Philanthropy Awards, 2017

photo:  Sergey Novikov/shutterstock

photo:  Sergey Novikov/shutterstock

Believe it or not, Inside Philanthropy has now been around for four years. It's been a lot of fun. And there's no part that's more fun than looking back over the past year to take stock as we give out our annual IP Philanthropy Awards, or IPPYs. (See winners for 20162015, and 2014.)

There’s never been a more exciting time in U.S. philanthropy than right now, and 2017 has been another year of major developments, interesting moves by funders, and—occasionally—stuff that makes you want to scream. Enjoy our latest IPPYs! 

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. 

The 2017 IPPYs

Philanthropists of the Year: Connie and Steve Ballmer

Tapping a $37 billion fortune, the retired Microsoft CEO and his wife rolled out tens of millions of dollars in grant commitments in 2017 to reduce poverty. Their Ballmer Group is doing everything right, like listening to local stakeholders and scaling high-impact organizations with general support. 

Most Effective Philanthropists: Robert Mercer and the Koch Brothers

Corporate tax cuts, regulatory rollback, entitlements in the crosshairs: We’re now living in an America shaped by conservative givers. While Mercer is a relative newcomer, the Kochs have been patiently bankrolling the right for 40 years. Now, they—and their class—are seeing some serious ROI.

Top Theme: “Resistance”

A wave of alarmed funders stepped up this year to counter Trump. While big foundations quietly shifted around money to play defense, smaller funders and networks—like Solidaire, Groundswell, Propel Capital, and the Solutions Project—have aligned more explicitly with a fired-up activist left.  

Runner Up Theme: Listening

Maybe we’re overly connecting the dots, but 2017 felt like a turning point in terms of funders affirming the need to listen to stakeholders and also taking participatory grantmaking more seriously. Even the Gates Foundation embraced a more bottom-up approach.

Foundation President of the Year: Chris Stone

Before he was ousted as head of the Open Society Foundations in September—taken down by enemies in the House of Soros—Stone accomplished a remarkable feat: taming (well, almost) one of the world’s most far-flung and dysfunctional philanthropies. 

Runner Up: Priscilla Chan

Chan isn't actually president of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which isn’t actually a foundation. But at the age of 32, she’s quarterbacking the most important new philanthropic, um, entity to emerge in years. It’s exciting to watch.

Foundation President We’ll Miss the Most: Clara Miller

During her seven years at the helm of the F.B. Heron Foundation, Miller reinvented the institution to align all its capital behind its anti-poverty mission. While the jury may be out on impact investing by foundations (more skeptics are speaking up), Miller's influence has been huge. 

Foundation President We’ll Miss the Least: Earl Lewis

We’ve been fans of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s grantmaking under Lewis, so this isn’t a diss. But Mellon is so religiously low key that Lewis was nearly invisible. Even news of his impending (and unexplained) exit seemed hardly to register.

Most Controversial Foundation President: Emmett Carson

Depending on who you talk to, the head of the soaring Silicon Valley Community Foundation has either busted free of a stifling community foundation model or is leaving local needs behind. Stayed tuned for IP’s own deep dive on Carson and SVCF.

Most Promising New Foundation President: Lateefah Simon

We’ve been blown away by Simon, who, right before Trump's election, took the top job at the Akonadi Foundation—a Bay Area racial equity funder—and has quickly become an important voice.

Sexiest Foundation President: Sorry, This is IP—Not People.

Maybe next year, if subscriptions are down.

Philanthropy Breakthrough Zone: Homelessness

Funders have made real gains by backing permanent supportive housing, an idea that actually works. But with larger trends driving homelessness to a new high, this is also a story about the limits of philanthropy.

Top Combat Zone: Immigration

While some funders chose to duck and cover, others plunged into the fight to block Trump's travel ban, save DACA, and bankroll legal representation for immigrants at risk of deportation. 

Funders’ Affinity Group of the Year: GCIR

Who knew that an affinity group could be so important? But in 2017, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees played a key role organizing funder pushback to Trump immigration policies.

Most Valuable Corporate Funder: JPMorgan Chase

The giant bank, which makes $250 million in grants annually, ramped up its multifaceted push against urban poverty with big new initiatives in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Most Disgraceful Corporate Funder: The NFL

The NFL's $30 million partnership with the NIH to study concussions and brain disease fell apart amid NFL resistance to research that might paint the organization in a bad light. 

