Wednesday, August 8, 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.

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