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The Roles and Contributions of Philanthropic Foundations from a European Comparative Perspective

By Antonia Muhr

During my master’s program in Sociology at the University of Heidelberg, I explored the role of philanthropic actors in welfare states, which made me curious about their social contributions and how their role is consistent with democratic principles – always with a critical lens shaped by my sociological training. After intense days in the library working on my master’s thesis, I felt the need to put the books aside for a while and gain practical experience before considering a PhD.

A short break from academia

An internship at the Robert Bosch Foundation in Berlin was the perfect opportunity to explore the practical side of the philanthropic sector, which deepened my interest in the field. However, the question of foundations’ contribution to society continued to nag at me. In discussions with colleagues, I often found myself reflecting on the true value of foundations to society, especially given the tax exemptions they receive. When I looked for empirical studies to support these discussions, I found the research landscape rather sparse. In particular, the commonly used argument that foundations are risk-takers and drivers of innovation appealed to me, but I could not find sufficient data to support this argument.  

From Berlin to Vienna – From question to concept

The practical implication is for foundations to reconsider the role and design of board meetings. While the discussion is often about “do we haveThis persistent curiosity, coupled with the realisation that existing research provided unsatisfactory answers and at the same time already missing academic work, motivated me to start a PhD. The Institute for Nonprofit Management at WU Vienna, was the perfect place for me: Not only did it match my research interests, but it also offered the opportunity to live in Vienna (and yes, it’s true, the city is incredibly livable).
Shortly before starting my PhD, I began working at Fondazione AIS in Bologna. Inspired by my experiences in different European foundation sectors, I adopted a comparative European perspective in my research. Through close exchanges with my supervisor, Michaela Neumayr, and colleagues at the Institute, I refined my broad interests into specific research questions. This has been a challenging process, especially as (some other researchers may confirm) the philanthropic sector is not necessarily characterised by a high degree of data availability.
During this journey, the exchange with other researchers in the field but also with fellow PhD students at WU, who are mostly working on different topics, helped me not to feel alone in the jungle of the first year. It’s a time where you often find yourself in the dilemma of “what am I doing here?” but remain enthusiastic about working on the topics you’re passionate about. Recognizing shared challenges and learning from others has really helped me get through the first year.

Diving into fieldwork

After an intensive year of defining and shaping my research concept, I have started my first paper: In this research, I am investigating how foundations in Germany, Austria and Italy work, what roles they play and what goals they pursue. With this study I try to add a new perspective to the existing studies on foundations, including not only the perspectives of the foundations themselves, but also those of their partners and grantees, thereby providing a comprehensive view beyond the foundations’ self-descriptions. In addition, I add the ‘crisis perspective’ and try to understand whether the actions of foundations change in times of crisis, using the Covid pandemic as a unique event that affected society as a whole.

What lies ahead –  Exploring foundations as drivers of innovation

In my second project, I will further explore the argument of foundations as risk-takers and drivers of innovation: First, I want to develop a definition of innovation in foundation practice and then, in a second step, I want to analyse whether foundations actually act as risk-takers and drivers of innovation.
I hope that my research will contribute empirically to the debate on the societal contributions of foundations in different European welfare states. Personally, this PhD is helping me to decide whether I want to continue in academia or return to practical work in the foundation sector.

Antonia Muhr is a PhD student at the Institute for Nonprofit Management at WU Vienna, under the supervision of Michaela Neumayr. Her research focuses on the roles and contributions of philanthropic foundations in various European welfare states. Additionally, her PhD research explores the potential of Social Impact Bonds to foster innovation and cross-sector collaboration in continental Europe. Alongside her PhD, Antonia supports ERNOP as a Project Manager in its research and communication activities.