The past decade has been the most dynamic period ever for U.S. philanthropy as a who’s who of billionaire donors have embarked on large-scale giving and the world of institutional grantmaking has also grown.
In August 2010, Bill and Melinda Gates, along with Warren Buffett, introduced the Giving Pledge at a news conference in New York City with commitments from 40 of the nation’s richest families to give away at least half their wealth. Big Philanthropy has been on a tear ever since, fueled by an explosion of assets at the top of the income ladder (even as most U.S. households have treaded water.)
In 2010, the 400 richest families had a combined wealth of $1.3 trillion. Now, that figure stands at around $3 trillion. And it’s not just the billionaire class that’s grown vastly richer; the number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals overall has risen rapidly, with tens of thousands of U.S. households now sitting on liquid assets of over $30 million.
Many of these Americans give away a depressingly small sliver of their wealth every year—including some billionaires who are signatories of the Giving Pledge. Cumulatively, though, these crumbs add up to an ever-expanding river of cash that’s been swelling the size of private foundations and donor-advised funds, as well as driving a big expansion of philanthropic intermediaries. All this new money, in turn, has fueled the growth of many nonprofits and pumped up the budgets and endowments of higher ed institutions. Increasingly, too, the new philanthropy boom has generated a backlash as critics question the power of an ever-richer and more sophisticated donor class that’s wielding influence on issue after issue.
Inside Philanthropy has been tracking these developments since 2014, when we first started publishing. We have paid particular attention to the emergence of new mega-givers, especially from tech and finance—a beat that can feel head-spinning. Nearly every month seems to bring news of a huge gift or funding initiative, often from deep-pocketed donors who have appeared on the scene only recently. Meanwhile, institutional philanthropy has also been dynamic, as concerns about equity and race push to the forefront of foundation agendas and as trends like impact investing gain steam.
Our annual IP Philanthropy Awards, or IPPYs, are a moment when we take stock of what’s happened over the year. They’re also a lot of fun, allowing us to spotlight the stuff that’s really excited us over the year—or, in some cases, appalled us. (See winners for 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014.)
As ever, the staff at IP is grateful to have the opportunity to cover a world of philanthropy where there’s never a dull moment. Our reporting and research is only made possible because of our paying subscribers. So thank you!
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The 2019 IPPYs
Philanthropist of the Year: George Soros
Not the most creative choice, maybe. But no donor is doing more to push back against the rising tide of authoritarianism worldwide—Soros is now engaged in his “biggest battle yet” at home and abroad, including pledging over $800 million in new support for academic freedom in Central Europe.
Runner-up: Barbara Picower
In less than a decade, Picower has built the $4 billion JPB Foundation into a powerhouse grantmaker on poverty and the environment. She’s gone where most other living donors won’t in her support of bottom-up advocacy work—though her leadership style has rankled some.
Top Big Picture Trend: Backlash to Philanthropy
Thorniest Topic for Philanthropy: Power
It’s not just critics outside the sector throwing bombs. More would-be disrupters within philanthropy are challenging the norm that those who control the wealth should decide how to disperse it. Calls to shift power are growing.
Runner Up: Race
Foundations are engaged in a growing range of efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion—work that often pulls them outside their comfort zones and can raise deeper questions about the origins of philanthropic wealth. Meanwhile, some funders and nonprofits are directly confronting slavery’s legacy.
Billionaire Couple Most Ready to Face Up to Both Topics: Nicholas and Susan Pritzker
The strategy reboot of their Libra Foundation, led by Executive Director Crystal Hayling, has remade the organization into a bottom-up funder that looks to historically marginalized communities to lead the way.
Best Overdue Idea: Increasing Overhead Funding for Nonprofits
After years of pressure by strapped grantees, top foundations are finally upping their caps on how much grant money can be used for administrative expenses.
Worst Trend: Philanthropists Running for President
America is getting more skeptical of plutocrats, so what makes guys like Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer think they belong at the top of the Democratic ticket?
Philanthropy’s Biggest Blind Spot: Aging
America’s safety net and healthcare systems are alarmingly unprepared for the rapid aging of the U.S. population. But very few funders are paying attention—with some exceptions that we watch closely.
Mega-Giver We’ll Miss the Most: Herb Sandler
It’s hard to think of a top donor who’s compiled a stronger track record of successful investments than Sandler, who died in June. Along with wife Marion, his greatest hits include the creation of ProPublica and the Center for American Progress.
Looming Deadline That’s Most Galvanized Funders: 2020 Census
By the time the census gets underway next month, scores of foundations will have spent two years and millions of dollars preparing for the high-stakes head count.
Top Challenge That Has Philanthropy Stumped: Housing
The housing crisis isn’t just a San Francisco or New York issue—it’s happening everywhere. As funders launch a range of response, it’s still not clear the sector can move the needle on this vast problem. Some more promising strategies involve advocacy and impact investing.
