Every year for the last few years, I have taken the opportunity at year end to put out a podcast episode (these days Philanthropisms, and formerly the CAF Giving Thought podcast) exploring the key themes and trends in the world of philanthropy and civil society over the past year and offering some thoughts on what the year ahead might bring. Although, as ever when making predictions, plenty of these have proven to be off the mark, I have to say that I have also been pleasantly surprised by how many have proven to be fairly accurate. (Well, perhaps not “pleasantly” surprised, as the things I have predicted are often fairly depressing in themselves, but I will allow myself a smidgen of professional satisfaction nonetheless…)
This year I have stuck with tradition and done the same. In fact, I have doubled down on it in a way, since the podcast recording of my thoughts proved to be so long that I have split it into two parts that can be listened to separately (one focusing on macro-level stuff about politics and economics, as well as the philanthropy/nonprofit sector-specific stuff; the other focussing on technology). For those of you who prefer reading to listening, I thought I would also provide a written precis of the key topics and trends- hence this article. (Though if you want more detail on any of it, I would still recommend checking out the podcast episodes too!)
Politics, Economics & Climate
Plenty of media publications, think tanks and consultancies (who have much more highly-paid experts than me!) have already given forecasts about the wider trends we can expect in 2024, so there is little point in me trying to replicate that here. Suffice it to say that it looks set to be a turbulent year ahead, and some of that turbulence will have particular relevance for philanthropy and civil society.
On the economic front, as ever, no-one really knows what is going to happen, but most experts seem to agree that we are headed into a period of economic slowdown (perhaps even recession in some places), and that we shouldn’t get our hopes up about growth in the immediate future. On the political front it is similarly hard to predict what will happen, but we do know that 2024 is likely to be a pivotal moment for democracy worldwide. There are major elections being held around the globe (including the US, India, the EU and probably the UK), and against a backdrop of right-wing nationalist populism continuing to grow, this could throw up potentially serious challenges. Given the political weather, immigration looks set to be a major battleground issue in many countries, but there are also worrying signs that the climate crisis, and the necessary responses to it, will become an increasingly polarising issue.
Democracy being tested?
Away from elections, a major issue for many CSOs may be political attacks on hard-won social rights. The rollback of abortion rights in the US as a result of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade sent shock waves through many parts of the philanthropy world, and subsequent attacks on reproductive rights elsewhere have followed (as I discussed recently on the podcast with Elizabeth Barajas-Román of the Women’s Funding Network). We have also seen attacks on LGBTQ rights in countries such as Uganda, which have led to draconian new legislation this year, and may raise concerns that the direction of travel globally on such issues is now in reverse.
Local government funding challenges
At a local level, pragmatic political concerns may take precedence. In the UK, for instance, we have seen many local councils reach such a parlous financial state that they are essentially bankrupt, and we are likely to see more of the same in 2024. This brings challenges for charities: some of them have local government contracts that may abruptly be cancelled, leaving them in huge financial difficulty. Others may continue to deliver services on behalf of local government but find that the contracts they are bound to don’t cover the cost of delivery and that they have to subsidise this through donations or volunteer hours, raising difficult questions about the appropriateness of doing so. And other CSOs may find that they are simply expected to step into gaps left when local government withdraws funding from certain areas, leaving pockets of need that will otherwise not be filled.
When it comes to climate issues, as we have already noted, increased political populism might lead to further polarisation and attempts to draw culture war divisions, which will present challenges for efforts to get the collaborative action we need to address this crisis in a meaningful way. We may also see further frustration from campaigners at the perceived lack of urgency action, and a greater sense that extreme tactics are justified- which might raise challenges for traditional CSOs and funders in terms of what they are willing to fund. There will almost certainly be further question about philanthropy’s role in addressing climate issues as well: is there enough philanthropic funding going towards climate currently? (Short answer: no). Are funders who don’t traditionally focus on environmental issues doing enough to apply a climate lens to their work? When funders do fund on issues like climate and biodiversity, do they adopt justice-based approaches that also take into account human rights, or do they stick to more traditional conservation-style approaches?
