Monday, June 18, 2007

Can Philanthropy be Citizen-Centered?

It may seem a contradiction in terms, given the very thick veil of secrecy that has long surrounded philanthropic institutions—and the lack of incentive to lift that veil—but let’s explore it anyway. As some have argued vociferously, philanthropy has become a cadre of elites whose decisions are rarely, if ever, made with the involvement of real people in real communities—other than using consultants to interview people for input as part of expert-driven and written reports that recommend what funders should do...

An anecdote illustrates how entrenched this view is. At a meeting of several foundation officials a few years ago, the issue of “accountability” emerged (one of many buzzwords—along with “evaluation,” “logic models,” “theory of change” and “strategic planning”—that are the focus of much pontificating but are rarely demonstrated through actual practice and results).

Much back-slapping ensued, with participants their commitment to transparency, demonstrated through their willingness to produce annual reports and host web sites. But I had a question. Is that really transparency when the information that grantseekers and the public really want is how the funder makes decisions. What criteria do they use? Whose opinion matters most?

I was met with stony silence. Then an uproar ensued.

“We don’t have to tell people that,” one foundation president said. “We’re private!” Another averred that “we don’t have to be accountable; we do good work.” Still another said that “opening this up to the public would prohibit us from being efficient.”

Is it true that foundations have no responsibility to be more transparent than they are to the public? What’s the incentive to do so? What responsibility do they have, actually, to the public?

Determined to find answers to these questions, the Case Foundation has launched a new pilot grantmaking program that tests whether it’s possible for a private foundation to involve real citizens in all phases of this program—from developing guidelines to it to vetting applications to making grant decisions. Read the recent New York Times story about it and stay tuned for ongoing progress reports.

In the meantime, let us know if you’ve heard about other funders who have tried to involve “real people” on their boards, in their grantmaking decision-making or in activities that go beyond attending meetings or responding to interviews. We’re interested.

1 comment:

Janis said...

Cynthia - This is a fascinating question that I am delighted that you and The Case Foundation are asking.

I can definitely say that the answer to your question is "yes". Grassroots Grantmakers is a network of funders who support citizen-centered work. We use slightly different language, but from reading your blog, the white paper that you recently produced for The Case Foundation, and information about The Case Foundation's Make It Your Own project, we are all talking about the same thing.

Among our members - primarily community foundations, but a growing number of family foundations, private foundations, and other funders such as United Ways - there is deep experience and commitment to supporting and strengthening resident initiated and led/citizen-centered work. Grassroots Grantmakers serves as a community of practice or peer learning network - to provide a vehicle for funders who are engaged in this work to share information, to provide an informational on-ramp to funders who want to move into this work, and to learn more about what is required for success.

Among our constituents, some, like The Case Foundation, have looked to residents/citizens to design their programs and have delegated decision making to all-resident panels. Others have used more traditional program design and management styles. We have seen, however, that funders who pay attention to the new relationships and information that grant programs such as "Make It Yours" generate, and bring these relationships into their direction-setting and decision-making arenas, find so much value in this new way of doing business that it becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Our recent report - A Legacy of Leadership and Support for Grassroots Grantmaking - offers insights on this from a retrospective evaluation that we recently completed on a Charles Stewart Mott Initiative with community foundations. You can find this report on our website -

Thanks for asking this question - would love to continue the dialogue!

Janis Foster, Executive Director
Grassroots Grantmakers