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Social Impact in 2015 – Events, Trends, and Breakthroughs


By Allison Gauss

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

In the past year, the social impact sector has known successes and setbacks, trials and triumphs. A deadly earthquake affected millions, a viral fundraising campaign led to a medical breakthrough, and all cause sectors faced new challenges and opportunities. Meanwhile, the growing influence of millennials and the digital space have driven many nonprofits to adapt their fundraising and engagement strategies.

As 2015 comes to a close, Classy looks back on some of the biggest developments in the social impact sector this year. We’ve perused the latest research, analyzed how global events have shaped social impact, and uncovered some of the most important trends that characterized 2015 and may affect the nonprofit sector in 2016.

Charitable Giving

According to 2015’s Giving USA Report, the social impact sector continues to recover and grow following the end of the global recession. Last year, charitable giving totaled $358.38 billion, a 7.1 percent increase over data from 2013.

Although individual giving remains the dominant source of charitable contributions, the greatest increases were to bequests (15.5 percent) and corporate giving (13.7 percent). Among the major cause sectors, giving to arts, culture, and humanities increased the most (9.2 percent). International affairs was the only sector to which giving decreased (2.0 percent).

Online giving continues to increase and shape how nonprofits appeal to donors. Growth in online donations was particularly strong in the arts, culture, and humanities sector, along with the environment and animals sectors. Whatever cause your organization focuses on, your online donation process should make it easy for supporters to give. Young people especially prefer to give online and with mobile devices.

person holding a credit card and typing on keyboard

2015 Trends

The shifting of donor demographics and changes in how the public chooses to get involved with social impact organizations will shape the future of charitable giving. Consider these trends when planning your fundraising and engagement strategy for 2016.


With 75 million people born between 1980 and 2000, millennials are now the largest living generation, ranging from age 15 to 35. Although most individual millennials aren’t able to make large donations, 84 percent of those surveyed in the 2015 Millennial Impact Report made a charitable gift in the last year. Another survey found that more than half of millennials said they’d be interested in monthly giving.

Youths smiling at the camera as you engage young generations

This rising generation of donors values transparency, effectiveness, and a seamless online experience. Websites that lack important information and aren’t mobile friendly are among their top pet peeves. Millennials will only become more important for nonprofits as they come of age and their earning power grows. Social impact organizations must act now to nurture these relationships.


Since its founding in 2013, the global giving day has grown exponentially. With tens of thousands of partner organizations and tens of millions of dollars raised, it has solidified its value as a rallying point and year-end fundraising event for all social impact sectors.

In 2015, nonprofits and businesses worked together to make #GivingTuesday bigger than ever, raising more than $116.7 million. Continuing our tradition of waiving transaction fees on #GivingTuesday, Classy gave back $56,000 to 757 organizations.

Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

Social media and online giving have made peer-to-peer fundraising a valuable opportunity for many nonprofits. The proliferation of birthday fundraising campaigns is joined by people of all ages fundraising for endurance races, weddings, and many other life events.

Peer-to-peer empowers anyone to make a big impact. Furthermore, it helps a nonprofit spread its message and increase their audience. Organizations looking to harness this power must have the right tools and strategy.

World Events

The social impact sector both is constantly being shaped by major world events. A disaster, scientific breakthrough, or political turning point can create new areas of need and rearrange the charitable sector’s priorities. On the other hand, many of the most notable achievements in health and human rights are driven in part by nonprofits. The past year was marked by many harrowing and heartening events with lasting effects on the sector. Here are just a few.

Nepal Earthquake

On April 25, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal. Along with subsequent aftershocks, it killed more than 8,500 people making it the most deadly disaster in the country’s history. The United Nations reported that 2.8 million people were displaced.

Organizations and volunteers from all over the world moved to bring swift aid to the region. Nonprofits such as the World Food Programme, Possible, and All Hands Volunteers worked to address the wide-ranging needs of those affected, from food and shelter to medical care and rebuilding efforts. The news crews leave quickly, but the public is also interested in updates on disasters like this. If your organization responds to urgent issues like these, remember to update donors and highlight the progress you make.