Having considered some of the bigger picture, let’s focus now on what we can expect within the world of philanthropy, everyday giving and civil society (which is obviously a fairly big space in itself, and one that doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so a lot of this stuff will have wider relevance too!)
Let’s think first about everyday giving: i.e. the sort of giving that you or I might do (unless, of course, you are reading this and you are a wealthy philanthropist – in which case, hello – the next section is for you).
Decline in giving
The biggest question in this field over the past few years, in the UK, the US and elsewhere, is whether we are seeing a decline in giving (or at least a decline in participation in giving), but I wonder whether 2024 will be the year that we move beyond debating whether there is a problem and start focusing on what the solutions might be? To do that, of course, we need to diagnose the exact nature of the problem. For some, the main issue is that as everyday giving apparently declines, the nonprofit sector becomes increasingly reliant on a smaller pool of donors and funders who are able to give larger amounts- which raises both practical questions (is there enough of this money to go round? Do CSOs need to get better at fundraising from HNW donors or foundations?) and more fundamental philosophical ones (does this narrowing of the donor pool make civil society less democratic?) Others, however, argue the apparent decline in giving may be misleading, and that what is really happening is that we are choosing to express our generosity in different ways, which may not involve traditional nonprofits and which may not get captured by our existing measures. If that is the case, then what is the answer? Do we need to reaffirm the value and importance of traditional charitable giving, or do we need to expand our understanding of philanthropy to better reflect the reality of how people give today? I suspect that in 2024 this debate will come to a head.
Expanding our definition of philanthropy
The idea that we need to expand our definitions of philanthropy is felt in other ways too. In particular, there has been a growing emphasis in the nonprofit world on greater openness and humility when it comes to learning from other cultures of generosity, which I expect to continue over the coming year. This is felt in part in terms of new theoretical concepts that can underpin our acts of giving, but it also manifests in terms of new norms about how we practice philanthropy – such as a growth in enthusiasm for collective models such as giving circles.
At the same time, we are seeing giving evolve as a result of new technological capabilities. One of the most notable trends, which I expect to continue, is a growing tendency to give using online platforms; sometimes via nonprofit-specific platforms, but increasingly through commercial payment or social media platforms too. This raises all sort of practical and ethical questions: for instance who decides what information we see on a platform, and what is driving their decisions? Are algorithmic processes involved, and if so, who has designed those algorithms and with what goals in mind? And in an age of disintermediated giving, when people are increasingly able to bypass traditional nonprofits, do conflict situations like the ones we have seen in Ukraine and Israel/ Palestine, test the boundaries of what we are willing to call “philanthropy” as people use their donations to support the purchase of military equipment and weapons? (For more on the platformisation of philanthropy, check out this podcast episode, and this article).
Re-emphasising “heart” and “humanity”
A particularly interesting question over recent years has been whether, after a long period in which “efficiency” and “rationality” have been seen as the goals of philanthropy, we seeing something of a counter-revolution? There seems to be more of a willingness to embrace the importance of heart and humanity, not as a “soft option”, but as a vital core of philanthropy – reflected, for instance, in the approach to giving taken by Mackenzie Scott, and also in the broader pushback against what are increasingly seen as overly technocratic, top-down and often dehumanising approaches. In the long running debate between “head and heart”, it feels as though this is a moment when the importance of heart is once again being recognised, and more people are willing to make the case for it within the institutionalised philanthropy and nonprofit world. (See our recent guest article from Natasha Friend of Camden Giving for more thoughts on the importance of emotion in philanthropy).
Moods and Moments
Another question that may become more important in 2024 is whether charities are able to adapt a world in which people’s identities and affiliations are fluid and temporary (but potentially strong while they exist), rather than there being long term loyalty or identity? A forecast report from SOON Futures notes that “boxing people into clear-cut segments is becoming a quickly outdated process. In the future, understanding moods and moments will be the differentiator that keeps your company resonating with young people.” For charities and nonprofits that have relied on donor segmentation and developing long-term organisational loyalty, will this require a fundamental rethink of how they fundraise and engage supporters?
