In her piece yesterday in the NY Times, Stephanie Strom reports on the increasingly willingness of national foundations, like Carnegie and Hewlett, to admit failures in their grantmaking. Hard to call it a trend with so few examples, but lets call it a trendlette. Transparency is has become a requirement in all sectors, and now, even in foundation land is dipping its toe in.
Of course, sunlight is a good thing – like a good disinfectant as my friends at the Sunlight Foundation are fond of quoting Justice Brandeis. But, here’s the catch, what Stephanie calls transparency is too easily turned into an excuse for foundations to point blaming fingers failed initiatives at their grantees. With so little accountability required, if a foundation has invested millions of dollars in a multiyear effort, a commitment that required an enormous amount of energy to convince their boards to do, and it doesn’t pan out, where are they going to turn? Well, honestly, who’s really blame, it’s got to be the people on the ground doesn’t it? Even a very good report on a foundation’s disappointing program, such as the Midcourse Corrections report written by Gary Walker by the James Irvine Foundation, is still a top-down exercise in a foundation-centric world. This particular report is very candid about the foundation’s mistakes (program officers handpicked grantees rather than having an open competition – oy!) but still didn’t involve grantees significantly in helping to unravel and understand what happened, much less help to think about ways it could be strengthened and improved. We’re still watching a foundation working at not with grantees, much less individual activists.
A much better direction is outlined by Cindy Gibson here. Cindy’s jumping off point is the new trend in allowing individuals and organizations to propose new ideas to foundations and also to vote on ideas and grants. From that point it makes more sense to begin to think about the different ways that foundation could — and should — engage people more in their processes and decision making. As Cindy provocatively asks in her blog post, “Do they owe the public a voice in the decisions these institutions make?”
The answer is a resounding yes, they do. As Irvine’s Midcourse report chronicles a foundation chock full of smart, dedicated staff still doesn’t have all the answers and could certainly have used, in that case, more input and advice from the people who actually do the work. Not serendipitously or occasionally or even privately, but openly, actively and deliberately. After all, foundations, perhaps to the dismay of some inside of them, aren’t private businesses but public trusts.