Looking Back at 50 Years of U.S. Philanthropy

Looking Back at 50 Years of U.S. Philanthropy

In the fifty years since the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation was founded (originally as the William R. Hewlett Foundation), institutional philanthropy has embraced increased diversity in the sector, yet it remains largely homogeneous, a report commissioned by the foundation finds. The report, Looking Back at 50 Years of U.S. Philanthropy (48 pages, PDF), found that the creation of the Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California, was a significant marker in philanthropy's westward march from old-money areas of the East Coast, where most of the major foundations had been headquartered, and that over the decades foundation leadership also became more gender-diverse, even as it was slower to make progress on the racial and ethnic diversity front. The study also found that while the philanthropic sector as a whole has grown significantly since the 1990s, both in terms of the number of foundations and their total assets, the concentration of a large portion of those assets among a handful of mega-foundations remains pronounced. According to the study, the rise of mega-philanthropy reflects, in part, not only the ambitions and competitiveness of entrepreneurial Silicon Valley donors, but also changes in politics and the economy over the last several decades that have served to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. In response, some foundations are refocusing their efforts and resources on addressing inequality, engaging in public policy advocacy, and/or advancing a progressive or, conversely, conservative agenda. The rise of strategic philanthropy, the report concludes, reflects a shift in the scientific model of philanthropy — characterized by the sector's early focus on public health and medical research — to a more market-oriented approach that prioritizes larger projects, donor involvement, and impact measurement.