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New Report Sheds Light on Global Funding Trends by U.S. Foundations
August 23, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center.

Janet Camarena PhotoThose of us in philanthropy often hear that foundations are increasingly rising to the challenge and working to address the world’s most pressing problems, and new data now available demonstrates that in order to fully address these challenges, philanthropic dollars are transcending borders and prior levels of giving. A new report released this month by the Council on Foundations and Foundation Center reveals that global giving by U.S. foundations increased by 29% from 2011 to 2015, reaching an all-time high of $9.3 billion in 2015. Interestingly, despite reaching that new peak in global giving, the report also documents that just 12% of international grant dollars from U.S. foundations went directly to organizations based in the country where programs were implemented.

The State of Global Giving by U.S. Foundations is the latest report in a decades-long collaboration between the two organizations and aims to help funders and civil society organizations better navigate the giving landscape as they work to effect change around the world. A treasure trove of data from prior reports dating back to 1997 is publicly available here.

In terms of transparency and openness, the report offers a helpful data-driven perspective on some of the key global philanthropy debates, issues, and movements of our time. Are you concerned with whether increasing government regulations are preventing foundations from supporting efforts in countries that have enacted tougher funding restrictions? Or, do you want to know how much funding goes to groups on the ground vs. U.S.-based intermediaries? Or, how about getting a better understanding of where the $9.3 billion was spent and how it is advancing the 17 different Sustainable Development Goals? These are just a few examples of the kinds of data and analysis you’ll find in the new report.

Increased Restrictions on Foreign Funding

Global GivingAs governments around the world continue to pass legislation that places increasing restriction on civil society, these restrictions can complicate direct grantmaking to local organizations by U.S. foundations. Between 2012 and 2015, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law found that almost 100 laws constraining the freedoms of association or assembly were proposed or enacted across more than 55 countries. And, perhaps of most concern to foundations, 36% of these laws limited intentional funding of local civil society groups. Common restrictions affecting international funding include: governmental pre-approval of all grants coming from foreign sources; routing of all foreign funding through government entities; or enacting funding caps or taxation.

Despite the growth of these potentially chilling restrictions, surprisingly the report data did not show a correlation between the funding flows to a specific country and its level of restrictions as ranked on the “Philanthropic Freedom” index. However, it’s important to note that this kind of analysis may be more accurate over time. Since this study used grants data from 2014-2015, it could be likely that the effects of recently enacted legislation on philanthropy would surface in future grant years after the laws take full effect. Based on the currently available data, what is clear is that when we look at the top recipient countries that most benefit from U.S. foundation funding, some of these high ranking recipient countries are the ones with very challenging legal environments. Of course, philanthropic funding flows are always determined by a multitude of factors, but this raises questions to explore, such as why are certain countries with difficult legal environments high on the recipient list while others are not?

Intermediary Giving vs. Local Support

Representatives from NGOs, and advocates of community-based groups have long pushed for increased philanthropic capital to flow directly through these groups rather than through large, U.S-based intermediaries. And growing movements like #ShiftThePower have continued to build momentum around direct investments in communities. However, perhaps due to the aforementioned increasing restrictions on foreign funding, the new report reveals that foundations continue to favor funding through U.S.-based intermediaries, and:

  • Direct grants to local organizations were substantially smaller in size, averaging just under $242K, while grants to intermediaries averaged just over $554K; and
  • In terms of dollar amount, U.S.-based intermediaries received $20.5 billion in total, while non-U.S. intermediaries received $10.5 billion, and direct support tallied $4.1 billion.
  • By number of grants, nearly 49,000 grants during this four-year period went to U.S. intermediaries, 7,514 went to non-U.S. intermediaries, and 16,948 grants were awarded directly.

Progress on Sustainable Development Goals

Readers of this blog might recall that last year around this time we added the Sustainable Development Goals to our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency self-assessment framework. This allowed us to document examples of funders using this shared, multi-sector language to convey their priorities and ultimate goals of their work. The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Some foundations have started aligning their funding with the SDGs, and some even using it as a shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress.

GlassPockets currently has tracked examples from corporate, community, independent, and family foundations that are using the SDG framework as a means to better communicate their work. Now, thanks to the new report, we now also have data about how philanthropic grantmaking is making progress on the SDGs, as well as trend data based on the Global Goals:

  • The Global Goals that represented the largest share of global grant dollars were Good Health & Well Being ($17 billion); Gender Equality ($4.9 billion); and Zero Hunger ($3.6 billion).
  • And among the Global Goals that showed the greatest reduction in grant support over the time period covered by the report were Affordable & Clean Energy which declined by 40 percent; Quality Education which dipped by 31.4 percent; and Clean Water & Sanitation which dropped by more than 30 percent.

It’s important to note that the SDGs formally did not go into effect until January 2016, and the data from this report begins from 2011. Still, the distribution of foundation funding by SDGs during the five year period before will serve as a baseline for tracking U.S. philanthropic efforts toward the achievement of the global goals.

With mounting challenges that transcend national boundaries, it’s increasingly important to understand how funds are being allocated to tackle global issues. Now, thanks to this report, we have a window into the scope and growth of institutional philanthropy as a global industry.

--Janet Camarena

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

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