These days, numbers speak louder than words, with data informing everything from the timing of an email send to the channels through which we contact donors (Hello, various mobile devices!). Thanks to advanced fundraising technology, nonprofits can get all the insights they need to make informed decisions about their organization and its donors. But in our interconnected, increasingly complex world, sometimes you need to go bigger.
When it comes to strategic planning for nonprofit organizations, you want to think long-term. While no one could have anticipated the need to whip up a flurry of virtual events or double down on online donations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are plenty of future trends that we can predict—or at least hazard a guess. And with that knowledge, we can craft smart strategies that set us up for future success, following people where they’re going and leaning into demographic trends.
Since many in the nonprofit sector shape their fundraising strategies around their current and potential donors, population trends are a key indicator of what to expect going forward. While these trends may move slowly, let’s be honest: so do most nonprofits. That’s why we’re looking toward the next 10, 20, or 40 years, knowing that tomorrow will be today before we know it. So, without further ado, here’s what the data’s saying about shifts in our population in the future—and how these changes can inform your vision and strategy so you stay one step ahead.
Key demographic population trends
One key caveat before we dig into all this rich data: we would never suggest you change your core purpose or values to appeal to a new, larger, or different donor base. Rather, we hope these projections help you recognize that your community may shift over time and pivot your strategies accordingly to ensure that both your constituents and donors aren't left behind. After all, when it comes to fundraising, it's all about providing humans with the opportunity to build a better world for other humans (and animals and plants). Keeping that in mind, these trends are simply meant to shine a light on ways to find people who will relate to your cause and share your vision.
Today, due to changing fertility rates and people switching faiths, worldwide population projections show some big changes regarding religion. Based on current trends, Islam will experience the fastest global growth of any religion, nearly catching up to Christianity by 2050 (Statista). This is quite different from the United States, where the vast majority of the population is Christian and Islam makes up an extremely small percentage.
Still, we're in for major shifts domestically, too. In 2018 and 2019, Pew Research Center found that 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians. And while that may sound like a lot, it's actually down 12% from 10 years ago. More and more, Americans aren't identifying with any religion at all, whether they're atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular."
What it means for nonprofits: As religious beliefs change, your non-faith-based nonprofit organization can follow people where they’re going, focusing your fundraising efforts on communities whose faith-based values dovetail with your core purpose. Or, for specific religious organizations, you can lean into a more concentrated base, focusing on fostering greater engagement and community collaboration. Changing religious population trends might also require some changes in branding. Faith-based nonprofits can change with our changing times, updating their messaging to focus more on common causes and belief systems, such as social justice or healthcare, rather than the religion itself. This can also look like partnering with other community organizations to bring in new audiences while still staying true to your original mission.
The average age of both the global and US population is rising—and research says it will continue to do so. The US Census Bureau tells us that back in 2016, adults over 65 made up just 15% of the population. By 2060, they project older adults will make up 23% of the population, or nearly 95 million people. Furthermore, the number of much older adults (that's the technical term, right?), aged 85 years and up, is expected to nearly double by 2035 (from 6.5 million to 11.8 million) and nearly triple by 2060 (to 19 million people).
What it means for nonprofits: In good news, older donors tend to be more engaged in philanthropy, giving larger gifts and engaging more deeply with nonprofits. However, older donors also prefer a personal touch, so any future strategy should allocate ample resources for donor stewardship and include a plan to connect with the next generation of loved ones. Additionally, consider focusing more on planned giving, with designated resources and personalized guidance to demystify the process and emphasize how impactful estate planning can be.
Country of origin
The same US Census report cited above projects that in 2023, the US will be facing a demographic first: "Beginning that year, because of population aging, immigration is projected to overtake natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) as the primary driver of population growth for the country." In other words, right now, there are about 44 million people in the US who were born in another country. By 2060, there will be around 69 million foreign-born Americans. And in 2028, the share of the US population that was born in another country will be the highest it's been since 1850.
What it means for nonprofits: A lot depends on how more immigrants impact immigration policy, and a lot depends on how foreign-born people vote on issues connected with your cause. Depending on your area of focus, immigration status could affect your constituency, driving more people (or fewer people) to your cause. Finally, Pew found that US immigrants make up more than 10% of the electorate as of 2020; if all those people turn out and vote, it can make a huge policy difference, too. So, stay adaptable in terms of area of focus, target audience, and funding implications.
It's a question as old as time (or as old as women's right to vote, so not very old at all, actually): When will the global gender gap close? According to WEF's Global Gender Gap index, not for over 135 years. Basically, COVID erased a ton of progress; before the pandemic, estimates said less than 100 years, which is still way too long but better. They measured the gender gap along four dimensions (economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment) and found that the political empowerment gap is the widest and will take nearly 150 years to close. In (slightly) better news, WEF estimates that the gender gap in North America can be closed in 61.5 years at the current pace.
