Foundations and researchers: collaborators or critics?


Hilary Pearson


Should foundation grantmakers embrace or beware of academic researchers? Can we speak of true collaboration between these very different professions? What is the reality behind the myths of indifference or even antagonism between academics and foundations?

These were some of the questions posed in a lively roundtable session at the ISTR conference in Montreal. Moderated by Dr Sevda Kilicap, Head of Research and Knowledge at Philea, the roundtable featured participants* from Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Canada, who provided perspectives from both sides.

The panelists agreed that the challenges for researchers interested in understanding the role and impact of foundations are very similar across Europe and Canada: a lack of current and comparable data on foundations, a lack of transparency by foundations themselves, and few examples of sustained collaboration between researchers and philanthropists. Yet the widespread and diverse foundation sector in Europe has a centuries-old history. In Canada, while foundations are not more than a century old, the sector is rapidly growing and donors in the first two decades of the 2000s have created private foundations in large numbers. Basic data on the numbers, assets, grants, and operations of foundations are being collected and made available by public authorities and by umbrella bodies for foundations. We know more about foundations now than ever before. So why aren’t foundations and their activities a hot topic for academic researchers? Partly, it’s because foundations themselves do not systematically share their learnings and do not generally reach out to researchers to help them reflect on their roles and strategies. Researchers have not typically sought relationships with foundations as objects of academic research. Universities have treated foundations as funders but not as a legitimate field of study in themselves.

Is this changing? One would expect a positive answer at an international conference of researchers on the third sector. Indeed, since 2008, a European Research Network on Philanthropy has been pulling together a network of 250 academics from 25 countries who study philanthropy. In the last decade in Canada also, two major national research clusters have been formed to bring together researchers on philanthropy. However, there is an important distinction to be made between studying philanthropy, defined as the act of giving in all its forms (generosity), and studying philanthropic foundations, or structured granting organizations, typically with endowments. The latter are not focused on by researchers to the same degree and the literature on foundations remains scanty.

The pandemic crisis has changed this situation, as it has changed so much else. The multiple inequities in access to health, in capacity to cope with the impacts of the pandemic disruption and in the impact of the pandemic within urban areas and across regions have put a spotlight on the role of wealthy foundations, and on the economic inequality that they represent. Third sector organizations and researchers interested in civil society issues across Europe and Canada are asking more questions about the legitimacy and value-added of endowed foundations. Some researchers are examining with a critical eye the roles that foundations play in democracies and the contributions (or lack of them) that foundations make to address social and environmental issues that disproportionately affect the most marginalized. They are pointing to the tensions that are inherent in foundation strategies between the demand for response to short-term needs and the value of maintaining investments for the long-term to benefit civil society.

Under the scrutiny of researchers, foundations are coming under increasing pressure as public benefit organizations to be more transparent and accountable. They are being asked to collect and release more data. And they are being critically examined for the coherence between their stated values and their internal structures and processes. In the roundtable discussion, it was agreed that researchers can be helpful in moving forward an agenda that fosters better data collection and sharing and more reflection on foundation context and strategies. The academic expertise that researchers can bring to philanthropy from their various areas of political philosophy, sociology, public policy and management and business, could provide opportunities for fruitful exchange, and not simply arms-length critiques.  We will be seeing more soon on foundations in the public domain of European and Canadian academic literature. And I hope for more of these provocative encounters between foundations and researchers, mediated through networks such as Philea.

Panel Participants: Dr. Maja Spanu, Fondation de France; Dr. Rene Bekkers, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Dr. Renato Roda, Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo; Dr. Rupert Graf Strachwitz, Maecenata Foundation; Hilary Pearson, former President, Philanthropic Foundations Canada.

Hilary Pearson is the former President of Philanthropic Foundations Canada, on on Twitter at @hilarypearson20.

Tagged in: #ISTR2022

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