A former policy adviser to Tony Blair last week warned trusts and foundations to expect "more problems arriving on their desk" as stress in society worsens.
Geoff Mulgan, who left Downing Street last year to become director of the Young Foundation, said foundations could be part of the solution to a variety of acute social problems.
Increased mental illness, inequality, the integration of new immigrants and a dysfunctional criminal justice system all pointed to "more turbulent times" that the trust sector would be called upon to deal with, he said.
Speaking at the Association of Charitable Foundations' biennial conference in Reading, Mulgan said that despite record levels of public spending, "this is not a very happy society, a lot of people are being forgotten".
He urged foundations to use their £2bn annual spend strategically in helping to identify unmet needs.
He added that foundations could make their greatest impact by affecting the behaviour of other sectors, government policy and charitable giving patterns.
"Foundations are relatively free compared to other institutions," he said. "I'm not sure they are using that freedom."