The future of philanthropy:
Key findings

As technology, culture and societal norms evolve, the way donors perceive and approach philanthropy changes, too. This report offers a glimpse of how these influences could steer the future of philanthropy and answers questions like: What causes are the most important to address for the future? Who are the changemakers on the forefront of the shifting landscape? And how will they mold the future of the philanthropic sector?

To understand the full picture of philanthropy in America today, Fidelity Charitable conducted an initial survey of 3,055 charitable individuals in March 2020. We then conducted a subsequent survey in January 2021 to detect any shifts in donor attitudes and behaviors related to the COVID-19 pandemic and other events of 2020. What we found illustrates the forces influencing charitable giving and offers an outline of the future. The study underscored the following key takeaways:

Charitable giving is becoming charitable living… 

Giving is increasingly integrated into our everyday decisions, and effective philanthropy is more accessible than ever to average donors—with ways to engage at our fingertips 24/7. 

  • Social good is becoming a key factor in how donors make financial choices. Nearly half of all donors have purchased products that provide a social benefit, and 20 percent have made investments in socially responsible businesses or investment funds.
  • A quarter of donors have donated to charity through a social media platform, and four-in-ten have made donations through an online giving platform like GoFundMe. It’s easier than ever to discover, support and share new charitable causes. 

...and Millennials are leading the transformation.1

As the next generation of donors, Millennials are pushing philanthropy beyond its traditional boundaries. While they currently only control 5 percent of wealth in the United States,2 their unique attitudes, expectations and approaches to giving back will revolutionize the social sector as they inherit trillions from their Baby Boomer parents in one of the largest intergenerational wealth transfers in modern times. 

  • Across the board, Millennials are more likely than older generations to engage in newer methods of giving back, from impact investing to donating through a social media platform.
  • The younger generation is reclaiming the identity of “philanthropist” for themselves and other everyday individuals working to improve the world. Nearly three-quarters would describe themselves as a philanthropist—compared to only 35 percent of Baby Boomers and 48 percent of Gen X.
  •  While donors overall are only somewhat optimistic that the world’s greatest challenges can be solved, Millennials display greater confidence. More than 40 percent of Millennials say they are optimistic, compared to 15 percent of Boomers and 22 percent of Gen X.

2020 compelled donors to adapt their approach to giving—and the year could mark a pivotal moment for the future of philanthropy.

While the future of philanthropy generally doesn’t shift in a single year, the events of 2020 had at least a short-term impact on the way donors are currently thinking about and approaching giving. 

  • After 2020, many donors reframed their thinking around which challenges are most important for society to solve, placing a higher priority on economic development, hunger and racial inequity than they did previously.  
  • We became more and more comfortable with and reliant on virtual tools during the pandemic, and it may have accelerated digital trends in philanthropy. Significant numbers of donors say they increasingly used digital tools to participate in philanthropy in 2020.

The social sector has unique opportunities and challenges as donors rethink and revise the ways they give back. 

Because it enjoys higher levels of trust, the nonprofit ecosystem as a whole is uniquely positioned to lead the charge on many of the world’s largest issues. However, individual charities must adapt to donors’ changing expectations and preferences in order to remain relevant.

  • As a trusted institution among donors, the social sector is in a strong position to make an impact on addressing some of our society’s greatest challenges. Forty percent of donors say they would prefer to give money to the nonprofit sector than any other major institution, such as government or business—and nonprofits are seen as go-to experts on addressing basic care needs in local communities.
  • But there are significant challenges many charities must overcome. Donors are accustomed to seamless digital experiences in every other aspect of their lives, and they expect no different from their favorite charities. In addition, nonprofits must adapt to the Millennial approach to evaluating charities, which places emphasis on demonstrated impact and transparency.

1In this report, the Millennial generation includes individuals approximately ages 21 to 40 (born 1981–2000). Generation X includes individuals approximately ages 41 to 56 (born 1965 –1980). The Baby Boomer generation includes individuals approximately 57 to 75 (born 1946–1964).

2Federal Reserve, Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989, 2021.