Founded in 1949, the Council on Foundations began as an association for community foundations and ‘trusts for community welfare’. It is now the largest association of grant-making foundations and corporate giving programmes in the world. Nearly 1,600 members include organizations from all 50 US states and 15 countries outside the US.
Now poised to begin a year-long celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, the Council looks back on a successful half-century of work to strengthen the infrastructure of organized giving. For Council President and CEO Dorothy S Ridings, however, the anniversary is far more significant for the opportunity it presents to anticipate the future.
‘While the world has changed in amazing ways that no one could foresee 50 years ago, the need for philanthropy in all its manifestations has not abated,’ says Ridings. ‘The potential role for philanthropy in expanding the benefits of our phenomenal technological, scientific and social progress to those who have not experienced it is profound. At the same time, foundations and corporate giving programmes have important work ahead in preserving traditions and cultures and ameliorating the negative effects of our progress.’
Today the Council represents all types of grant-maker – independent, family, community, public and company-sponsored foundations, as well as corporate giving programmes. More than a trade association, however, the Council is a chartered charitable organization with its own mission: to promote more responsible and effective philanthropy.
In terms of numbers, Council members represent a small proportion of the approximately 40,000 foundations in the US. In terms of their grant-making impact, however, Council members made $7.13 billion in charitable distributions in 1996 (the latest year on record) or roughly 60 per cent of all foundation giving that year. Council members provide funding for programmes across the philanthropic spectrum.
‘Principles and Practices for Effective Grantmaking’
As part of its mission to promote responsible philanthropy, the Council asks its members to subscribe to a set of ‘Principles and Practices for Effective Grantmaking’. When they were inaugurated by the Council’s board in 1982, this caused some controversy. Individualism runs deep in American culture, and foundations cherish their right (and obligation) to follow the personal, even idiosyncratic, visions of their founders. Some in foundations saw the promulgation of ‘principles and practices’ as an attempt to inhibit or dictate the activities of their organizations. A close look, however, reveals that they offer broad guidelines for general approaches to foundation governance and management. Within these guidelines there is, by design, wide latitude for foundations to shape their own philosophies and actions.
Services for members
The Council provides an array of programmes and services to assist its members in achieving their charitable goals:
- Community Foundation Services
- Family Foundation Services
- Corporate Services
- Research programmes
In addition, the Council houses and collaborates with the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers. The Forum serves a network of 24 associations of grant-makers. These range from citywide associations, such as the Donors Forum of Chicago, to the Conference of Southwest Foundations, which covers eight states.
Each of the Council’s service areas offers its constituents information clearinghouse capabilities, technical assistance, annual meetings and other workshops and seminars, newsletters and a wide range of publications. The Council’s research department conducts a variety of research projects on grant-makers’ management and compensation practices, investment policies and other activities. These result in a variety of publications, including the annual Grantmakers Salary Report and the two-yearly Foundation Management Report.
International grant-making represents a growing area of involvement for US foundations and corporations, and the Council’s International Programmes area has been growing also. The Council recently collaborated with the Foundation Center to publish International Grantmaking: A Report on US Foundation Trends. This publication provides the first exhaustive study of the subject and is sure to be a much-used resource for many years.
The Council publishes Foundation News & Commentary, a bi-monthly magazine covering the non-profit sector and current philanthropic issues and activities, and Council Columns, a monthly newsletter designed to keep members and subscribers up to date on Council activities.
The Annual Conference focuses on political, social and economic issues. The three-day event, held in a different city each year, provides an unparallelled opportunity for grant-makers to study current issues in philanthropy, as well as the funding approaches of colleagues from all over the world. The theme of the 1998 conference, to be held in Washington DC, is ‘Philanthropy’s Many Voices in Public Policy’. Other educational seminars and meetings held throughout the year concentrate on specific programme and management issues, tax and regulatory policies, administration and governance, and communications.
The Council seeks to communicate information about foundations, corporate giving programmes and the role and value of philanthropy to a number of external audiences. Through its government relations area, the Council represents grant-makers and their concerns to policy-makers in Congress and regulators in the Internal Revenue Service. Through its communications and public relations programmes, the Council conveys to the media and opinion leaders information about philanthropy and its impact on daily life.
Foundations are largely apolitical, and are forbidden by law to engage in direct lobbying on legislation unless the legislation affects them directly. Nevertheless, foundations often find themselves criticized – from the political left for being too conservative and cautious, and from the political right for being too radical and reckless. Such charges usually say more about the predilections of the critics than the actuality of foundation funding. But they perhaps do reflect one reality: foundations must say ‘no’ to grant-seekers far more often than they say ‘yes’. Some criticism springs from dissatisfaction with those who receive foundation grants as much as with the foundations.
A recent survey sponsored by the Council revealed that the American public thinks highly of foundations but understands little of what they do or how they work. Moving to counteract this lack of information, the Council has launched a three-year initiative to better inform Congressional lawmakers, members of the media and the public about the countless positive contributions of organized philanthropy.
Facing the new millennium
The Council is embarking on its second 50 years at the dawn of the millennium. Committed to the continued growth and development of organized philanthropy as one of the greatest assets for social progress in both the developed and developing worlds, the Council extends its invitation to charitable grant-making foundations around the globe to join in promoting thoughtful and effective giving – responsible philanthropy – everywhere.
For further information, contact Greg Barnard, Director, Public Relations, Council on Foundations.
Tel +1 202 467 0450