Understanding the foundation professional : an exploration of UK family foundation CEOs' experiences
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The foundation professional sits at the intersection of wealth and giving. As representatives of influential individuals and powerful families, they report to trustees who hold fiduciary and governance responsibilities and liaise with organisations working on society's most pressing issues. Nevertheless, as prominent figures within foundations, their presence has been eclipsed by their donors, boards, and grantees. The black box of the foundation insulates them. This concealment has left foundation professionals underexplored in research and their roles poorly understood. In turn, it remains challenging to understand the internal dynamics of philanthropic foundations. This study has two research aims. First, to gain an understanding of the foundation professional within philanthropic foundations. Second, to explore how the study of professions contributes to understanding this figure. To achieve these research aims, this study examines how UK family foundation CEOs experience their roles and view developments in the wider field. Drawing on the study of professions, it develops three perspectives - trait, power, and institution – from which to explore these research questions. These perspectives link with the foundation field, creating a framework for understanding the foundation professional experience. This study utilises a qualitative exploratory design and semi-structured interviews to surface participants’ reflections of their roles within foundations. Thematic analysis complements this data collection by prioritising participants’ voices. Six key themes emerge demonstrating the CEOs’ experiences of their roles: entry, expertise, expectations, enactment, evolution, and exit. Deviating from the manifestation of the professional in the study of professions literature, foundation professionals appear in a nontraditional professional presentation with individuation, peer group clustering, and organisational crafting. Moreover, the field's inconsistent formalisation yet professionalising context reflects competing expertise between foundation professionals and trustees. The study thereby also contributes to the study of professions by offering a more thorough conceptualisation of nontraditional professionals. Empirically, the study reprioritises the individual through experiential and qualitative accounts. It also places the study within the UK context, extending US-centric literature. Finally, it provides practitioners with an entry-to-exit spectrum of foundation professionals’ experiences and a framework for understanding these roles. This study delivers a nuanced view of these critical figures’ experiences and establishes the importance of their roles within philanthropic foundations.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2027-09-07
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Restricted until 7th September 2027
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