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January 7, 2019 / WRAG

My Top Three Insights on Philanthropy in 2019

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

On New Year’s Day, I saw a news segment about 2019 diet trends. The key takeaway: there really isn’t anything new. To lose weight, exercise more and eat less. That’s it.

This made me think about philanthropy. What is new in philanthropy for 2019? Anything? Or is the formula for investing in communities still pretty much the same?

For me, the answer is “yes, but no.” The underlying desire to invest responsibly in communities for the social good seems to be fundamental, long-standing, and shared by most corporate giving programs and foundations. The question is, what does “responsibly” mean? That’s the “no” part. I think the definition of responsible investing has changed, a change that shapes how I see philanthropy moving forward. That said, here are my top three insights for 2019 on how philanthropy’s traditional approaches are shifting, at least here in the Greater Washington region.

1. Just the facts

OLD: In order to solve community challenges, we must examine what the research says about different interventions. Data-driven philanthropy has been a hallmark of what is considered effective philanthropy for some time now. No grant application would be successful without the obligatory inclusion of information on what research the suggested intervention was based.

NEW: Having gone through three years of a rigorous focus on structural racism, funders in Greater Washington are increasingly aware that often even the most highly regarded sociological and economic research has minimized, or not even considered, the role that structural racism and implicit bias play in society. “Back-mapping” is the tool that ABFE encourages philanthropic leaders to use to delve deeply into the root causes of racial disparities, a critical first step in determining the most effective intervention for a given issue. Sometimes “the facts” simply don’t portray the whole picture.

This leads me to….

2. Work with communities

OLD: Communities with high concentrations of low-income people often were thought of as powerless, disenfranchised, and needy — communities where people needed to be empowered, by some outside entity, to act on their own behalf.

NEW: This paternalistic way of understanding communities is shifting. Increasingly, the knowledge, and therefore power, that exists in all communities is being recognized. Communities are seen as partners in changing the status quo. Philanthropy has the financial resources to enable the needed intervention and community leaders know what interventions have, and can, make a lasting difference. Equal partners for change.

And lastly,

3. Grow the corpus

OLD: In order to continue to invest in communities, the stewards of foundations must prioritize growing their wealth. To do that, philanthropy must invest in products and services that will bring a handsome return on that investment. There must be a cushion in place in case of financial downturn, so ensuring a solid financial return must always be the goal.

NEW: The practice of impact investing, looking for vehicles that provide a financial return while also benefiting society, continues to grow among foundations. In WRAG’s latest edition of Our Region, Our Giving, we reported that almost 60 percent of WRAG members surveyed are currently engaged in impact investing, or are actively seeking to become engaged. For most of those members, their impact investing started in the last five years. But, there is something on the horizon that reflects even bolder thinking: connecting the financial arm of the foundation to the programmatic arm. It’s not enough for a foundation to set some money aside for impact investments while the bulk of their assets are traditionally invested – especially if those investments might be perpetuating the very challenges that the foundation aims to address through its grantmaking.

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” From my first day at WRAG, I saw this as a community focused on learning. There is a keen desire to learn and to use that knowledge wisely to impact our region. That learning has deepened and the focus has shifted over time. This philanthropic community will undoubtedly “do better” in 2019.

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