Venture capitalists for the nonprofit world.
Broker for the idea business.
The private conscience that will prod the United States into taking care of its human needs.
These visions of what a foundation is can vary as much as the people who run them. And while foundation employees are still paid to give money away, they have been hit with the same economic turmoil as everyone else. While that doesn't yet seem to have changed the kind of people who sit behind the foundation desks, it is changing their approach to philanthropy.
''Foundations have to think about a whole new role for themselves,'' says Philip Marcus, executive director of the conservative Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA) in New York.
Foundations are moving toward maintenance of community groups, since the government is unlikely to take over the funding, says Margery Tabankin, a veteran political organizer, who is executive director of the Arca Foundation in Washington. Arca helps grass-roots organizations concerned about their own communities.
''Most of what we do is maintain good efforts or help existing groups start new efforts,'' Ms. Tabankin said. ''For many groups, it's not a question of whether they grow and expand, it's a question of whether they'll make the next payroll.''
As a result, although the number of grant-seekers has shot up since 1980, foundations are more inclined than ever to stick with safe bets. ''It's hard to get your foot in the door without some kind of track record,'' Ms. Tabankin said.
''With foundation money you can spark new thinking, new projects, you can take risks,'' said Ms. Tabankin. ''The foundation world can be an experimental laboratory for taking risks on programs.''
''Most of the time you're dealing with someone who has a lot less time to spend than you might think,'' she said. Foundations are often understaffed, or work only part-time. ''So in order to get their attention you need a well-crafted cover letter, a synopsis of what you want to do, a budget that explains what you want them to fund, and how it's going to be paid for, and possibly some sort of result of the project you're doing.''
The foundation world, tagged with the reputation of heavy reliance on the ''old-boy network'' and ever accused of being ''clubby,'' may be circling the wagons even closer as one way of parceling out the dwindling resources more efficiently.
Grantmakers throughout the country are apparently relying more on increased connections with fellow grantmakers, because their staffs are not expanding as the number of grant requests increases. According to the article ''Cooperation or Collusion?'' in the trade magazine Grantsmanship Center News, ''One concern about these interconnections is that they can stack funding decisions in favor of the more visible, the more well-connected, and the 'safe.' ''
But networking proponents argue that funding can also be steered toward more obscure causes by giving them credibility.
Some, such as Michael Joyce of the public policy-oriented John M. Olin Foundation in New York, cheerfully admit to old-boy networking, both to hire staff and bestow grants.
''Public policy in this country is not made at the grass roots,'' Mr. Joyce said. ''It's made at the top of a triangle and it filters down from there.
''If you want to have impact, if you want to produce a book that's going to make a difference, it will matter whether a Harvard professor writes it or a Southern New Mexico State College professor does. That's not clubby - that's the way it is.''
But new forms of networking are popping up. For years, bank trust officers, foundation staff members, and corporation executives discussed various grantseekers during luncheon sessions. But new grantmaker groups have sprouted, and with them, ways to share information.
One of the most important areas of growth in the foundation world during the 1970s has been the ''regional association.'' One role the associations are playing is in training foundation employees, who are usually experts from some other field who happened to land in philanthropy.
The pulling back of new initiatives has led foundations to batten down the hatches in nearly all but one area: the nuclear freeze. ''Some foundation people feel that we can't afford not to fund it,'' says Barrie Pribyl, executive director of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers.
Margery Tabankin, Michael Joyce, Philip Marcus, and many other foundation decisionmakers share at least one common trait: All are familiar with the other side of the desk - they all had experience with seeking grants before they were hired to give them.
''You're not going to get someone who majored in French explaining to a foundation board of directors why they should be involved in genetic engineering ,'' Ms. Pribyl said. ''The board is not going to pay them any mind. The ultimate responsibility in foundations is with the board. The staff may be sold by the grant-seeker, but then the staff must sell their recommendations to the board.''
A foundation staff is often a reflection of the thinking of the board, Ms. Pribyl says, although the staff is likely to be more professional, more focused, and more specialized than the generalists who usually sit on the boards that steer the foundations.
Despite a heavy academic atmosphere in the foundation world (''foundation work attracts the activist academics,'' said Ms. Tabankin), less than a quarter of foundation directors come from education.
Elizabeth Boris, director of research for the Council on Foundations, is about to release a study of the backgrounds of some 60 foundation workers. She found that most foundation employees had college degrees in the humanities or social sciences, with a sprinkling of business and education. Of the fewer than 200 chief executive officers surveyed:
* Twenty-two percent came from education.
* Twenty-two percent from private industry.
* Thirty percent from this or another foundation.
* Nine percent from nonprofit work.
* Nine percent from the government.
According to Ms. Boris, the only substantive change from a similar 1972 study is that more people are staying and moving up in the foundation field than coming in from the nonfoundation world.