Forum on Interest Groups & Advocacy Symposium on Foundations

Foundations and Their Interests

Editors’ Note: Kristin A. Goss and Jeffrey M. Berry have co-edited a symposium on the topic of foundations as interest groups for the October issue of Interest Groups & Advocacy. Here, Goss and Berry preview their contributions to the symposium and introduce two other articles from this October issue which HistPhil will be spotlighting in the next days. 

With the rise of highly directive “strategic philanthropy” in recent years, it is no longer possible to think of foundations solely as passive dispensers of charitable benevolence. Certainly, many of them do fit this mold, but a lot of the newer and larger ones – particularly those led by highly engaged founders – do not. In an influential 2007 book, Duke University’s Joel Fleishman, a onetime philanthropy leader and longtime student of the field, ventured that foundations have become a type of interest group.

As defined by Jeffrey Berry and Clyde Wilcox (2018, 5), interest groups are “organizations that try to influence government.” With staggering resources ($865 billion at last count) and elite trustees, foundations have quiet sources of political clout, including the capacity to influence policy ideas, agendas, advocacy, and implementation. Individual donors, too, are a force to be reckoned with. Scores of America’s wealthiest people have vowed to give away most of their wealth during their lifetimes. One study found that fully half of the nation’s most generous individual philanthropists have serious policy interests (Goss 2016), which they can advance through both charitable and more explicitly political donations. Thus, foundations and individual benefactors have the potential to fill important niches in the pressure group system and in larger policy communities.

If we think of foundations as interest groups, whose interests do these philanthropies (and living donors) represent? How do they think about this question and go about answering it? What sources of information and other inputs do they use to devise their giving strategies? What role do they play in democratic governance, as innovators, collaborators, and adversaries? What kinds of power do they leverage? To what institutions or constituencies are they accountable? These questions, which have preoccupied interest group scholars for decades, are even more challenging when applied to philanthropy. In the October issue of Interest Groups & Advocacy, we and other scholars explored the ways that foundations act as interest groups, as well as the limits to the analogy.

Historically, some of funders’ biggest impact has come through conceiving and building infrastructures to supplement or challenge the state. One might think of the Andrew Carnegie’s libraries; the Ford Foundation’s seed grants and operating support to civil rights, community development, and public interest organizations; the Carnegie Corporation’s role in vastly expanding public television; the John M. Olin Foundation’s lead role in building the conservative legal movement; and George Soros’ creation of democracy-promotion organizations in the former Soviet sphere, among many examples. All of these efforts represent donors’ attempts to fill niches in the system of interest representation.

In the present context, it is easy to identify parallels between conventional interest groups and philanthropic donors, but there are also key differences. For example, interest groups clearly seek to influence government by advocating on behalf of some constituency, whether clearly defined stakeholders (e.g., dues-paying members) or diffuse publics (e.g., a nation’s citizenry, an identity group, an economic interest, or an issue public). Many foundations and individual philanthropists also want to influence government on behalf of one or more constituencies; but unlike archetypal interest groups, donors often do so indirectly through the organizations they fund. The funding relationship would appear to put donors one step removed from interest representation and advocacy. But a growing body of research suggests that both individual and institutional donors, in fact, seek to advance ideas and collective interests directly by creating and sustaining organizations to carry out philanthropists’ agendas.

Interest groups also have a wide array of tactics that they can use in advancing their policy agendas. They can conduct and disseminate research relevant to policy and politics, promote novel policy framings through the media, mobilize grassroots pressure on policymakers, lobby lawmakers and regulators directly, register voters and get them to the polls, independently campaign for or against candidates, file lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved constituents, and so forth. In short, interest groups have virtually unlimited ways to ply their influence in the political system.

Private foundations, the most common form of organized philanthropy, are barred from some of these strategies, notably mounting mass-based or direct lobbying campaigns around specific legislation (except that affecting foundations qua foundations) and trying to influence the fortunes of a candidate or political party. But beyond these important yet narrow restrictions, foundations and individual benefactors have a wide-open field to participate in the policy process at all stages. Like interest groups – such as trade associations, mass-membership organizations, and issue-oriented lobbies – foundations can influence the formulation of ideas and alternatives, try to shape public opinion, fund groups that do advocacy, create new models for policy implementation, and sponsor policy research and evaluation. Instead of jawboning legislators in their offices – the stereotype of lobbying – foundations work behind the scenes as political actors advancing their vision of public value.

