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Public and Private Dimensions of Grantmaking Foundations

PAQ, Vol. 38 No. 3, (2014)

This paper considers the extent to which grantmaking foundations in the United States are more or less public or private given multiple conceptualizations of what is meant by these terms across disciplines. An overview of foundations is provided for the purpose of highlighting differences in structure, operations, and missions or objectives. A hegemonic definition and description of the private nature of grantmaking foundations is presented, and argued to be a perspective that fundamentally conditions how foundations operate and how they relate to external stakeholders. Different foundation types are contrasted in the context of four other contested conceptualizations of public and private: regulation of institutional activity; pursuit of a public interest, purpose, or good; impact on others; and distribution of benefits to whole or part of a whole. The analysis concludes that grantmaking foundations have unique institutional claims to a mix of public and private dimensions beyond the hegemonic perspective that foundations should operate and be seen as primarily private entities.

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