There is obviously a whole debate about whether “philanthropy” applies only to people giving large amounts of money (which in itself is probably worth noting as an ongoing trend for 2024…), but for now let’s assume that there is something distinctive about giving by the very wealthy – whatever terminology we use – and that it is worth thinking about separately from everyday giving.
The overarching point to be made here is that we have seen a more overtly critical attitude towards elite philanthropy in recent years, and that is only likely to get more pronounced as those criticisms and critiques filter into mainstream debate. In particular, there has been a notable focus on billionaire wealth as a distinct form of wealth (and a distinctly problematic one, it is argued); with a number of commentators who are not against capitalism and wealth per se having come out this year to argue that billionaire wealth is reflective of an unsustainable level of inequality, and that it poses threats to democracy in terms of the influence that individuals are able to wield. If more of a consensus develops around these narratives across the political spectrum over the coming year, it might have significant implications for giving at the very top end of the spectrum- with more focus on the relationship between philanthropy and wealth taxes, and perhaps calls to curb the ability of donors to have free rein in deciding how to use their philanthropic capital.
Reliance on philanthropy
Another important theme that may play a part in shaping the landscape in 2024 is that even as many organisations have become more critical of philanthropy, the nonprofit sector as a whole (in the UK and US at least) is becoming more reliant on it. As everyday giving declines, and other sources of funding such as government grants or contracts dry up, organisations that have not in the past had to give much thought to individual or institutional philanthropy as a source of income may well be forced to rethink. Philanthropic resources (at the moment, at least) remain stubbornly finite, so if more CSOs are trying to tap into them this will naturally lead to more intense competition. It will also place an increased premium on the skills necessary to fundraise effectively from wealthy individuals and from foundations.
Next gen donors
Another thing to watch out for in 2024 is whether the ongoing emergence of a new generation of younger donors has any effect on shifting norms and narratives within philanthropy. There is certainly anecdotal evidence, for instance (some of which I can vouch for myself), that younger wealthy donors are more interested in how to make their giving meet the demands of justice, less willing to view their philanthropy in isolation from how their money is made and invested, and keen to find opportunities for involvement and participation in the causes they are supporting.
Shifting centre of gravity for global philanthropy
Will the economic and population growth of non-Western countries such as China, India and Nigeria see the centre of gravity of global focus on philanthropy, which has historically been heavily skewed towards the US, begin to shift in 2024? It often feels as though there has been an assumption that as these countries grow and embrace philanthropy they will inevitably look to the US, UK and Europe and adopt our models and approaches, but I’m not sure that is going to be the case at all. And if it isn’t, what will the cultures of giving and the philanthropy sectors in these countries look like, and what might that mean for our understanding of philanthropy at a global level?
One of the short-term impacts of the situation in Israel and Palestine has been a number of cases in which donors have come into conflict with organisations they support (mostly higher education institutions) over their positioning on the issue, and over their perceived failure to deal with statements and actions from their student bodies that the donors find objectionable. As a result, a number of these donors have threatened to withdraw funding, or to claw back funding they have already given, and a congressional hearing has been held to investigate the issues. If this is a sign of things to come, then in a febrile and polarised political climate we should probably expect other instances of donors using the threat of withdrawn or recouped funding in this way in the year ahead.
As well as donors questioning the ethical positioning of recipient organisations, there has also long been the opposite problem: of recipient organisations having concerns that some donations are “tainted” by virtue of where the wealth comes from. This has been an issue for more than a thousand years, with little consensus on how to resolve it, so I feel like I can confidently predict that:
- There will definitely more examples of tainted donations coming to light in 2024, and
- No-one will be able to agree on what to do about them.
