The Foundation: An Abiding American Mystery

This posting’s headline, of course, was inspired by the title of Joel Fleishman’s celebrated book, The Foundation:  A Great American SecretFleishman got it half right, at least according to a recent report by Harris Interactive for the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative (PAI), which suggests that foundations are—even among the best-informed Americans—a mystery beyond fathoming.  This is a finding that should worry all of those who believe in the power, or at least the potential, of foundations to improve the lives of people.

The findings of the PAI survey are, if not shocking, at least depressing.  Only two out of ten people surveyed could identify an example of how a foundation has affected their community, and fewer than four in ten could even name a foundation on the first try.

What goes beyond depressing to the realm of scary is that the respondents are not the fluffy-craniumed participants on Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments, but rather what PAI calls “engaged citizens.”  Engaged citizens are the 12 percent of the adult population who hold leadership positions, either staff or volunteer, with organizations working on community or social issues.

If foundations are a secret to more than 60 percent of these people, imagine what an abiding mystery they must be to the “disengaged” 88 percent of our adult population!

It gets worse.  While most of these engaged citizens can’t name a foundation or think of a way a foundation has affected their community, they do have high expectations of foundation performance.  More than three out of four say their communities would suffer without the work of foundations, and nearly eight in ten want foundations to focus grants on finding new and better ways of solving problems.  And nine out of ten believe that it is important for foundations to accept responsibility to serve the public.

So, to summarize, even the best-informed of our citizenry know very little about foundations or their work, but nonetheless have high expectations of what foundations should be doing to help their communities.

If one thinks that foundations are capable of doing much, but one also thinks that they are doing very little, there is a definite disconnect.  The PAI survey does not suggest that such a disconnect has yet inspired the highly engaged respondents to grab their torches and pitchforks, but it does raise the question of whether an unaddressed gap between what is expected and what is delivered might turn “highly engaged” citizens into “highly enraged” citizens.

There are two possible explanations for the cognitive dissonance highly engaged citizens experience when considering foundations.  Either foundation performance 1) has been lousy, or 2) has been effective, but not well communicated, either of which would explain the perceptions of trifling impact.  Fortunately for foundations, the respondents seem to believe the latter:  nearly 90 percent think foundations should be more open with the public about their activities, mistakes, and lessons learned.

If ever there was a wake-up call to foundations to do a better job of sharing their wins, losses, and learnings with their natural allies in the social sector, the PAI survey has rung it up. There is no guarantee, especially in these straitened economic times, that engaged citizens will continue to blame the gap between their perceptions of high foundation potential and low foundation performance upon ineffective communications.

In fact, it seems likely that, sooner or later, the conclusions will shift from “they’re doing a lot, but don’t tell us about it” to “they don’t tell us much because they aren’t doing much.”

True, communicating good news is not easy, but in this age of viral marketing, there is no excuse for the good work of foundations to be an abiding mystery among even the best-informed citizens.

If that omission is not corrected, and soon, foundations may pay a big price the next time they need public support, whether to buttress their funded programs or to defend themselves from misguided regulatory efforts.

The time to make friends is not after the bar fight has begun.  For foundations, friend-making time is now.

Joel Orosz, PhD, is the Distinguished Professor of Philanthropic Studies at The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University

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Disclaimers and Disclosures: The views expressed in the CEP blog by guest bloggers are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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