On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, dedicating $550 billion over five years to the roads, bridges, water systems, Internet connections, etc. that are needed to keep our lives and economies moving and growing.
We all too often take this infrastructure for granted. Until it fails catastrophically or is closed for repairs, we don’t think about the need for maintaining or building infrastructure.
Social systems and institutions also require a complex infrastructure to support them. Business schools, for example, are part of the infrastructure needed to train business leaders — the accountants, strategists, human resource managers, etc. who keep the business sector running.
Other examples of business infrastructure include trade associations that work on everything from licensing of professionals to professional development to political advocacy. Laboratories like the Underwriters Laboratory certify that products meet functional and safety requirements. Voting machines and election officials are the infrastructure for our democracy. The list goes on — you get the idea.
The infrastructure for the philanthropic sector is equally important and perhaps even more misunderstood, so it was heartening to see some of MacKenzie Scott’s third round of giving include support for some of these key organizations.
“[T]hese organizations provide services that contribute to the effective and efficient operation of the philanthropic sector by building knowledge about giving and social issues, making giving easier for more people, and holding the sector accountable.”
Foundations such as the Ford, David and Lucile Packard, Hewlett, W.K. Kellogg, Kresge, and C.S. Mott Foundations have supported some of these organizations over the years. We view this infrastructure as being comprised of the following types of organizations:
Advisors and Consulting Organizations: Consultants and organizations providing both financial and philanthropic advice and consulting services to grantmakers and individual donors. The Bridgespan Group, which is advising MacKenzie Scott on her philanthropy, is an example of this type of organization.
Philanthropy Serving Organizations: Organizations with a mission to:
Regional Associations of Grantmakers: Organizations with members from a particular geographic region. The size of these regions can range from a single metropolitan area to several states.
International Organizations: Organizations that serve and organize grantmakers across the globe (e.g., WINGS).
Publications: Major print and online publications in the field, including scholarly journals. (Our own publication, The Foundation Review, is an example of this.)
Research and Information Providers: Organizations providing information of many types and formats — from research reports to online resources — including many that serve this function in addition to other roles (Candid is the largest of these).
Watchdog and Charity Review Organizations: Organizations providing facts about, and reviews of charitable organizations in order to help donors and improve transparency and accountability in the field (e.g. the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy).
Academic Centers and Associations: These are centers and scholarly associations based in higher education institutions that provide research, teaching, and other services to the philanthropic field, including the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and, of course, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.
All of these organizations provide services that contribute to the effective and efficient operation of the philanthropic sector by building knowledge about giving and social issues, making giving easier and more accessible for more people, and holding the sector accountable.
When the systems that support philanthropy are neglected, the consequences for communities can be dire. Nonprofits and those who provide the financial resources for them become less effective and sustainable, unable to provide the services — like parks and museums, housing, healthcare, and advocacy — that are core to thriving people and communities.
I want to call out — in an admittedly self-serving way — a particular subset of the infrastructure: academic centers that focus on connecting the academy and practitioners. These are centers that have a foot in each world.
The United Philanthropy Forum worked with the Sillerman Center at Brandeis University to identify 17 such centers, referring to this group as “University Based Philanthropy Serving Organizations” (Eaton & Seller, 2019). These centers provide the applied research needed to continually improve the daily practice of philanthropy, give students practical experience to better prepare them for jobs, and provide the professional development that builds and refreshes the skills needed to be effective philanthropy professionals, whether in a foundation or a nonprofit.
The Johnson Center’s Grantmaking School, for example, helps foundation program staff hone their skills in using an equity-based approach to reviewing proposals and conducting due diligence. We build understanding of the ethical issues and power dynamics that are inherent in the program officer role so that they can help level the playing field for small nonprofits.
We provide data tools to help nonprofits, funders, and community members understand the demographics of their communities and where there are gaps in nonprofit services. Our online data platform, Community Insight, includes over 130 million filterable data points about communities nationwide. Nonprofits and foundations use this data every day to argue for more support from donors and municipalities, convince neighbors to get involved, and mark the change they’re making over time.
We network with peers in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership to support local access to and interpretation of data. We support organizations, like local partner KConnect, by building and populating dashboards with the data they need to advance their missions.
We conduct evaluations that require handling large datasets which include sensitive data that must be managed with strict protocols to protect privacy. The insights these evaluations provide can help partners understand whether their strategies are working or whether and how they need to pivot. Our journal, The Foundation Review, is the only peer-reviewed journal focused on improving the practice of philanthropy by foundations.
As we are paying attention to roads and water systems, let’s remember that the bridge between research and practice in philanthropy also requires continual maintenance and upgrading. At the risk of overdoing the metaphor, we’re where the rubber meets the road.
Eaton, S. and Seller, S. (2019) University Based Philanthropy Serving Organizations: Landscape, Capacity & Aspirations. The Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy, Brandeis University. Unpublished report.