Understanding, Strengthening, and Advancing Philanthropy

by Kyle Caldwell, Executive Director of the Johnson Center

Kyle Caldwell

Modern philanthropy is complicated. Donors, nonprofits, and foundations bring diverse views for determining and serving the common good. These forces sometimes compete and can make finding a cogent and clear sector-wide strategy nearly impossible. Yet, as someone once said of democracy, it is the worst system except for all the alternatives that have been tried. This applies to philanthropy as well.

As practitioners and leaders in our sector, we see the benefits and challenges posed by this complexity. The rapid growth in the nation’s wealthy is creating opportunities for new vehicles of giving and social entrepreneurship1 while simultaneously expanding the gap between high net worth individuals and the increasingly shrinking middle class2. Social media and various forms of online technology are changing the way people think about solving problems — with less reliance on intermediary organizations to help guide their giving. There is a movement toward blurring the lines between government, business, and philanthropy that can be both innovative and potentially dangerous. Employees and students expect that their workplaces and educational institutions will provide volunteer opportunities. Doing good deeds is insufficient — nonprofits are expected to be effective by using data and evidence to make decisions and rely less on intuition. The pressures of globalization, populism in our governing, diversity in communities, and the related social and political unrest are forcing leaders in philanthropy to determine the relevance of our field as they work to address these tensions. Put simply, as a field, we’re complicated.

At the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, we examined this complexity. For nearly two years, we reached out to stakeholders — engaged in research, challenged assumptions, and asked important questions like, “How should we think about this complexity? Is it a good thing or something that needs to change? What does our sector need to deal with this complexity? What is the role for a leading center on philanthropy in this complicated field?” Like any good learning exploration process, we identified far more questions than answers and it empowered us to chart a new course for our work.

For 25 years the Johnson Center has served as a vital resource to the field of philanthropy, especially in our community of West Michigan. We have been grounded in the belief that strong and resilient communities need a smart, adaptive, and effective philanthropic sector. Our applied research approach has informed the development of our knowledge, tools, and resources in a quest to improve practice for the field. These important values will continue, but we recognize that our sector is changing, and as a center on philanthropy we must change as well.

Looking forward, we will continue to serve philanthropy, but within a new strategic framework that will be unveiled over the course of this year. Our new framework will guide our work as we seek to help individuals and organizations understand, strengthen, and advance philanthropy. These three pillars will serve to deepen the knowledge of the field, improve practices, and provide thought leadership to our sector. At the same time, it will help us understand how to embrace a more global perspective, while staying grounded in community where we believe philanthropy’s impact is realized.

We will be sharing many opportunities for you to engage in this work as we celebrate our exceptionally complicated, diverse, and dynamic field of philanthropy.


1Pew Research Center. (May 11, 2016). America’s shrinking middle class: a close look at changes within metropolitan areas. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/05/11/americas-shrinking-middle-class-a-close-look-at-changes-within-metropolitan-areas.

2Horvath, A., & Powell, W. W. (Jan. 9, 2017). Contributory or disruptive: do new forms of philanthropy erode democracy? Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/disruptive_philanthropy.

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