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What Funders Need to Know Part 2: Memberships

By harp-weaver staff

In the simplest yet incomplete of descriptions, institutional philanthropy (such as giving through foundations and donor-advised funds (DAFs)) is about giving money away to address issues typically by helping support organizations and people making positive change.

There’s an entire field dedicated to expanding on that very basic definition, layers of complexity of how and in what ways organizations can give money away, and questions about effectiveness, strategy, community, and best practices that permeate conversations and actions on philanthropy. However, what can be missing are discussions about the more technical aspects of establishing and maintaining entities such as private foundations. Through this blog post series, we at harp-weaver compile resources from organizations like Exponent Philanthropy, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and more while also sharing our own experiences and thoughts about topics like insurance, investing, cyber-attacks, audits and reviews, and memberships at various philanthropy-serving organizations.

These topics may be viewed as the less interesting aspects of establishing and maintaining a charitable giving institution in good standing, but we think that understanding them is vital to ensuring a healthy, well-functioning foundation* that fully optimizes its giving.

The second post in the series on “what you need to know” focuses on memberships.

There are a number of different organizations that institutional funders e.g., private foundations can belong to. These are often called “philanthropy serving organizations” (PSOs) – they function as nonprofit memberships organizations and offer a wide variety of supports, resources, connections to their memberships.

1) Place-Based PSOs or Regional Associations of Grantmakers (RAGs)

Place-based PSOs/RAGs are structured to focus on a particular geographic area. This can range from a state-wide organization such as Indiana Philanthropy Alliance to one focused on a specific region such as Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia (PNGP).

These organizations provide opportunities for members of all sizes and types to come together to discuss areas of particular importance to that region. For example, PNGP has convened funders to share ideas and strategies around supporting anti-gun violence efforts, as that issue is of relevance to the Greater Philadelphia Area.

Place-based PSOs/RAGs bring funders together in-person on a more regular basis, as members live within close proximity to one another. They offer a place and space for collaboration between funders looking to make an impact together on a particular topic/issue as well.

2) National PSOs

National PSOs are structured in line with one (or more, at times) specific characteristic that members have in common or that they’re interested in. For example, Exponent Philanthropy is organized to serve lean (i.e., small or no-staffed) funders. National Center for Family Philanthropy supports family funders. The Council on Foundations provides information about philanthropy and government policy across all philanthropic sectors. The Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) cultivates the strategic, equitable, and innovative use of technology in philanthropy.

In this grouping are the PSOs that also focus on a particular issue area e.g., Grantmakers for the Arts focuses on providing resources for arts-focused funders, Funders for LGBTQ Issues offers supports for LGBTQ-focused funders, etc.

These PSOs provide a number of helpful resources, webinars, and typically, an annual conference. They offer a way for funders to meet with similarly structured or focused funders to connect and share ideas.

3) Affinity PSOs

The next group focuses not on the structure or focus of the foundation itself, but the affinity of people staffing and/or volunteering with those funders.

ABFE (formerly the Association for Black Foundation Executives), Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), Native Americans in Philanthropy, and PEAK Grantmaking (focused on grants professionals) provide spaces for philanthropy professionals to gather and share experiences, advice, and thoughts.

4) Other

Finally, there are other membership organizations and resources that support funders.

For example, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations focuses on effective grantmaking practices and is open to all types and sizes of funders.

There are also free resources provided by organizations such as the Trust-Based Philanthropy (TBP) Project. The TBP Project is not a membership-organization, but it does share information for funders to access and learn from and convenes funders togethers on certain topics.


With the wide variety and sheer number of membership organizations, it can be difficult for funders to decide which, if any, of these organizations they should join.

harp-weaver advises funders interested in membership organizations to do a pros and cons comparison that includes cost, services (both free and through membership), and what the funder would gain by being part of that particular group. Funders should also consider the level of commitment that they can make i.e., their capacity to the membership, in order to get the most benefit out of it.

harp-weaver’s client, The Presser Foundation, conducted such an analysis when it looked at potential membership organizations. While already a member a national PSO (Exponent Philanthropy), staff determined that becoming a member of Grantmakers in the Arts could give the Foundation additional opportunities to engage with members of the arts community across the country and learn more about how other arts funders understand and implement equity, mission-aligned investing, and additional topics.

In much the same way, other funders can assess if and if so, what memberships make the most sense for them. It’s beneficial to continue learning and connecting with others in the same space, and membership organizations provide a way for a funder to do so.

*A note that donor-advised funds (DAFs) operate differently than private foundations do with regards to memberships. Different sponsors have various policies for expenses such as membership dues. Check with your DAF sponsor to determine their relevant policies toward paying membership dues.


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