I examine foundations’ decision making processes and patterns to build deeper knowledge about the ways in which private philanthropy shapes the broader structure of civil society.


Private goals & organizational routines

“Cui Bono?” (Latin for “who benefits?”) draws upon a five-year ethnographic engagement across two grantmaking foundations and interview data from 25 additional foundations to address several inter-related omissions of current conceptual tools used to study nonprofits. First, through detailed empirical illustration, I challenge the assumption that charitable organizations are driven solely (or even primarily) by philanthropic or publicly-oriented objectives. Second, I identify and theorize the dual and dynamic manner in which public and private goals inform organizational design, highlighting the mediating role of fluctuating participation by organizational members. Finally, I illuminate these contributions through a typology of four ideal type organizations, which vary in their attention to public and private goals. The development of this comprehensive conceptual framework provides a foundational working model that serves as a framework for much of my continuing work. It offers scholars and practitioners a framework to examine nonprofit organizational design with attention to the complex interactions between public and private goals.


co-opting social movements

I extend the overarching framework presented in my “Cui Bono” paper with an in-depth case study of how philanthropists’ private interests influence the shape and texture of civil society.  “Getting to Scale,” was published in 2016 at the Teacher’s College Record. In the manuscript my collaborators and I identify how private philanthropic funding has co-opted and channeled a particular social movement to serve private goals; in particular, the rise of privately funded ‘Charter Management Organizations’ (CMOs). We draw upon rich observational and interview data on the U.S. charter school movement, complemented with quantitative datasets on school enrollments and foundation grants to education. We illustrate how private funders seized an organizational form (in this case, the charter school), decoupled it from its original ideas (about local control), and therefore made it available to serve a different set of ideas (in this instance, contradictory ideas around “getting to scale” and “tipping the system”).


supporting ngos in the global south

To complement the in-depth ethnographic work in “Cui Bono” and “Getting to Scale”, I have also embarked upon a project that analyzes how funders’ collective decision-making power influence the landscape of global civil society. Resulting from five years of intense data efforts, I have constructed a novel, longitudinal dataset of all grants given between 2000 and 2012 by U.S.-based private foundations to support international work, totaling USD $53 billion, merged with hand-collected, in-depth coding of nearly 400 foundations and unique foreign NGO data obtained from TechSoup. This project has one manuscript under review, which I am working on in collaboration with Jesse Lecy (Arizona State University) and Simon Shachter (University of Chicago). “Going the Extra Mile,” utilizes a range of conceptual arguments from organizational theory to predict whether and under what conditions foundations will fund local NGOs in the global south, where work is occurring, versus using NGOs headquartered in the global north.


Liabilities of foreigness

“Which Distance Matters?” develops and tests conceptual arguments regarding the “net distance” between foundations and the international work they support, examining trade-offs between monitoring ability and novelty. It further examines how foundations select the “agent distance” between themselves and the NGOs that implement that work, examining the trade-offs between ease of communication and work effectiveness.


Institutional Learning

“Institutional Learning,” uses advanced social network analysis techniques to examine how foundations’ grant making decisions shape the networks, boundaries, and dynamism of global civil society. We are in the analysis phase of this paper.