US foundations: aligned or segmented?

Bradford Smith

Gerry Salole raises an interesting point about differences between the foundation sectors in Europe and the United States in the June issue of Alliance. The apparent ‘alignment’ in the US is due to the fact that it is a single country rather than a union of sovereign countries, and all US foundations operate within a single federal regulatory framework. Furthermore, the basic compliance document – the 990PF tax return – that all foundations must file with the Internal Revenue Service is by law a transparent, public resource, making it possible for organizations like the Foundation Center (New York) to create consistent data about the large number of (legally defined) foundations that make up the sector.

In terms of behaviour, however, the US foundation sector is highly segmented, ranging from the mammoth Gates Foundation to thousands of very small foundations with no professional staff whatsoever. Beyond that, all the trends that Gerry Salole mentions are at work on this side of the Atlantic as well. The organizational forms and forces that claim to promote public good have grown to include online giving platforms, corporate social responsibility, social enterprises, venture philanthropy, social entrepreneurship and more. The only trend that seems to be much weaker here is that of foundations operating their own programmes (7,250) as opposed to making grants to other organizations (85,000), whereas in Europe the reverse seems to be the norm.

Bradford Smith
President, Foundation Center

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