The Most Interesting Foundations, 2014

We'll be the first to say that "interesting" is a pretty vague metric on which to hang an end-of-year list. But it's actually a yardstick that matters a lot here at Inside Philanthropy.

When you write all day about funders, one way to keep yourself going is to gravitate toward the most fascinating ones. That doesn't mean you want ignore, say, the legacy foundation that specializes in renewal grants to the Brookings Institution, but it does mean you keep closer tabs on funders aiming to blow up whole sectors of society or revolutionize scientific research or save some forgotten swath of humanity or find answers to the hardest philosophical questions or leverage their money with jiu jitsu-like creativity. 

It also means that you keep an eye on the up-and-comers, the newer foundations determined to do things differently and which exemplify generational or cultural shifts under way in the funding world. We don't think that the new money in philanthropy is always more interesting than the legacy fortunes, but often it is, especially when a brilliant or quirky living donor is pulling the stringsas opposed to philanthropoids socialized to think a certain way by years in the sector. We're also drawn to foundations which are in transition or remain works in progress.

So while there isn't an algorithm behind this list, there is a set of preferences that we've formed over time about which of the 86,000+ foundations in the U.S. are most fascinating. Of course, these are our preferences and may not be shared by others. Not everyone's boat is floated by the same grantmaking strategies. (Although if your boat is floated by grantmaking strategies at all, you're in the right place.)

And one other important thing: Just because we think a foundation is interesting, it doesn't mean we agree with what they're doing. Also, there are a lot of funders who are doing great work but who may not be especially interesting, at least right now. 

Here's the list, going alphabetically, with links throughout to work we've published in the past year. 

Paul G. Allen Foundation

Talk about a mega-funder in transition! Paul Allen's foundation, which is run by his sister Jody, has lately ramped up in four new areas: ocean conservation, wildlife protection, research into cell science, and global health, with a $100 million effort to contain Ebola. That last area may be a one-off, but after years of focusing only on brain science and local giving, Allen has clearly decided that his $17 billion fortune can bankroll a few other causes, too. 

Laura and John Arnold Foundation

This young couple moves tens of millions of dollars with a skeletal foundation crew that puts bloated legacy funders to shame. They're interested in systemic changes and like to write seven-figure checks. Among other things, they've set a lofty goal of overhauling the shoddy and secretive world of scientific research. Disrupting higher ed is another little project.

Atlantic Philanthropies

If you think you know the story of how this giant funder will close up shop, think again. Its spend-down endgame isn't a methodical schedule set in stone. We've described it more like a fireworks finale. Atlantic is starting to make a series of "culminating grants" that will shower a handful of organizations with big money, the kind that rarely comes from foundations. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies

Let's see here: a new $53 million initiative to save the world's fisheries; $10 million to stop kids from drowning in poor countries; another $125 million toward its push against traffic fatalities (on top of the even bigger anti-smoking effort); a pile of cash to help museums use apps to engage visitors; a new arts challenge. And that's just in Mike's first year since leaving office. Watch this place like a hawk. 

Bread & Roses Community Fund

Imagine a funder that lets its would-be grantees to set its priorities. Crazy, right? But that's how this grassroots fund pursues "change, not charity" and seeks to give away money without replicating the power imbalances rife in a philanthropic sector which so often mirrors an unequal society. Bread & Roses has long taken this approach, but stumbling across it felt like discovering an Oregon commune untouched by time. 

Howard G. Buffett Foundation

The fact that Buffett plans to give away a few billion dollars in the next three decades makes him interesting by definition to some folks. But we find him fascinating because he's "a bold, risk-taking philanthropist who's tackling some of the world's toughest problems in a hands-on way." That the guy has jetted around Africa trying to end the war in Congo gives you a sense of how he rolls. The larger goal of his lean foundation is to help the world's most vulnerable people.

Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies

Before she died, Margaret Cargill left very detailed instructions on how her fortune should be spent. Still, since its sudden emergence as one of the largest funders around, the foundation has moved with painstaking care to figure out how to translate those wishes into programs that have impact. It's been fascinating to watch all this unfold; or maybe excruciating if you're hoping for a grant any time soon. 

Caterpillar Foundation

A few years back, the Caterpillar Foundation was the hum-drum philanthropic arm of the Peoria-based heavy equipment giant. Today, it's at the forefront of efforts to raise up the world's poor girls and women. What happened? The answer is that a Caterpillar lifer, Michele Sullivan, took over the place and had the elementary insight that the foundation should address the "root causes" of poverty. 

Dalio Foundation

It's not that hedge fund king Ray Dalio and his wife Barbara are especially innovative; it's that their escalating giving exemplifies how a growing number of insanely rich financiers are now getting serious about large-scale philanthropy. We could name four other hedge funders at the same juncture. Already, this trend is upending the philanthropic pecking order, and it's still at an early stage. 

