Exploring their Unique Roles and Impacts on Society

Jeri Spann, rapporteur
Review by Sarah Lutman

October 1996, 30 pages, The Aspen Institute, Nonprofit Sector Research Fund, 1333 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Suite 1070, Washington, D.C. 20036, 202-736-5800.

The Aspen Institute's Nonprofit Sector Research Fund held a symposium on "Foundations: Exploring their Unique Roles and Impacts on Society" in October, 1996. A report on the symposium was released in April. The three-day symposium, attended by foundation and non-profit professionals, scholars, and journalists, considered the current techniques for evaluating philanthropy's role in society and for suggesting what impact it has had.

Symposium conveners thought that timing was good to consider foundations' roles in society. Foundation assets have grown as a result of favorable investment performance, media and government scrutiny of foundations appears to be growing, and calls for greater accountability seem to be increasing in frequency and volume. Participants discussed the socially useful roles of foundations, the accomplishments of foundations that seem worthy of mention, ways that foundations think about and measure their impact, and trends, opportunities, and questions shaping the future of foundations.

This report provides excellent background reading for foundation staff and trustees who want to consider recent trends in professional philanthropic theory and practice. Grantmakers who offer orientation for new staff or trustees might find this report a useful addition to an information packet. One purpose the report serves is to complicate the reader's thinking about what foundations do and why they do it. Symposium participants reflect on how their foundations represent a spectrum of operating policies and program approaches, making it difficult for any single definition to fit the field.

As an example of symposium proceedings, we note here one useful observation, developed by GIA member James Smith of the Howard Gilman Foundation. Smith offered a "virus theory" of social change to replace the "germ theory" that has influenced foundation thinking and strategies since the early 20th century.

Smith suggested that the viral metaphor more closely approximated current understandings of social change than did germ theory with its focus on single causes and complete cures. Viruses have, like large social problems, long life cycles and are multi-causal, multi-phasic, systemic, and likely to leave damaged environments ("immune systems"). Virus theory suggests that foundations need to think systemically, be prepared to fund over the long-haul, look at and enhance the whole environment associated with a social ill, and seek to bring about an "equilibrium" rather than a cure. Smith said that such an approach would necessitate close surveillance to catch breakdowns in equilibrium and the capacity to make rapid, corrective responses.

Sarah Lutman