Monday, August 6, 2007

Can Philanthropy Be Citizen-Centered: Part 2: The Chronicle of Philanthropy Piece on Foundations Using “On Line Voting”

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.


Anonymous said...

Read a review of the Case Foundation's MIYO program at:

Jon said...

Three thoughts came to mind while reading this post - and the last few posts (long-time reader, first-time poster?)...

1. As hard as it might be to believe, government, including Congress, could provide some lessons for engaging citizens in decision-making. Briefings, hearings, one-on-one informational meetings (including lobbying) are all ways that citizens - and, yes, K St. represented corporations all too often - have their voice represented in political debates. I'm not so naive to think that the word of the people magically translates into public policies that get at the root cause of social and economic problems. However, instead of throwing out the citizen baby with the bastardized bath water, foundations could be more proactive in conversing with a diversity of people throughout the country. Imagine an organization being funded to do the kind of work that Appleseed DC has done for the DC government?

2. I will leave the legal standing of private foundations to do what they want when they want, but there is a more important reason why foundations should engage citizens in the communities in which they fund: it will inevitably result in better outcomes. Generation X, long thought of as a slacker generation, is now considered the first generation to focus on results. These 30-somethings (ugh, am I really half-way through a decade that was the name of a horrible t.v. show?!) are a generation of social entrepreneurs and, as such, know that pursuing a social good is inadequate - achieving a social good is what's important. Many foundations have begun to realize this, taking a more venture philanthropy approach, but too many still skimp on rigorous evaluations of their work and, importantly from a citizen-centered perspective, are not forthcoming about their failures (or not great successes). Has anyone out there seen the Gates Foundation screaming from the rooftops about the mediocre-at-best results that came out of the evaluation of their small schools program?

3. Engaging citizens in the workings of foundations will inevitably be a long-term process - at least it will be to engage citizens other than the Tracy Flicks of the world. Just as in politics, Americans are most likely skeptical that their voices will be heard within the hallowed halls of foundations and will decide not to waste their time and participate. Foundations have to be aware that opening up an opportunity might not lead to a more citizen-centered outcome. An intentional strategy to reach-out to citizens is needed. School reform folks have had a difficult time cracking the nut of parent and community engagement (few evaluated parent engagement strategies actually work, for instance), but they recognize they need to keep trying.

Peter Levine said...

As Cindy says, the Chronicle's story was "fairly balanced and thorough," but it put most of the focus on the voting part of this grant competition. A vote can be "gamed" or manipulated in various ways. It doesn't necessarily reflect a group's judgment, nor does it necessarily increase accountability to the public (since the whole public won't vote).

I like the Case Foundation's experiment with voting because it's part of a broader experiment in public participation. There will not just be a vote, but also a structured discussion. Crucially, the proposals will be evaluated for how much they enhance public voice. As in the formal political system, granting people a vote is a gesture of respect; it says that power will not be monopolized at the center. But the vote is completely insufficient to achieve public judgment. If anything, the voting portion of the Case Foundation's new program is valuable as a symbol of a deeper commitment. Case is experimenting with a new relationship between the foundation (whose funds are tax-exempt by law) and the public.

(Cross-posted from Peter Levine's blog)

Joanne Heyman said...

I have a simple idea that might move us in the direction of involving the so-called "real people" in the decision making - and asset allocation -- of grant-makers: What if foundations were required to have a percentage of their staff (over 50% ideally) come from a background of working in the non-profit sector? If former Executive Directors, Directors of Development, Programs Directors and others moved from time to time into the foundation world as staff and leadership, I wager that there might be a bit more "reality" injected into deliberations regarding funding decisions.

Ami said...

I agree with everything here. ANYTHING that helps open up and demistify the funding process would help. I also agree that this (voting, etc.) is just one method, and there could be many others. For example, most nonprofit folks I talk to agree that if they were funders they could find out within hours (or days) who is doing the most interesting and innovative work in any given field. All you need is Google, a phone, and the desire to call people and listen to them. So fundres could gather more community input in structured ways such as those described here, but they could also go out more often and literally ask people in any given field who they think are the most deserving projects around them. Whatever works... thanks Cindy!


heather cronk said...

Great conversation, everyone. Like Jon, I'm a "long-time" reader and first-time poster...though my dog-eared copy of Citizens at the Center would beg to differ... :)

One of the things that is tangential to this conversation is also government openness. I know, it may seem as though that's either an oxymoron or a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. I work with an organization in the U.K., mySociety, that's been teaching some really interesting lessons on government openness (with the cooperation of 10 Downing Street), which has served as an example for the nonprofit sector in the U.K. We've seen some really interesting things happen, for instance, with a petitions site that mySociety runs for/with 10 Downing Street -- once folks understand that someone in "power" is listening to them, they're more likely to ask more of that person/structure. And citizens emboldened by confidence in their government are then emboldened to ask more of their neighbors, their workplace, and the nonprofits they support.

If government structures aren't expected to be open, then the political structures that often govern foundations and nonprofits will never change. As much as all of us reading this blog believe in citizen-centered change and voluntary openness, most institutions aren't going to volunteer information unless there's a powerful structure asking them to do so.

As much as I think we, the nonprofit sector, have a unique opportunity to push the "openness" envelope and teach government/business a thing or two, it's difficult to work in isolation. Maybe if groups in the U.S. like the Sunlight Foundation can get some traction, we can encourage government -- and, subsequently, nonprofit organizations and foundations -- to shed some light on what happens behind closed doors.


Paul said...

Great work, Cindy!

Drives me crazy when journalists fail to provide the context and simplify things esp. In a trade publication read by people who in fact share a base of knowledge and jargon...

My only addition would be that the popularity contest also favors executive directors who share the same backgrounds and alma maters as those from whom they seek money...Most efforts I've seen to involve youth or other non-professionals in grant processes have been pretty successful - people take it very seriously.