Truth When Kindly Fibs Would Feel Better - Foundation Accountability (Part 2 of 3)
This is reprinted from an article originally published in the Fall 2007 newsletter of Grantmakers for Education.
Today picks up on Friday’s post regarding new reports from Irvine and Hewlett in which they provide critical assessments of their own multi-year, multi-million dollar community change initiatives. As noted Friday, my reading is influenced by my experience as leader of such an initiative at the Chicago Community Trust. Here are my high-level take-aways:
Rooting is Harder Than Weeding - It is so easy to talk about tackling problems at the root, rather then weeding them out as they emerge. But to attempt such an effort, in communities whose challenges are deeply entrenched, requires immense courage on the part of a foundation. (Obviously this is also true of those rare nonprofits which have the resources and vision to do so.) It requires a board to commit to something its members don’t know will succeed, and to commit resources that can severely hamper the options of staff and board members that join the foundation over the next decade. And, as articulated in these reports, that is only a fraction of the challenges a foundation will face when they take this atypical leap.
The High Price of Honesty - Critics wait in the wings for announcements of such initiatives, ready to leap from every corner. They include grantees, non-grantees, current staff and board, and colleagues from peer foundations, to name a few. Their harsh criticism can be expected before, during, and after. You can be sure that Hewlett and Irvine have been the brunt of such criticism throughout their respective initiatives. It is hard to underestimate the courage required to cop to their shortcomings with these reports, when to do so only adds flame to the fire. As I recall, Hewlett’s Paul Brest has a history of such truth-telling, demonstrated by the highly public way he communicated the results of a grantee assessment conducted of his foundation by the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Imagine how different our country would be if publicly-elected officials (on both sides of the partisan spectrum) had the capacity to admit to mistakes or even shortcomings in this way?
Fundamental Power Imbalance (Obviously) a Root Problem - Many of the problems covered in these reports have, at their root, the power imbalance between grantmakers and grantseekers. The question of how this dynamic might be resolved is one of the primary questions that has concerned my thinking over the term of my career on both sides of the table. After years of obsessing, I still believe the answer lies in clearly-defined expectations articulated by performance measures that move philanthropy beyond giving based on who we know, to giving based on what all comers propose and prove themselves capable of doing.