Truth When Kindly Fibs Would Feel Better - Foundation Accountability (Part 3 of 3)

This is reprinted from an article originally published in the Fall 2007 newsletter of Grantmakers for Education.

Continuing on my high-level take-aways on new reports from Irvine and Hewlett in which they provide critical assessments of their own multi-year, multi-million dollar community change initiatives:

Takes Two To Tango -- What I learned during my tenure running such an initiative, and what these reports have little or no ability to convey, is that problematic communication and performance issues are most often co-created. In these reports, for instance, both foundations admit to their shortcomings but stop short of critically assessing their grantees and community partners,because they would be considered cads to do so. My fear is that such one-sided admissions really do little to advance the learnings behind such resource-intensive efforts. While it is hardly worth debating the point that the perspectives of many, many grantmakers are skewed by their positions of power, it does little to absolve those grantees who deviate from positions of integrity in response to such a dynamic. (Hello, bloggers who will now skewer me for this point.) It is for this reason I left my cushy job at the Trust to puzzle through accountability efforts I eventually managed for Community Foundations of America. The answer has to be systemic; it can’t be encouragements to “be nicer to one another.”

Can We Make New Mistakes? Chapin Hall's Prudence Brown, who co-wrote the Hewlett report is, in my opinion, a consistently wise and kind witness for these efforts. But to read the Hewlett report is to read a report she has re-written many times. In a 1997 report she co-wrote with Sunil Garg entitled, “Foundations and Comprehensive Community Initiatives: The Challenges of Partnership,” for instance, she wrote:

A ‘space’ or distance usually exists between foundations and the nonprofits they fund. As described by both funders and CCI (comprehensive community initiative) representatives, this space is too often characterized by lack of understanding and trust, dishonest communications, and struggles over power and accountability.

While these new reports confirm this and more, the question is what will it take to inject such perspective into new philanthropic initiatives? Do we need the equivalent of a “Got Milk” campaign to lift this research off the shelves and into the hands of new mega donors? To get high-net worth donors and foundation officials “talking amongst themselves”?

I’m not up on data regarding how many of these initiatives are currently in play, or if there are others that are currently being launched. My sense is that many donors are moving beyond domestic philanthropic initiatives which fail to meet expectations, and on to global initiatives which haven’t yet failed to meet expectations.

These reports are important, but the dynamics behind them and what they seek to accomplish, even more so. It is so much easier to tell a kindly fib when the truth would be better but, I dare say, the future of real impact by American philanthropists rests on the instincts demonstrated by leaders of these two foundations. More please.

Susan Herr

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 12, 2007 in Accountability | Permalink | Comments (2)


It is clearly refereshing to see this kind of candor among foundations. I hope, though, it leads to a willingness to talk just as openly about initiatives even before results are known. In other words being clear up front about goals and outcomes and then issuing progress reports that simply say "here's where we are" even, if as noted, results are not definitive.

Posted by: Anonymous

I want to correct my earlier error. The previous comment -- especially on the need for transparency and a fuller accounting of foundation practices -- was never meant to be left anonymously. I said those things, and have no reason to hide from them. I guess I'm admitting to a "failure" to communicate properly.

Posted by: Bruce Trachtenberg

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