New report uses data to tell a story about international grantmaking by US Foundations

WINGS sat down with Natalie Ross of The Council on Foundations and Lauren Bradford and Inga Ingulfsen of the Foundation Center to learn more about their new report, The State of Global Giving by U.S.Foundations, a detailed analysis of trends in international grantmaking by U.S. foundations from 2011 to 2015. The report is the tenth in a series of collaborative analyses of international grantmaking published by the two organizations going all the way back to 1997. This interview is highlighted with select graphics from the report.

When asked what makes this report different from the previous ones, Lauren thinks it’s the way the data is presented and used to tell a broader story about the field: “It’s important to collect data, but need to put it to use beyond raw numbers- we need to use it to provide insights”.  The report I primarily made up of data visualizations accompanied by key takeaways, short analyses, and discussion questions and strategically accounts for the way people consume information. As Inga points out, “people consume information radically differently than they did, even when the last report came out in 2012.  We are bombarded with so much information across multiple mediums and channels. It makes sense to have this report reflect a clear story: highlight key figures and connect them to real world events”. Natalie agrees and points out that this research is a real opportunity to connect key trends in grantmaking to the most pressing challenges and promising opportunities faced by our field.

Collecting and analyzing this data was no small feat. The Foundation Center has over 11 million grant records from over 140,000 grantmakers in their database. To be able to track funding trends over time, the figures in the report are drawn from Foundation Center’s annual research set, comprised of all grants of 10,000 or more awarded by 1,000 of the largest U.S. foundations. Grants from U.S. foundations are primarily sourced from their tax forms, which in the U.S. are publicly available documents that include details on each individual grant awarded in a given tax year. Once collected from the IRS or directly from a foundation, the grant records are processed by Foundation Center’s technical staff and indexed using hundreds of categories included in the Philanthropy Classification System – a process that utilizes innovative machine learning technology developed in-house at Foundation Center.


International giving- who receives it in the end?



International giving continues to be project-focused (65% is for program development) and flow through intermediaries (88% flows through intermediaries, just 12% reaches local organizations, and just 1% is general operating support for local organizations). While this might not be a new conversation, this data can serve as a hard call from the field to get resources directly to the field. Could this data help shift the rhetoric around the practices of funders? Inga mentions previous research that looks narrowly at funders who give directly to civil society organizations and even they aren’t doing this to the extent you might think. Is there space to be allocating more resources directly to civil society organizations? Could this data be a “rallying cry” for a change in the way U.S. foundations award international grants? Natalie hopes so.


The Gates Foundation and international giving



When it comes to international giving, it’s clear that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest working the field. So big, that the report visualizes funding with and without the Gates Foundation throughout the analysis to demonstrate the impact they have in international funding, with health and regional giving to Africa being striking examples from the data sets. While Gates outspends its peers in the field, it’s interesting to note that Ford and Gates are similar in actual number of grants awarded.


Community foundations and international giving



Community foundations are among the culprits of international giving, and are increasingly supporting international programs, primarily from donor and corporate-advised funds. This may be surprising as people typically think of CF giving to their immediate communities.  Like Gates, the Silicon Valley Community Foundations stands out in international grantmaking, accounting for 48% of CF international giving from 2011 to 2015.  Inga reflects on an interesting point in response to CF giving increasing more than three-fold during the five year period analyzed: as place-based institutions give further and further away from “home” and outside their physical community, this indicates that these institutions and their donors are thinking about community in a more inclusive and less place-based way.


Ebola funding spike and the volatility of disaster funding



Connecting the data to tangible life events and consequences, the data shows that there was an Ebola funding spike – US foundations more than tripled their international grantmaking for disasters in 2014 compared to 2013 in response to Ebola crisis, then decreasing in 2015 by almost half. As Lauren explains, this is essentially an unfortunate but real example of how disaster funding tends to be focused on immediate response and short-term, rather than pro-active and long term. . We saw a drop in Ebola funding immediately following the crisis in West Africa and now this year in the DRC we are seeing the epidemic flare up again. This highlights the real need for more long-term and sustainable disaster funding. Inga mentions that this is in-line with research done by Foundation Center and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy that show disaster funding tends to be for immediate response and relief with little funding for recovery and prevention. The needs are still there after the disaster. West African countries are still struggling with the after-effects of Ebola, with thousands of children orphaned and unemployment and slow recovery among survivors.


Enabling environment for philanthropy & cross-border giving



The report also makes an interesting attempt at exploring the relationship between funding flows and the enabling environment for cross-border giving. The analysis finds no correlation between a country’s cross border score on the Philanthropic Freedom Index and the amount of direct U.S. foundation funding to that country. I asked Natalie how we can interpret this, and she cautions that there are some nuances here. They didn’t see the results they expected and this could be due to a number of reasons. For example, it could be due to the timing of when the laws were passed, which could take longer to show up in the funding data. A reasonable hypothesis is that the changing regulatory environment doesn’t necessarily affect the amount, but could shift the issue areas being funded. Perhaps a funder was investing in human rights, but the law changed, and those resources now flow to less sensitive issues.. She mentions that a lot of laws have been passed since this data, such as the Foreign NGO law passed in China. These will likely influence future funding flows and those shifts will likely show up in future research. We should not read too much into the “no correlation” we see on this graph, as we in the field know what happens.

Closing thoughts

This is an important baseline study that shows us the behaviors of US foundations giving internationally. It’s a good benchmark for relating current events and funding, and we are sure the next report will have some interesting revelations, especially relevant given politics and the change in administration.  Politically, we are seeing a retreat from international issues, what does “America First” mean for international programs and philanthropy, reflects Natalie.  Will we see US funders increase international funding, or, will we see increased funding for domestic causes and issues?  Guess we’ll have to wait for the next report to find out…

The way data is used in this report is visually appealing and doesn’t take too long to get a good picture of the state of US international funding by grantmakers. We encourage you to take a look at the full report here and reflect about how you share data!



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