Why hasn’t tech transformed the list of top charities?

By David Frankel

We live in an extraordinary moment where startups that IPO’d after 2000 dominate the major stock indices, yet among the 100 largest charities on this list, more organizations predate the 20th Century than follow the founding of Google.

To put this in plain terms: Six of the top 100 charities on the list compiled by Forbes were founded after the year 2000. 15 were founded prior to the year 1900. The median non-profit was founded in 1950. You can see the full distribution here.

The US remains an incredibly generous country, and while giving has decreased by a few percentage points in recent years, the slight drop in dollars isn’t a reasonable explanation for the lack of new entrants on this list.

Other potential causes:

Concerned citizens have been forming mutual aid societies for hundreds of years, and we are the beneficiaries of generations of their generosity. Thankfully, this leaves fewer large challenges that call out for new charities.

Many of these charities were formed when government relief programs were threadbare, at best. The government now spends more on social welfare than it did in the Gilded Age, and as a result, there is less of a need for new non-profits.

Many who might have founded non-profits in prior eras have been taken by the idea of using capitalism as a tool to combat inequities, be it in the form of a B Corp or “Buy one, give one” business model.

This list’s static nature may simply reflect a changing philanthropic landscape where billionaires fund foundations that fund projects in ways that Forbes may not capture methodically.

But these answers feel unsatisfying. Hunger, cancer, and inequality are still massive problems, and the threshold to crack the list just isn’t that high — $150M in annual donations will do the trick. $150M is a lot of money, but it’s not unimaginable in the connected age.

To put this in perspective, US citizens made $2.8B+ of small-dollar donations to political candidates in the 2020 election cycle. If counted as a single charity, this sum would have represented the second-largest organization on the Forbes list!

There were multiple Senate races where the losing candidate raised $100M+ — much of it from online donations from out-of-state benefactors. Charismatic candidates can generate broad-based interest and fundraise on it rapidly. Shouldn’t the same dynamic apply to causes?

Back in the non-profit arena, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised $115M for the ALS society, nearly tripling their annual revenue. It fell just short of helping the charity make the list, but it demonstrates the leverage tech/social media can provide.

I want to be *especially clear* here: I’m not encouraging the “disruption” of the non-profit sector. I don’t think the entrepreneurial skills and patterns that work in the for-profit sector translate cleanly into the non-profit world.

I’m just surprised that a decade of tech development that has made coordination easier, marketing more targetable, reduced media costs generally, and simplified the collection of donations hasn’t led to more new entrants on this list.

The only new organization to make the Forbes list over the last 15 years is the Barack Obama Foundation, which I’m sure uses tech in forward-thinking ways, but obviously benefits from having one of the most charismatic and popular people in the world at its head.

I have no grand takeaway to this thread. Perhaps this is even the wrong question to be asking? I’m open to the argument that instead of more $1B charities, we need a thousand $1M charities that are hyper-targeted and run by small and dedicated teams.

However, if you have thoughts on this topic, I’m keen to hear them. Are there case studies of growing non-profits using tech in novel ways? Is there a cohort of emerging charities that will shake up this list in the coming years? If so, please let me know!

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