Top 10 philanthropic foundations: A primer

Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation speaks during a meeting on polio eradication organized by the foundation. Photo by: Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission Geneva / CC BY

For many years now, private foundations have been muscling their way to the global development table - and they’re getting stronger. In fact, private foundations are playing an increasingly prominent role both in the scale of their giving and in their ability to set the agenda in international development.

While major private foundations have for many years supported charitable causes at home, their philanthropy is increasingly crossing borders, with the developing world receiving a larger share of total giving. For non-governmental organizations, social enterprises and aid organizations seeking alternatives to multilateral and bilateral donors, private foundation grants are becoming more and more important.

But finding out how much foundations give toward global development causes is not easy. Most do not publish a specific “global development” sum and many programs are multisectoral and cross-cutting. So, we at Devex rolled up our sleeves and began digging through annual reports, tax filings, and program data to see what we could find.

The results are below: the top 10 philanthropic foundations according to their global development contributions. Due to the challenges associated with arriving at precise figures, we made some estimates and hope our readers will let us know if we missed any marks.

(One item to note is that nine of the 10 foundations are in the U.S. and the other is in the U.K. We expected to find at least a few of the top 10 in the Middle East, continental Europe, and the developing world. Also, since some major foundations are actually implementing organizations and not grant-makers, we excluded some large and commonly known organizations. Did we miss any foundation that should be on the list? Please let us know.)

We intentionally left out corporate giving - a critical and growing area of philanthropy – but we did include those foundations that may have been founded by a corporate chief, but are not tied to any corporation today. Readers will also notice that we did not include foundations focused on science and medicine whose innovation may eventually go toward helping the developing world, but does not directly target developing countries. Devex plans to analyze these topics and organizations in the future.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Total Giving (2009) – $3.05 billionTotal Global Development Giving – $2.5 billion (82 percent)

Established by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, his wife Melinda and father William H. Gates Sr. in 1994, the Gates Foundation claims the largest charitable endowment in the world and supports development and health programs in more than 100 countries. In 2009, the Gates Foundation spent more than $1.8 billion on global health projects alone. The combined support for HIV/AIDS and malaria that year amounted to more than $465 million in countries that include India, China and Ghana. The foundation’s ambitious platform for agricultural development “aims to help 150 million of the world’s poorest farming families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia lift themselves out of extreme poverty by 2025.” It has spent more than $677 million in grants for its anti-poverty projects in the world’s poorest countries and over $316 million on agriculture development initiatives in 2009.

Open Society Foundations

Total Giving (2009) – $683 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $404 million (59 percent)

Founded by investor and philanthropist George Soros in 1984, Open Society Foundations were initially designed as institutions which would help countries transition from communism to democracy. Today, Open Society focuses on the establishment of democracy through programs that advance good governance, justice, education, public health and independent media in more than 70 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. In 2010, Open Society Foundations gave an estimated $875 million to various nonprofit groups, a contribution that includes a $100 million grant to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Funding for media and arts programs that help facilitate government transparency and accountability, women’s rights, and migrant equality are expected to figure strongly in Open Society’s future plans.

Ford Foundation

Total Giving (2010) – $520 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $135 million (26 percent)

The Ford Foundation began with a $25,000 gift from Edsel Ford, son of Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford, in 1936. Today, with over 44,000 proposals received each year, it has become one of the largest philanthropies in the world, with grants given to projects and individuals in more than 50 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The foundation’s nine focus areas are: democratic and accountable governance, economic fairness, educational opportunity and scholarship, freedom of expression, human rights, metropolitan opportunity, sexuality and reproductive health and rights, social justice philanthropy, and sustainable development. The organization’s “Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide” – a global program seeking to strengthen institutions in enforcing human rights laws and standards – received more than $14.3 million in 2010.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Total Giving (2010) – $358 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $103 million (29 percent)

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funds global development programs on governance, education, improved policy analysis and better access to agricultural markets for farmers in developing countries. In 2010, the foundation awarded some 526 grants and, through its global development partnerships, gave more than $53.3 million to academic institutions, private organizations and nonprofit groups including Harvard University, Oxfam, Save the Children and the Bread for the World Institute. About 16 percent of total global development giving, or $16.22 million, was spent on environment-focused projects. Initiatives on energy efficiency and renewable energy are expected to take center stage as the foundation expands its environment and energy portfolio.