That being said, there may also be some new developments to watch out for: for one thing, recent comments from the Chair of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, Orlando Fraser KC, suggest a new narrative when it comes to tainted donations. Whilst charities are still free to take the decision to refuse or return money when faced with ethical quandaries, Fraser made it clear that the bar for doing this is very high and raised concerns that too many trustees were taking decisions on the basis of “personal squeamishness” and a desire for moral righteousness. It will be interesting to see if this change in the mood music has an impact on whether charities are more likely to swallow down any ethical qualms when faced with potentially problematic donations. It may be that the economic backdrop also plays a part here, as at a time when the funding environment is becoming more and more challenging, the decision to turn down a donation from any source is likely to be increasingly challenging for cash-strapped organisations. (For more on tainted donations, check out this podcast episode or this WPM guide).
Grantmaking & Foundations
What will 2024 hold for the institutional side of philanthropy, in the shape of foundations? For one thing, I think we can expect more scrutiny and criticism. Foundations have always attracted criticism (as outlined in a recent WPM piece), but this has become particularly acute recently. A reasonable amount of that criticism up til now has come from those working in or around the foundation sector (at times even seeming to veer into a kind of flagellatory self-loathing), but we are also starting to see mainstream commentators latch on to some of the key points of debate, which might mean that the criticism is about to get more critical and more polemic. It is also interesting to note that some of the criticism is about the ways in which foundations work (their grantmaking practice, their investments etc), but some of it is also about the fundamental nature (should we even allow such entities to exist?) – it will be worth keeping an eye on where the balance lies in terms of these different kinds of critique in coming years.
We can also expect more focus on specific aspects of foundations: in the UK we seem to be gearing up for another round of debate about whether we need a mandatory payout rate, whilst in the US concerns about the rise of Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) and their potential for creating an opaque bottleneck for philanthropy continue to rumble on (and will more than likely become a hot topic in the UK as well, since that is the usual pattern of things).
I suspect we will also see more foundations take radical steps to change how they work in response to critiques. This might be through embracing calls to spend down endowments, it might be through experimenting with participatory grantmaking methods, or it might be through following the lead of the UK’s Lankelly Chase Foundation and deciding to entirely dismantle themselves. (Although presumably not everyone can do that…?)
Nonprofits & charities
We have mentioned a number of times already that the political environment around the world is highly polarised, and this will continue to be a challenge for many charities and nonprofits who find themselves caught in the middle of contentious issues. In some cases this will be inevitable as a result of the organisation’s mission: any charity that works with refugees and migrants, for instance is likely to be a target for hatred and abuse (as the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution has repeatedly found when it rescues migrants from drowning in the English Channel). This can make life uncomfortable for the charity in question, although it is worth noting that it can also have an upside due to the growing phenomenon of “inverse giving”: when people deliberately choose to donate to charities that have become targets of criticism in order to show solidarity and to demonstrate their own views on an issue. There are also cases in which charities will end up in fights that are in many ways not their own – either because they choose to speak out on contentious issues that are not directly related to their mission, or because other people (supporters, members of the public) demand that they take a position. In cases where issues are highly polarised, these sorts of situations can be intensely difficult to navigate.
Loss of infrastructure
One of the big practical challenges for the charity sector over the last year has been a very difficult funding environment, and that will continue to be the case in 2024. We may also start to feel the loss of significant bits of infrastructure: here in the UK, for instance, we have seen the closure of Children England, the FSI, and the Small Charities Coalition among others in recent years. The problem with infrastructure is that its value tends to be very obvious when a crisis hits (like the Covid19 pandemic), but we can’t wait until that point to develop the infrastructure or fund it, as that is far too late. We need to fund infrastructure over the longer term, so that it is there when we need it, but that is a far harder sell. Unfortunately, as we are now living in an age of ongoing polycrisis, the chances are that we will come to rue the weakness of our charity sector infrastructure sooner rather than later.
