The new map of social change
With the movement of money, people, and ideas that globalization brings, our world is one of almost unlimited possibility. But it is also a world in which there is too much poverty, violence, and pollution and not enough justice, beauty, and opportunity. Foundations, with their freedom to innovate, and nonprofits, with their unlimited reserves of hope and commitment, must strive to change that. They will do so in a world in which the very pace of change is accelerating and working in isolation will no longer get the job done.
Digital technology is the accelerator. It makes it possible to handle ever greater quantities of data from multiple sources and combine such information in limitless ways. Because data is beginning to be more widely available (and is more visible), today when people think about philanthropy, they think not just about grantmaking foundations—the Foundation Center’s traditional area of expertise—but individual giving, operating foundations, corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, mission-related investment, and other uses of private wealth for public good. Nonprofits, the largest users of Foundation Center services, still want to secure foundation grants, but increasingly they want to know about how to leverage resources from all these other sources as well.
There is also growing consciousness that philanthropy is not just an American invention, but a global industry. According to a study commissioned by the European Union, the assets of European foundations are greater than or equal to those of American foundations, as are their program expenditures. Brazil’s philanthropic institutions now spend in excess of two billion dollars per year. China’s foundations—nearly half of which are private—number in the thousands, and philanthropy in India, the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa is on the rise.
Philanthropy is growing, becoming more diverse and more conscious of the limitations of its resources in relation to the scale of the problems it seeks to address. Increasingly, philanthropists see their work as being strategic catalysts for change. Tomorrow’s philanthropists will have to “cross boundaries” by learning more about what others are doing before committing their own resources, by collaborating more among themselves and with other sectors, by being more transparent in communicating their work and, at times, by reaching out to partners around the world. Similar challenges face nonprofits, which must find new ways to collaborate among themselves, with donors of all types and with social enterprises, and to combine the best of in-person with online networking.
A legacy of vision and innovation
The Foundation Center was created more than 50 years ago. It was the product of both crisis and extraordinary vision. The crisis came in the form of hearings held by the U.S. Congress to investigate allegations that foundations were supporting so-called “un-American” activities. The vision came from foundation leaders who realized that the relationship between government, the public, and foundations would always be a bit like a love affair—fueled mostly by great passion and mutual admiration, but punctuated by moments of jealousy and suspicion. Their insight was that absolute transparency would be the best way to make the relationship a long-term success.
The Foundation Center opened its doors in l956, with 7,000 paper documents about American foundations in file cabinets free for public inspection. In the sixties, the Foundation Center started an office in Washington, DC so staff could go to government offices to hand-copy information from the tax returns of U.S. foundations. In essence, the Center developed the market for grant giving and grant seeking by aggregating information that was buried in tax returns and largely inaccessible to nonprofit organizations. Today we take for granted that foundations make grants for specific subjects in specific geographic locations, often to serve specific populations, and that the grants can be made for varying types of support ranging from advocacy to technical assistance. This structure, developed by the Foundation Center, “shaped” the field by making it possible for nonprofits to systematically search for grants and for foundations to better track their work in terms of funding trends and periodic reports that served as a kind of census for philanthropy.
Information pulled from thousands of foundation tax returns found their way into the first edition of The Foundation Directory, a formidable print publication that launched many a nonprofit on the search for resources. Over time, print publications gave way to CD-ROMs and to online searchable databases, particularly the Foundation Directory Online, inaugurated in 1999. The Foundation Center launched its web site in l994 at a time when only three foundations had web sites of their own. And in 2008, the Center introduced Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping of foundation grants and recipients.
A networked organization
The Foundation Center was also visionary in developing a networked structure before that notion was in vogue. Headquartered in New York, the Center opened its first field office in Washington, DC in l963, followed by similar offices in Cleveland, San Francisco, and Atlanta. In l959 the first “Cooperating Collection” opened in Chicago—a kind of affiliate providing free public access to Foundation Center databases, publications, and training materials. Today these funding information centers number more than 450 and are found across the United States and around the world in countries including Australia, Mexico, Brazil, China, Thailand, and Nigeria. Together our field offices and Cooperating Collections create a dense “high-touch” network of public access that complements the “high-tech” delivery of our online offerings.
Working in philanthropy and the social sector tomorrow will increasingly require networks, and we are expanding ours to include joint endeavors with groups in the U.S. like the Council on Foundations, the Global Philanthropy Forum, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, GuideStar, IssueLab, as well as regional associations of grantmakers and affinity groups. Globally, we are forging cooperative relationships with the European Foundation Centre, the China Foundation Center, the Mexican Center on Philanthropy, the AVINA Foundation in Brazil, and more. These are based primarily on the exchange of services and information, joint problem solving, and the development of products and services partners could not produce on their own. The Foundation Center of the future will be a high-tech, high-touch, globally networked organization.