Taking Back Philanthropy’s Leadership Role in Society

As foundations and other nonprofits came under scrutiny by people they made nervous or who disagreed with them, the philanthropic sector became increasingly conservative: less willing to take risks with new ideas, less willing to push people and speak out on public policy issues of the day.

“When I was growing up in the ‘60s (and when I was paying more attention in the ‘70s), foundations played a very visible role in society,” notes former Dodge President and CEO Chris Daggett. “On issues of education and higher education, you thought of the Carnegie Corporation. They were leaders in both areas, speaking out, publishing papers and pamphlets, conducting studies, and generally pushing policy leaders to consider and implement various reforms. Likewise around issues of social change and community revitalization, you thought of the Ford Foundation.”

Philanthropy’s Awareness Deficit

Today, philanthropy suffers from an awareness deficit – the result of decades deliberately spent out of the spotlight.

A survey by the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative tells us that among US adults, only 12% are even considered “engaged” - citizens who report holding a leadership, committee or board-level role in an organization working on community or social issues. And of engaged adults – the people most likely to have knowledge of philanthropy’s impact – only 4 out of 10 can even name a foundation, and only 1 out of 10 can give an example of a foundation’s impact on an issue they care about.

For those of us in philanthropy, this is a very disheartening statistic.

“Rather than being seen as leaders and change agents on important issues of the day,” says Philanthropy Awareness Initiative Director Mark Sedway, “foundations have been reduced to cash machine status. Foundations hand out money in relative anonymity, missing opportunities to build political support for their work, engage new leaders and ideas, and promote more widespread and long-term philanthropy.”

“Rather than being seen as leaders and change agents on important issues of the day, foundations have been reduced to cash machine status.”

Moving Beyond Our Cash Machine Status

Can we move beyond our cash machine status so that people see foundations as leaders and change agents once again? We say yes. Mark Sedway agrees and notes that the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative encourages foundations to do just that.

Chris Daggett came to Dodge believing that foundation leaders need to be more active and more willing to speak out on policy issues. “Foundations hold a unique position in society. We can take risks with far fewer consequences, and when we are leading well, we are not constrained or influenced by politics or ideology. Our grants are investments that we should protect and defend when undercut or otherwise adversely impacted by government or other sectors’ actions.”

Dodge’s efforts to raise awareness about the importance and impact of our philanthropy includes commitments to: speaking up about the issues we face here in New Jersey; building deeper relationships with policymakers and leaders in our state; convening and connecting leaders from different backgrounds and sectors with one another; and communicating more concretely and regularly about why they and you should care about philanthropy.

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In This Section

More About Philanthropy

The Philanthropy Awareness Initiative research suggests that philanthropy faces an awareness deficit among even the most engaged citizens in our country. Only four in ten can name a foundation. Only one in ten can identify a foundation’s impact on an issue they care about.

One would expect those on the frontlines of community improvement to know something about foundations that exist to support their work. Most do not.

In fact, a 2009 survey showed that fully 48% of its respondents believe that foundations have enough money to fix problems that government cannot afford to fix. The truth is, in 2009, the federal government’s expenditures were $3.5 trillion, and the combined assets of all foundations was a mere $42.9 billion.

Some Philanthropy Resources:

Council of New Jersey Grantmakers

Council on Foundations

Chronicle of Philanthropy

The Foundation Center

Photo: Andrew Carnegie