Where does one begin when describing 2020?

For starters, let’s just say the team at IP is as eager as you are to put this year behind us. It’s been a difficult one for all of us, some more so than others. And like the rest of the world, the philanthropic sector was shaken by the pandemic, the many inequities it magnified, and a historic uprising for racial justice.

As with all tumultuous periods in history, there were more than a few moments of heroism this year, including some of the boldest calls for systemic change that we’ve seen since IP launched in 2014. The pandemic spurred many in the sector to rise to the occasion, becoming more responsive than ever before. While there was plenty of discord and division in 2020, we also saw the spirit of philanthropy shine through in countless mutual aid, volunteer and pooled fundraising efforts. In response to the outcry over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, funders big and small took on racial justice in ways many of them never had before. Oh, and there was also a presidential election.

Along with some bright spots, 2020 cast a harsh light on the sector’s many weaknesses, and stirred critics to question whether philanthropy was doing its job. This year, we published some of our most cutting and unflinching opinion pieces to date. The heightened animosity toward the wealthy in recent years only grew, and the constraints funders have long imposed on nonprofits (and themselves) suddenly seemed more problematic than ever. At the same time, this year saw the emergence of an entirely new type of mega-donor, with MacKenzie Scott moving money at a speed rarely seen—and prompting questions about both traditional grantmaking and her approach.

As a year unlike any other draws to a close, we embark on our annual IP Philanthropy Awards, or IPPYs, which give us an opportunity to take stock of what exactly just happened. Through our not entirely scientific process, the IP team has pulled together the best and worst of the year, and as always, tried to have a little fun, too. (See winners for 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014.)

As ever, the staff at IP is grateful for the opportunity to cover a world of philanthropy where there’s never a dull moment, and we did our best to map out this world during a chaotic time. Our reporting and research is only made possible because of our paying subscribers. So thank you!

And if you’re not yet a subscriber, you might want to become one before you start clicking on the links below so you can read our best articles of the year. Enjoy!

The 2020 IPPYs

Philanthropist of the Year: MacKenzie Scott

Not much to debate this year. In her debut as a mega-donor, Scott moved about $6 billion, distributed to a combination of advocacy and organizing groups working in areas like race, gender and climate, as well as short- and long-term COVID response. Thanks to Scott, we’re finally getting to see what it looks like for a multi-billionaire to earnestly work at emptying the safe, all the while funding with, apparently, no strings attached. Watching this level of giving unfold is thrilling—and a little scary.

Runner-up: Jack Dorsey

We have to admit, Dorsey’s emergence as a top donor caught us totally by surprise. Like Scott, the Twitter co-founder took on the two biggest causes of the year—racial justice and pandemic response—at scale, showering small and large groups alike with unrestricted funding, and fast.

Honorable Mention: Everyday Philanthropists

While corporations, foundations and billionaires made headlines in the wake of the pandemic, we can’t overlook the wave of small and medium-sized donors and volunteers who got their communities through the toughest year in recent history. Through local relief funds, donor-advised funds and community foundations, and even the rise of mutual aid networks, our friends and neighbors came through.

Big Picture Trend of the Year: Rise of the Apex Donor

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Scott as a new force in philanthropy, a single person dwarfing most of the country’s largest institutional funders this year. But Dorsey and Jeff Bezos have also started to move money in dollar amounts that could reshape entire corners of the nonprofit sector. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pumped hundreds of millions into state election infrastructure, a critical need this year, but one that clearly belongs in the realm of the public sector rather than a private donor with a problematic day job. As personal fortunes balloon, who else will make the jump from giving millions to billions? What will the impact be? Be careful what you wish for.

Cause of the Year: Racial Justice

COVID-19 dominated philanthropy in 2020, but the pandemic also cast a disturbing light on racial inequality and paved the way for a social movement that could shape the sector for many years to come. Progressive funders led the way, and goliaths like Hewlett, Packard and OSF got on board with big commitments. Corporations backed the issue like never before. Now, with program staff telling us they are unsure about philanthropic leadership’s commitment to the cause, we’re eager to see if funders have decided to “get in and stay in” or if it’s a flash in the pan.

