Researching Professionalisation and Private Foundations

Discourse on private foundations preferences a focus on the intentions of the benefactors, the development or effects of foundation’s programs, and the success of grantees of those programs. Both accolades and critiques about foundation decisions default to descriptions such as “the foundation made x, y, z decision”, as though a foundation operates as one giant brain. While researchers have given color to organizational components of foundations, less focus has been on the individuals who inhabit the organization and how their presence builds the foundation. My research focuses on the foundation staff, reflecting on their roles as professionals within private foundations and exploring relationships inherent in the development of a private foundation.

Professionalisation, as a diversity of relationships with stakeholders and knowledge, is an important lens for how we view private foundations. On one hand, both in academic and practioner literature, professionalisation is taken as a sign of maturity in operations and of expert decision-making.  It is taken as a fundamental or precursor of strategic philanthropy, signaling the ability to develop theories of change, program plans, and evaluation, and is assigned a value of “best practice”.  It is an outcome of government regulation and an attribute of risk management.  However, professionalisation has also been critiqued for removing the donor’s original intentions and participation, for bureaucratizing grantmaking, for hiring staff for the sake of hiring staff, and even, for not choosing a higher rate of endowment payout.

For me, understanding the role of professionalisation is two-fold.  First, it’s a prime component of our philanthropic export package. Within our dominant philanthropic frameworks, we support education for donors which includes information on why professionals are important and we suggest that deeper impact is created through professionalisation.  These claims are not well researched.  As we export this system to other cultures, we should consider ourselves as having a duty of care to ensure our recommendations are sound or at least better understood.  Second, professionalisation in private foundations has primarily been explored through demographic assessments and reflections of foundation staff would make this information more robust.  As a foundation practioner, I know days get too busy and the priorities of programs are too high to rationalize time on navel-gazing our roles as professionals within private foundations.  However, creating space for this reflection allows us to do our work better, with more intentionality.  It doesn’t simply impact our role at our current foundation; it impacts how we are as professionals at any foundation.  I believe that it impacts how the foundation does its work and defines its success.

Understanding the professional roles of foundation staff and how they help build foundations is one lens to learning more about our larger philanthropic system.  I hope my work contributes to expanding our knowledge of the expression and approaches to professionalisation and to building more practices for practioner reflection.

For further information on this project, please contact Michele Fugiel Gartner via email at mfg3[at]