Inspired by neocons in the US, the grant-making bodies want a more active political role.
The twilight world of UK trusts and foundations is fast becoming illuminated with some of the sharpest and most far-reaching debate the grant-making sector has seen in years.
Thirty foundations, including such venerable old names as Barrow Cadbury, Carnegie and Esmee Fairbairn, will gather at the Scottish Parliament next week to discuss how they can reinvent themselves to have a more lasting impact.
They will consider plans for a 'centre for progressive philanthropy', including the establishment of a research centre on philanthropy at a British university and regular interaction with leading-edge thinkers in academia, politics and religion.
Two trusts - Carnegie and Barrow Cadbury - are leading a movement for liberal foundations to focus their activities on a vision of social justice, citizen participation in democracy and an interventionist welfare state.
The inspiration for this new philosophy comes from what, at first sight, appears a strange source - the neoconservative revolution in the US.
In January, 12 progressive foundations from the UK spent a week with their American counterparts. The disquieting presence hovering over the meeting was the phenomenal success of conservative foundations in cementing the dominance of a new political settlement in the US - one based on corporate power, the withdrawal of public institutions, military intervention abroad and George Bush's presidency. Though recoiling from the outcome, the British foundations were keen to learn how it had come about.
The answer was that, unlike their liberal opponents, the conservatives had not scattergunned inadequate support to thousands of grass-roots bodies, but targeted their largesse on key political influencers. Right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute were showered with grant dollars.
"The conservative foundations had a focused investment," says Charlie McConnell, chief executive of the Carnegie UK Trust. "They looked at issues in the long term and engaged not with the grass-roots, but with the power-holders - political thinkers, Congress, the Senate and think tanks."
McConnell argues that liberal foundations in the UK should develop similar "political savvy", but for quite different political ends. Commissioning inquiries and producing reports is not enough, he suggests. Foundations must seek to get their ideas implemented by working with government advisers, civil servants and corporations - in short, "the power-holders".
This would mark a radical break for a sector that has traditionally avoided politics. According to Charities Aid Foundation figures, just 1 per cent of foundations' annual spend of £2bn goes to civil rights and civil society.
It would also rupture their time-honoured role as passive, reactive grant-makers. Trusts and foundations have become synonymous with the distribution of grants, but the decision to limit themselves to this working method is self-imposed. They have the power to engage in a variety of public education techniques, and with the Charity Commission's new permissiveness towards charities' political activity, foundations could soon be exploring more direct ways than grants to achieve results.
"There is a feeling that we should be engaging much more with government and other key players," says McConnell. "We shouldn't be putting all our eggs in the voluntary sector basket. There are other sections of society we need to converse with."
Such words might seem chilling to those who need the eggs. Carnegie, for example, has closed its grants programme to concentrate on large-scale inquiries such as a forthcoming investigation into the future of civil society.
Neil Jameson, organiser with civic activism charity London Citizens, questions the new 'do-it-yourself' mood. "The traditional role for foundations, which has worked well in this country, is to be left or right-wing or whatever, but to fund practitioners who make things happen," he says.
"The problem with changing this is that there will be less money for voluntary organisations - foundations become the end rather than the means."
Another sector fundraiser, speaking anonymously, says: "If they are going to do the job for us, then we're redundant."
Stephen Pittam, secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, says foundations should be cautious about an exclusively proactive approach that eschews the grass-roots expertise of the sector. His trust has initiated a major investigation into the public's apathy towards politics, but it still welcomes grant applications.
"It's important to maintain a responsive approach," he says. "We are often more effective when supporting those who have passion and fire in the belly."