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Truth When Kindly Fibs Would Feel Better — Foundation Accountability

By Tom Watson on June 27, 2007No Comment

Truth When Kindly Fibs Would Feel Better – Foundation Accountability
By Susan Herr, 6/27/07

It is an undeniable truth that foundations rarely admit to their mistakes, yet two recently-released reports counter that longstanding tradition.

Both reports, one from the James Irvine Foundation and one from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, critically assess the execution of multi-year, multi-million dollar efforts to strengthen communities. Such efforts, often called “comprehensive community initiatives,” are characterized by big money, deep involvement by foundation staff, longer timelines, and the courage to focus not on symptoms, but on root problems. In an era in which new philanthropists are bringing growing resources to increasingly ambitious aspirations, the importance of this “truth-telling” by those who have undertaken such efforts cannot be underestimated.

The first is “Mid-Course Corrections to a Major Initiative A Report on the James Irvine Foundation’s CORAL Initiative.” The goal of CORAL (which stands for Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning) was to improve educational performance of low-performing California students in five sites. To this end, Irvine made a commitment of $60 million over eight years. It was the largest in the Foundation’s history. Irvine President James Canales introduces the report by writing, “While we do not yet have final evaluation results (and we intend to share those in fall 2007), we do have a story to tell about our need to change the course of the initiative mid-stream. It is a complicated story and difficult story, for it reveals numerous shortcomings on the Foundation’s part.”

The report from Hewlett is entitled “Hard Lessons About Philanthropy and Community Change from the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative.” Written by Prudence Brown and Leila Feister, it describes a ten-year, $20 million effort to improve three Bay Area neighborhoods. Hewlett’s president, Paul Brest, does not mince any words when he opens the report by stating, “This is the story of a philanthropic initiative that did not meet the expectations of its many stakeholders.”

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 do not 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 admit 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.

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.

It Takes Two To Tango
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 learning 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. 

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.

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