Most Valuable Small Funder: The Ploughshares Fund

With a modest grants budget but tons of expertise and contacts, Ploughshares has been at the forefront of efforts to avoid war on the Korean peninsula and defuse the most “dangerous crisis in the world.”

Biggest Failure of Philanthropy: Opioids

Some 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, mostly from opioids or related drugs, with several million more trapped in addiction. But where are all the funders?

Runner Up: Starvation

Few major funders lifted a finger in the face of dire appeals for private contributions to help 30 million people facing famine in Africa and Yemen.

Top Slow Motion Story: The Rise of Regional Grantmaking

America's second Gilded Age has created piles of new wealth around the country. Now, as more of it is harnessed to giving, there's lots of new grantmaking action in places off the beaten trail.

Region With the Most New Action: The South

National funders are finally paying more attention, new local funders are emerging, and longstanding grantmakers are stepping up their game. Catalysts include SECF, NCRP and Funders for LGBTQ Issues

Biggest Stash of New Regional Cash: Health Legacy Foundations

Suddenly these grantmakers seem to be everywhere, with swelling endowments and more sophisticated funding strategies. In places with few other foundations, this is game-changing money.

Most Bittersweet Milestone: Mott’s $1 Billion for Flint, Michigan

The Mott Foundation announced this year that it has now poured a billion dollars into Flint, Michigan, improvements over the past 70 years—a heroic effort for a city doomed by larger structural forces.

Biggest Winner From Trump: Nonprofit Journalism

Post-election, funders worried about an onslaught of disinformation led to a windfall for journalism outfits and media initiatives to safeguard the integrity of news.

Biggest Loser: Every Other Part of the Nonprofit Sector

Whether you work on immigration, healthcare, global development or the environment, Trump's made your life hell. Now, the new tax bill is going to take a bite out of your revenue. Fun times!

Special "Life’s Philanthropic Work Down the Drain" Category: Pete Peterson

The billionaire financier has been giving since the early 1990s to control federal deficits. So imagine how he felt when the new tax bill tacked another $1.5 trillion on a national debt that’s already at $20 trillion.

Philanthropist “Super-Citizen” of the Year: Michael Bloomberg

Too bad Americans don’t elect 5’7” Jewish moderates as president, because Bloomberg would have been the right Manhattan billionaire to send to the White House. Instead, he’s become a leader of the elite opposition, especially on climate change, tapping his fame and millions.

Tech Philanthropists Most Radicalized by Trump: Pierre Omidyar, Reid Hoffman, Craig Newmark

Tech titans are usually too busy inventing the future to fret about such minor details as who runs the government. But that’s changed this year. These and other wealthy techies are in the fight. 

Top Philanthropy Conference of the Year: 2017 Unity Summit

Over 700 progressive funders gathered in New Orleans in November to plot strategy and lift morale at a moment when their values and causes are under attack as never before. 

Old Buzzword With New Relevance: Intersectionality

Could progressive funders finally be getting serious about movement building after decades of giving lip service to this idea while sticking to silo-ized grantmaking? Just maybe.

Top Rip Van Winkle Moment: Gates Foundation K-12 Reboot

Remember when Walter Annenberg gave big in the 1990s to fund locally driven school reform—an effort derided over the next two decades as a naive waste of money? Well, this year, Gates announced it was doing something similar, after years of disappointment with top-down reforms.

Funding Space Most in Flux: K-12 Education

The Gates pivot was just one sign of changes in K-12 giving. Key charter school funders are still going strong, but their hegemony is fast receding as emerging donors look beyond a narrow reform agenda. 

Science Funders of the Year: Tianqiao Chen and Chrissy Luo

The Chinese couple is still early in their $1 billion commitment to brain science, with a big initial gift to CalTech, but could become a huge force, along with Chinese philanthropists in general.

Mega-Giver We’ll Miss the Most: Eli Broad

You don’t have to agree with Broad’s views on K-12 or think he’s a nice guy to agree that he’s been one of the most dynamic donors to watch. His retirement will make philanthropy less interesting. 

Runner-Up: David Rockefeller

Rockefeller, who died in March at 101, gave away $2 billion. But that number doesn't capture his influence as a philanthropist in multiple fields over decades—giving that underscores the impact of "patient capital."

