The following constitutes NPQ’s biggest stories of the year. Generally, these story clusters comprise several articles and newswires woven together over time. In some cases, our coverage of these events actually started in 2015, but as events progressed and developed, articles published the year prior ended up resurfacing in 2016. We compiled this list based on the numbers of you who visited each story and story stream, but their placement on this list doesn’t reflect a position or rank in readership.
Far more of you read and visited NPQ’s website readership this year than last, and the number of articles with 10,000 or more readers was at least ten times greater than we’ve ever experienced. Over the last two years, more than 67,000 readers visited our “most read” article, Native Lives Matter.
- Philanthropy becomes a focal point of the 2016 presidential election
Both the Republican and Democratic nominees for president of the United States in the 2016 campaign had high profile issues with their philanthropic foundations and, after the press got its definitions of terms straight, neither ended up inspiring confidence, although only one has been cited by the IRS for self-dealing. When it comes to NPQ’s coverage of the Clinton Foundation, the place to start is March 2015. Rick Cohen’s “Hillary Clinton’s Philanthropic Controversy” got less than 2,000 visits when it was published but received ten times that this year. In 2016, we looked at both Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s charitable activities as seen through the foundations which bear their names, revealing a picture of their nonprofits that fairly resembles their respective approaches to governing and life in general. Chelsea Clinton’s involvement at the Clinton Foundation, as revealed in leaked emails, served as a sometimes-unwelcome infusion of good governance and attention to conflicts of interest between the Clinton Foundation, its major donors, and its senior leaders. Potential conflicts of interest sustained calls for Hillary Clinton to distance herself and her family from the foundation throughout her presidential campaign.
Our coverage of Trump’s unique approach to philanthropy also began in 2015, but it consistently picked up after January of this year when he staged a “charity” event that competed with the first GOP debate. At that event, Trump announced he had raised $6 million for veteran’s organizations, but it took month’s long dogged work on the part of the press to try to track down the charities that had benefitted and where the donated money went. After this, the press started to track Trump’s nonprofit-related activity more closely, including the inner workings of the Donald Trump Foundation. Examination of the grants made and donations received soon indicated that not only had Trump not donated to the foundation himself since 2014, but he was using the foundation to pay fines imposed on his businesses, to make a political contribution where he had a vested interest, and to buy a full-sized portrait of himself that now hangs over the bar at the Mar-a-Lago resort. The IRS has already cited the foundation for self-dealing, and New York’s attorney general has a continuing investigation going.
In short, neither candidate’s charitable activities were unqualified positives for their campaigns. Both foundations were widely perceived as personal tools used by their founders rather than purely charitable organizations but the Trump foundation more openly flouted best practices. Our new president-elect, based on his own foundation’s activities, appears to have little respect for the regulatory requirements that keep charities on the straight and narrow and worthy of the public’s trust. Some of his closest advisors, like Steve Bannon, have had their own difficulties with nonprofits they founded or from which they received compensation.
Thousands of foundations all over the country would have been far better poster children for the field of philanthropy, but this is what the public was treated to. The entire nonprofit sector should worry about the tarnishing of its reputation by association, especially those who envision themselves trying to work in collaboration with the new administration.
- Post-election considerations for civil society and nonprofits
Like many publications, NPQ got a big bump in its readership after the elections. Stories that addressed the implications of the election results and transition activities got enormous readership, starting with the feature we published the day after the election, “4 Things Nonprofits Must Do the Day After a Trump Victory,” which received nearly 30,000 visits. Closely following was a piece on the electoral college that received 26,500 visits. Also very popular were features and newswires detailing the range of President Obama’s executive orders and regulations that might be at immediate risk and on the implications for nonprofits of the president-elect’s nominations for advisors and agency heads.
Lastly, as 2016 came to a close, we published a summary of appointments and nominations to help nonprofit advocates assess the changing landscape. Many of these nominations illuminated the degree to which Donald Trump’s campaign promises would be built upon, and NPQ tried to provide background, along with references to the GOP platform and campaign statements, so readers might have a sense of what’s in store in terms of policy changes in the near future.
- Election coverage
During the presidential campaign, of course, NPQ reported extensively on the ways issues of concern to nonprofits and civil society were raised or avoided by the candidates and the parties.
- NPQ’s Most read story by far in 2016 on Native American rights
NPQ’s single most-read 2016 story by far was a newswire entitled “Native Lives Matter: Police Killing Native Americans at Astounding Rate.” The story originally ran in 2015; it got more than 26,000 visits then, and in 2016 it received 40,966. The newswire portended other stories that highlighted Native American activism, including high-profile stories about the Standing Rock Tribe’s blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline and indigenous peoples’ activism on environmental justice more generally. We expect this trend to carry forward.
- Big changes to the nonprofit regulatory environments at the state and federal levels.
