To hear some of the critics tell it, the biggest foundations in the country are led by people who don’t care about inequity and seek only to protect the status quo. But the available data suggest something quite different.

When CEP surveyed foundation CEOs in spring 2016, prior to the presidential election, we learned that they regarded the concentration of wealth and accompanying inequality as the number one most pressing issue that would influence society in the coming decades, with nearly two-thirds of respondents pointing to it. Climate change and the environment was a close second.

When asked to identify the most promising practices to unlock more foundation impact, these same foundation leaders named efforts to learn from the experiences of those they try to help first and seeking to learn from the knowledge and experience of grantees second. Taking more risk and increased collaboration were the third and fourth most frequently named practices.

Look, we can debate the extent to which foundation leaders have operationalized these views, or whether they’re widely shared by boards and donors. And, of course, I have plenty of critiques of specific foundations and can point to areas of foundation practice more broadly that have proven stubbornly resistant to change — such as an unwillingness among many funders to provide long-term general operating support to more nonprofits.

But the data on the views of foundation leaders suggests that the portrayal of “big philanthropy” by some of its critics is, at best, a caricature and, at worst, a fiction.

The fact is that leaders of major foundations and some of the biggest critics of philanthropy seem to agree both on inequality being the key issue of our time and on the need for foundations to work to ensure they’re in touch with, and learning from, those closest to the issues they seek to address.

That’s what the data we have tell us.

Moreover, CEP’s own existence and experience speak to the commitment of many foundations to getting candid, critical feedback from those closest to the issues. This has, of course, been a big part of what we have done over the past nearly two decades — elevating the views of nonprofits, declined applicants, and intended beneficiaries through both our research and our assessments provided to hundreds of individual foundations, as well as through our YouthTruth initiative.

If we step away from the pundits’ discussions about philanthropy that I have characterized in my previous two blog posts, and instead look at the practice of at least larger foundations, the past 20 years might best be characterized as the “Seeking to Improve Era.” How else to explain the use of the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) by more than 350 foundations or the growth of firms like Bridgespan and Arabella that consult to — and develop the specialized knowledge needed by — foundations and major donors? How else to explain the vibrant — if still under-funded — array of philanthropy-serving organizations, both regional and national, including organizations like Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and CF Leads that have grown rapidly as funders seek to improve?

Read the full article about philanthropic practices by Phil Buchanan at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.