Foundations are frequently referred to as a donor’s dead hand, as a way to exert social, political, economic and cultural influence from beyond the grave. Building on this, our article argues for a greater focus on and consideration of the significance of the spectral in philanthropy research and practice, particularly in relation to foundations. We argue that spectrality offers a focal phenomenon in philanthropy and a focal theory for moving foundation inquiry forward. Based on our systematic review of the social sciences literature on the spectral, we identify and offer four thematic clusters to frame insights about foundations in relation to relationality and decentering, narratives and representations, ethics and politics, and continuity and change. Connecting foundation scholarship with existing debates about the spectral and vice versa, our work offers a basis for reflection and future research on the part of those immersed in the foundation world, and contributes to emergent scholarship about the spectral in organisation and management studies.