Monday, October 8, 2007

Does the Public Deserve a Voice in Philanthropy?

Those of you who have been following this blog know that a favorite topic is whether or not philanthropy can follow in the footsteps of other institutions—such as schools and local legislatures—that are understanding that to be successful, they need to have the involvement of “real people” in their efforts.

Last month, there was an opportunity to explore that issue, thanks to a story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about foundations using online voting as a way in which to involve the public in grantamking decisions. The story was good, but I wanted to pose a question that I thought was missed in the piece, specifically, whether foundations have a responsibility to the public from which they derive significant tax benefit. Do they owe the public a voice in the decisions these institutions make?

So, I wrote a letter to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, raising these questions, which elicited some interesting feedback. But I think it's time for a much larger forum in which to air these important questions.

Why? Because these significant and thorny issues are rarely discussed publicly and when they are, it’s usually under the aegis of accountability, transparency or other issues that may be related to, but not necessarily synonymous with, whether foundation have a public responsibility to do all these things. When public participation is the focus, it’s usually framed either as a “nice thing to do” (on one side) or “something that should be required” (on the other) with little exploration as to what may lie in between or beyond.

There is even less discussion about whether public participation should be seen as a tactic (one of many) that philanthropic institutions can or should use to achieve their goals or whether public involvement is an ethos or value that could or should be embedded more deeply across the philanthropic community. If so, how can philanthropy move toward that goal?

Given increasing animosity between grant seekers and grant makers — 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 the philanthropic community to throw open the doors and explore these questions more fully and substantively. Specifically,

- Why should private institutions be compelled to involve the public in their efforts? What incentive is there--and should there be an incentive?

- What is the value of public participation to philanthropic institutions? Does it enhance their effectiveness or impact? If so, how? If not, why not? And does there need to be evidence of it having an impact or is it something that should be done because it reflects the value or mission most institutions have on serving the public good?

- What is the role of private philanthropy in the public domain? What is the role of the public in relation to private philanthropy?

- Is there a middle ground between involving the public in philanthropic processes as one of many tactics institutions use to achieve their goals or something that could or should be embedded as an ethos or value across institutions?

- What are some of the many ways in which philanthropic institutions can involve the public in their processes?

Add your questions to the list. And your ideas about how to get them on the agenda!

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