Global giving: Not so bleak

February 27, 2009, 1:09 AM UTC

by Jessica Shambora

On Wednesday morning, when I attended The Bridgespan Group’s panel on emerging trends in philanthropy, I expected a bleak report.

After all, with public and private sector funds drying up, non-profit managers all around are fretting about budgets. Large foundations lost nearly one-third of their assets last year, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. And Paul Light, an NYU professor of public service, predicts that 100,000 non-profits will be forced to close over the next two years.

But  I discovered reason for hope. The more dire the outlook, the more the need for giving. Turns out, powerful people are getting more aggressive rather than stepping back. Technology helps. So does an influx of talent.

On the powerful people list, there is, first and foremost, President Obama, who has raised the profile of non-profits and service. As a community organizer, he came from the non-profit world. His wife, Michelle, got her start there as well. Public service was, of course, front and center during his campaign. Today, the White House website lists an “Office of Social Innovation.” We’re waiting for details about what this will entail and who will run it. On Tuesday night, we heard Obama ask Congress to pass a bill to pay for higher education for citizens who volunteer. A good idea.

We’re seeing see more focus–and funds–from certain private citizens, too. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg was the No. 1 individual philanthropist in 2008. He donated $235 million, up from $205 million the year before. Bill and Melinda Gates are also stepping up, as Pattie wrote in a recent post. Even though their foundation’s assets are down some 20% since last year, the Gateses decided to increase their giving to $3.8 billion this year, from $3.3 billion in 2008.

The tech industry, too, brings promise. Web 2.0 offers the potential to unite the masses behind a cause. Just look at Obama’s Presidential campaign. “It’s not just about donations, as it was with the early Web,” says Sean Stannard-Stockton, who runs a blog called Tactical Philanthropy. “It’s about rethinking the way citizens participate in philanthropy.”

Every philanthropic organization is being forced to get more efficient. Even Google (GOOG). This week Google announced that Megan Smith, a Google engineer who oversees business development, is replacing Larry Brilliant as the head of “By aligning more closely with Google as a whole,” Brilliant wrote on Google’s blog, “Megan will ensure that we’re better able to build innovative, scalable technology and information solutions.”

Which brings us to talent–every organization’s most critical component. GenYers are seeking socially-minded careers in record numbers. Teach for America and the Peace Corps, among other groups, have seen applications boom lately. Another new wave of talent: Baby Boomers, newly out of work, pursuing encore careers.

Of course, corporate refugees mustn’t assume that their for-profit backgrounds will translate seamlessly to non-profits. “The ability to use very little money and get results is an undervalued skill in our society,” notes David Cay Johnston, who writes about philanthropy for The New York Times, at the Wednesday discussion. Making more from less: Now that’s a managerial skill that people will pay for.