Foundation Giving: What Can We Expect, Given…?

September 1, 2002

As NPQ approached its annual issue on philanthropy, the stock market nose-dived, the president was toying with a preemptive war against Iraq, and federal and state budgets were hanging out “closed for business” shingles. Moreover, we may see huge shifts in American civil rights due to our nation’s preoccupation with fighting terrorism abroad and at home.

Does any of this make a difference to America’s foundations? Mark Dowie, author of American Foundations: An Investigative History, believes that many will be painfully slow to respond to our rapidly changing circumstances; he thinks this is unfortunate because, in the words of the late Paul Ylvisaker, former public affairs director of the Ford Foundation, foundations are “America’s passing gear.”

We decided to ask 12 foundation insiders and observers about the likely tenor of the foundation response to unprecedented political and societal changes. Will foundations live up to Ylvisaker’s expectations, or shift into low-gear—or might they simply stall-out on the shoulder of the highway.

Our environment is as unstable as most of us have ever seen it–this creates both threats and opportunities. Will foundations be in the forefront of positive and strategic social change? For that matter, will most nonprofits? How do we all need to change in order to create an effective “passing gear?”

Of course, we recognize that there’s great diversity in foundation types and practices, and lots of exceptions to even the boldest prognostication. As one of our experts quipped, “If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.” Nevertheless, our respondents have joined us in making some overarching statements about the philanthropic response to these changes.

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