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U.S. philanthropy faces ‘awareness deficit’

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More than half of Americans engaged in work on social issues can’t name a charitable foundation on their first try, a new study says, and of the nine organizations most frequently mentioned, only four actually are foundations.

Those four are the The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, says the report commissioned by David and Lucile Packard Foundation for the Philanthropic Awareness Initiative.

The study focuses on a 12-percent slice of the population identified as “engaged” Americans, who hold leadership, committee or board-level roles in organizations working for social change.

Six in 10 of these people, who generally are older than 45 and better-educated than average, say their knowledge of foundations is lacking or nonexistent.

Only about 15 percent can cite an example of a foundation’s impact on their community, the report says, and only about one in 10 can describe a foundation’s impact on an issue they care about.

Those who could name such impacts were more likely to cite the work of a community foundation rather than a private grantmaker.

“The survey speaks volumes about the invisibility of foundations and how they are not doing a good job of getting out the word to the public about what they are and do,” Joel Fleishman, a professor at Duke University and author of “The Foundation: A Great American Secret,” says in a statement. “It also suggests that the very organizations foundations support are remiss in their obligation to keep their own leaders, board members and volunteers informed of the funding landscape in which they exist.”

These trends make foundations vulnerable to “ill-informed actions by government,” he says.

Yet most respondents reported generally positive feelings towards foundations. Slightly over half say the disappearance of these grantmakers would be “a great loss” to their communities, and more than three-quarters believed foundations are important in helping the nonprofit sector achieve its goals.

One in five respondents think the government should place stricter controls on grantmaking, the report says.

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