EFC AGA 2016: Should research on foundations be academic?


Kalle Korhonen


Although foundations tend to underline their uniqueness, collecting information on foundation funding and using the information to improve our operations is still an important part of what we do. Two sessions I attended at the EFC conference on Friday tackled this general theme from slightly differing directions.

In the session ‘Building a bridge between academia and foundations to enhance organisational learning’, Lisa Jordan (Porticus) pointed out that there are several research units on philanthropy or foundations in Europe, but according to her, many of them do not contribute to how foundations can develop their activities.

In collecting data on foundations’ activities, different solutions have emerged depending on the country. Virginie Xhauflair (University of Liège), who works as assistant professor in social investment and philanthropy, described how her initial work as the holder of the chair has been very much about data collection on Belgian foundations that simply had not been there before.

In Finland, every foundation submits its financial data to the Patent and Registration Office, and the Council of Finnish Foundations is actively collecting information on the activities of its members. But there is no established “academic setting” for research on Finnish foundation, although, at the Council, we have some interest in establishing a suitable platform for such work.

The earlier of the two sessions related to the theme, titled ‘Mapping your place in the “funding ecology” – a first step towards creating change?’ gave me some more understanding on how different the “theories of change” between foundations can be. Florence Miller (Environmental Funders Network) presented the report Where the Green Grants Went, of which the most recent edition dates to 2012; a new edition is imminent. The report surveys which environmental causes have received most funding in the UK, showing simultaneously which causes are neglected by funders. This can open the eyes of funders to see which areas to focus on in the future.

In my own field, research funding, such a survey may have different consequences. In Finland, a group of academics is now preparing a study on research funding by Finnish private foundations during the independence (i.e. since 1917). Once that research is finished early next year, we will know which disciplines and research groups have been funded and by whom in different periods.

The research will show which fields have received most attention and which have been neglected. However, even if a discipline is shown to be neglected, this does not necessarily mean that a foundation would decide to allocate more funding to it. In a period when universities are increasingly focusing on their “centers of excellence”, seeing that a discipline has not received funding, might even lead to that particular field receiving less funding from private foundations in the future.

It will also be interesting to see if the research mentioned here can tell us which themes and societal issues have been tackled by foundation funding. A multidimensional approach which would combine disciplines, geographies and themes would in my view be most useful for future work by foundations. In such a way, the academic research on foundations could lead practitioners in foundations into uncharted areas.

Kalle Korhonen is head of research affairs at Kone Foundation, Helsinki and a board of Council of Finnish Foundations.

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