Thorniest Topic for Philanthropy: Capitalism

More philanthropists are challenging the status quo economic system and its stark inequities—all while sitting atop mountains of wealth accumulated in that very system. Can the beneficiaries of such an imbalanced economy be the agents of its transformation or even demise? Stay tuned.

Trickiest Allies for Capitalism’s Critics: Billionaires

It’s not exactly a man-bites-dog story, but a rising tide of billionaire support for hard-hitting advocates taking on capitalism is fraught with paradox and tension. What’s the matter with Connecticut? Maybe nothing if you believe that extreme inequality is a threat to everyone.

Cause to Watch: Policing Reform

During the summer’s mass protests, new large donors backed police reform efforts. This has always been an interesting funding space, drawing backers from across the political spectrum. But the defund-versus-reform debate has taken it in new directions and it will be interesting to see what funders are willing to support—or whether the issue will even stick around.

Runner-up: Guaranteed Income

Not a ton of funders are involved with the push for universal basic income, but a Jack Dorsey-backed coalition of mayors is gaining steam. Maybe it’s no big surprise that monthly guaranteed checks appeal to tech billionaires who are busy automating entire sectors of the economy.

Philanthropy’s Biggest Success: The 2020 Election

It wasn’t pretty, but philanthropy got the job done. Funders had two major goals in the lead-up to the 2020 federal election—drive turnout and avoid an utter fiasco at the polls. Both efforts were mostly successful, and to pull it off, many donors ventured into political waters they hadn’t before. While COVID and racial equity giving were bigger priorities, we’re not ready to call either a success.

Biggest Failure: No-Show Billionaires

Even as new mega-donors emerged on the scene, most billionaire donors barely increased their giving in the face of a devastating pandemic—even as many saw their wealth climb to new stratospheric heights.

Runner-up: COVID Education Funding

When over 50 million K-12 students found themselves marooned at home, many ill-equipped for remote learning, philanthropy stepped up with historic gifts—right? Wrong. Despite a spattering of efforts to close the digital divide, most funders—including top givers for K-12—have failed to do nearly enough.

Biggest… Question Mark: COVID Response

It’s true that philanthropy sprang into action and showed its unique value when the pandemic hit. But vast stores of wealth remained untapped when communities and the nonprofit world needed it most, and old habits proved hard to shake. As this chapter in history creeps toward a close, there’s a lot more assessment to be done, and we suspect the report card will be mixed.

Trend We Hope Sticks Around: COVID-era Flexible Funding

Out of sheer necessity, many foundations were forced to relax grant requirements during the pandemic. But some of the biggest philanthropists of the year embraced general support in all of their giving. After many years of prodding and pleading from the nonprofit community, let’s hope the ground is actually shifting on this front.

Unsung Heroes: Community Foundations

In the early months of the pandemic, local and community foundations across the country set up hundreds of COVID response and recovery funds to meet local needs and keep nonprofits alive. As in other disasters, community foundations are proving themselves as important conduits for local relief funding. More of them are even getting involved in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Philanthropy’s Fastest-Growing Blindspot: Lack of Transparency

Dorsey, Scott and Bezos are publishing lists of grantees, but we have no idea if those lists are complete and no way to find out about possible “dark money” giving by these and other billionaires. (Or if they’re stashing piles of philanthropic cash in, say, Bermuda.) And don’t even get us started on the billions that move anonymously through donor-advised funds—all part of a growing “shadow giving system.”

Biggest Reminder that 2020 Did Not Change Everything: The Payout Debate

Philanthropy cast off many false limits in 2020: Many funders gave unrestricted grants, required minimal reporting, and even took out bonds. Some institutions increased payout, but despite big-name coalitions and concerted lobbying, accelerating spending appears to remain a third rail for most of the sector. If 2020 doesn’t change that, we’re not sure what will.

Boldest Workaround to Payout Limits: Issuing Bonds

With Ford in the lead, several major foundations adopted a novel strategy in response to the need to move more money this year: issuing bonds. Doing so draws on the inherent stability of foundation balance sheets to quickly drum up more money for struggling nonprofits. It was a clever way to move more money—while avoiding the trickier aspects of the perpetuity and payout debate.

