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The Necessary, the Possible, and the Impossible

Annual Report 2019-2020
The Necessary, the Possible, and the Impossible

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.”

Attributed to Francis of Assisi, this quote seems an apt description of how the philanthropic sector responded to the last year. At the beginning of our fiscal year (July 2019), we at the Johnson Center were in the midst of five nationwide searches to fill open positions. Multi-year projects were coming to fruition, as we prepared to launch our e-learning series, LearnPhilanthropy Academy, and to begin focus group testing our competency model for foundation program officers. Our Scholar in Residence for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Juan Olivarez, was co-leading an effort to launch Grand Rapids’ own inclusive growth initiative.

When the pandemic hit, everyone in the sector had to quickly adapt — doing what it was possible to do, rather than what we had thought was necessary only weeks before. Over the course of 2020, we have learned to see our work and our communities in a different light. Sometimes that light has been the glow of an hours-long Zoom marathon. Sometimes it has been the glare of historical and present injustice, a spotlight turned upon our systems, our actions, and the very real racialized violence and disparity that exists in our country.

We did the possible: we moved all our professional development courses online, expanding the range of practitioners who participate in our programs. Attendees now regularly hail from many states and nations. In this age of social distancing, we are proud to serve as a space for convening and connection.

Looking forward, we will continue to assess the needs of the sector as they evolve. New programs in scenario planning, best practices for collaboration and organizational mergers, and sustainable fundraising (among others) are already in the works. New research projects will provide critical information about BIPOC leadership in our sector, and new online tools will advance equity by making data more accessible.

This year has changed all of us, and it has changed our work. With our parent institution, Grand Valley State University, we have adopted a bolder and more urgent commitment to centering equity in our practice and in the principles and skills we teach and share with others. (See Partners in Action Against Racism for more.) The sector — indeed, the country — has come to recognize that long-standing racial injustices must be addressed and eliminated — something that seemed impossible just a short time ago.

In my annual message last year, I shared our commitments to six strategic priorities that would guide us through 2021. While many of our plans were disrupted this year, we were able to make important progress — and will continue to do so in the coming months. We share specific updates for each Priority below.

Philanthropy has always played a unique role in envisioning a brighter future. Together, we have the opportunity to rebuild a society where no voice is silenced, no community is overlooked, and every life and contribution is valued. We look forward to striving with you to create this world. It is possible.

We are proud to share our 2019-20 annual report with you. Below, we’ve shared a selection from the report as well as a single-page PDF featuring highlights from the year. A downloadable PDF version of the full report is available here.

As always, thank you for your partnership and your friendship. Be well.


Photo: Teri Behrens

Signature, Teresa Behrens

Teri Behrens, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy
at Grand Valley State University



Progress on Our Strategic Priorities

We are moving forward with the strategic priorities we identified in 2018-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended many of our plans and programs in 2019-20 — as it did for so many in philanthropy and beyond — but we are eagerly moving forward into 2021. We are taking the lessons of this historic year and applying them to our research, professional development offerings, and partnerships.

Strategic Priority 1: Develop a two-year applied research agenda that informs and guides our work.

Our research agenda continues to evolve to reflect the expertise of our current staff and the needs of our sector. Some priority areas continue:

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy
  • Family and individual donor journeys
  • Foundation exits, including program closures and spend-downs
  • The development of competency models for foundation and nonprofit roles

New priority areas reflect our commitment to understanding the sector and providing tools for organizational and community recovery:

  • Inclusive growth, or inclusive economies
  • IRS 990 data as a resource for understanding risks and opportunities in the sector

Strategic Priority 2: Disseminate findings and our knowledge of the field and trends at conferences and through scholarly and practitioner-focused publications.

The cancellation of “conference season” in 2020 meant moving all our publications and distribution plans entirely online. Our weekly blogs — available here — have become our primary vehicle for sharing new research, and reflections on COVID-19 and the movement for social justice.

This spring and summer, we published the five-part series called In the Time of Coronavirus on our blog. Researchers from our Community Data and Research Lab developed the largest database of longitudinal IRS Form 990 data in the country, and used that information to assess the financial strengths and risks facing nonprofits nationwide as they entered and move through this crisis. Jeff Williams and Tamela Spicer were invited to speak on several state- and nationwide webinars to interpret the data and share how nonprofits can use this information to prompt strategic conversations and make plans with stakeholders. This content was accessed online more than 6,500 times.

Strategic Priority 3: Collaborate with other units in GVSU to develop badging processes.

Our learning services team worked diligently throughout 2019-20 to complete a competency model for foundation program officers. This work included hosting a series of focus groups with foundation program officers and nonprofit stakeholders to validate the model. Set for release in Fall/Winter 2020, this competency model will serve as the backbone for the development of a badging program with GVSU.

We anticipate releasing a second competency model, this one for nonprofit leaders, Winter/Spring 2021.

Strategic Priority 4: Deliver a continually evolving, first-in-class suite of online and in-person educational services for foundations, donors, and nonprofit leaders.

From July 2019 to February 2020, we saw a tremendous increase in demand for our professional development offerings. Several new courses — including “Designing Metrics for Program Evaluation” and a three-part webinar series on “Evaluation & Impact Investing” (hosted in partnership with the American Evaluation Association, Mission Impact Investors, and the Council of Michigan Foundations) — broke records for attendance.

Nationwide stay-at-home orders beginning in March meant moving all of our courses online. The Grantmaking School has now undergone a complete overhaul to incorporate best practices in adult online learning and to avoid screen fatigue among participants. We are also refining all of our courses to better center the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our materials and in the practices we encourage philanthropy practitioners to adopt and pursue.

Strategic Priority 5: Recruit, hire, and retain a diverse, talented, and engaged staff that supports and advances the work.

The Johnson Center hired five new staff in 2020. Two new members of our team — Jeff Williams, director of the Community Data and Research Lab, and Carol Glanville, program manager — started their roles in February, right before statewide stay-at-home orders were implemented. Leslie Starsoneck, director of learning services, and Mandy Sharp Eizinger, program manager, joined us at the beginning of April and have been fully remote so far.

A search for a new W.K. Kellogg Community Philanthropy Chair was conducted over the summer of 2020. Michael Layton, Ph.D., joined the Johnson Center on September 1 as the second holder of the Kellogg Chair.

Strategic Priority 6: Develop a fundraising plan to increase funding through endowments, unrestricted support, and project funding.

In Fall 2019, the Johnson Center engaged an external firm to conduct a landscape scan assessing our value proposition to philanthropy and brand awareness at the local, state, and national level. Interviews were conducted with more than 50 of our peers and partners. The findings from this study are now informing our field and donor engagement strategies, our research agenda and professional development offerings, and the development of a new Johnson Center website.

We are grateful to the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and the F. Martin and Dorothy A. Johnson Family Fund for providing the support necessary to complete this study.