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Foundations Viewed Positively, But Are Virtually Invisible to Many Americans

(May 26, 2009) A new study shows that a large percentage of Americans, including those engaged in the charitable sector, know very little about foundations but nonetheless tend to have favorable perceptions of them and their work.

Philanthropy’s Awareness Deficit, commissioned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and conducted by Harris Interactive, posed questions about foundations to adults aged 18 and older who had held a leadership, committee or board-level role in a group or organization working on a community or social issue.

Despite the fact that the group of respondents was actively engaged with the sector, more than 56 percent could not name a foundation on their first try. Of the nine most popular organizations cited by respondents, only four were actually foundations (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation), with the others being charitable organizations (Red Cross, Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries International, Pew Charitable Trusts and the United Way).

In addition, 60 percent felt somewhat or not at all informed about foundations, while just 15 percent could cite an example of a foundation’s impact on their community.

“These findings are even more shocking than the Council on Foundations 2003 survey that found only 11 percent of the general public could name a foundation,” says Joel Fleishman, a professor at Duke University and author of The Foundation: A Great American Secret. “The survey speaks volumes about the invisibility of foundations and how they are not doing a good job of getting out the word to the public about what they are and do. It also suggests that the very organizations foundations support are remiss in their obligation to keep their own leaders, board members and volunteers informed of the funding landscape in which they exist. Both combine to make foundations even more vulnerable to ill-informed actions by government.”

Still Viewed Favorably

While even engaged Americans may not be familiar with foundations and their impact, foundations are still valued quite highly. On a scale of 1 to 100 (with 1 meaning “very negative feelings” and 100 meaning “very positive feelings”), foundations received an average rating of 70. Those respondents who had experience with a foundation scored foundations slightly higher (79), while those who did not scored them lower (60).

In addition, despite perceptions by some in the sector that media coverage of foundations has been negative, just 13 percent of respondents described the tone of information or communications they have read, seen or heard about foundations over the past year as somewhat or very negative. Almost half (48 percent) described such communications as somewhat or very positive.

Foundations were seen as trustworthy by a majority of respondents, with only 19 percent believing that the government needs to place stricter controls on how private foundations make grants.

“We’re struck by the overall low levels of awareness about the work of foundations, but we’re not surprised that they’re still accompanied by positive feelings,” says Michele Salomon, senior research director, public affairs and policy, at Harris Interactive. “Other research we’ve done points to similar findings. For example, our surveys of the broader population of active Americans —those who donate, volunteer or advocate—show that they have favorable views toward the nonprofit sector as a whole but are uncertain of how well it is actually doing.”

About the Study

A copy of Philanthropy’s Awareness Deficit can be downloaded free of charge in PDF format.

This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Packard Foundation between May 7 and May 22, 2007, and between Dec. 27, 2007, and Jan. 7, 2008, among 733 U.S. adults aged 18 and older who have held a leadership, committee or board-level role in a group or organization working on a community or social issue within the past year. Of these, 371 engaged Americans completed the survey in May 2007 and 362 completed the survey in January 2008. Results were weighted as needed for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

The Philanthropy Awareness Initiative is a project to engage influential Americans in the work of philanthropy supported by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The initiative works with foundations and other interested groups to identify, create and share the most effective ways to communicate with influential Americans about the value of foundations.

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