Most Mercurial Mega-Giver: David Geffen

After lashing out at stingy New Yorkers, Geffen gave $150 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. With no heirs, billions in the bank, and quite the ego, he's a piece of work who'll keep us guessing.

Celebrity Philanthropist of the Year: George Clooney

Clooney's activism and his philanthropy, now in partnership with his wife Amal, is a case study of effective celebrity giving. It's highly focused on a critical niche that most major donors ignore: wars in Africa.

Top Philanthropic Action Hero: Betsy DeVos

It’s hard to think of a big-league philanthropist who has ever jumped into government at such a high level to turn her (extremist) ideas into reality. DeVos is a perfect example of how money can buy access and power. 

Most Real Drama Around a Mega-Gift: Diller Island

Barry Diller pulled the plug on a performing arts pier floating over the Hudson after ongoing court battles. Except now, Diller’s back on board, after Governor Andrew Cuomo intervened to resurrect the project.

Most Drama Around a Think Tank Donor: New America Foundation and Eric Schmidt

A scholar fighting corporate monopolies says his team was ousted from NAF after Google's Schmidt, a longtime donor, complained. Moral of this fiasco: Think tanks shouldn't take money from conflicted funders. 

Worst Philanthropic Gift: Trump’s National Parks Donation

Petty, self-involved, and with strings attached, the president continued to be a beacon of the worst of philanthropy by donating part of his salary to a national park system his administration is actively undermining.

Most Surprising Fundraising Superstar: The National Park Foundation

While we’re on the topic of parks, let's hoist a glass to the National Park Foundation, which has raised about $460 million as part of its Centennial Campaign, blowing past previous fundraising numbers.

Unexploded Powder Keg of the Year: Sexual Harassment in Fundraising

While our reporting found that harassment is common in the fundraising and nonprofit world, no powerful men in the sector have been accused or lost their jobs—not yet, anyway.

Biggest Boost for Impact Investing by Foundations: Ford’s $1 Billion Pledge

When Ford leads, others often follow. Chalk up another influence win for Darren Walker. Caveat: If Ford’s impact returns crater, Walker could find himself as an adjunct professor at NYU a few years from now.

Most Compelling Critic of Impact Investing: Larry Kramer

The Hewlett Foundation won’t be jumping onto this bandwagon any time soon. President Larry Kramer—who’s emerged as a refreshing insider skeptic of philanthropy fads—thinks it’s all a really bad idea.

Environmental Funder of the Year: Hewlett Foundation

Speaking of Hewlett, the foundation's impressive $600 million pledge on climate change sent an important message. But we’re still waiting for a truly bold climate funder willing to raid their endowment.

Runner Up: The Democracy Alliance

While best known as the headquarters of the well-heeled “resistance," the DA's climate fund to support grassroots organizing in vulnerable communities, led by Roger Kim, is pathbreaking stuff. 

Family Planning Donor of the Year: Anonymous

To offset an expanded global gag rule, an international campaign has raised over $300 million. The biggest pledge, of $50 million, came from an anonymous U.S. donor. Our best guess: the Buffett family. 

Largest Foundation You’ve Never Heard Of: Simons Foundation International

While it’s no secret that billionaire Jim Simons has a science foundation with some $3 billion in assets, it was recently revealed that he has a second and bigger foundation, based in Bermuda, with $8 billion.

Foundation You Have Heard of That’s Now Way Larger: OSF

In recent years, George Soros has quietly been transferring his wealth to the Open Society Foundations. This year, OSF officially became the second-largest foundation in America, with $18 billion in assets.

Non-Foundation That’s About to Get Way Larger: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Whatever CZI is, it’s going to have a lot more cash to work with, as Mark Zuckerberg is starting to sell Facebook shares worth up to $13 billion to fund its fast-expanding work. 

Family Foundation Most in Flux: Walton Family Foundation

If you still think of WFF as all about charter schools, you’re way behind the times. It’s now also a top green funder, a big arts funder, and increasingly a vehicle for diverse giving by next-generation Walton heirs.

Arts Philanthropist of the Year: Alice Walton

While we’re on the topic of the Waltons, this is a good place to repeat our point that Alice has become America’s most important arts philanthropist—a status further cemented this year with national giving. 

Second Most Important Walton Heir: Carrie Penner Walton

She's been a quiet philanthropic kingpin of the K-12 reform movement for years. Now she's chair of a slimmed board of WFF as her generation moves the institution in new directions. 

