Here’s a spooky thought: let us engage with foundations’ ghosts…

Sunday 31 October 2021

by Tobias Jung

A version of this post was published on the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) webpages on 3rd November 2021 at

Foundations are tricky creatures. They are amongst the oldest organisational forms globally, yet remain poorly understood. They are one of the most extraordinary, diverse and colourful organisational ideas, yet discourse on foundations tends to be mundane, monotonous and monochrome: simplistic assumptions about foundations’ nature accompany polarised views that cast foundations in either an overly positive or unnecessarily negative light. The resulting false dichotomies and associated debates are repeated, recycled and reinvented over and over again. As a consequence the domain of philanthropic foundations has been described as resembling treacle: ideas and debates are uncrystallised, partly refined, slow-moving, messy[i]. How can we overcome this? Here, approaching foundations through a spectral lens offers a promising way forward as it provides us with the tools to interrogate prominent perspectives on foundations and to question the bases from which these perspectives have arisen.

What do we mean by spectrality?

Spectrality covers the lexicon of ideas belonging to the family of ‘haunting’: ghosts, phantoms, the uncanny. Engaging with this in a serious way might initially seem flippant and far-fetched. Far from it! A spectral lens asks us to engage with ‘What lies beneath?’. Broadly perceived as ‘absent presences’[ii], spectrality allows scholars and practitioners to contextualise and challenge some of the dominant views on and criticisms levelled at foundations; it provides room to appreciate the complexity of the foundation world and to conceive it in new and alternative ways. While spectrality and spectres have gained conceptual and practical traction in a diversity of disciplines and fields – from history to philosophy, from anthropology to sociology – similar developments in philanthropy and foundation discourse have been missing. This is surprising. After all, philanthropy and foundations are inherently spectral concepts. 

Why are philanthropy and foundations inherently spectral concepts?

Donations, deaths and deliverance, gifts and their ghosts go hand in hand. The role of testations, bequests and memoria in philanthropy illustrates the former; issues of philanthropic legacies, donors’ dead hands and founders’ syndrome the latter. These are particularly prominent in relation to foundations. Not only can we find one of the earliest references to the contemporary foundation form in ancient Egypt’s ‘The Book of the Dead’[iii], but foundations’ roots and practices are steeped in questions of bridging the world of the dead and the living: for the dead to reach out from the grave, for the living to reach back into the grave, for a circle of mutual expectations and exchanges to take place[iv]. The resulting opportunities and challenges have agitated practitioners, lawyers, policymakers and academics for millennia. What then does spectrality offer to the understanding and practice of foundations? Here, we identify four overarching themes.

Four themes from the literature on spectrality

Reviewing a set of 128 sources on spectrality from across disciplines, we identify four themes that spectrality covers: Relationality and Decentering; Narratives and Representation; Ethics and Politics, and; Continuity and Change. Together, these themes provide a framework for questioning contemporary assumptions about foundations, about what foundations do, about what foundations could or should do. 

The first theme, Relationality and Decentering, challenges the dominant, centred, approach to understanding and examining foundations. Rooted in the natural sciences, a centred approach focuses on mapping the foundation field, identifying similarities and differences, designing clusters and using these to develop foundation categories or types. This helps to gain comparative understanding of foundations, but offers limited insights into understanding the nature of different expressions of the foundation form. Taking a spectral lens, however, offers a chance to (re)examine questions of foundations’ broader sets of relationships and underpinning drivers, their identity and situatedness within wider social, political and economic contexts by asking: What are the complex relationships of which foundations are composed? How are foundations bounded and to be bounded? How do foundations embrace their wider relations, past, present, future?

The second theme, Narratives and Representation, picks up the importance of internal and external stories and storytelling. Here, exploring and engaging with foundations’ spectres mirrors their use in psychology: they help to bring the idea and importance of underlying histories, particularly ‘secret’ histories, to the fore-front of our understanding[v]. Focusing on who and what the spectres in the foundation world as well as in individual foundations are, this theme asks us to engage with the impacts that those spectres have on the choices and strategies of foundations. From the way founders are represented and the narratives that surround them, to the directions these narratives encourage and inhibit. 

Ethics and Politics, our third theme, turns to questions of agency, voice, power and control. Approached in this way, spectrality enables the questioning of norms and values in the foundation world: What are foundations’ bright sides? What are foundations’ shadowy sides? How do the two interact and relate to each other? Alongside, allowing accounts of hitherto missing voices to enter, engaging with ‘absent presences’ in the foundation world offers a chance to reflect on foundations’ responsibilities, who sets them and what influences them. 

Our final theme, Continuity and Change, focuses on spectrality’s temporal aspects. It draws attention to questions of traditions, redemption, loss and inheritance. On the one hand, continuity provides the bases for individual and collective presences and practices; on the other hand, if left unquestioned, continuity can act as a historic chain that haunts and restricts the present. Here, spectrality offers emancipatory scope by unlocking opportunities for new and fresh thinking on, understanding of, and practices by foundations. 

Moving things forward

Engaging with foundations through the lens of spectrality allows us to recognise and incorporate ambivalence in foundation discourse. It helps us to move away from idealised perspectives on foundations as the institutional expression of philanthropy as ‘the love of humanity’ and takes away the breeding ground for hypercritical slants that such normative views provide. By asking us to reflect on ‘absent presences’ and shining the spotlight on what is missing in contemporary foundation research, practice and discourse, spectrality invites us to interrogate and revisit our own and others’ assumptions about foundations. It allows us to meaningfully engage with the complexities presented by the foundation world and to appreciate that foundations can at the same time be expressions of self-interest and vehicles for providing wider public good, (un)democratic in their nature but serving (un)democratic purposes, rooted in negative behaviours yet contribute positively to society. In short, spectrality not only shows us that there is much more to foundations than meets the eye but also offers us ways to harness these insights for strengthening academic, practice and policy practices and debates.

Full paper

The full paper is freely available through open access, courtesy of the University of St Andrews:

Jung, T,  Orr, K. (2021) “What lies beneath? Spectrality as a focal phenomenon and a focal theory for strengthening engagement with philanthropic foundations”. International Journal of Management Reviews, 23: 312– 329.


[I] Jung, T. (2020). The Nonprofit sectors’ rich relations? Foundations and their grantmaking activities. In H. Anheier & S. Toepler (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Nonprofit Management: Routledge.

[ii] Abraham, N., & Torok, M. (1994). The shell and the kernel: renewal of psychoanalysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

[iii] Kiger, J. C. (Ed.) (2000). Philanthropic Foundations in the Twentieth Century. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

[iv] Borgolte, M. (Ed.) (2014). Enzyklopädie des Stiftungswesens in Mittelaterlichen Gesellschaften. Band 1 Berlin: DeGruyter.

[v] Smith, A. (2007). Hauntings. In C. Spooner & E. McEvoy (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Gothic (pp. 147-154). Oxon: Routledge.

Photo by David Menidrey on Unsplash

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