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As the world becomes more complex, the social, environmental, political and economic challenges facing society become even more complicated. Globalization, interconnectedness and ready access to information already have impacted the ways in which donors think about the world’s greatest challenges and how to address them.
1. Donors consistently identify basic human needs as their greatest concern for the future—while year-over-year shifts in their priorities reflect the events of 2020.
Donors prioritize a variety of challenges they would like to see addressed by society in the future. Hunger and access to basic health services—both in the spotlight in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic—are donors’ top concerns for the future.
While donors considered hunger our greatest challenge before the pandemic, widespread food insecurity caused by the crisis made it an even greater concern. Similarly, as the pandemic caused many businesses to shutter, donors voiced greater concern for economic development than they did before the crisis began. In addition to the COVID-19 crisis, racial injustice was brought violently to the forefront of the public consciousness in 2020. This renewed attention and awareness influenced donors to place greater importance on addressing racial discrimination.
The only two issues that saw a significant drop in importance from the previous year were developing treatments and cures for diseases and access to clean water and sanitation.
It is too early to determine whether these changes represent a long-term shift in donor priorities. Because events in the news have a significant effect on donor thinking, it’s possible that these shifts could be short-term reactions to donors’ most recent experiences.
Top challenges for the world to solve
Percentage of donors who ranked challenge 1, 2 or 3 as most important for society to address for the future. Based on January 2021 survey, with change from 2020 where statistically significant.
2. Deep dive: Where Millennial and Boomer concerns intersect and diverge
While the generations’ top concerns are generally aligned, Millennials report significant concern across a wider variety of issues. Social media and other media sources provide on-demand information about events happening around the world—and as a generation that’s constantly plugged in, Millennials may take a broader view of the problems facing the world and how they’re interconnected.
Millennials are more likely than Baby Boomers to express concern about access to higher education, economic development, preservation of arts and cultural institutions and gender inequality. While hunger is tied for Millennials’ top concern, it receives stronger emphasis from Boomer donors. Promoting religion and developing treatment and cures for diseases is also of greater concern to the older generation.
Top challenges for the world to solve, by generation
3. As a trusted institution, the nonprofit sector could play a unique role in solving the world’s greatest challenges.
Forty percent of donors would prefer to give money to nonprofit organizations over other institutions, such as government or business—reflecting a strong degree of trust in the philanthropic sector. In fact, nearly 60 percent of the United States public trusts the nonprofit sector to do what’s right.1 But donors are split on the institution they believe has the most potential to successfully develop solutions to society’s greatest challenges, which could indicate that a collaborative approach is needed to solve these systemic problems.
How donors view major institutions
4. Donors overall report only cautious optimism, but Millennials show more confidence.
Because solutions to these problems are so complex, it’s no wonder donors show only tepid optimism that they can be solved. Many donors are only moderately optimistic that the biggest challenges facing the world can be solved. One in five donors is strongly optimistic that we can make progress on the causes that they prioritize—but a similar number say they are not at all optimistic. This lack of conviction may stem from the intractability of these problems. However, there is a stronger concentration of optimism among younger donors.
Donor optimism that our greatest challenges can be solved
"More than two-thirds of Millennials say their generation is going to make the world a better place, and they feel empowered to bring that change. What you can expect to see is whole new forms of behavior that are all around trying to accelerate and amplify the things they want to change as quickly as possible."
-Dan Coates, President and Co-Founder, YPulse
It will take all of the major sectors working together to effect lasting change on the root causes of the world’s most intractable problems.
While the philanthropic sector is a more trusted institution among donors, nonprofits are just one piece of the puzzle in ending homelessness, protecting the environment or curing disease. If the sectors collaborate, they can share lessons learned and share the risk of taking on these problems. Each institution must use its unique strength—whether it’s funding, expertise, logistical infrastructure or influence—to address our biggest challenges.
Philanthropy could serve a unique role as one of the most trusted sectors among donors.
The philanthropic sector could be in the position to bring the other major institutions together to create vital partnerships. For example, seventy-eight percent of donors support a bigger role for the charitable sector in working with the government to produce more effective and efficient solutions to problems.2 Philanthropy could step into the role of innovator—experimenting with new solutions to find what works and then partnering with the public sector to take those solutions to scale.
1Independent Sector, “Health of the U.S. Nonprofit Sector,” 2020.
2Independent Sector, “United for Charity,” 2016.