Trainwreck of the Year: NoVo’s Change of Heart

NoVo Foundation, a long-respected supporter of women and girls and organizations led by women of color, made program changes this year that shook leaders on the ground. NoVo abruptly laid off a program team, put all grants up for review, and ended multi-year funding, offering a confusing and incomplete explanation. For many in the field, it was a devastating reminder that even the most generous benefactors can always pull the rug out from underneath you.

Punching Bag of the Year: DAFs

OK, DAFs are always a punching bag. But this year, it felt like the discourse started to shift from “reform or don’t reform” to “reform a little or reform a lot.” Still, we’re not holding our breath for meaningful changes anytime soon.

Foundation President of the Year: Elizabeth Alexander, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

A poet and scholar by profession, Alexander was one to watch when she was appointed as head of Mellon in 2018. Now in her third year, it’s clear just how much she has reshaped the foundation. In 2020, Alexander secured Mellon’s spot as a leader in forward-thinking philanthropy by completing a pivot to prioritize social justice in all of its grantmaking.

Foundation President We Will Miss the Most: Patrick Gaspard

With an impressive background in organizing, politics and diplomacy, Gaspard struck us as the perfect person to head the Open Society Foundations when he landed the job just three years ago. Philanthropy needs more leaders like him—and OSF, one of the world’s biggest foundations, sorely needs stability as it prepares for a future without George Soros. Gaspard’s unexplained exit is not good news.

New President to Watch: Gloria Walton, The Solutions Project

Walton brings deep roots in movement organizing to her new role as head of this climate justice intermediary, where she will have $43 million in new, unrestricted funding at her fingertips. We’re looking forward to seeing what she’ll do.

Philanthropy Critic of the Year: MacKenzie Scott

Scott’s giving served as a savage indictment of status-quo philanthropy, which tends to be paternalistic, lumbering and stingy. For one, she has shown that giving away billions of dollars quickly and wisely is actually not very hard to do. In 2020, Scott gave away more than the Gates Foundation did in 2019, and she didn’t need a staff of 1,600 people to do it. Oh, and grant restrictions? Who needs them?

Runner-up: Lori Bezahler, CEO, Edward W. Hazen Foundation

We have to give some credit when a foundation president publicly and constructively criticizes one of her peers, as Bezahler did in an opinion piece about Kellogg’s racial equity grant competition. This never happens, and we’d love to see more of it. Email us.

Philanthropist We’re Most Conflicted About: Robert F. Smith

Smith continued his fast-moving giving this year, with the common theme of tackling systemic inequities—including taking on student loan debt at HBCUs and pioneering a new prostate cancer test for Black men. On the other hand, Smith was ensnared in one of the largest tax evasion cases in history, avoiding prosecution only by entering into an agreement with the DOJ in exchange for cooperation with the investigation of his mentor. We’re not the only ones grappling with this duality.

Celebrity Philanthropist of the Year: Rihanna

Pop-sensation Rihanna launched her first foundation when she was just 18. Today, her Clara Lionel Foundation focuses on climate resilience in the Caribbean, health, global education and sports, run by a small but impressive staff that keeps its ears to the ground.

Most Surprising Science Research Donor: Dolly Parton

Yes, the Queen of Nashville’s name is etched in the annals of the New England Journal of Medicine, thanks to her $1 million donation to coronavirus vaccine research and the development of the Moderna vaccine. Parton’s been active in philanthropy for many years, but this was new territory.

Most Unlikely Fundraising Juggernaut: Bail Funds

Established to call attention to the inherent injustice of money bail, local bail funds found themselves inundated with support as racial justice protests filled the streets. Will donors stick with these groups as they pursue radical changes to the criminal justice system?

Most Committed Democracy Funder: Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation

There are far bigger democracy funders, and many other small funders and donors went to bat for the democratic process this year. But Langeloth punches above its weight. It doesn’t even consider itself a democracy funder, but nonetheless dedicated $20 million of its entire $88 million endowment to civic engagement in advance of the election.

