A just-released story by the Chronicle of Philanthropy attempts to shed light on what appears to be a trend among foundations (and a few nonprofits such as NetSquared) to invite the public to vote online as to which groups should get their grant dollars. Several institutions are highlighted, among them, The Case, Knight, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations.
Overall, the piece is fairly balanced and thorough. But it got me thinking that here was another missed opportunity to address a larger issue, specifically: What responsibility do foundations have to a public from whom they derive significant tax benefit? Do they owe the public a voice in the decisions these institutions make? Instead, the piece focused primarily on one of the many tactics some foundations are using to invite more public involvement in their decisions--in this case online voting-- which should be viewed as a means to a greater end, not an end unto itself.
There are legitimate critiques of online voting, of course, not the least of which is that it can become a “free-for-all” or that the most sexy projects will be selected, rather than those that may be the most effective. That's why it will always be important to have intermediaries and, yes, experts involved in these kinds of processes. And, to be sure, there's a strong argument to be made that private foundations have every right to decide what to do with their money, especially in the case of living donors.
But given the increasing and palpable animosity between grantseekers and grantmakers—and a parallel increase in the amount of suspicion bubbling up in the public domain about what foundations do and how—perhaps it’s time for foundations to be a bit less defensive and start considering, at the very least, that the nonprofits and individuals they support might actually have something more to offer than proposals and reports.
Essentially, foundations need to start exploring new ways to develop stronger partnerships between the professionals that staff foundations and “real people” on the ground living in real communities. And that means going beyond simply hiring consultants to interview those people for “input” that usually gets fed back to the foundation experts who ultimately decide what they’re going to do. It means working with people to figure out how foundations can best to address the issues they say are important to them and their communities.
Asking people to vote on grant award dollars is a step in this direction--but it's only one step. Another might be asking people in communities to work in partnership with foundations to develop decision-making criteria and grant application/program guidelines that spell out how these institutions will make their funding decisions and using what criteria. Unlike some foundations that define transparency as publishing an annual report, grantseekers have long known that real transparency is when funders are straight about the decisionmaking criteria they’re using and why. Foundations can also ask the public to engage in their priorty-setting when they do their periodic assessments, hold occasional meetings for the public, and bring in practitioners and outsiders to brief foundation staff on a regular basis.
These kinds of things, admittedly, won't be easy for institutions that have historically and traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Particularly difficult will be giving control to a large group of people with little or no experience in professional philanthropy which is, to be sure, a risk. But is it worth it? You bet. Even it fails, it’s at least an attempt to help nudge the philanthropic community toward a mindset that considers ways in which they might be more responsive, real, and respectful to the public it purports to serve.
That's a real stretch from the way in which many grantseekers now view philanthropic insitutions, whose practices often raise hackles among nonprofits. And one comment in the COP piece tends to underscore that perhaps those sentiments have some merit, specifically, the notion that somehow letting the public in the doors of the hallowed walls of philanthropic institutions will "endanger" or "take the edge off philanthropy." One foundation executive emailed me after reading this, saying that it made him/her "laugh out loud" since "the entire realm of foundation philanthropy could be summarized as ‘a soft, safe center.’ “ That sentiment, we can safely say, is shared by thousands of others working in the nonprofit sector, even though few are wiling to say it publicly.
It's also important to question the notion that somehow this attempt to engage the public is will digress into a popularity contest. Let's face it, though. Hasn't philanthropy, generally speaking, always been a “popularity contest”? As a former fundraiser, the first rule we all learned was “getting money is less about the work and more about whom you know.” Yes, there are certainly many cases in which funds have been provided to groups doing exceptional work and have been assessed on the basis of that work. But those tend to be in the minority, if the laments among scores of nonprofit colleagues I’ve heard during the past 25 years are any indication. As Pablo Eisenberg and others have rightly pointed out, the foundation world is hardly a bastion of ardent risk-takers, as evidenced by their general reluctance to support anything that smacks of advocacy or controversy.
In any case, let's hope that this piece stirs things up a bit and incites more discussion—not only about “online voting” or the tactics of participatory philanthropy—but how we can be more effective in increasing and engaging the public in the processes so many of their tax dollars suport.
Monday, August 6, 2007
Can Philanthropy Be Citizen-Centered: Part 2: The Chronicle of Philanthropy Piece on Foundations Using “On Line Voting”
Posted by cingib at 6:30 PM