The word “philanthropy” has powerful connotations. 

For many, it evokes scenes of blue-blooded older souls, perhaps already immortalized in stately oil paintings hanging in well-appointed drawing rooms, passing cold judgment on causes jockeying for their largesse. 

They’ve done well in this life, or perhaps they’ve been blessed by the hard work of generations past, and they’ve directed their family foundations or private accountants to dole out grants and gifts as they see fit. The organizations they fund tend to be sprawling, even unwieldy, and bear the names of old captains of industry: Ford, Hewlett, Carnegie, Rockefeller.

There’s a grain of truth to this stodgy image. In the United States, at least, the philanthropic center of gravity lies within the bland cohort of old grantmaking family foundations, many of which fund critically important work around the globe. Every NGO grantwriter or project manager has applied for (or considered applying for) funding from such organizations.

Just below the surface, the picture is far more complex. There’s an upsurge of activity in the unconventional wing of the philanthropic community, among new, innovative nonprofits willing to stuff old ways of doing things and break the mold in the service of a better tomorrow. They’re often scrappy, usually underfunded, and not at all assured of success — but they could just leave a permanent mark on charity as we know it.

Here’s a look at six innovative organizations making charity accessible to the next generation.

Autism Rocks

Autism Rocks has a simple mission: to raise funding for autism research, and awareness about the challenges faced by children and parents affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, through star-studded musical events. 

The organization got off to a modest start in the early 2010s, with an intimate performance by the late Prince in a cozy London venue. Today, Autism Rocks is growing at an impressive clip — it’s nearing completion of a permanent home for its Autism Rocks Arena, a 20,000-seat venue whose temporary forebear has already attracted some of the biggest names in rock and pop, while building out the cutting-edge Autism Rocks Support Centre nearby in Dubai.

Autism Rocks is making philanthropy fun. That’s great news for millions of children and parents who stand to benefit directly from its research funding.

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation

The name sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It should. 

Like his dad, eldest Buffett son Howard has caught the philanthropic bug. By day, he’s a family farmer who cultivates thousands of acres of fertile Illinois farmland. By night — actually, all the time — he’s the namesake of a family foundation “crusad[ing] to stamp out hunger in America.”

Buffett’s ambitions are actually even bigger than that. His goal is to address acute the root causes of food insecurity across the world — potentially reaching more than 1 billion impoverished souls in the process. It’s a daunting task, but if anyone can do it, it’s a farmer who can bring the full resources of the Buffett family to bear.

Acumen Fund

Acumen offers “a bold new way of tackling poverty that’s about dignity, not dependence, and choice, not charity.” Like many new-school charities, it’s fusing public, private, and nonprofit models to reinforce what works and discard what doesn’t.

Acumen’s investments have so far touched at least 100 million lives. That’s pretty impressive for an organization about which most Americans and Europeans have never heard. And its projects are sorely needed: a private ambulance company in India that fills the void that would normally be occupied by a public emergency-call service; a microlending apparatus that serves poor farmers and small business owners in Pakistan; a revolutionary pay-as-you-go utility model for rural Tanzanians; and a slew of small-scale green energy projects throughout the Global South.  


Scope is an innovative U.K. charity for children with disabilities. Its Face 2 Face service is a revolutionary, if all-too-obvious, approach to supporting and caring for parents of disabled children. The ultimate goal: to “put into place better systems to make sure that families are getting the support that they need.”

Scope’s power lies in its by-for principle: its volunteer Befrienders all have disabled children themselves, so they know all too well the challenges and triumphs of the clients they serve. Thanks to crucial support from the People’s Health Trust, Scope’s endowment recently passed the £1 million mark.

National Wildlife Federation

The National Wildlife Federation is the biggest wildlife advocacy and conservation organization you’ve never heard of. 

NWF has its hands in hundreds of projects in every U.S. state and territory, but it really made its mark in the wake of the 2010 B.P. oil spill, when millions of gallons of crude gushed forth from a bustled wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. NWF implemented a series of commonsense best practices, such as a “no burn” policy for oil slick cleanup, that likely saved the lives of thousands of marine birds and reptiles — including threatened sea turtles.


If you think it’s scandalous that people die because they can’t afford lifesaving healthcare, you’ll love Watsi — a next-generation approach to healthcare delivery and accessibility. Watsi uses the power of crowdfunding and the promise of collective action to support basic and advanced medical care for patients in far-flung parts of the world. A pilot project in rural Uganda has already helped about 6,000 desperately needy souls.

Is Philanthropy the Next Big Startup Scene?

This list makes it clear that at least some charities are leaping enthusiastically into the 21st century. But philanthropy’s long-overdue embrace of modernity isn’t quite the same as a full-throated embrace of the fast-paced startup culture that produced Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, and Snapchat in succession.

The jury’s still out on whether philanthropic organizations will ever look like nimble Silicon Valley startups. Whether nonprofit executives should even aspire to such a goal is a fair question. What does look certain is that nonprofits, NGOs, and private foundations will continue to evolve with the times — and provide ever more opportunity for ambitious, generous souls eager to leave the world a better place than they found it.