Good Ventures

After taking an extended listening tour through the philanthrosphere, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna planned a different approach. They're off to a good start, too, rolling out an Open Philanthropy initiative to try to bring the risk-taking and sharing norms of the tech world to philanthropy. Oh, and get this: Their top approach to global poverty is to give money directly to poor people. Radicals!

Greenbaum Foundation

Many funders are so damn cerebral that it's easy to forget what business they're in. You won't forget that looking at Jim Greenbaum and his wife Lucie, who bring blazing passion to their well-financed crusade to reduce both human and animal suffering. Which is not to say they're not also fixated with efficiency and impact as they spend down a telecom fortune. 

Hewlett Foundation

What's interesting here is the outsized ambition. Quite apart from the foundation's modest existing goals, which include stopping climate change and advancing reproductive rights worldwide, this year it took on the challenge of saving U.S. democracy from extremists and building up a nonprofit cybersecurity field, almost from scratch. Larry Kramer may or may not succeed, but he's a big thinker. 

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Philanthropy's healthcare giant had long been mumbling something about a "culture of health," but now that concept is driving big changes at the foundation as it sets out to reshape the health and wellness values of Americans. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey spelled out this bold vision in June in what we called "the most important speech on philanthropy this year." 

Knight Foundation

This funder definitely sits with the cool kids in the nonprofit cafeteria, although to be sure, some older, not-so-hip programs tag along. Lately, though, Knight has homed in on two fascinating areas: the nexus between media and technology, and the role of arts in revitalizing urban areas. Knight is helping shape and direct change at both these roiling interersections of American life. 

Linden Conservation Trust

This is a tiny outfit, but the interesting story here is about the changing face of environmental philanthropy. Former Goldman Sachs partner Larry Linden is deploying both his fortune and deal-making skills to conserve natural areas, most recently a big chunk of the Amazon. The executive director of the trust, Roger Ullman, is also a former Wall Streeter and a new breed of MBA environmentalist. 

Peery Foundation

The story of how Dave Peery, the son of a Silicon Valley real estate billionaire, has reinvented his family's foundation is emblematic of generational change in philanthropy. Like a lot of heirs these days, Peery wants to do things differently, starting with empowering grantees. (See his manifesto.) The foundation has also crafted a sophisticated methodology for grantmaking to push change locally, nationally, and globally

Pershing Square Foundation

Bill Ackman is unusual among billionaire hedge funders in that he started building a professionalized foundation early on, with the help of his wife Karen, her sister, and outside professionals. Now their outfit is hitting its stride with funding to lift small farmers in poor countries and a new initiative to back risky cancer researchon top of supporting education reform, human rights, and other causes. 

Simons Foundation

There aren't a lot of math geniuses giving away vast fortunes, so we pay rapt attention to hedge billionaire Jim Simons and his economist wife, Marilyn, who actually runs their foundationwhich paid out $179 million last year. Most of those funds went toward math and science research, along with probing autism. But Simons is expanding, with a new initiative to research oceans and a big education give in Harlem. 

Startup:Education

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have moved over $2 billion in Facebook stock to a donor-advised fund, and this outfit is the closest thing they have to a foundation to help them give away that money. A top priority is managing the couple's $120 million pledge to Bay Area schools, but money has gone toward other initiatives, too. Something really important is emerging here. Pay attention. 

Templeton Foundation

Watching Templeton do business is like watching a couple of philosophers shoot the breeze while passing around a joint and a fat checkbook. How much self-control do people really have, man? ($4.5m grant) Are other animals capable of happiness, or only humans? ($3.4m) How can we be so sure there's no life after death? ($5m) We get a contact high just reporting on Templeton. 

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Looking ahead, there are several foundations we think could become quite interesting in the coming year.

First and foremost among these is the Ford Foundation, which is now finalizing a new strategic plan. Our fingers are crossed that Darren Walker will swing the ax hard at Ford's bloat and really change how the place does grantmaking.

The MacArthur Foundation may also be headed for big changes, since it said it wanted "a new kind of leadership" after the board sacked Bob Gallucci. We warned MacArthur grantees to "fasten their seatbelts," but still haven't seen any major turbulence yet. Stayed tuned. 

But what's likely to be most interesting in 2015 is the emergence of entirely new foundations as this or that billionaire gets serious about philanthropy. Maybe a Steve and Connie Ballmer Foundation. Or a supersizing of the Mars family foundation

Big things are coming in philanthropy as the great fortunes of our new Gilded Age are harnessed for giving. The only question is what's next. 

David Callahan is founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy (davidc@insidephilanthropy.com)