By Susan Wolf Ditkoff, Alison Powell, and Kyle Gardner with Tom Tierney
Many ultra-wealthy individuals and families—who each hold $500 million or more in assets—say they want to achieve more with their philanthropy. In the United States alone, more than 140 billionaires have signed the Buffett-Gates Giving Pledge, committing to give half of their wealth to philanthropy during their lifetimes or upon their death.
Despite such aspirations, ultra-wealthy American families donated just 1.2 percent of their assets to charity in 2017, which falls considerably short of average, long-term investment returns on assets. Compare 1.2 percent to the S&P 500’s 20-year average annual return of 9 percent. The clear-eyed math shows that if an ultra-high net worth family wanted to spend down half its wealth in a 20-year timeframe, the family would need to donate more than 11 percent of its assets per year—a nearly ten-fold increase over its current level of giving.
The gap between the very wealthy’s current giving and their full potential to give has implications for us all. At its best, private philanthropy, in partnership with innovative nonprofits and resident-led movements, has helped secure major social advances, such as eliminating age-old infectious diseases and securing important civil rights for repressed populations. At the same time, the social problems we haven’t solved will continue to grow. We have arrived at a decisive moment. The ultra-wealthy, having amassed resources of unprecedented magnitude, have the capacity to support innovative initiatives that could benefit millions.
Against that backdrop, The Bridgespan Group’s research team, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, set out to spotlight barriers that impede giving to social-change efforts. The team then identified pathways that could conceivably double ultra-wealthy giving to benefit society from $45 billion to $90 billion per year. The team interviewed more than 60 ultra-wealthy families, their advisors and staff, and experts in the field, and paired insights gleaned from those interviews with lessons from behavioral science and the experiences of community leaders and fundraisers.
Barriers that Impede the Wealthiest from Giving to Social-Change Efforts
Finding the right funding opportunities can be challenging
One reason donors aren’t betting big on reducing social inequities is because of a vicious cycle that makes it irrational for nonprofit leaders to ask them to. Since donors rarely make large financial commitments to social-change efforts, most nonprofits are unpracticed at making the case for gifts of eight-figures (or more). Leaders who address social inequities need financial incentives that make it worthwhile to invest in developing large-scale fundable ideas.
Giving to social-change efforts often requires a change in mindset
Behavioral science shows that for many, for a risk to be worth taking, the probable gains must far exceed the potential losses. Donating to innovative social-change efforts can feel risky when compared to more familiar, time-honored charitable alternatives. There is also a mindset challenge to overcoming inertia—that is, avoiding delay and leaning further into "giving while living."
The marketplace for matching funding with opportunities is broken
The barriers to funding social change—as well as the gap between the wealthiest donors’ ambitions and actions—signal that the marketplace matching great opportunities to philanthropy is broken. What's more, the evidence suggests that the market's flaws will worsen over time, as donors retreat from supporting perpetual, large-staffed foundations and are left to seek out big opportunities on their own.
Four Pathways Emerge
Having identified the barriers, we set about conceiving a compelling "future state" for ultra-wealthy giving. We sought to meld an analysis of what exists today and what has (and has not) worked in the past, while surfacing ideas that would help donors with their quest to put more money toward potent social change.
Our assessment identified four significant pathways (there are certainly others) to greater giving to social-change causes, by which we mean causes like human/social services, the environment, and international development. These pathways—individually and collectively—could represent meaningful progress to the audacious goal of doubling giving from this population and unlock billions of dollars to drive social change. However, we also realize that philanthropy is personal, and deeply enmeshed with family, legacy, and values. A core challenge—creating solutions at scale for donors who are accustomed to bespoke approaches—should not be underestimated. Scaling strategies that assume all donors behave alike will likely fail.
Path #1: Aggregated funds become a common asset class for ultra-wealthy philanthropists
Platforms like Blue Meridian Partners and The END Fund, which enable funders to marshal resources and invest collectively to address structural barriers to equity, are among the most prominent models for collaborative, aggregated funding. We estimate that an array of philanthropic options such as these could spur more than $5 billion in annual giving.
Path #2: A high-impact way for philanthropists to bet big on improving economic mobility
US economic mobility has declined sharply over the past half century. A promising model for accelerating donors’ efforts to put millions more Americans on an upwardly mobile trajectory comes in the form of matching donors to great community-led opportunities. This pathway replicates, on a national scale, community foundations' most effective elements. A "community foundation for America" would offer grantee options that enable donors to give seamlessly to advance economic mobility. If successful, we estimate this approach could unlock at least $5 billion annually.
Path #3: Philanthropists have access to high-quality services that support their giving
Private wealth management firms in the for-profit sector, such as JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, offer high-touch relationship managers who connect customers with the right investment and asset managers to address their financial needs. The same does not occur at scale with philanthropy. Very few organizations provide strategic philanthropy services that support, say, more than 20 ultra-wealthy donors simultaneously. Even though philanthropy is personal, many of the services that ultra-wealthy donors need most have similar characteristics. If donors, at scale, could access those services readily, we estimate they could unlock more than $2 billion annually.
Path #4: Philanthropists have consistent access to those qualified grantees that are able to put their big bets to effective use
Compared to institutional nonprofits like hospitals and universities, social-change organizations operate at a major disadvantage. It is often easier for philanthropists to give to institutions, with their large development offices and robust programs. Meanwhile, a top tier of social-change focused nonprofits suffers from chronic budget deficits. Although some high-performing nonprofits are prepared to put big philanthropic investments to immediate use, more capacity-building work needs to be done, especially if the ultra-wealthy double their giving. Strengthening social-change nonprofits—including helping them plan for and deploy the large gifts they receive—could unlock upwards of $10 billion annually, according to our estimate.
These mechanisms have tremendous potential to give philanthropists new access to social-change efforts (and to local/community-driven solutions and solutions driven by people of color). History demonstrates that at its best, philanthropy can help strengthen civil society, as well as organizations that are a potent force for change. More recently, emergent organizations and resident-led initiatives have introduced promising approaches to address society’s challenges. There are community-driven models like the Family Independence Initiative, which supports the efforts of low-income families and communities to build their own approaches to climbing out of poverty. There are "direct-to-people" efforts like The Bail Project, which is working to reduce mass incarceration by using a revolving fund to pay the bail for low-level defendants who cannot afford to do so. There are also field-building intermediaries like Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which augments the efforts of other actors working to achieve population-level change in the field of tobacco cessation.
We are at the beginning of an estimated $30 trillion wealth transfer from Baby Boomers to their heirs, which will play out over the next two to three decades. If the wealthiest families surmount the challenges to giving more, they will seize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help put society on a path to enduring progress.