Nonprofits and social movements
Another trend I expect to see develop further over the coming year is exploration of the interface between traditional charities and social movements. Over recent years we have seen the emergence of a number of large-scale social movements enabled by technology (Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo etc), which have taken a lead on driving public awareness and engagement on a range of issues. We have also seen some of the weaknesses of these movements, when their lack of some of the elements of traditional organisational infrastructure that civil society organisations have built up over many years becomes apparent. Will we see more examples over the coming year of traditional organisations and social movements working together, either through formal fiscal sponsorship relationships or more informal arrangements in which existing organisations are able to “lend” some of their infrastructure to these newer groups to avoid them having to do it themselves and thus risk diverting energies away from their mission?
Ways of working
It will also be interesting to see where the narrative about new ways of working that came to a head during the pandemic goes next. In the commercial world, there appears to be a growing divide between those who argue we must embrace flexible and remote working (including things like 4 day working weeks) as the way of the future, and those who increasingly want to return to mandatory in-person working based around the office. There is a clear argument that the charity sector could benefit from positioning itself in the vanguard of progressive working practices, in order to attract and retain talent (given that it is unlikely ever to compete on wages alone). However, it is not clear that there is any real impetus behind this idea at a sectoral level; and judging from the levels of burnout being reported by senior charity staff and the anecdotal evidence of a brain drain to other sectors, there is a worryingly long way to go simply to steady the ship right now. As a result, one further trend I expect to see more of in 2024 is industrial action being taken by charity sector workers. Probably reluctantly, as many of them will be aware of the impact this might have on the people and communities their organisation serves; but many in the sector may feel that they have been forced into the position of having to take action to demand their own rights, and will join forces in order to do so.
Nonprofit tech skills & capacity
The top line when it comes to technology, as I note in part 2 of the podcast episode, is that awareness within the nonprofit and philanthropy world has grown exponentially over the last few years, but the sector is still lagging behind when it comes to the skills, knowledge and resources to engage with technology effectively (both in terms of utilising it, and in terms of playing a part in debates about how it should develop). The enforced pivot to online working during the covid pandemic saw many organisations rapidly accelerate their digital transformation, and the emergence of ChatGPT in the last 18 months has made the capabilities of AI (and other emerging tech) much more tangible, so many nonprofits are now aware of the potential opportunities and challenges. But there are still big gaps the infrastructure and organisational capacity required to explore fully how these technologies might apply in the context of civil society. There is also a big job to be done when it comes to data: both in terms of getting the existing historical data that nonprofits hold in a fit state for technologies like machine learning to be applicable, and in terms of ensuring that when they collect new data they do so in a way that allows them to harness the benefits of tools such as machine learning.
2023 was a tumultuous year for social media, with new capabilities opening up thanks to generative AI tools (of which more in a moment) and increased fragmentation as a result of the decline of Twitter (or “X” if you must) into a barely usable mess. From my own anecdotal experience the usage of X by nonprofits and philanthropy sector people has fallen sharply, to the point where there is little incentive to use the platform. Like many people I haven’t quite pulled the plug entirely yet, but 2024 may well be the year that I (and many others in civil society) decide that the toxic combination of Elon Musk’s own odious views and his ongoing poor choices when it comes to messing with X’s user experience have become too much, and finally jump ship. One big question for the year ahead, then, is whether we will find a suitable alternative to what Twitter was back when it was actually good? So far a lot of people seem to be putting more effort into LinkedIn, and others are experimenting with platforms like Threads, BlueSky and Mastodon, but none is quite providing what Twitter used to provide; and the increasing fragmentation of the social media space is likely to pose challenges for organisations who don’t know where best to focus their efforts. Of course, 2024 may also be the year in which we ask whether looking for “the next Twitter” is even the right ambition, or whether we should instead learn some lessons about platform dependency and the dangers of trying to make commercial social media tools play the role of a digital public sphere.
