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The Top Blogs of 2020

by Tory Martin
The Top Blogs of 2020

In January 2020, we at the Johnson Center knew that great change was around the corner. We were simultaneously running five nationwide searches to fill open staff positions. Multi-year projects like LearnPhilanthropy Academy and our competency model for foundation program officers were coming to fruition. Our Scholar in Residence for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Juan Olivarez, was co-leading an effort to launch Grand Rapids’ own inclusive growth initiative.

Then the change arrived, and it was not what we expected. It was not what any of us expected. Over the course of 2020, we have learned to see our work and our communities in a different light. Together with many partners, we have striven to identify what our sector needs right now, and to provide the information, insights, and training opportunities that will help us all learn from and move through these crises.

Many of this year’s most popular blogs reflect our colleagues’ desire to understand and react to what’s going on in our world today. They are grounded in thoughtful research and extensive data analysis. And they highlight philanthropy’s growing recognition of the role we can and should play in achieving a more equitable society.

Because many of our blogs were released as series this year, it got a bit complicated — and limiting — to try to narrow it all down to the “Top 10 Blogs” of the year, the way we did last year. For that reason, we’re sharing our 15 most-read blog posts instead, organized by series (with a number next to each one to let you know where it lands in the rankings).

So here they are — the top 15 blogs of 2020.


Trends in Philanthropy

11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2020 (#1)
Our annual 11 Trends in Philanthropy report continues to be one of your favorites. The post on January 14 announcing the release of the 2020 report was our most-read blog of the year — by a mile. That post garnered three-times as many views as our next-most-popular post.

Several of the individual articles from the report also appear in the top 15 list. Here are the trending topics you and your peers were most interested in learning about this year:

Alternatives to Strategic Philanthropy are Emerging. (#5)
by Teri Behrens and Tory Martin
Trust-based philanthropy and participatory grantmaking have emerged as alternatives to strategic philanthropy. These approaches are becoming increasingly well-defined paradigms for shifting the power dynamics in relationships between funders and nonprofit grantees — dynamics that may have been exacerbated by the strategic philanthropy approach in the first place.
→ Read more

Data Science for Social Impact (#8)
by Adriana Paz
Philanthropy’s embrace of data science has been slow, held back by limited resources, infrastructure, and staffing. However, a number of philanthropists and nonprofit organizations are using their resources to grow the pool of professional data scientists and support other nonprofits as they adopt data-informed decision making.
→ Read more

Equity Mapping Tools Combine the Power of Data and Narrative Change. (#11)
by Kallie Bauer and Rachel Borashko
Philanthropy and technology are changing rapidly, and as more and more data become available, the need for easy-to-use, accessible tools for organizing and interpreting that data is becoming more urgent. More organizations are now answering that call through a combination of mapping strategies and data visualization tools.
→ Read more

Tainted Money and Tainted Donors: A Growing Crisis? (#12)
by Michael Moody and Michael Pratt
New examples of the “tainted donor” or “tainted money” problem seem to keep popping up — with common examples including the philanthropy of the Sackler family and Jeffrey Epstein. Some even argue that the “cleanliness” of any money gained through capitalist practices should be considered suspect. Yet, all of this puts the nonprofits who depend to varying degrees on private donations in an ethically complicated spot.
→ Read more


In the Time of Coronavirus: Using IRS 990 Data to Assess Risk and Opportunity in the Sector

Jeff Williams joined the Johnson Center in February as director of the Community Data and Research Lab. Jeff hit the ground running with his team, moving to acquire, upload, and mine the most recent, available IRS-990 data in order to understand the financial situations of nonprofits around the country as we entered the pandemic.

This work produced a five-part series called In the Time of Coronavirus; all five articles reached top status. Jeff and his team continued their work gathering and analyzing nonprofit tax data all year. The Johnson Center now holds the largest longitudinal database of IRS-990s in the country (we’ve stretched back to 1989).

Here, we present the articles in their order of publication, with their “Top 15” ranking listed beside them. All were written by Jeff Williams, with co-authorship from Tamela Spicer on Nonprofits, cash, and lifelines.