But for nonprofits looking to the future, it's not just about the gender gap itself; it's about Americans' shifting views on gender as a concept and a spectrum. A recent Pew study found that young adults are much more likely to be accepting when it comes to gender identity and associated issues. Specifically, in that 2022 study, half of adults ages 18 to 29 said someone can be a man or a woman even if that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth, while about two-fifths of respondents ages 30 to 49 and about a third of those 50 and older said so. Unsurprisingly, these views are split fairly evenly along partisan lines.
What it means for nonprofits: With dispiriting predictions about closing the global gender gap, nonprofits have an opportunity to shape a strategy built on making it right, right at home. And that can start with staffing. Right now, 75% of nonprofit workers are women, but they make up 56% of leadership roles at small nonprofits and just 22% at the largest nonprofits with annual budgets of at least $50 million (AAUW). If you're looking toward an equitable and productive future, bring women into top roles now, from executive director to board chair.
Next, perceptions of gender. Nonprofits will want to consider adapting their language and messaging to the next generation of donors, who have increasingly liberal views around gender. Furthermore, because women tend to give at higher levels than men, broader perceptions around gender could skew giving to new population segments. Will gender fluidity lead to greater diversity among donors? One can hope.
Increasingly, higher education enrollment is linked to population trends rather than more students attending college. And with lower birth rates, greater diversity and international students, and the growing popularity of online and hybrid learning, that means undergraduate enrollment is predicted to decline starting in 2025 (McKinsey). (Don't get us started on the cost of that education, too!)
What it means for nonprofits: Academic institutions will benefit from increasing accessibility to open themselves up to a wider audience. By leveraging technology, education nonprofits can embrace self-directed and flexible learning, including offering more online and hybrid experiences. But all nonprofits will want to sit up and take notice of educational trends; historically, more educated people are much more likely to give to charity and to volunteer (Philanthropy Roundtable). As such, fewer educated people could mean fewer volunteers and donations, unless you course-correct accordingly.
The US Census Bureau also has some interesting predictions when it comes to race. In the decades ahead, the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group will be people who are two or more races, followed by Asian and Hispanic populations. The increases in Hispanics and people who are multiracial are due to general population trends; these populations are young, so they'll grow in number. The increase in Asian Americans, however, is largely due to international migration. And while the US will grow increasingly diverse, non-Hispanic whites will remain the largest racial or ethnic group into 2060.
What it means for nonprofits: Most charitable organizations have implemented DEI initiatives as they aim to better reflect their constituency's views and benefit from a diversity of ideas. In the years ahead, even more nonprofits will want to lean further into those efforts to accurately reflect the communities they serve. At the same time, an America with more multiracial people makes nuanced and thoughtful messaging all the more important, requiring open lines of communication with clients, donors, and the community.
Movement across the US
After and during the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people moved around, disrupting the usual domestic migration patterns. Looking to the decades ahead, it's hard to know where people will end up, but projections show increasing urbanization, with 89% of the total North American population living in urban areas in 2050, up from 82% in 2020 (Statista).
And then, there's climate change. As extreme weather patterns continue to intensify, more and more folks will be forced to move to places that are less prone to climate disasters. Residents of states like Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, which were ranked worst for climate change according to Policygenius, might not be racing to Michigan (the state that's the least susceptible to climate change) now, but that could change after another few decades of extreme heat, drought, and/or flooding with few mitigation efforts in place.
What it means for nonprofits: With increasing migration to cities, people will have easier access to jobs, infrastructure, and other resources. At the same time, many nonprofits will find a more concentrated need for their services in specific areas. Fundraisers may want to consider more localized fundraising strategies, even for national nonprofits, based on specific needs related to wherever people live. On the bright side, there may also be more opportunities for innovation and cross-sector partnerships throughout the nonprofit sector, thanks to the varied and overlapping issues brought to the forefront by increased population density.
None of the trends above exist in a vacuum, so it’s important to carefully consider how they overlap and how that relates to your target audience, particularly if your nonprofit has a very specific area of focus.
- For religious organizations, immigration migration trends could have a major impact on future constituencies depending on the primary belief systems in each group's country of origin. While Mexicans are the largest group of U.S. immigrants, making up 24% of the total immigrant population (in 2021; that number is a decline from 2000, when they made up 30% (Migration Policy Institute). Now, more immigrants come from Asia, particularly India and China, which were the top countries of origin for US immigrants from 2013 to 2021.
- Along with shifting views on gender, there's been a general decline in birth rates across the US in recent years. And, more and more, women are delaying having children (CDC). If fewer women are having children, nonprofits will want to look at what that means for their earning potential and educational goals, and then adjust their outreach approach accordingly.
- The human population is growing older, and women tend to live longer than men, so nonprofits will want to keep an eye on how gender impacts giving around and beyond retirement. IUPUI has a whole report on this very subject, though it's from 2018. Single women and married couples are more likely to give and volunteer around retirement than single men. So, an older population with more women could mean new opportunities for giving and engagement, especially, as noted above, if those women are child-free.