Lisa Dropkin and Pam Loeb, Edge Research

Pam Loeb and Lisa Dropkin talk about midpoint findings from interviews with elected and appointed government officials and journalists in ten states across the country to understand their perceptions of foundations and the drivers of those perceptions.

Lisa: We went into this with the idea that many elected and appointed officials would not know very much about foundations. How do you think that theory is holding up?

Pam: Well some don’t, but I have been surprised by the number of people I have interviewed who have had direct experiences with foundations.

Lisa: Yes, many of them have been grantees or partners of foundations and have struggled with the same types of issues we hear from nonprofit directors. For example, many decisionmakers have complained that foundations don’t stay committed to projects long enough.

Pam: A key question in these interviews is how elected or appointed officeholders have or would want to partner with foundations. Partnership implies commitment. They are frustrated when foundations pull out after the pilot is over and move on to the next big thing.

Lisa: Another theme we wanted to explore was this idea of foundations’ R&D role – that because foundations have flexible, politically independent resources, they can often generate and test new ideas more easily than the public sector. Then, if the new approach pays off, government can replicate and take it to scale. Yet, these interviews are suggesting foundations need to be careful about using this R&D position, because there is some backlash about foundations’ unwillingness to commit for the long haul.

Pam: At the same time, we have gotten very positive feedback from some interviewees who have had great experiences when a foundation has lent their expertise in the form of research, or staffing, or just advice from funding similar projects.

Lisa: It also seems like one of the roles for foundations that comes up organically in these interviews is this idea of foundations as independent entities that can convene stakeholders on neutral ground and promote collaboration.

Pam: Yes, I have heard some great stories about foundations bringing disparate interests together – liberals and conservatives, charities and businesses, and different nonprofit groups to convene, collaborate, and compromise.

Lisa: I’m looking forward to our next round of interviews, continuing to test and refine these themes, and eventually sharing our findings with the broader philanthropic community.

Learn more about this collaborative project here. PAI hopes to release a report on the findings from all Edge Research interviews in summer 2010.