What the Data Say About the Risk to Michigan Nonprofits (#2)
Our second-most-popular blog this year was the inaugural post of the series, In the time of Coronavirus. In late March, we examined the three main financial risks facing nonprofits in light of the pandemic — declines in fundraising revenue, declines in program/service fees and contracts, and stock market fluctuations — to determine which posed the greatest threats for which types of nonprofits (e.g. mission area, size, age).
→ Read more

Nonprofits, Cash, and Lifelines (#9)
In April, we still had no idea how long stay-at-home orders would be in effect, and no idea how funding streams would change. The logical question to ask, then, was whether or not Michigan nonprofits had the cash on hand necessary to weather the storm. Our findings painted a stark picture for both financial instability in the sector and unemployment in our state.
→ Read more

Can Nonprofits and Foundations Use Their Endowments as a Resource for Recovery? (#3)
By May, many in philanthropy were calling for funders to dip into their endowments and make larger gifts and grants in response to the unfolding economic and health crisis. Many funders leaped into action to do so, while others raised concerns that increasing payouts now would risk their ability to help later. We ran a series of financial simulations — and raised a few key questions — to help leaders determine what to do.
→ Read more

What is the Risk to Nonprofits Nationwide? (#10)
In June, we tested what we had learned about Michigan nonprofits in our first two posts against a nationwide set of IRS-990s to see how our state was faring — and how the sector overall was positioned. We found that the nonprofit ecosystems in most states were about on par with each other in terms of cash on hand, but many outliers exist. This post includes a state-by-state breakdown, reader, so you can review your own state’s situation.
→ Read more

How Many Eligible Nonprofits Benefited From the Paycheck Protection Program? (#4)
At the end of June, the federal government released the first round of data on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Many news organizations and nonprofit advocates quickly analyzed the larger loans in articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy or Nonprofit Quarterly, for example. But our researchers were curious about the PPP loan universe as a whole — so we combined the nearly 4.9 million records to determine, first, how nonprofits fared under PPP, and then to consider the impact of the PPP on nonprofit employment.
→ Read more


Related: COVID’s Effect on Nonprofit Practitioners and Their Teams

Five Self-Care Approaches for the Nonprofit Sector (#7)
by Mandy Sharp Eizinger
Operating under crisis is often the norm for nonprofit organizations, and COVID-19 revealed the complexity of global crises and their bearing on self-care and the workplace. In this post, we shared five lessons about self-care that the nonprofit sector is increasingly acknowledging and looking for ways to adopt.
→ Read more


Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids, Mich. (#6)
by Melyssa Tsai O’Brien
The Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids Data Update, produced by the Johnson Center and underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, looks at changes in economic inclusion indicators in 17 census tracts across the west and southeast portions of the city. The trends and disparities identified here are likely to be exacerbated by events in 2020, making it more important than ever to understand and address realities on the ground.
→ Read more  /  En español

How Grants Management Teams Can Advocate for Equity and Themselves (#13)
by Melissa Sines
Melissa Sines, programs and knowledge director at PEAK Grantmaking, shared three key resources for grants managers in this guest post. These tools are aimed at helping grants managers advocate for their own leadership within their organizations, the wider sector, and in conversations about supporting and advancing equity.
→ Read more

To Tackle Complex Issues, Nonprofit Boards Must Embrace Their Own Complexity Through Diversity. (#14)
by Tamela Spicer
The Johnson Center is currently partnering with Ferris State University and nearly two dozen West Michigan groups to advance an Ecosystem for Nonprofit Leadership — an initiative aimed at preparing more diverse leaders to serve on nonprofit boards, and more nonprofits to provide inclusive board experiences. In this blog, Tamela Spicer explores a bit about why this work is critical for the field.
→ Read more


Community Philanthropy: An International Perspective

Mexican President Targets U.S. Philanthropy, But It’s Mexican Civil Society That Could Take the Hit (#15)
by Michael Layton
At the end of August, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, criticized by name five U.S. foundations for supporting Mexican civil society organizations (CSOs) who opposed his megaproject, the Mayan Train. Drawing upon his two decades of work in Mexico, Michael Layton defends the legitimacy and importance of the work of those CSOs and their supporters and argues that strengthening community philanthropy can enhance CSO sustainability and accountability.
→ Read more

Feature photo: Some of the authors who contributed to the Johnson Center blog in 2020, including (top row, L to R) Jeff Williams, Adriana Paz, Mandy Sharp Eizinger, Melissa Sines, Kallie Bauer, (bottom row, L to R) Tory Martin, Michael Moody, Tamela Spicer, Michael Layton, and Melyssa Tsai O’Brien.