Interestingly, restrictions on foundations’ political activities may provide them with a subtle source of political influence. With a legal mandate to remain nonpartisan, foundations can credibly portray themselves as pragmatic, problem-solvers catalyzing far-sighted innovation in the public interest. They can sponsor policy relevant research with credibility on both sides of the aisle (think of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s widely cited work on health care and the Pew Research Center’s survey reports). In some cases, funders may offer political cover to politicians and bureaucrats wishing to reform public policy and public services.

Although foundations can’t participate on behalf of candidates and parties in elections, individual philanthropists can electioneer to their heart’s content. Indeed, since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, individuals can give unlimited amounts to Super PACs, which work (ostensibly) independently to support or oppose candidates and policy issues. Philanthropists such as Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, Sheldon Adelson, and Richard Uihlein have become some of the most important political activists today.

In the Interest Groups & Advocacy symposium, we and the other contributors examined foundations through the prism of interest group research. Besides our own, two articles are featured in this HistPhil series. David Suárez, Kelly Husted, and Andreu Casas discuss the advocacy role of community foundations; while Leslie Finger explores how new foundations take advantage of political openings at the state level to push education reform.

In our article, we explore how and to what extent foundations and individual mega-donors used their wealth and public perches to take a stand for issues and interests threatened by the new the Trump administration. We monitored public statements by the nation’s 20 largest foundations, a random sample of 20 mid-sized foundations, a set of foundations of varying sizes headquartered in and around Boston, and roughly 100 very wealthy philanthropists with demonstrated interests in public policy issues. We also conducted interviews to gain a flavor of the non-public conversations that philanthropic leaders were having about the new political reality and whether and how to respond.

The foundations were almost all liberal, meaning that they shared progressive goals in terms of programmatic efforts designed to protect the environment, expand access to health care, empower women, lift people here and abroad out of poverty, and other similar objectives. While some of our sampled foundations spoke out against the administration’s efforts to work against policies embedded in their own philanthropy, more often than not we observed passivity. We used an interest group framework to judge mobilization and advocacy and concluded that by and large, foundations were hesitant to challenge the Trump administration’s aggressive efforts to dismantle social programs, threaten vulnerable populations, repeal regulations, withdraw from international agreements, and, in critics’ view, undermine governing institutions and widely shared democratic norms. Thus, even if foundations can act like interest groups, they will not necessarily do so.

The individual philanthropists we studied were a mix of liberals, conservatives, and moderates. The majority of these individuals made no public statement about the Trump era, but those who did speak out – through their Twitter feeds or the mainstream press – were far more likely to be critical than supportive of the administration’s early actions. A handful of these donors also publicly announced new resources to combat threats to immigrants, the media, the Paris agreement on climate change, and democratic norms generally.

Foundations and wealthy donors are by definition elite political actors. Important new books – notably those by David Callahan, Anand Giraharadas, and Rob Reich – have reinvigorated longstanding critiques of philanthropic power. At the heart of these works is a question of interests – whose interests do these elite actors represent? Connecting these critiques to work on the larger pressure group system may help clarify how foundations are distinct in their representational roles – and how they are not.

-Kristin A. Goss and Jeffrey M. Berry

Kristin A. Goss is the Kevin D. Gorter Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Her books and articles focus on social movements, citizen groups, and philanthropy. Follow @KAGoss. Jeffrey M. Berry is Skuse Professor of Political Science at Tufts University. He is the author of A Voice for Nonprofits, among other works on interest groups and the health of democracy. Follow @JeffreyMBerry.


Berry, Jeffrey M., and David Arons. 2003. A Voice for Nonprofits. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Berry, Jeffrey M., and Kristin A. Goss. 2018. “Donors for Democracy? Philanthropy and the Challenges Facing America in the 21st Century.” Interest Groups & Advocacy 7(3): 233-257.

Berry, Jeffrey M., and Clyde Wilcox. 2018. The Interest Group Society, 6th ed. New York: Routledge.

Callahan, David. 2018. The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. New York: Vintage.

Fleishman, Joel L. 2007. The Foundation: A Great American Secret. New York: PublicAffairs.

Giridharadas, Anand. 2018. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. New York: Knopf.

Goss, Kristin A. 2016. “Policy Plutocrats: How America’s Wealthy Influence Governance.” PS: Political Science & Politics 49(3): 442-448.

Reich, Rob. 2018. Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Teles, Steven M. 2008. The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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