Survey: Fewer But Larger Gifts By Small Grantmakers

February 26, 2015       Mark Hrywna      

Small foundations reported distributing fewer – but larger – grants last year as their average returns and market value grew, according to a new survey.

Exponent Philanthropy today released its 2015 Foundation Operations and Management Report. The 20-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based organization changed its name last year from the Association of Small Foundations.

Member foundations have an estimated total fair market value of $87.8 billion, up from $74.1 billion at the end of 2012 – an increase of more than 18 percent. Member foundations granted an estimated $4.4 billion to local, national and international causes. About two-thirds of grants awarded went to local communities but more than one in five foundations surveyed give internationally.

“There is a powerful force in philanthropy today that is achieving outsized impact nationwide and around the world,” Henry Berman, CEO of Exponent Philanthropy, said in a prepared statement. “It’s practiced by donors, trustees and philanthropic professionals who choose to give big while staying small, to make the most of their resources,” he said.

Among the study’s other key findings:

  • Foundations surveyed spend 14 cents in charitable operating costs for each dollar of grants awarded. About one quarter operate with no paid staff and of those organizations that do have paid staff, a third have only one staff member.
  • Member foundations seem to be granting fewer but larger grants. An estimated 158,000 grants were awarded last year, down 22 percent from the 203,000 grants a year earlier but the median grant size increased by 24 percent, from $15,415 to $19,116.
  • Foundations reported average returns of 14.1 percent, up from 9.7 percent in reported in the 2013 Foundations Operations and Management Report. Foundations also are adding impact investments to their portfolios, with 1 in 8 organizations surveyed engaging in what’s also known as mission-related or socially responsible investments. These members maintained an average of 41 percent of their portfolio in impact investments.
  • Median qualifying distributions were almost 5.2 percent of noncharitable use assets – an average of 6.5 percent – exceeding the 5 percent requirement.

The top funding areas for surveyed organizations were:

  • Education 78 percent;
  • Human services, 61 percent;
  • Arts and culture, 53 percent;
  • Health, 51 percent;
  • Environment and animals, 31 percent;
  • Public affairs/society benefit, 25 percent; and,
  • Religion, 22 percent.

The report is based on survey responses from Exponent Philanthropy member foundations. About 777 of its nearly 2,300 members participated in the survey. The average asset size among respondents was almost $38 million, or a median of $17.7 million. Three out of four respondents reported less than $50 million in assets.

Data for the 2015 Foundation Operations and Management Report were collected in mid-2014 and investment data were reported for year-end 2013 or the end of the foundation’s most recent fiscal year.

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