We are also likely to see more focus on the rise of “influencer philanthropy” in 2024. The face of this phenomenon so far has been the YouTuber MrBeast, who has attracted criticism this year for some of his videos, with critics arguing that they perpetuate unwelcome stereotypes about poverty and disability, and display the hallmarks of ‘white saviourism”. MrBeast himself has increasingly pushed back against these criticisms, and I expect this debate to continue and grow more polarised over the coming year as both sides dig their heels in. His success in gaining engagement through videos showing acts of giving has already attracted copycats around the world, many of whom raise similar concerns about their motivations and their approach to philanthropy. As these wannabe MrBeasts try to compete for likes and clicks, there is a high likelihood that they will engage in more and more extreme philanthropic ‘stunts’, and some of them will almost certainly break through into wider public consciousness as a result (and not in a good way…) (For more thoughts on Mr Beast’s philanthropy, check out this WPM article or my guest appearance on The Bunker podcast).
AI has been big news this year. Indeed, many people have proclaimed 2023 “the year of Generative AI” (or GenAI) as a result of the widespread impact that tools such as ChatGPT and Bard have started to have across a wider range of fields. So there is plenty to say about AI in 2024; indeed, almost certainly too much to fit into this overview, so here are a just a few thoughts on key things to watch out for. (And if you want some more detailed thoughts on AI and philanthropy, you can check out this episode of the Philanthropisms podcast or read this piece I wrote for Alliance earlier this year)
One thing I expect to see is that the rapid pace of development of GenAI will continue. New tools will come online, and existing tools will become integrated into the products and platforms that we are already using so that they gradually fade into the background and we start to become accustomed to the affordances they bring whilst forgetting about the exact technology that makes them possible. (This is a well-known phenomenon that philosophers of technology call “transparency” or “invisibility”). These tools will almost certainly bring remarkable new opportunities for nonprofits to improve productivity, accessibility and even creativity. A report from Hootsuite on social media trends in 2024, for instance, predicts that the use of AI will “skyrocket” as more and more organisations use it for content ideation, editing and refining, image generation and so on. But the increasing ubiquity of GenAI may also bring challenges and raise difficult questions for nonprofits. What, for instance, does “authenticity” mean in the context where we are all using AI to some extent? Do supporters and donors respond well to the use of GenAI in things like fundraising asks? (There is some early evidence to suggest that the answer to this might be “no”). And will the nonprofit sector need to engage with the mounting ethical and legal concerns over whether many GenAI tools have only been made possible through widespread disregard for copyright and intellectual property? Questions such as these may become even more pointed if nonprofits start to take advantage of new capabilities for building their own 3rd party tools from GenAI systems, such as OpenAI’s recently launched ability for users to create their own tailored “GPTs” for specific domains.
Another thing to look out for in 2024 is whether algorithms start to have a more noticeable impact on the way we as individuals make decisions about giving to charity. OK, I will admit that there may be some cognitive bias here, as this is the focus of a chapter I have contributed to the Routledge Handbook on Philanthropy and AI (which is due out next year), but I genuinely think it is an under-appreciated issue that is going to become a much bigger deal in coming years. As we all start to give more and more online, and in many cases do so through commercial payment and social media platforms rather than dedicated nonprofit platforms, our giving will become yet another front in the battle for our attention and our custom. To keep us satisfied (and keep us on the platform), commercial providers will undoubtedly look to provide us with tailored recommendations when it comes to out charitable donations, in the same way that we already get recommendations for music, TV, online content, shopping and so on. Furthermore, many tech commentators argue that we are at the beginning of a “great interface shift”, in which, according to Accenture, “Generative AI is upgrading the internet from informative to intelligent, and the experience of using it from transactional to personal. Customers will be more deeply understood than even, while brands will use that understanding to shape hyper-relevant products, services and experiences.” And Gartner predicts that “by 2026, 30% of new apps will use AI to drive personalized adaptive user interfaces, up from 5% today.”
As this transition develops, we will almost certainly see “philanthropy algorithms” emerge (or “philgorithms” as I once rather clunkily christened them), which give people recommendations on where and how to give. This will raise a whole raft of questions: who is designing this algorithm? What is their motivation for doing so? What goals do the algorithms themselves have? Are users aware that their choices are being algorithmically shaped? Is their autonomy undermined in any way, and do they object to this? Is there any danger of bias developing in these algorithms, in terms of the types of organisations or the cause areas they recommend?
