Big Foundations Replenish Coffers Gutted by Recession

New pet causes include telemedicine and fracking — yes, fracking

Michael Bloomberg's foundation supports fracking as a way to cut coal use. Michael Bloomberg's foundation supports fracking as a way to cut coal use.

Big U.S. foundations’ assets last year grew to their highest levels since the onset of the financial crisis thanks to robust stock market returns, but still have a way to go before they reach prerecession levels.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual report on the nation’s largest foundations, released last week, found that grantmakers’ still-straitened circumstances have constrained their giving.

At the same time, these foundations are rolling out new grant programs to deal with such vexing issues as income inequality, climate change and cybersecurity.

The Chronicle analyzed financial information from 195 of the country’s wealthiest foundations, most of it from tax returns for the 2012 fiscal year. Many foundations also provided 2013 and 2014 information that was yet to be audited.

Among 66 foundations that provided seven years of data, 2013 assets were still 16.6% below the total $223.7 billion reported in 2007, and their grant making last year was 6.5% lower.

The Chronicle said year-to-year comparisons that foundations provided gave grant seekers at least some reasons for optimism.

Assets at the 83 grant makers that furnished data showing how they fared in 2013 compared with 2012 grew by 7.5%, a sign that giving may increase by that much this year.

These 83 large foundations represent 35% of the wealth held by the more than 78,000 foundations operating in 2011, according to the most recently available data from the Foundation Center.

Retrench and Refocus

The survey found that tight grantmaking budgets and a focus on evaluations had prompted many grant makers to reevaluate their spending and redirect it to new causes.

The $8.3 billion William and Flora Hewlett Foundation reported that it would phase out its Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative. This eight-year, $20 million effort has financed work by organizations such as GuideStar, GiveWell and Charity Navigator to produce in-depth information about nonprofits’ performance.

Hewlett found that the initiative had not done enough to persuade donors to give solely because of a group’s worthiness and not for emotional reasons.

Now, Hewlett will try to improve charitable giving by “shifting to a strategy to foster openness and transparency and collaboration” among foundations and nonprofits, Hewlett’s president, Larry Kramer, told The Chronicle.

He said the foundation would also support work to find new ways to address cybersecurity threats.

Other foundations are supporting creative efforts to lower health care costs by improving how people in urban and rural areas get services.

The Helmsley Charitable Trust has poured $67 million over the past five years into a rural telemedicine program in seven Midwestern states.

Of this, $27 million has gone to Avera Health, which has built a telemedicine system that connects emergency medical experts at large hospitals with patients and their medical providers in far-flung rural facilities through real-time video links. Pharmacists at central hubs can dispense needed medications through a vending-machine pharmaceutical system in rural facilities.

Another trend finds grant makers increasingly relying on data to assess the tangible results of programs.

Michael Bloomberg’s foundation is supporting fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to mine natural gas, to help advance its “Beyond Coal” campaign, which uses data and measurement to guide efforts aimed at retiring a third of U.S. coal plants by 2020.

“We don’t shy away from controversy if we can make a difference,” New York’s former mayor wrote in typically blunt fashion in his annual letter about his philanthropy, quoted by The Chronicle.

“We insist on using data to guide our work and ensure we’re delivering results,” he wrote.

 “When national governments are slow to act,” Bloomberg Philanthropies will work with cities. It will partner with public and private organizations to “enhance our impact” and “work to multiply the power of philanthropy by helping local communities advocate for themselves and create change that lasts.”

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