The High-Stakes World of Foundation Dollars

Research Funding

Economic tides may have the most obvious impact on higher education giving. But for social scientists seeking research support, windshifts in public interest often signal more lasting changes.

Professors in government, history, economics and other such fields receive the large part of their research funds from private foundations. These organizations, unlike the government agencies that support most pure science projects, are often buffered against economic fluctuations by conservative investment strategies.

Yet foundations have their own kinds of fluctuations, as they often shift priorities to meet changes in the public interest and in organizational goals.

"Foundations have been the major supporters [for the social sciences]," says Professor of Government Joseph S. Nye, who is also associate dean for international affairs. He says these private organizations account for about 95 percent of more than $3.5 million in grants received yearly at Harvard's Center for International Affairs (CFIA), which he directs.

Harvard has typically done well in the competition for foundation dollars. Non-federal money accounted for slightly more than one-quarter of the University's annual research grants in 1989. That year, Harvard received about $67 million from corporations, foundations and other universities.

And over the past few years, more and more professors are applying for foundation monies, even as the fields of foundation interest continue to change.

It is these shifting priorities that many scholars say has over time helped set the direction for faculty research in the social sceinces.

"[Foundations] tend to have initiatives to deal with problems that they think are terribly important," says Paul C. Martin '52, chair of Harvard's committee on research policy and dean of the Division of Applied Sciences. "They typically have big programs with themes."

These themes in turn reflect deeper strategies that foundations often develop to help guide their funding support.

Looking back at the last few decades in foundation interests, Huntington says many organizations supported international studies in the 1960s, when the Cold War era spurred concern for security issues. In the 1970s, amid Vietnam War protests and economic decline, many foundations changed that focus, shifting to urban and domestic issues.

Yet by the 1980s, with the Reagan era and renewed Cold War concerns, Huntington says support for defense policy research and international affairs reemerged. And for the future, some professors say a focus on global environment and economics will be attractive to foundation funders.


Despite national political changes, scholars say most foundations remain on a general course that reflects their political, cultural and social agendas.

"There's a widespread view that mainstream, large foundations have been liberal in their concerns," Huntington says. The John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and the Smith-Richardson Foundation are often perceived as more conservative, he adds.

"There are some foundations that have extreme political slants," says Huntington. Referring to a left-leaning organization, Huntington says, "the last thing in the world they would do is give money to me, for example."

Although Huntington says many government agencies often also have political agendas, numerous restrictions on those grants tend to prevent significant shifts in interest over short periods of time.

In addition, these restrictions often make government grants difficult to attain. Gregory R. Crane, an assistant professor of the classics at Harvard, says the government often wants to see matching funds before they will release grant money.

"It's difficult to get outright funds from the federal government," Crane says, adding individual donors often set these kinds of limitations as well.


Humanities scholars are rarely funded for their research at the same level as either pure scientists or social scientists, says Crane, who currently runs a $2 million foundation-sponsored project.

"In my neck of the woods, it's very unusual that a classics professor would raise money [of this magnitude]," Crane says. "I'm the only person I know in the humanities who has this kind of support."

And Crane secured the funds in part because he identified an approach that appealed to a foundation and went ahead with it.

"Clearly, we could not be doing what we're doing now if not for the Annenburg-CPB [money]," Crane says. "Their guidelines shaped our project."

Crane received almost all of his money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which has been supporting his Perseus Project since 1987. The grant subsidizes work on a multi-media database that collects information about a civilization and then organizes it for public access.

"We're looking at ways telecommunication technology could help people who did not have access to higher learning," Crane says.

In this case, as a classics professor, Crane is collecting information for a database on Ancient Greece. But his larger goal, the professor says, is to make information on any civilization available to the public through computer disks.

Although younger scholars tend to be more influenced by foundation priorities, Nye says even more established professors will sometimes shift their focus slightly to meet funding source goals. "Foundations do have an impact on the directions people take," he says.

Some organizations define this impact more closely than others, seeking to fill a specific role in higher education support circles.

"Our thought is we like to fund things that would not really happen otherwise," says James Pierson, executive director of the Olin Foundation, which supports a number of projects at Harvard. Some foundations, he says, will make money available in a particular field, hoping to move scholarship into areas that reflect the organization's goals.

These pressures, although influencial, are not overriding, Huntington says, because many professors quickly learn to structure their proposals to meet foundation interests.

Given the recent support for international projects, Nye, who has received funding from a number of foundations in the past, says finding financing for his work has become easier.

"Sometimes a foundation will be interested in a subject and put out flyers," Nye says. "Other cases may arise in which a professor has an idea and goes to the foundation."

In either case, he says, there is a certain give and take between the foundations and the academic community that goes to shape overall trends in scholarship.

About three years ago, Nye says the Ford Foundation asked him to review their recent giving trends, looking at established priorities and goals. He recommended that Ford increase its support of research on international organizations and institutions.

Although foundations often solicit this advice, Nye notes professors have little real power to influence the private groups. "It doesn't mean they have to listen to us," the government professor adds.

For Huntington, the Olin Foundation in particular has been key in funding his latest projects, including Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, which he directs. Since 1988, Olin has slated more than $2 million for Huntington and various projects he oversees through the institute.

When Huntington was director of the Center for International Affairs, he says he was struck by graduate student interest in security matters. In 1979, he initiated a program in that area, which later became the Olin Institute.

Olin has pledged indefinite support for Huntington's program, in essence institutionalizing national security studies at Harvard. Unlike many foundations which approve more short-term work, Olin has made a lasting commitment to this project.

Foundation support like Olin's has been essential to the success of Huntington's research. "I can't remember when I got a government grant," says the professor.

Occasionally other scholars will approach him for advice about where to go for funding for specific projects, Huntington says. Most times, he sends them to a foundation.

More established scholars, like Nye and Huntington, develop relationships with different foundations over the years garnering contacts and influence in the process.

Yet, at the same time, Olin has built its own kind of influence, Huntington says, because "most people under 40 teaching in the national security field have participated in this program."

Economic Malaise

Still, as Harvard examines its financial priorities in preparation for a University-wide fundraising drive, scholars across the faculties must check their own economic weather vanes.

Despite careful investment, foundations, too, are squeezed by economic malaise, scholars and analysts say. So, even as the hard sciences wait on federal budget debacles, the social sciences must look to stock market fluctuations to read their funding future.

As government agencies, influenced by a shrinking economy, begin to tighten their belts on support for education, Olin's Pierson says foundations will similarly be affected.

"With the stock market going down and other uncertainties, people will trim their giving," Pierson says.

And professors say there are few alternatives should the foundation option diminish. "You're talking about billions and billions of dollars," explains Huntington. "Foundations have been a great national asset."