Foundations as ‘giraffes’? Originally, this image comes from what is probably the most well-known opening paragraph of any book on foundations, Nielsen’s The Big Foundations:
‘In the great jungle of American democracy and capitalism, there is no more strange or improbable creature than the private foundation. Private foundations are virtually a denial of basic premises: aristocratic institutions living on the privileges and indulgence of an egalitarian society; aggregations of private wealth which, contrary to the proclaimed instincts of Economic Man, have been conveyed to public purposes. Like the giraffe, they could not possibly exist, but they do.’

Subsequently, Sterling Speirn, a former CEO of the Kellog Foundation reputedly expanded on this by saying that many private foundations are like giraffes because:

  1. They always seem to be looking down on you.
  2. They feel like they are sticking their necks out for you.
  3. They couldn’t be more ill-equipped in their earnest attempts to work at the grassroots level.
    He implored private foundations to find a better and more appropriate mascot.’

Mark Ishaug, CEO of Thresholds, Illinois’s largest and oldest community mental health organization, countered this by putting a more positive spin on the idea by highlighting that giraffes:

  • are super-fast,
  • are the tallest, strongest and most peaceful animal,
  • are peaceful but not voiceless
  • can live for long duration without water,
  • can survive on little sleep,
  • stick out their necks, and
  • have massive hearts.

Ishaug, M. (2014). Mark Ishaug Addresses Housing First Partners Conference in Chicago, IL on Supportive Services, Supported Housing, and Giraffes. Retrieved from
Nielsen, W. A. (1972). The Big Foundations. London: Columbia University Press., p.3


Drawing on some of the findings from our ‘Images of Philanthropy’ Initiative, each entry in this accompanying blog series introduces one image that has been put forward in an academic or non-academic context to depict or characterise an aspect of philanthropy in its different forms and expressions.

For further information about the ‘Images of Philanthropy’ Initiative, please contact Dr Tobias Jung.