Progress on Polio, HIV, and Syphilis

According to UNICEF, global cases of polio are at an all-time low. With Nigeria reporting no new cases for over a year, the debilitating disease is now endemic to only Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On June 30, the World Health Organization announced that Cuba was the first country to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. Cuba achieved this milestone by working with WHO and the Pan American Health Organization to provide universal pre-natal care, testing, and treatment for mothers. Along with governments and scientists, social impact organizations are central to the fight against communicable disease. When the news reports on a breakthrough affecting your cause, don’t be afraid to celebrate and recognize the nonprofits and programs making change possible.

Syrian Civil War

Following the Arab Spring protests in 2011, Syria has faced mounting political and military conflict. The civil war has driven 4 million men, women, and children to flee the violence and seek shelter in neighboring countries including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have also resettled in European Union states such as Germany and Sweden.

Forced to leave behind their homes, jobs, and communities, Syrian refugees face monumental challenges. Social impact organizations worldwide are working with governments to provide safety and shelter to Syrian citizens. The terrorist attacks in Paris, however, have stalled the political process. Meanwhile, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, UNICEF, Save The Children, and many more nonprofits are trying to provide food, shelter, and medical care to the refugees. With the civil war still raging, the social impact sector will continue to support the displaced Syrian people. Even in complex and politically fraught crises, nonprofits can appeal to donors to help meet the immediate needs for people affected.

Big Stories

Several social impact organizations made the news in 2015. While each organization is different, news stories reflect some of the most pressing issues in the sector. Here we cover some of the biggest nonprofit-related news stories of 2015 and explain how they apply to other social impact organizations.

National Geographic Magazine Goes For-Profit

National Geographic magazine is no longer a nonprofit publication, after being acquired by media corporation 21st Century Fox. The environmental magazine has been covering global stories as a nonprofit enterprise since 1888. The National Geographic Society, which inspires people to care about the planet through exploration, education, and conservation, will retain its nonprofit status and run National Geographic magazine in conjunction with Fox.

It’s not only traditional newspapers that are struggling with the new publishing landscapes. Nonprofit publications must also adapt to new online platforms and work to retain subscribers. All social impact organizations should periodically reassess their funding model to determine if they need to change course, but for those working in publishing and media, adaptability is even more important.

Ice Bucket Challenge Funds ALS Breakthrough

After going viral in the summer of 2014, the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge campaign raised more than $220 million to fight the disease. While some critics called the campaign empty slacktivism, scientists at Johns Hopkins University said the funds helped make their breakthrough possible. Their study clarified the role of a protein called TDP-43 in ALS and opened the door to a new potential treatment.

This research drives home the real impact “viral” campaigns can have on a cause. The debate over social media activism isn’t over, but nonprofits already know that these movements can bring much-needed publicity and funding. Social impact organizations must continue to develop and refine their engagement and mobilization of these channels.

Red Cross Response to Haiti Investigated

Following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, the Red Cross was one of many social impact organizations fundraising for the region’s relief. In 2015, ProPublica and NPR reported that they “found a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success, according to a review of hundreds of pages of the charity’s internal documents and emails, as well as interviews with a dozen current and former officials.” The investigation led many to question the competence and effectiveness of the Red Cross and other disaster relief nonprofits.

Transparency and impact have become a huge concern for donors and allegations of waste or wrongdoing are quick to gain attention. It is more important than ever for nonprofits to document and share their programs and results. Proactive communication through social media and email shows supporters that you hold yourself accountable every step of the way. Fierce transparency is the best defense against scandal.

2016 Collaborative and Classy Awards Announced

In October, Classy founders Pat Walsh and Scot Chisholm revealed some news that had been in the works for months.

The Collaborative + Classy Awards are returning in 2016 on June 14-16. Bringing together social impact leaders and innovators, the event will honor the world’s most impactful social enterprises and foster game-changing discussion. And for the first time ever, the Classy Awards have a new home. We hope you’ll join us this summer in Boston!

After another year of innovation, perseverance, and learning, the social impact sector is striving to mobilize new audiences and respond to evolving challenges. Classy wants to thank all of our nonprofit partners, and everyone else who is working toward building a better world. Let’s make 2016 a landmark year for social good.

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