A Crash Course in the Foundation World: Reflections on Philanthropy New York’s Philanthropy 101
By: Chris Richardson, Communications Officer, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
Why do foundations exist? For a love of humanity and the public good? To fill a void created by government or market failure? Controlled wealth redistribution? As a relic of slavery and exploited labor? All of the above and more, it turns out, depending on who you’re asking.
Last Fall, I attended Philanthropy New York’s Philanthropy 101, a five-part course for new foundation professionals. The course taught me a lot—about the formalities of foundation governance, the mechanics of modern grantmaking, and some of the aforementioned questions driving debate in the foundation world.
Back in my native UK, what we call ‘charity’ looks quite different than it does here in the US. There are only around 50 billionaires compared with over 700 here. There aren’t the same kinds of tax incentives that encourage philanthropy. And putting aside the wealthy, everyday British citizens are five times more likely than their American cousins to donate to an international rather than a domestic cause.
All of that to say, philanthropy in our two countries is different. It’s driven by different social, political, and historical factors and immense cultural differences like how our nations think about the welfare state. I began to appreciate these differences in 2021 when I moved to New York and started working at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which supports research and education in STEM and economics. And as I spent my first days in the city walking in the wrong direction and misidentifying express and local trains, I spent a better chunk of my time coming to grips with US philanthropy.
Attending Philanthropy 101, I learned to think about the impact of the Sloan Foundation’s immutable characteristics on how we do things. Sloan is a private institution, not a public charity. We make grants but we don’t run programs. Our founder passed away over 50 years ago, leaving our team with the delicate task of staying true to his vision while adapting to meet the needs of a changing world. Having a framework to think about the implications of these characteristics helped me better understand our culture, quirks, and ways of approaching grantmaking.
Indeed, I’ve joined US philanthropy at a time when foundations are engaging more and more in participatory grantmaking—inviting the communities they’re supporting to help shape proposals, allowing flexibility in how funds are spent, and focusing on how (not just what) we fund. These ideas featured heavily in Philanthropy 101 and have shaped my interactions since. For instance, I’ve recently been working with a nonprofit that builds science labs at underfunded schools across New York, and my team has made an effort to streamline our process and provide them with maximum flexibility in their spending.
A recurring theme that came to unify the Philanthropy 101 course was power and its many forms. In our line of work, power differentials are unavoidable. For me, a key takeaway from Philanthropy 101 is that rather than shying away from power differentials, we should seek to understand how power manifests and how we can use it responsibly—with our grantees, with our colleagues, and with ourselves. In staying mindful of power dynamics in the present, foundation professionals can work towards creating a brighter future.
Above all, I enjoyed meeting other new foundation professionals—lovely humans brimming with passion and interesting ideas. Moving to a huge city like New York is daunting, but Philanthropy New York made the city smaller. I hit it off with someone in one of the breakout sessions and, realizing that we’d both moved to the city (and adjacent neighborhoods) at the same time, I decided to turn a Zoom friend into a real-life friend. So, as well as offering a crash course in the foundation world, Philanthropy 101 has also provided (at least two of us!) the opportunity to grow a circle of friends in a new city.
Thanks to Philanthropy 101 — and my team at Sloan giving me opportunities to put theory into action—my first year in the foundation world has been fruitful and formative. Armed with the mindset, tools, and ambition to make a positive contribution, I’m excited for what comes next. Who knows? This strange place across the pond might even start to feel like home.
This year's Philanthropy 101 Series begins on Friday, September 30th. Learn more and register today!