Most Effective Heir: Katherine Lorenz  

Lorenz has reinvented the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation through an inclusive process that's engaged a gaggle of relatives and also become a key leader in the field of family philanthropy. 

Most Radical Heirs: Farhad Ebrahimi and Audrey Simons

Ebrahimi's Chorus Foundation stands out for empowering grassroots groups. Simons' Foundation for a Just Society, fueled by her dad's hedge fund wealth, takes a similar approach. 

Heir With the Biggest Checkbook (By Far): Susie Buffett

Warren's low-profile daughter oversees two foundations that give away as much as a half-billion dollars a year. The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation is the world's top private funder of reproductive health. 

Hottest Trends in Arts Philanthropy: Activism and Diversity

Agnes Gund sold a Lichenstein to fund criminal justice reform work. Legacy institutions ramped up efforts to reach underserved demographics. New grant money flowed to diversify curatorial staff.

Renegade Arts Funders of the Year: Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and his wife Akiko Yamazaki

As an unwritten rule, tech donors don't support the arts. This year, Yang and his wife Yamazaki were a welcome exception.

Biggest Campus Gift With Least Hype: $500 Million to UCSF

It was among the largest gifts ever for higher education, but the Helen Diller Foundation’s half-billion-dollar donation to the University of California at San Francisco barely made news. 

Most Dubious Campus Cause: College Athletics

The payoff is questionable, but that didn't stop David Booth from donating $50 million for the University of Kansas' indoor football practice facility. And that wasn’t the only eight-figure campus gift for athletics.

Biggest Open Secret in Higher Ed Fundraising: Inflated Numbers

Our deep dive into fundraising claims found that it's not uncommon for schools to cook the books. And it's not just universities; other nonprofits also inflate their funding tallies. 

Most Candid Former Fundraiser: Karen Brooks Hopkins

If you haven't read Hopkins' wry laments in IP about her former world here and here, go ahead and indulge yourself. 

Philanthropy Scholar of the Moment: Rob Reich

As co-director of Stanford's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and co-editor of Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, Reich is the go-to academic on squaring philanthropy with democracy.

Most Helpful Study for Grantseekers: “Benchmarking Program Officers’ Roles and Responsibilities”

The Center for Effective Philanthropy had quite a year, cranking out lots of great research. But if you have time to read only one CEP study, here’s your chance to get inside the mind of your program officer.

Runner-Up: "Going Beyond Giving”

Based on surveys of over 200 donors, this study by the Philanthropy Workshop offers a rich look at a realm of elite philanthropists that tends to be hidden from view—and which confounds fundraisers every day.

Most Alarming Study: “Generosity for Life”

Research published this year by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that charitable giving has fallen 11 percent since the early 2000s (even as giving by the wealthy has gone up).

Philanthropy Book of the Year: The Givers

Granted, we would say that. But David Callahan’s look at big philanthropy really did seem to get some traction. This year also saw veteran scholar Joel Fleischman publish Putting Wealth to Work.

Special "Keep-On-Your-Nightstand" Category: Almanac of American Philanthropy

Want the skinny on how George Eastman gave away his fortune or insights into Will Kellogg or the backstory of the Getty? It's all in Karl Zinsmeister's wonderful almanac, now in a handy compact edition

Philanthropy Critic of the Year: Congress

The new tax bill could decrease charitable gifts by up to $20 billion a year. That's a big hit inflicted by a political party that once avowed its support for civil society. (Before the crazies took over.) 

Most Important Independent Philanthropy Watchdog Group:

Wish we could name one. But every organization looking to hold foundations accountable in some way is funded by… foundations! That's a problem. 

Easiest Solution to the Accountability Gap: More Media Scrutiny

Reporters ask hard questions in politics and business. But big media tends to ignore philanthropy, leaving IP, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and NPQ with the job. We all need more subscribers to do it right. 

What We Love Most About Philanthropy: How Interesting It Is

Of course, we also love how hopeful and impactful philanthropy is. But mostly it's curious fascination that gets us up in the morning. The world of giving has never been more intriguing than it is right now. 

The Thing You’re Most Excited to Do Right Now: Subscribe to IP

If just you've just been a nibbler at IP, retreating when you hit the paywall, you're missing out on thousands of articles and funder profiles. If you work in the philanthrosphere in any role, you should subscribe.

And for those who did subscribe in 2017, thank you!