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Philanthropic Innovations

This project develops a theoretical framework to understand why innovations in philanthropy are adopted and what factors support or hinder their implementation sector wide. The project focuses on when foundations adopt philanthropic innovations and how these innovations diffuse throughout the sector. It thus frames foundations as adopters of innovation and not (just) funders of it.  

Foundations’ role in society changed significantly in the last twenty years. While foundations’ financial influence decreased over the twentieth century (Hammack & Anheier, 2013), government-foundation relationships evolved so that foundations more directly support services previously provided by government agencies in the twenty first century (Toepler, 2018). The combination of fewer resources as compared to the government but a need to do more has led to discussions of how all nonprofit organizations, including foundations, can leverage their assets (Salamon, 2014). Program-related investments (PRIs) are one proposed solution. This study draws on historical efforts to advance PRIs in the 1970s not only to understand specific problems related to this still relevant innovation but also to explain why new innovations are so difficult to spread.


While philanthropic foundations are among the most studied organizational forms in the nonprofit sector, our theoretical understanding of foundation behavior is limited (Jung, Harrow, & Leat, 2018). Further, most research focuses on foundations’ role in funding innovation rather than developing innovative philanthropic strategies (Jaskyte, 2019; Salamon, 2014; Toepler & Abramson, 2021). Scholars focusing on foundation behavior either investigate internal, managerial dynamics (Diaz, 1996) or the foundation sector’s isomorphic tendencies (Frumkin, 2006). Internal dynamics and sector-wide influences are often contextualized in broad historical trends (Hammack & Anheier, 2013; Zunz, 2012). These approaches are, however, static and are unable to fully account for the diversity of factors influencing foundation behavior and strategies. I apply socio-technical transition theory to insert human agency and the interplay of multiple factors in the adoption of innovations.

The project’s long-term goals are:

  • Analytical: To understand how philanthropic innovations are adopted and implemented across the foundation sector.

  • Normative: To acknowledge and advocate for the need to shift the emphasis in performance measurement from social sector organizations (grantees) to funding agencies (grantors). 

  • Applied: To identify strategies for adapting practices from other fields to the social sector while recognizing the challenges and risks of the process.    


The specific objectives are:

  1. To examine the specific organizational factors that influence foundations to adopt philanthropic innovations (Objective #1).

  2. To identify sector-wide rules (formal and informal) that influence the diffusion of philanthropic innovations across the foundation sector (Objective #2).

  3. To identify environmental trends (political, cultural, and social) that relate to the breaking through of new philanthropic innovations (Objective #3).

  4. To identify what organizational features relating to innovativeness can be enhanced by foundation leadership (Objective #4).

Research outputs & grants

Weber, P. C. (first author) & Ji, C. (2022). Social Innovation in the Heartland. To be published in G. Witkowski (ed.), Hoosier Philanthropy (pp. 312-338). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Weber, P. C. (2021). Philanthropic Innovations: How Program-Related Investments Expand Philanthropic Foundations’ Social Impact. Auburn University, College of Human Sciences, Office of Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education, $10,000.

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