How US Private Foundations Change Payouts Based on Financial Shocks: Revealed Publicness or Revealed Privateness?

Thad D. Calabrese, Todd L. Ely

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article asks what distribution behavior of private foundations in the United States reveals about their motivations and strategy. Do private foundations intentionally distribute additional money to grantees to help them manage through business cycles and maintain services during economic downturns? Such behavior would be consistent with revealed publicness with respect to distributions. Do they retrench during difficult economic times to protect their endowments? Or do they simply distribute money independent from the larger economy? The current study considers these conflicting expectations, and empirically tests whether private foundation distributions vary with endowment returns and the larger economy as suggested by competing theories. Using administrative data filed with the Internal Revenue Service, fixed effects regression models indicate that private foundations change distributions in a manner consistent with retrenchment or independently from the larger economy, depending on the sample used. The results do not support the notion that private foundations act with prosocial-countercyclical motivations about distributions - in which more money is distributed during economic downturns - despite their receiving significant public subsidies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)166-182
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Public Administration Research and Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Marketing


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