Most Surprising Big Gift: Robert Smith’s Debt Relief Act
While Smith’s promise to pay off $34 million in debt for 2019 Morehouse College grads has attracted both praise and criticism, one thing is clear: Those lucky students were blown away by his generosity.
Most Intriguing New Giving Pledger: MacKenzie Bezos
In the wake of her divorce settlement, she’s pledged to give away Amazon stock worth $36 billion, saying she’ll move quickly and “keep at it until the safe is empty.” If MacKenzie avoids key mistakes that new donors often make, she could quickly become one of America’s most important philanthropists.
Foundation President of the Year: Allen Greenberg
Ever heard of him? We didn’t think so. But he’s quietly built the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation into one of America’s largest grantmakers (it gave out $624 million last year, more than Ford.) Lately, STBF’s main issue—reproductive health—has been under worldwide assault, and Greenberg and his relatively small staff have moved a blizzard of grants to organizations leading the pushback.
Foundation President We’ll Miss the Most: Richard Woo
While not well-known outside the Pacific Northwest, the outgoing CEO of the Russell Family Foundation has been a trailblazer in such areas as equity and impact investing.
Foundation President We’ll Miss the Least: Luz Vega-Marquis
She’s leaving the Marguerite Casey Foundation with an impressive record of supporting movement building, but with a tainted reputation after reports that she created “a culture of fear” at MCF—which is not OK.
Most Promising New Foundation President: John Palfrey
While MacArthur took a lot of heat for naming a white guy as its next CEO, Palfrey has already won praise for increasing MacArthur’s support for overhead. Given his track record as an innovative thinker, he’s likely to shake things up in other ways, too.
Most Transparent Grantmaker: Open Philanthropy Project
OPP isn’t the only funder to share details of its grantmaking in real time—as opposed to making us wait a year or two for 990s—but no institution does a better job of explaining why it makes the grants that it does.
Least Transparent Mega-Giver: Laurene Powell Jobs
She’s one of America’s top philanthropists, and among those with the biggest heart, standing up for undocumented immigrants, struggling students, beleaguered journalists, endangered species, and more. But we have no clue about how much she gives annually, or where, exactly, the money goes.
Biggest Scandal: Epstein
The fact that anyone would accept gifts from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein underscores the corrosive influence of wealth. No wonder that multiple people involved in taking his money have lost their jobs. With the Sacklers also under fire, 2019 was the year of the toxic donor.
Runner-up: Varsity Blues
While the philanthropy angle of the college admissions scandal doesn’t get much attention, the fact that bribery money sluiced through a charitable entity is another ominous reminder of how easily these organizations can be abused absent better oversight.
Donation Debacle of the Year: Penn Law School
A backlash to naming rights turned a $150 million gift to the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Law School by the W. P. Carey Foundation into “a complete nightmare.”
Runner Up: The University of Alabama and Hugh Culverhouse Jr.
Disputed donations are, by definition, messy affairs, but the University of Alabama’s decision to return more than $21 million to Hugh Culverhouse Jr. took the drama to a new level.
Most Jarring Big Philanthropy Split-Screen: Zuck’s Double Life
Even as he wrestles with the Facebook Frankenstein and faces withering criticism, the philanthropy that Mark Zuckerberg created with Priscilla Chan is doing some great work, including funding bottom-up advocacy and tackling the Bay Area housing crisis.
Hottest New Philanthropy Niche: Battling Monopoly
One of Zuck’s antagonists, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, is among those donors taking a stand against monopolistic practices. Other funders swinging behind this work include Open Society, Ford, Knight, Omidyar and Nathan Cummings
Trippiest New Philanthropy Niche: Psychedelics Research
As excitement grows about the potential of psychedelics to help with chronic illness, addiction and mental health challenges, more donors are stepping up with gifts—including $17 million for a new center at Johns Hopkins.
Niche That Least Needs a Shot in the Arm: Anti-vax
The dizzying array of causes supported by philanthropy is often cited as a strength. The downside: Donors can bankroll harmful work like the anti-vaccination movement.
Class Traitor Award: Michael Masters
Just as Chris Hughes is leading the charge to rein in big tech, longtime hedge funder Masters is bankrolling advocacy to reform in his own sector, putting millions into Better Markets, the top policy shop working to reform Wall Street.
Least Expected New Critic of Capitalism: Pierre Omidyar
The eBay founder is well-known for embracing market-based approaches to tough problems. Now, though, his Omidyar Network has begun bankrolling critical work to “reimagine capitalism.”
Most Influential Donor-Advised Fund: National Christian Foundation
The Christian Right is more powerful than ever and an army of committed donors is one reason why. Many move their money anonymously through NCF, which gave out $1.7 billion in grants last year.
Biggest Funding Juggernaut Losing Steam: Charter Schools
Even as stalwarts like Walton double down on charters, others are losing interest and new donors aren’t flocking to a strategy that hasn’t delivered on its promise of systemic disruption.