Children’s Investment Fund Foundation

Total Giving (2010) – $214 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $96 million (45 percent)

CIFF was established in 2002 by hedge fund manager Chris Hohn and his wife Jamie. The only U.K.-based foundation in the Devex top 10, its current focus areas are child survival, hunger alleviation, and educational achievement. Its investment strategy is deceptively uncomplicated: It prefers funders that are “actively engaged with a limited number of grantees” as these have “greater knowledge about programmatic outcomes and were able to drive performance.” With laser-sharp focus, CIFF concentrates on just 15 to 20 projects annually, all having demonstrable large-scale impact in the lives of children. Future core areas and funding opportunities are on adolescent reproductive health, early childhood development, economic readiness and care environment. In 2010, CIFF’s budget for programs amounted to $51.45 million. Its grants for that year were at $214.38 million, up 21 percent from 2009 levels.

CIFF’s international programs in Africa, particularly Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon are focused on medical care and educational support for children with HIV, reducing maternal and child mortality, and post-conflict reintegration programs for children. In Asia, the foundation aims to improve access to education and boost treatment for HIV/AIDS.

United Nations Foundation

Total Giving (2009) – $108 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $108 million (100 percent)

In 1998, media mogul Ted Turner gifted the United Nations with $1 billion for disbursement within 10 years. This historic pledge created the United Nations Foundation, an organization that encourages wealthy countries, individuals and groups to contribute to and support the development and peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations. The foundation gives its entire revenue to global development with a focus on child health, climate change, peace and security, and poverty eradication. Its future endeavors are expected to center on women’s health, the plight of women and girls in poor countries, and the elimination of preventable diseases such as measles, malaria and polio in the developing world. Since its inception, the U.N. Foundation has granted $700 million for various programs, mainly focused on child health.

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Total Giving (2010) – $230 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $92.4 million (40 percent)

In 1978, 92 percent of U.S. business giant John MacArthur’s estate started one of the largest private foundations in the United States. Its international programs focus on human rights and international justice, peace and security, conservation and sustainable development, higher education in Africa and Russia, migration and human mobility, and population and reproductive health. Grantees are located in 60 countries but most of its grantmaking activities are centered on these four: India, Mexico, Nigeria and Russia. Of the $230 million disbursed in 2010, more than $38.5 million went to projects in Bhutan, Brazil, China, India, Fiji, Madagascar, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, South Korea, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

Total Giving (2010) – $100.1 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $67 million (67 percent)

Hotel magnate Conrad N. Hilton created the foundation that bears his name in 1944 as a philanthropic trust. Six years later, it became a nonprofit corporation. The foundation’s international funding initiatives focus on water and sanitation, care for children affected by HIV/AIDS, and early childhood development. Many of its projects are in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, India, Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Mexico wherein it has partnered with global development organizations such as World Vision, WaterAid, UNICEF and CARE. In May 2011, the foundation approved a $6 million grant for the Millennium Water Alliance—a project that aims to support the continued implementation of the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) program in Ethiopia.

Rockefeller Foundation

Total Giving (2009) – $136 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $54.75 million (40 percent)

When the Rockefeller Foundation’s board of trustees appropriated $25,000 for the creation of the International Health Commission in 1913, it set the stage for philanthropy’s role in global development. Today, the organization’s focus areas are international in scope: basic survival safeguards, global health, climate and environment, urbanization, and social and economic security. With the creation of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network in 2009, funding for environment-related projects, particularly those focused on mitigating the effects of climate change, is expected to rise. Global health programs will continue to receive strong support, as well as agricultural development initiatives in honor of the late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, a pioneering agronomist and long-time foundation partner.

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Total Giving (2009) – $178.4 millionTotal Global Development Giving – $19.4 million (11 percent)

Established in 2000 by Intel co-founder Gordon Earle Moore and his wife Betty, the foundation’s international grants are concentrated on environmental conservation and scientific research. A relatively young organization, it has already awarded nearly $170 million in grants for green projects in 2009 alone. In 2010, it has granted more than $19.4 million, also to environment-related projects. The Andes and Amazon regions are the main beneficiaries of the foundation’s work, with projects aimed at forest conservation.

About the author

  • Noel Salazar

    As senior advisor, Noel leads a variety of special research and analysis projects for Devex. An accomplished international development professional, Noel has extensive experience montioring foreign aid trends and reporting on procurement processes of the major donor institutions across the world.