News and analysis
March 23, 2014

Foundation Assets Reach Highest Level Since Downturn

A strong stock market helped boost the assets last year of the Gates, Hewlett, and other big foundations to their highest levels since the Great Recession gutted endowments six years ago, according to a new Chronicle survey.

Yet grant makers still aren’t as well off as they were before the downturn, and that continues to put a damper on their giving. What it’s not doing, though: crimping ambitious new grant-making efforts to deal with vexing problems.

America’s biggest foundations are unveiling a range of new grant programs to deal with complex challenges like income inequality, cybersecurity, and climate change. They’re also seeking new ways to get veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq settled back into society, make Obamacare work well for everyone, and find a way past Washington’s partisan gridlock.

Still, the money that foundations have in their coffers means grant making will continue to be extremely competitive.

Among 66 foundations that provided seven years of data, assets in 2013 were still 16.6 percent below the total $223.7-billion reported in 2007. And grant making last year among those organizations was 6.5 percent lower than in 2007.

The year-to-year comparisons that foundations provided show reasons for at least some optimism among grant seekers.

Assets grew by 7.5 percent from 2012 to 2013 for the 83 grant makers that gave figures for both years, so giving will likely grow in 2014.

The foundations studied are among the nation’s largest. The 83 that provided 2013 asset figures represent 35 percent of the wealth held by the more than 78,000 foundations operating in 2011, according to the most recent available data from the Foundation Center. (Data from the survey are available exclusively to Chronicle subscribers.)

New Focus

Among the new efforts that foundations are getting under way:

  • The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the nation’s fourth-wealthiest grant maker, plans to phase out an eight-year, $20-million effort to finance work by Charity Navigator, GiveWell, GuideStar, and other groups to provide in-depth information about nonprofits’ performance. The reason: It wasn’t doing enough to persuade donors to give solely because a group is worthy and not for emotional reasons. Instead, Hewlett will try to improve philanthropy by “shifting to a strategy to foster openness and transparency and collaboration” among foundations and nonprofits, said Larry Kramer, Hewlett’s president.
  • He says the foundation's board last week voted to support work designed to break the political system get over the gridlock that has stymied policy making and to find new ways to deal with cybersecurity threats.

  • Several foundations are stepping up their health-care work. The Commonwealth Fund is supporting attempts to reduce soaring costs in urban areas caused by people who use emergency rooms for primary care.
  • The California Endowment is allocating $225-million over four years to help ensure the Affordable Care Act meets its promise. It also awarded $18-million in program-related investments to expand and build community health centers in low-income neighborhoods, where many more people are expected to seek care under their new insurance coverage.

  • The William T. Grant Foundation is now channeling nearly all of its grants into efforts that shape policies to reduce income inequality. Last month, Adam Gamoran, the foundation’s president, announced that it will award $11-million a year to researchers studying the “impact of economics, race, and ethnicity on a young person’s life chances.”

Said Mr. Gamoran: “We hope the research will accumulate over time to produce new knowledge that can help reduce disparity among America’s young people.”

Dig deeper: This is an excerpt from a comprehensive article on trends in grant making available exclusively to subscribers. Articles on foundation efforts to spur collaboration and support veterans are also available to subscribers.

Send an e-mail to Doug Donovan and Sarah Frostenson.