“Impact is our true North”: a relational approach to the global distribution of U.S. foundations’ philanthropic gifts
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This dissertation investigates how American foundations decide to distribute their philanthropic gifts to internationally-oriented causes and nongovernmental organizations. Amid myriad pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges spanning the globe, there is increased demand for financial assistance from private sources, including foundations. Yet these resources are scarce relative to the needs of grant-seeking organizations. While much has been written about the normative implications of U.S. foundations, whose private funds ostensibly serve public purposes, little work has sought to understand how foundations select their grantmaking strategies and grantees, especially in the international realm. Employing a relational approach to the study of philanthropy, in which attention is paid to the effects of the field in which foundations are embedded, I conducted more than 70 in-depth interviews with a range of actors across the field of international grantmaking, including more than a dozen highly endowed and prominent private foundations, as well as engaged in participant observation at several conferences for grantmakers. My findings reveal philanthropic decision-making processes centered around the pursuit of impact. Rather than driven by the altruistic or self-interested motives of foundation leaders or by mimicking their peers, the large, private, predominantly independent philanthropic foundations in my sample share an orientation to the maximization of impact. Their desire to create measurable social change that does not overlap excessively with existing charitable endeavors is what shapes their subsequent grantmaking decisions. However, the notion of impact is understood and operationalized by foundations only in relation to other sets of actors: the agendas of development institutions and foreign governments; the presence of potential grantee organizations; and the behavior of peer foundations. In doing so, foundations may ultimately shy away from funding those causes and organizations whose needs are greatest. Thus, to understand how foundations distribute their gifts, scholars must attend to the field-level forces that shape giving practices and legitimize particular grantmaking approaches but not others. Only by opening the “black box” of philanthropy can we make sense of the unequal allocation of funding and create spaces in which more equitable outcomes are possible.