The Lack of EA in US Private Foundations

I’ve written before about trying to bring US private foundations into EA as major funders. I got some helpful feedback and haven’t really pursued it further. I study US private foundations as a researcher and recently conducted a qualitative data collection of staff at 20 very large US private foundations ($100m+ assets). The subject of the study isn’t directly EA related (focused mostly on how they use accounting/​effectiveness information and accountability), but it got me thinking a lot!

Some interesting observations that I am going to explore further, in future forum posts (if y’all think it’s interesting) and future research papers:

  1. Trust-based philanthropy (TBP), a funder movement that’s only been around since 2020, has had a HUGE impact on very large private foundations. All 20 indicated that they had already/​were in the process of integrating TBP into their grantmaking. I can’t emphasize enough how influential TBP has been. (This is a major finding of our current paper that is being drafted).

  2. It was not a planned question, but I often asked if they/​their foundation knew about EA and if it had influenced their giving. Some were slightly aware of EA, and primarily had a negative perception. None were convinced by EA ideas and none indicated their foundation had been influenced by EA.

  3. When pressed about their feelings about EA, many suggested that they viewed EA and TBP as being incompatible with one another (either you trust your grantees [TBP] or you evaluate them rigorously [EA]), and they were choosing TBP. Which was pretty interesting to me, as I don’t think they are incompatible (this is probably a paper I am going to get going here soon). I think a place where there is a disconnect is that these PF basically think being EA-aligned means you have to be a major pain in the ass to your grantees.

There certainly are major roadblocks to integrating EA into US private foundations. Their charters typically force them to concentrate their giving in specific cause areas/​geographic areas, which by design are constraints not particularly compatible with EA. But I do still believe there is potential for progress to be made, even if it doesn’t mean PF funds get to EA directly. No matter the type of constraints of a PF charter, within those constraints, EA principles can still cause them to increase their effectiveness.

How can EA make inroads with these major funders, and does it potentially start with a model for effective giving that is willing to relax on necessary principles so as to allow for constraints? Some constraints are easier to relax than others: a constraint that says “we must focus on education” is easier than “we must focus on the state of Delaware”.


Anyway, all of this is on my mind and I am writing this to procrastinate from actually writing the paper that this all comes from! Anyone interested in this topic feel free to reach out.