Researching professionalisation in foundations

Saturday 11 March 2017

Following a successful career in the foundation world, Michele Fugiel Gartner decided to do a PhD in philanthropy. Here she reflects on her choice of researching professionalisation in philanthropy. 

My research at the Centre for the Study of Philanthropy & Public Good, St Andrews University, focuses on foundation staff, reflecting on their roles as professionals within foundations and exploring relationships inherent in the development of a foundation. Professionalization is an important lens for how we view foundations. On one hand, both in academic and practioner literature, it is taken as a sign of maturity in operations and of expert decision-making, the basis for a strategic approach to philanthropy. However, professionalization has also been criticized for removing the donor’s original intentions, for bureaucratizing grantmaking, for hiring staff for its own sake, and even, for not choosing a higher rate of endowment payout.

For me, understanding the role of professionalization is twofold. First, it’s a prime component of what might be termed our philanthropic export package. In our dominant philanthropic framework, we suggest that professionalization is important and creates greater impact. These claims are not well researched. As we export this system to other cultures, we should make sure our claims are sound or at least better understood. Second, foundation professionalization has primarily been a matter of counting numbers in particular the growing number of foundation staff. Examining the views of foundation staff themselves would give a clearer, more rounded perspective on the issue. As a foundation practitioner, I know that self-analysis is a low priority but I believe it is worth making time for. I believe that it affects how the foundation does its work and defines its success.

Getting to know the professional roles of foundation staff and how they help build foundations is one way of learning more about our larger philanthropic system. I hope my work contributes to expanding our knowledge of the expression and approaches to professionalization and to building more spaces for practitioner reflection.


Michele Fugiel Gartner is a foundation professional and doctoral student at the Centre for the Study of Philanthropy & Public Good, University of St Andrews. For further information about her project, please click here.

This piece first appeared in Alliance Magainze’s Special Issue on Philanthropy Scholarship and Practice, March 2017, p. 41


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