Blueprint 2017: A Conversation with Lucy Bernholz


On January 12, Foundation Center West held a convening to discuss Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2017, the highly anticipated industry forecast by Lucy Bernholz. Bernholz, a self-professed “philanthropy wonk”, is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, and writes this social sector forecast every year in partnership with GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center. Blueprint points to trends, and anticipates breakthroughs in the social sector. In this year’s Blueprint, Bernholz asks two fundamental questions: 1) How are the philanthropic and the political blurring? and, 2) What is the infrastructure of civil society in a digital world?

In addition to Bernholz, at the convening were Ellen LaPointe, president and CEO at Northern California Grantmakers, and Kay Fernandez Smith, assistant vice president of programs at the San Francisco Foundation. They provided a regional perspective and further insight into the trends highlighted in the Blueprint. Foundation Center West director Michele Dilworth moderated the panel discussion.

There is a particular urgency in this year’s Blueprint. And even though Bernholz said she wrote the entire guide before the 2016 presidential election, and edited very little after November 9th, she attested to the fact that in 2017, we should anticipate a significant blurring between philanthropy and politics. Politics is inherently transparent: nothing in this realm escapes the public eye (in theory). And philanthropy, as a sector, values anonymity. From anonymous giving, to the fact that a number of foundations still don’t have websites: transparency is a relatively new concept to the social sector. But now, things are changing. “Structures designed for tax-exempt public welfare or charitable purposes are being used for expressly political ones,” Bernholz writes. “Donors who wish to support political activity but hide their identities have found countless ways to take advantage of the privileged anonymity of charitable nonprofits to simply sidestep the disclosure required of political organizations… At the national level, the IRS, at the order of Congress and with the support of some in the charitable sector, has stepped back from any pretense of patrolling the line between political and charitable activity.” The problem, though, is that this blurring is not beneficial to the sector, and invites giving practices that are, if not unethical, certainly worthy of regulation and review.

Additionally, because we are entering a period of societal instability, philanthropy needs to adapt to problems more quickly, and with more flexibility. The social sector must move beyond the time-consuming model of the grant application and subsequent approval/rejection of foundation funding. The question is: what does that look like? Bernholz and LaPointe agreed: some foundations are already modelling this kind of behavior. They both commended the San Francisco Foundation on its new Rapid Response Fund for Movement Building. Fernandez Smith explained that the Fund will accept applicants on a rolling basis, and will provide funding very quickly to grantees (within 30 days, to be exact). The goal of the Fund is “to build the political power and voice of low-income and people of color by providing resources to respond in a timely manner to unanticipated, but critical opportunities or challenges to advance racial and economic equity in the Bay Area.” Bernholz outlines other philanthropies and organizations that are thriving on their agility in Blueprint 2017, including the Solidaire Fund and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In addition to the current political atmosphere, Bernholz, LaPointe, and Fernandez Smith discussed transparency and data protection in the digital age. They shed light on the the fact that nonprofits collect a great deal of data on their beneficiaries, and now, more than ever, it is vital to protect the data — and the beneficiaries. For example, nonprofits that protect undocumented people have a great deal of data on those populations — which, uncovered, could negatively impact these communities. Bernholz said that already, journalists, activists, scholars, and data scientists, are working on creative ways to improve data security.? Blueprint 2017 includes three very accessible and simple worksheets (you can find them here, here, and here) which both nonprofits and foundations can use to begin to assess their data security.

While the tone of much of the conversation was urgent, LaPointe highlighted examples of what is working in the sector, and the advantages and privileges we have available to us in Northern California and the surrounding regions. This is a place of transformative change. We have extraordinary resources and expertise here, as well as the willingness and commitment to push for equality and progress. It is clear we have a lot of work to do, but publications such as Blueprint 2017 don’t just raise the critical issues, they also guide us toward solutions.

To listen to the full conversation, watch the video here.

You can download Blueprint 2017 via Grantcraft.