Global philanthropy, especially that of large US philanthropic foundations, has played an active but not unproblematic role in international development. In this paper, we theorize the institutional strategies by which global philanthropy exercises its disproportionate influence. In particular, we offer bridges, interdigitates, leapfrogging, platforms and satellites as metaphors for theorizing the connections and disconnections that philanthropic foundations engineer. We draw on the interdisciplinary scholarship on philanthropy and development to identify three epochs: scientific development (1940s–1970s), partnerships (1970s–2000s) and philanthrocapitalism (2000s–present). In each of these, we outline how philanthropic foundations have used the above metaphorical institutional mechanisms – separately and increasingly in combination and more sophisticated ways – in making connections and disconnections across developmental geographies, histories, imaginaries and institutions. Potentially generative, metaphors, we conclude, both offer ways to interpret the disproportionate power of philanthropy as well as challenge it by identifying philanthropy's underlying assumptions, telos and exclusions of development.