Studying foundation professionals highlights the internal dynamics of philanthropic foundations

by Michele Fugiel GartnerCentre for the Study of Philanthropy and Public Good, University of St Andrews

Philanthropic foundations, as institutions, are attractive options for donors seeking to perform their philanthropy while living and to extend their individual or family legacy posthumously. Policymakers also see the attractiveness of these institutions by creating policies to shift private resources to public purposes. These policies have spurred the development of foundations in several parts of the world (Toepler, 2018). As a result, foundations have become the “fastest-growing nonprofit form” in the past decade (Jung and Harrow, 2016:162). However, despite the attractiveness and growth of these institutions, what is known about them remains incomplete, inconsistent, and often anecdotal.

One reason is that cultural nuances, such as private acts of philanthropy, make publicly available philanthropic data scarce. This lack of data complicates how research can understand these institutions (Johnson, 2018). When research is undertaken, it focuses on the organisational level and foundations’ societal roles (Bethmann, 2019), with little attention being given to foundations’ “internal dynamics” (Diaz, 2001:215), including foundation leadership and staffing. Yet, philanthropic research has long since pointed to the need to focus on individuals working in foundations, particularly those managing these institutions, given that “knowledge about the managers of an enterprise is key to understanding the enterprise itself” (Zurcher and Dustan, 1972:1).

Within the philanthropic foundation is the foundation professional, sitting at the intersection of wealth and giving. As representatives of influential individuals and powerful families, they report to trustees with fiduciary and governance responsibilities and liaise with organisations working on society’s most pressing issues. Nevertheless, while prominent figures within foundations, their research presence has been eclipsed by donors, boards, and grantees. For example, we often hear about significant givers like Bill Gates or Mackenzie Scott but rarely about those who enable or implement their giving strategies. My research examines how family foundation CEOs experience their roles and view developments in the wider foundation field.
Contrasting many traditional ideas of professionals, such as exampled by lawyers, doctors, and accountants, the experiences of CEOs in family foundations are more nontraditional. The legitimacy of these roles comes from the craft of doing rather than traditional external requirements. There are no required certifications, regulatory oversight, or higher education requirements for these roles. Organisations have primacy in who they hire rather than being driven by cohesive peer group norms or expectations. Moreover, these roles are set within the broader foundation field, impacted by the elements listed above, a small sector size, informal employment policies, as well as encroaching professionalizing influences from other sectors.

Understanding CEOs’ experiences have timely and practical implications. My recent paper explored these research findings as they relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropic foundations. Conditions of entry: How informality and codification impact DEI efforts in UK philanthropic foundations won the Best New Researcher Prize at the 2022 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research (VSVR) Conference, supported by the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies.

This research found that the black box narrative of foundations has kept the internal dynamics of foundation work hidden in two ways. First, foundation individualism or the notion that “if you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation,” is demonstrated through the informality of entry into foundation work. Second, to adjust for this informality, efforts to legitimise roles have narrowed the parameters for who fits into foundation roles. This research demonstrates how structural components of entering foundation work create complexities in advancing -diversity, equality, and diversity (DEI) within the UK philanthropic sector. If philanthropic foundations are to prioritize diversity and inclusion in their operations and grantmaking, they must not just look at staff demographics but also ask who is left out of the conversation at every organizational decision-making point.

As private resources are shifted to public purposes through philanthropic foundations, we must better understand foundations’ work and internal dynamics. For a start, the UK foundation sector requires better aggregate employment data to understand those working within the field and advance conversations around diversity and inclusion. These elements are necessary to ensure that DEI efforts do not suffer short-termism, lack of stakeholder engagement, or growing exclusivity. Second, more significant research funding is required to understand the roles of philanthropic foundations within society, with a particular focus on bridging academic and practice perspectives. This research has demonstrated the richness of information within these institutions through qualitative inquiry. Academics can bring critical insights, with foundation professionals as reflective practitioners to change practices.

Finally, giving as a practice is to be celebrated. Still, with growing inequalities in wealth, any opacity or lack of understanding can polarize public dialogue. Philanthropic foundations offer a unique institution for giving. More nuanced, contextual insights would contribute to better policymaking and practices.


Bethmann S (2019) Foundations and social innovations. CEPS Working Paper Series (16). CEPS Working Paper Series: 23.

Bishop M and Green M (2008) Philanthro-Capitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World. 1st US ed. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Diaz W (2001) The Lost Inner World of Grantmaking Foundations (or, as Willie Sutton Once Said, ‘That’s Where the Money is’). Nonprofit Management and Leadership 12(2): 213–218.

Frumkin P (2006) Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Ghorashi H, Carabain C and Szepietowska E (2015) Paradoxes of (E)quality and Good Will in Managing Diversity: A Dutch Case in the Philanthropic Sector. In: Matejskova T and Antonsich M (eds) Governing through Diversity. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 83–103. DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-43825-6_5.

Johnson P (2018) Global Philanthropy Report: Perspectives on the global foundation sector. Harvard Kennedy School, The Hauser Institute for Civil Society.

Jung T and Harrow J (2016) Philanthropy: knowledge, practice, and blind hope. In: Knowledge and Practice in Business and Organisations. London: Routledge. Available at: (accessed 2 March 2016).

Toepler S (2018) Toward a Comparative Understanding of Foundations. American Behavioral Scientist 62(13): 1956–1971. DOI: 10.1177/0002764218773504.

Zurcher AJ and Dustan J (1972) The Foundation Administrator: A Study of Those Who Manage America’s Foundations. Russell Sage Foundation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s