Best Corporate Donor: Levi Strauss
While most corporate foundations are busy aligning philanthropy with business interests, the Levi Strauss Foundation focuses on marginalization, and how it can do the most good through work supporting LGBTQ communities and worker rights.
Most Intriguing Heir: Alexander Soros
George isn’t going to live forever, and his legacy will hinge in part on how well his philanthropic empire hangs together when he’s gone. We’ll be watching youngest son Alex closely for clues about how this “Succession” drama plays out.
Most Woke Rich White Guy: Jeff Raikes
It’s not often you see philanthropists who hail from business talking about the need to confront “America’s legacy of white supremacy.” But the former Microsoft executive and Gates Foundation CEO is taking that message far and wide.
Best Philanthropy Book of the Year: “Giving Done Right”
Anyone with a pile of money who wants to make the world a better place shouldn’t start writing checks until they’ve read Phil Buchanan’s “Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count.”
Philanthropy Critic of the Year: John Arnold
In a rare move for a top philanthropist, Arnold weighed in with a call to raise the mandated payout rates for private foundations and also apply them to DAFs. The strong pushback to his ideas underscores the reflexive defensiveness of a sector that attacks every reform proposal that comes along.
Climate Intermediary of the Year: Climate Emergency Fund
The new fund that started in July has rightly generated a lot of buzz for its exclusive focus on activists disrupting the gradualist approach to climate change. It’s injecting welcome urgency into the field.
Climate Funders to Watch: Community Foundations
Biggest New Source of Philanthropic Cash: Private Equity
This corner of finance has minted numerous billionaires in recent years, some of whom, like Robert Smith, are rapidly ramping up their giving. Meanwhile, private credit is also creating many new donors.
Most Ambitious New Funding Priority: Democratizing Technology
This year saw foundations launch new efforts to square technology with democracy, including support from Ford and Hewlett for a new public interest technology network and Knight’s backing of new policy work on managing a fast-evolving digital public square.
Big Philanthropy’s Go-To Poverty Strategy: Data
Of the many ways funders can tackle poverty, data-driven initiatives are increasingly popular, and it’s easy to see why. From how zip codes shape economic prospects to eviction rates and local partnerships, data and research are easy and safe to fund. But in isolation, they can’t achieve much.
Top Anti-Poverty Strategy in Need of More Philanthropic Support: Labor Rights
Workforce development is the bread and butter of economic opportunity funding because it’s safe. Labor organizing and workers rights don’t share that advantage, but they may be the most powerful anti-poverty levers funders can pull. And a few have stepped up to that challenge.
Heaviest Lift by a Consulting Group: Bridgespan’s Push for Greater Giving
Since 2015, the Bridgespan Group has been engaged in a research-fueled campaign to convince wealthy donors to make more “big bets” for social change. It deserves kudos for sticking with a vexing uphill climb.
Most Promising Trend in Arts Philanthropy: Participatory Grantmaking
Hottest Higher Ed Foundation Priority: Student Access and Support
A recent study found that higher ed foundation support for low-income students has reached critical mass. More survey respondents cited “student access and support” as a key priority than anything else.
Most Encouraging Trend in Higher Education: Support for Community Colleges and HBCUs
Community colleges and historically black colleges and universities have traditionally struggled to raise money, despite boosting student economic mobility at a greater rate than elite universities. This year, however, provided some encouraging signs that these schools are finally getting a second look.
Most Valuable New Criminal Justice Reform Giver: Michael Novogratz
Known for his outspokenness, the veteran investor and cryptocurrency pioneer has a passion for justice reform. Giving to end money bail and to reform parole is just the start—Novogratz wants to bring his Wall Street buddies in on a cause that still wants for funding despite recent gains.
Boldest Community Foundation: East Bay Community Foundation
Activism and social movements aren’t on the radar of most community foundations, anxious as they are to avoid alienating donors. But the East Bay Community Foundation is bucking that trend with a new grant commitment to local grassroots groups.
Hottest Community Foundation Trend: Impact Investing
Latest Giving Circle Trend: Black-led, Black serving
As giving circles continue to gain steam, some of the most intriguing new outfits aim to galvanize local philanthropy by and for African American communities, including in Kansas City and Philadelphia.
Celebrity Philanthropist of the Year: Mariska Hargitay
Want a case study of focused, high-impact celebrity philanthropy? Take a look at the persistent efforts of the actor, director and producer to end the egregious backlog of untested rape kits nationwide through the Joyful Heart Foundation.
Runner-up: Shonda Rhimes
One of Hollywood’s most successful producers has been turning to giving, with attention to equity and African American issues, and encouraging others in her industry to do the same.
Sports Philanthropist of the Year: Stephen Curry
The NBA superstar and his wife Ayesha joined the growing ranks of major donors coming from sports with the launch of their new foundation, Eat. Learn. Play.
Fundraising Veterans With the Best Advice: Naomi Levine and June Bradham
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