once 2017 kicked off, nonprofits known for their defense of civil and human rights benefited from a viral kind of giving in response to perceived threats. Notably, the ACLU raised an astonishing $24 million in a single weekend, and Planned Parenthood received 80,000 donations in the three days after the election. The organizations that received this support were ones that had distinguished themselves through consistent and bold defense of various principles and values. Among them were some press outlets, old and new, that provided investigative firepower. This outpouring of money, often paired with a willingness to protest or resist, was an early indicator that civil society was waking from its slumber and attached in many cases to nonprofit groups that articulated clear, socially resonant values. This principle isn’t tied to a particular party or organization, and it says a bundle about the potential power within and around civil society organizations that’s often dormant.
  3. Donors shift to more independent giving, and donor-advised funds continue to outpace other vehicles. With the rise of more nonprofit information sources and increasingly accessible ways of giving, individual donors are depending less on vehicles that make giving decisions for them and more on vehicles that provide relatively easy ways of holding and distributing charitable dollars. This was, once again, noted repeatedly in charitable studies, as well as by those who believe that DAFs require greater levels of regulation.
  4. The independent press comes under attack as journalism recovers its role as a civil society function. All the ranting about fake news and failing outlets aside, the public appears to have recommitted to a free press. More and more outlets are transitioning to nonprofit status or creating a hybrid environment distinguished by a collaborative inter-site atmosphere. Some fear this environment will devolve into an echo chamber, but it’s equally likely independent journalistic excellence will be better acknowledged as an essential and treasured element of our civil society. The success of the #MeToo movement is one sign of a revival of an investigative journalism tradition some had left for dead.
  5. Racial equity issues visit and do not leave. Is there anything more corrosive of civil society than a racism so institutionalized that participants can deny its persistent reality, immediacy and importance? The nonprofit and philanthropic sectors have had their feet held to the fire over the last few years on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Results of research tracking for shifts in leadership has been disappointing, ending with this year’s BoardSource report which found that levels of diversity on nonprofit boards may have even declined. These issues have been in constant play in the larger society, disallowing groups that have traditionally tried to stay silent from standing on the sidelines. One example of this was at Mar-a-Lago, where some charities only reluctantly cancelled fundraising gala plans even after the president’s statements in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. But examples of new strategies for achieving greater equity are emerging in specific fields, as well as more sophisticated strategies, such as investing in leadership development for nonprofit executives of color.
  6. A perfect storm has been set in motion for the nonprofit regulatory environment. The end of 2017 was marked by the fight to stave off certain provisions included in the GOP tax proposals with some wins and losses. Long story short, nonprofits appear to be in the crosshairs of a number of federal lawmakers, with some states not far behind. This situation isn’t helped by the fact that the IRS, as the main federal monitor of tax-exempt organizations, has suffered from progressively greater underfunding and is unpopular with many lawmakers in the wake of the so-called Tea Party scandal. While IRS funding and personnel levels continue to shrink, applications for 501c3 exemption have increased from 63,000 in 2005 to almost 80,000 in 2016, according to information compiled from the IRS Data Book. At the same time, the IRS has instituted a new process for “vetting” applicants with the 1023-EZ application form, which means that more than half of new nonprofits are no longer required to demonstrate their eligibility for tax exemption; they merely have to attest and provide assurances to the IRS. If one were conspiracy-minded, one might believe that this was a purposeful set-up. But purposeful or not, the situation calls for a sectoral response.
  7. Pie-in-the-sky social enterprise gives way to real wealth sharing alternatives and action to hold business accountable. This year has been full of stakeholder actions to hold corporations accountable for their investments and behavior. It’s also been full of municipal and regional attempts to establish local economies that benefit workers, either through shared ownership and co-op mechanisms or through higher minimum wage ordinances and laws.

And now, for our annual glimpse into the future…

Predictions for 2018

NPQ expects we will see…
  1. More attacks on the civil sector, requiring a more proactive stance by advocates.
  2. Social entrepreneur faddishness will give way to real collective economic enterprise, but only following a serious philanthropic sorting-out, distinguishing real socially beneficial enterprise from self-promotional, heavily subsidized hype.
  3. The sense of an inexorable march toward doom will persist alongside unaccountable joy at small victories. For instance, the horrifying prospect of nuclear war and efforts to promote peace will come to the fore, since they have been sitting out there all along ready to explode—only our forgetfulness has put them out of mind.
  4. Giving for current needs will be depressed next year compared to 2017’s numbers due to a predicted surge in donor-advised fund giving at the end of 2017, as well as a similar surge in direct donations in response to new charitable tax deduction regulations. Many operating charities will see this as a permanent loss, but the true effect of the tax legislation is only likely to become clear in 2019.
  5. There will be some deep cuts attempted to federal government programs for the very vulnerable, and some will surely succeed. The 10-year, $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts passed by Congress paves the way for arguments that the resources just aren’t there, given the intensifying needs of the billionaire class.
  6. Market pressures will mount for business and governments to address climate change. As rating agencies and institutional investors interested in ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors continue to weigh in, companies and state and local governments will accelerate efforts to address climate change, regardless of contrary signals from Washington.
  7. The November elections will lift Democratic Party fortunes, but as the party remains divided and far from clear on what their alternative social and economic vision looks like, many questions will go unanswered.
  8. In the absence of federal leadership, Puerto Rican nonprofit and community groups will take the lead on developing their own recovery plans based on investment in decentralized, renewable sources of power that can make the island more resilient to potential future storms. Similarly, disaster response mechanisms in general will come under review for being outmoded and untenably disconnected from the trajectories of the communities where they are deployed.
  9. States will continue to replace feds as agenda-setters. The feds will continue to abrogate responsibility or take off in directions that large segments of the country do not support, leaving the landscape open for states to declare themselves as independent centers of initiative and creativity.
  10. Issues of racial justice, both internal to nonprofits and in our external environments, will remain exposed, as new approaches are explored.
  11. Rich collaborations in the new fluid image mentioned above will create a sense of power and possibility that we in civil society will need to live up to every day and in every way, a challenge that will be exhilarating…and possibly world-changing.