Top Donor Organizer: Libra Foundation

Under the leadership of Crystal Hayling, Nicholas and Susan Pritzker’s Libra Foundation spearheaded an effort to bring funders unaccustomed to racial justice movement work into that space. The Democracy Frontlines Fund’s backers include some big newcomers.

Heir to Watch: Leah Hunt-Hendrix

We’re tracking some of the most important heirs in philanthropy. And while Hunt-Hendrix definitely doesn’t have the biggest checkbook, she plays an influential role through her work with other heirs and social movements.

Biggest New Backer of Worker Power: Pierre Omidyar

The debut of the Omidyar Network’s Reimagining Capitalism grantmaking puts full-bore worker organizing close to the heart of the eBay founder’s giving. MacKenzie Scott also notably backed a few labor organizations in her first round of grants—helping turn around years of funder neglect.

Biggest Mirage in Higher Ed Philanthropy: Affordability

Back in the spring, we wondered if the pandemic would force higher ed donors to prioritize financial aid over athletics and tuition-busting construction projects. While the jury is still out, anecdotal evidence suggests some funders are already reverting to their pre-pandemic ways.

Cause That’s (Finally!) Reached Critical Mass: HBCUs

While we listed growing philanthropic interest in HBCUs as the “most encouraging trend” in higher ed last year, 2020 found billionaire mega-donors like MacKenzie Scott and Reed Hastings entering the fold, suggesting support for these engines of economic mobility has finally gone mainstream.

Overdue Arts Grantmaking Trend: Direct Funding for BIPOC Organizations

Pre-2020, arts funders often provided support to wealthy legacy institutions that would partner with organizations serving diverse communities. Initiatives like Ford’s America’s Cultural Treasures and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Black Seed initiative finds major grantmakers cutting out the middleman by putting money directly in the hands of BIPOC arts organizations.

Most Important New Climate Funder: Jeff Bezos

We know. Amazon. Obscene wealth. The fact that Bezos donates to Republican senators blocking climate action. But Bezos has undeniably become the largest climate donor, a hugely important development. Most of his $791 million in grants this year went to the field’s wealthiest groups, but he also gave unprecedented gifts to a handful of environmental justice outfits.

Climate Grantmakers to Watch: Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, The Solutions Project

All three groups got $43 million from Bezos—in each case, more than any of them had received in their existence. We’re eager to see how these three invigorate the people-of-color-led, grassroots climate justice movement—and how they challenge assumptions about philanthropy as they do so.

Cause to Watch in Environmental Giving: “Dirt to Shirt” Movement

You’ve probably heard of “farm to table” but what about “dirt to shirt”? If philanthropy can direct the same level of attention to what’s in our closets, and the myriad costs of getting it there, as it did previously to what we put on our plates, it would be one of the sector’s greater achievements.

Corporate Giving Cause of the Year: COVID Response

Once again, no surprise here. From the start, corporations and their foundations were a major force in the battle against COVID-19, accounting for over $9 billion in giving, more than half of the total $16.7 billion from all sources.

Worst Trend in Corporate Giving: Misleading Numbers

We saw many corporations repackaging previously planned and existing giving in their responses to COVID-19 and demands for racial justice. Another common practice was lumping in-kind giving of services, digital products, and more into such giving announcements.

Corporate Funder of the Year: JPMorgan Chase

For the sheer speed and size of its response to COVID and demands for racial equity, JPMorgan Chase earns the nod this year. It pledged—and is moving—a $250 million response to the pandemic, and a $30 billion (with a “b”) commitment in loans, equity and direct funding toward racial equity. The company’s giving is always strategic and substantial.

Family Foundation with the Most Romantic Backstory: The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education 

Liz and Don Thompson grew up just blocks from each other in Chicago, but they didn’t meet until college at Purdue, where both participated in the Minority Engineering Program. They later married and had successful careers, and founded a philanthropy to support education (their latest project is a push to increase the number of Black teachers in U.S. schools). It’s named for the street where they both grew up.

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