We’d wish this very big story had gotten more readership. The technologically-driven changes at the IRS and at in state regulatory and enforcement systems promise far more consistent oversight. That’s notwithstanding the complications from the recent shift to the 1023-EZ application process for smaller nonprofits, which has reportedly caused widespread abuses of tax-exempt status. Expect to hear far more about this in 2017.
- The problem of Big Philanthropy in public systems and particularly in education.
NPQ has written quite extensively this year on the role of philanthropy in education reform and, more generally, the democracy-dulling effect of big philanthropic dollars in public systems. Many have called out this pernicious kind of plutocracy veiled as good works. In the field of education, philanthropy’s capacity to achieve positive outcome is questionable at best and has been criticized for undercutting democratic decision-making by the families who are ultimately affected.
Among our most-read articles on this topic in 2016 was Joanne Barkan’s “Charitable Plutocracy: Bill Gates and the Nuisance of Democracy.” The attempted coup of Los Angeles schools in favor of a charter takeover could be staged as a drama of the struggle between the plutocrats and the peasants. NPQ went on to cover a variety of ballot measures that sought expansions or caps on charter schools. Lastly, we looked at Betsy DeVos, a pro-market-based-education philanthropist who Trump tapped for Secretary of Education.
- Low-Wage Labor Issues in the Nonprofit Sector
Issues regarding low-wage labor hit the nonprofit sector with some force this year, although there were plenty of warning signs in 2015 that they were bubbling up. An article about nonprofits’ comments to the new overtime reform proposals was published last year, and coverage of the new rules coincided with a realization that entire fields of nonprofit endeavor that seemed poised for growth paid less than a minimum wage to a workforce largely composed of women and people of color. NPQ addressed this in a number of articles, like this one on nonprofit wage ghettos and this one called “Is Exploiting Workers Key to Your Nonprofit Enterprise Model?” In some areas, wage problems are creating big problems with turnover, and that translates to an erosion of quality, particularly in fields serving vulnerable folk like the elderly and children.
As readers know, a federal judge has suspended the overtime rule for now, but nonprofits need to take moral leadership on these issues upon themselves to craft policies that make sense for our organizations but are also fair to workers.
- Nonprofits are Demonstrably Deepening their Financial Acumen
When New York City mega-nonprofit agency FEGS went belly up overnight, many other heavily government-funded nonprofit organizations paid attention. As the 2016 autopsy showed, what caused much of the base problem was unsustainable growth and a lack of clarity on the indicators that should have been being watched. As many have pointed out this year, while many have been focused obsessively focused on overhead rates, other ratios and balances in nonprofit financial management deserve far more attention. Some of NPQ’s most read articles—and many of its most well-attended webinars—this year have been on various aspects of nonprofit financial leadership and management.
Among the most well-read of these have been “Why Funding Overhead Is Not The Real Issue: The Case To Cover Full Costs” and “Models and Components of a Good Nonprofit Dashboard,” but even some articles on more discrete topics, like the use of loans by nonprofits (13,454 visits) and Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) (15,394 visits) did incredibly well.
- Responding to False Prophets: The Unending Task
Even with the rapid progression of all these important concerns, last year, as always, the sector was beating back false prophets with “new” ideas made up of recycled ones mistranslated and bastardized out of anything that might be worth your time. NPQ tried to keep up with the apologies that combined mea culpas for wasting your precious time combined with new-and-improved and just as off-base conceptual frameworks, as in, “Strategic Philanthropy Crowd: Qualified-Apologies-R-Us.” The sector was also treated to a new organization, NANOE, which hoped to lead nonprofits into the future by selling unsuspecting nonprofit folk a place on its “board of governors” and other easy-peasy credentialing.
On a more serious note, we also covered the troubles at the Wounded Warrior Project, as the organization was demonstrated to have bought a bit too much of what the Charity Defense Fund was selling as regards unfettered growth above all else—including the sensibilities of stakeholders. The result was a massive loss of donor money and a shedding and replacement of leadership.
Finally, veteran organizer Tom Wolff published a classic takedown aimed at the selfsame strategic philanthropy folk in “10 Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong.”
- Movements for Social Justice Advance Under Fire
Underlying all that we reported on in 2016 was a painful juxtaposition between some very active and successful movements for justice and human and civil rights based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity or religion, and the ever-more-heated rhetoric attempting to legitimize hate speech and targeted discriminatory policies. NPQ’s coverage of these issues included the EDI Project (for equity, diversity and inclusion) and a number of features and newswires on these movements for human and civil rights and their obstacles and outcomes. We also shone a light on the lack of diversity in many of the sector’s own organizations. We hope this macro-story will carry forward as an ever-more-networked struggle for social justice advances with energy and impact to reinforce the real principles to which this country has aspired in its best moments.