As I say, lots of questions, but not many answers yet!
It is also worth keeping an eye out for how the narrative about AI development evolves in 2024 and what this might mean for philanthropy and civil society. As we come to the end of 2023, the recent chaos at OpenAI (which I wrote about in a recent WPM article) has brough to public attention the apparent rift in the tech world between AI “boomers” (those who want to develop the technology bigger and faster) and AI “doomers” (those who are worried about potential existential risks to humanity and urge that any advance is made cautiously). The potential danger is that this framing implies that these are the only two possible positions to take on AI, whereas in fact many people are at neither of these poles; instead believing that we can be cautiously enthusiastic about the positive potential of AI, and that whilst we do need to be aware of the dangers as well, we should be focusing on the immediate real world impacts (such as algorithmic bias against marginalised communities, or AI tools being used to spread disinformation to destabilise democracy) rather than on speculative long-term existential threats. This is where most of the existing work on AI in civil society probably sits (or at least, the bit that isn’t driven by Effective Altruism, which is admittedly much more aligned with the “doomer” position). So if this kind of perspective on AI gets increasingly sidelined by a simplistic binary narrative, that is potentially a real source of concern.
Cryptocurrency & Blockchain
Although I have done a lot of work on crypto and blockchain in the past, in all honesty I struggle to drum up much interest or enthusiasm for the topic these days, so I wasn’t sure whether to bother including any thoughts about it at all. I guess the main thing to say is that crypto still remains a thing (the price of Bitcoin as actually relatively high right now), but it feels as though interest from mainstream nonprofits has very definitely cooled. The high-profile downfalls of several major figures in the crypto world (Sam Bankman-Fried and Changpeng Zhao) and their respective companies (FTX and Binance) will have done little to reassure anyone who wasn’t already sold on crypto that it is anything other than an extremely high-risk market in which fraud and misinformation are rife; so even if there are charities who were thinking of dipping a toe in the crypto world, they may well have reconsidered those plans. There are, of course, some people out there who have crypto and may well want to donate some of it, so a market for cryptophilanthropy will continue to exist for now. The scale of this market, however, and its likelihood of integrating into the mainstream world of philanthropy, seem far smaller than the optimistic predictions of a few years ago. (If you do want some more detailed thoughts on the current state of cryptophilanthropy, check out this podcast episode).
Also perhaps best placed for now in the box marked “emerging technologies that haven’t lived to their hype” is the Metaverse, the immersive “next iteration of the internet” championed by Mark Zuckerberg. (Who evidently likes the idea so much he renamed his company after it). Unlike crypto and blockchain, however, which many would argue have some pretty fundamental flaws (and far fewer compelling use cases than all the breathless consultancy reports from around 2018 would have suggested), the Metaverse’s problem may be that it is a good idea, but we currently lack the wherewithal to implement it properly. Some experts argue that the main sticking point for the Metaverse idea really taking off is simply that we don’t quite yet have the affordable hardware (e.g. in terms of VR tools) or the necessary infrastructure (e.g.in terms of mobile connectivity) to enable it to be realised in a way that doesn’t just look like Mark Zuckerberg having a series of deeply awkward social interactions in Second Life. But when those barriers are overcome (which past experience indicates will happen sooner or later), there is still something fundamentally compelling about the Metaverse concept, so we will probably see it evolve in some form or other.
For now the implications for philanthropy and civil society seem quite limited. There have a been a few examples of people experimenting with Metaverse fundraising events (like a guy who raised £100 for Great Ormond Street Hospital earlier this year), but not many to date. For most nonprofit organisations this still feels like a technology on which to keep a watching brief in 2024, without expecting too many dramatic shifts forward. (For more on the potential longer-term impact if the Metaverse does take off, check out this WPM article).
