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Panel Discussion: 'Emerging Trends on the Philanthropy Beat'

February 25, 2009

Extra I sat in on a great "reporters only" panel discussion in midtown this morning about emerging trends/stories in philanthropy. Moderated by Katie Smith Milway, a partner at the Bridgespan Group, the all-star panel featured Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times investigative reporter David Cay Johnston (Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense -- and Stick You With the Bill), The Economist's Matthew Bishop (Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World), Chronicle of Philanthropy editor Stacy Palmer, and nonprofit blogger Sean Stannard-Stockton (Tactical Philanthropy).

As you'd expect, the panelists spent a lot of time talking about the economic meltdown -- "a once-in-a-generation moment," to quote Bishop -- and its impact on nonprofits and philanthropy. All agreed that 2009 would be a tough year for nonprofits -- and that 2010 was likely to be worse. Johnston was blunt in highlighting the vulnerability of organizations that depend on government contracts ("payments will be delayed, reduced, and/or cut altogether"), bank credit lines, and individuals' discretionary income. Palmer made the important point that those who think downsizing of the sector will be a "rational" process are kidding themselves. She also urged those present to link what are sure to be rising rates of homelessness, domestic violence, divorce, and other social ills to the downsizing of the sector.

For Bishop, one of the big stories in 2009 will be whether and what wealthy "philanthrocapitalists" -- and there are still many around, despite the $30 trillion that has been vaporized in the meltdown -- do to "reframe" the issue of growing inequality in society -- a trend, he noted, that "is not going away." "The rich," said Bishop, "are much more interesting in this kind of environment than when they are just splashing cash." But they'll have to be seen as being proactive and constructive -- or face a backlash of a kind this country hasn't seen in decades.

Re-framing was also on the mind of Stannard-Stockton. But rather than focus on what the rich are, or are not doing, he urged those present to talk and write about how social media and Web 2.0 technologies are catalyzing a new wave of citizen engagement and drawing power away from the usual suspects.

On that score, all four panelists were looking forward to the (imminent?) announcement of a new White House Office of Social Innovation, and all were confident that the creation of such an office was likely to be a plus -- though hardly a panacea -- in the current environment. Bishop even went so far as to suggest that nonprofits have an important role to play in teaching government how to use relatively small amounts of money effectively -- if government is willing to listen. Time will tell.

As I said, a stimulating discussion and a great way to spend a morning. Now it's your turn. What do you think the emerging trends/stories in philanthropy in 2009 will be? And how well do you think they'll be covered by the MSM and philanthropic press? Leave your comments below.

-- Mitch Nauffts

(For another perspective on this morning's discussion, see this post by my friend Bruce Trachtenburg, who heads up the Communications Network and was also there. Bruce's point about the relative invisibility of foundations in the discussion is spot on.)

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