November 17 – 19 I will be participating a 2.5 day Foresight for Philanthropy workshop at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. More information and registration are available on the Institute for the Future Website.

Three forces have shaped the making of the modern world from our hunting and gathering ancestors to the urban city dwellers we are today: government, commerce and religion. At least that’s the usual story. Just think of all the academic departments around the world that focus on political science, economics, public policy, business and religious studies.

Somewhere between government, commerce and religion, philanthropy has emerged as an influential, global force. It increasingly shapes our policies, values, research agendas, business practices, and — more subtlety — the way we see the world. Unlike the public and private sectors, however, philanthropy is only beginning to attract the consideration of researchers and intellectuals. We still lack the theory and vocabulary to discuss philanthropy’s effects on society, and to inform how we design the rules and institutions that govern philanthropy.

One thing we do know is that philanthropy is here to stay, and there’s going to be much more of it in the 21st century than there was in the 20th. The richest 80 individuals now have the same wealth as the poorest 50% on planet Earth — some three and a half billion people. In 2009, there were 793 billionaires with a combined $2.4 trillion; about half of them were based in the U.S. Last year’s Billionaire Census included 2,325 billionaires representing $7.3 trillion in combined net worth — almost five times sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP.

There are more billionaires than ever, and more of them are pledging to commit their fortunes to philanthropy. 137 billionaires from 13 countries have signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment to give away at least half of their fortunes to charity; they represent a combined wealth of more than $610 billion. New billionaires are signing onto the pledge every month. How will they spend those hundreds of billions of dollars? What challenges will they address? What tactics will they use? How will we know if they are effective? It’s time that we think critically about philanthropy and its role in society with the same rigor that we study the public and private sectors.

Forecasting the Future of Philanthropy

I am working on a research fellowship at the Institute for the Future to step back from the day-to-day tasks of a program officer to think deeply about how the future will change philanthropy and how philanthropy might change the future.

The project began with a single, haunting question. All of this money, all of this work, is any of it making a difference? I never expected to work in philanthropy. Indeed, I began on the other side of the table, a grant-writer frustrated by the poor communication from private foundations regarding their strategies, criteria for selection, and methods of evaluation. During the past five years I have worked at three, large private foundations: George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. If you include Warren Buffet’s wealth, which he has committed to the Gates Foundation, these three foundations represent $187 billion of committed assets as of January 2014, a number that will likely grow from their investments faster than they can invest it charitably from their foundations. Each of the three foundations has a distinct ideology — often rooted in the experiences of the founder(s) — that informs its approach to tactics, scale and outcomes. By comparing their approaches, I’ve been able to sketch out a framework of the different ways that private foundations transform their financial resources and influence into systemic change.

My fellowship has to main parts. First, I am writing a series of 12 letters to a fictional billionaire that is considering her philanthropic strategy. The first six letters develop a way of thinking about philanthropy based on five, inter-dependent dimensions, phrased here as questions:

  • What should philanthropy do that governments and corporations won’t do? What isn’t philanthropy? What should be left to the public and private sectors?
  • How does ideology shape philanthropic strategy? Is the ultimate goal more freedom, equality, opportunity and/or sustainability?
  • Which philanthropic tactics and tools — innovations, information, institutions, individuals, and networks — are most relevant to advance particular goals in differing contexts?
  • What is the implication of scale on philanthropic strategy? How many people should a private foundation aim to affect? 1000? 1 million? 1 billion? What are the tradeoffs between a focus on clearly defined target populations and reaching as many people as possible?
  • How should we think about the future when developing philanthropic strategies today? What can the past 50 years teach us about the coming 50 years? Which technological disruptions and slow-moving macro-trends are most important when thinking about philanthropy’s unique role in the 21st century?

If time allows, I will apply that framework to established sub-fields within philanthropy: education, conservation, health, democracy, food security — and conclude with some thoughts on how private foundations can become more adaptive to the accelerating pace of technological, demographic and cultural change.

The second output of the fellowship is to a workshop for fellow idealists in philanthropy that believe we can do better, that we must adapt to the coming changes that are upon us. The workshop will take place at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto November 17 – 19. It is based on IFTF’s foresight practitioner workshops and tailored to the unique opportunities and challenges facing philanthropy. You can learn more about the workshop and register at IFTF’s website.

Over the coming months I’ll continue to write more about the fellowship and workshop. I’m grateful to all my advisors who have been helpful in shaping the focus of the work and questioning some of its assumptions. They are: Marina Gorbis, David Evan Harris, Bettina Warburg, Lucy Bernholz, Rob Reich, Ruth Levine, Ethan Zuckerman, Duncan Green and Rakesh Rajani.