Future of work
Moving away from specific technologies to the wider impact of tech, we have been told for a few years now that the new potential for automation offered by AI and other tools will have a radical impact on the nature of jobs and work. Some have even argued that we should prepare ourselves for a “post-work future” in which we no longer need to work in any traditional sense and the economic model of our whole will thus require radical transformation (which is often linked to making the case for some form of basic income).
Now, I’m not suggest that 2024 is the year in which we all stop working (although right now that sounds quite nice); but the evolution of GenAI in 2023 and its evident potential for automating not just basic tasks but complex knowledge-based ones, has made these kinds of debates feel much more real and imminent. Some experts suggest that 2024 will mark the beginning of a “decade of deconstruction”, in which traditional job roles and life-stage markers become less relevant, and it may be this triggers changes in our attitudes that spell the beginning of a longer-term shift towards a radically different concept of work in the future.
The relevant question (for this website, at least) is what this might mean for philanthropy and civil society. And as is usually the case when thinking about possible futures, there is a potentially good version and a potentially bad version. The optimistic version is that automation will free up human time to focus on thing that aren’t driven by economic imperatives, and as a result we will get an enormous flowering of art, science and creativity. Perhaps we will also see a golden age of volunteering, as people continue to look for activities to give them a sense of purpose and connection when freed from the necessity of working for money? The more pessimistic version, however, is that automation puts many of us out of work, and we struggle to adapt or to know what to do with ourselves when shorn of the requirement to be economically useful that so many of us currently rely on to give our lives meaning. In this scenario, civil society organisations might once again have to play an important role in helping people to find a sense of purpose, but perhaps in a more remedial way. The potential danger here might be that civil society ends up being subject to unrealistic expectations – especially in the minds of politicians – about its ability to soften the transition to a post-work future without the accompanying changes to our political and economic systems that are necessary to make this transition work.
Life Extension, Population Concerns & Pronatalism
The final thing I want to flag up as a theme for 2024 is that I think we will see philanthropy dragged more and more into debates about population. There is a fierce debate, which has crept into the political arena, over whether the major challenge in coming years will be that there are too many people (through overpopulation) or too few people (as a result of declining birth rates). Philanthropy has already got some presence in this debate, largely thanks to a number of wealthy tech donors who self-position as philanthropists and also have a weirdly intense in combatting the perceived challenges of underpopulation (hello, Elon Musk…) I expect to see more money pile into this area over the coming year (and also in the related area of gerontology and life extension, which is essentially about how do we get existing people to live longer, as well as ensuring more new people are born). The reason this is worth watching (apart from the fact that it is just inherently a bit weird and Bond villain-y) is that philanthropy has a long, and problematic, history when it comes to engaging with population issues. Past experience shows that it is easy for even well-intentioned concern about population to veer into the murky territory of eugenics, as a number of progressive foundations in the early 20th century certainly found. And one of the most worrying aspect of current population debates is that we are starting to see various threads of long-discredited eugenic thinking re-emerge in new guises and given the sheen of credibility. (For more on the history of philanthropy, population and eugenics, see this WPM article).
I’m aware that eugenics was perhaps not the most upbeat note on which to end my thoughts about 2024, so apologies for that… I am also aware that all of the thoughts I have outlined here probably skew towards the pessimistic: which in part may be a reflection of the fact that it is often easier to think of negative or critical points (or, at least, I find it easier), but it may also just be that the world feels like a fairly grim place right now and it is hard to be that cheerful. However, if you are going to choose (as I have) to spend your time trying to encourage more philanthropy and a stronger civil society, you have to have at least a core of optimism and a belief in the idea that can all make the world better in a meaningful way. So as we head forward into 2024, I am not actually as downbeat as you might think. Yes, there are some huge challenges ahead for all of us; and yes, at times the road is likely to be very rocky indeed, but I genuinely do believe in the capacity of civil society, fuelled by the countless acts of philanthropy that we are all capable of, to respond to these challenges and help to drive the world towards a better future. We just need to get on with it.