“Trust Us” is No Response to Those Who Doubt

April 1, 2010

If Congress were to double or triple the private foundation excise tax, asks Joel Orosz of Grand Valley State University, “does anyone truly think that there will be a groundswell of support for foundations” that resist? In a March 10 guest post to the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog headlined “Déjà vu (or 1969) All over Again?”, Orosz suggests it’s too late for foundations to react effectively to stem a possible backlash against the sector. Still, the philanthropy professor counsels foundations to take steps on their own to improve practices, including training employees to be more professional and more accountable to nonprofits.

Orosz is just one of several commentators recently suggesting that a growing populist fervor in society isn’t just anti-government, but anti-institution – and a threat to philanthropy, one that can’t be summarily dismissed and should propel changes. For example, in Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save The World, Michael Edwards wrote that foundation leaders will vociferously resist and complain about the many suggestions he makes in the book calling on Congress to require more transparency and accountability from foundations. But Edwards, a senior fellow at the think tank Demos and the leading skeptic of philanthro-capitalism, says that public and political pressure will eventually build and force changes in the sector. Similarly, in a Feb. 25 Chronicle of Philanthropy opinion piece, the Hudson Institute’s William Schambra argued that philanthropy’s increasingly business-minded approach is at odds with the populist mood of the American public on both ends of the political spectrum. He thinks the tide is turning against foundations.

To help improve the situation, Thomas David of the Community Clinics Initiative argues that foundations should show they’re making sacrifices in this economy along with everyone else. It should not be a time of hunkering down, cutting grantmaking, trimming staff and expenses or focusing on re-growing endowments. Instead, David writes in an essay published by Grantmakers in Health (GIH) that foundations should make some big bets, ease up on control of grantees and practice mission-related investing. In other words, take risks that put them on the line in ways that might tangibly, not just symbolically, benefit nonprofits in a time of need. More specifically, David advises foundations to increase their grantmaking this year – even if they’re one of those already exceeding 6 percent payout. He complains that over the past couple of decades foundations have evolved to become more risk averse than ever; they’re so focused on assets that growth is their priority, not giving.

David’s hard-charging essay is just one of several included in Taking Risks at a Critical Time, released in March in tandem with GIH’s 2010 annual meeting. Foundations hesitate, according to this publication, in part because of an over-reliance on proven practices, unwarranted anxiety about engaging in public policy and avoidance of failure of any kind, despite the fact that a healthy proportion of failures in a grant portfolio is a sign that a foundation is successfully venturing in new territory. The lead essay includes examples of “risk taking in action,” efforts to improve health.

Tom David is not optimistic, however. He essentially calls foundations fair-weather friends to nonprofits: “It is at times like this that nonprofits, who like to think of foundations as allies in their struggles, have learned not to count on their friends when they need them most.”  I wonder. It is not the role of foundations to support nonprofits based on need, but rather based on merit, because doing so fits a larger strategy—one that produces a social benefit.  I have a good deal of faith that foundations will do their best to achieve that end. But the way in which they do it must take into account the public mood, and even distrust that these observers so powerfully describe. No institution is being given a pass, particularly one that is seen as opaque while claiming to advance the public good. “Trust us” has never been an adequate response to doubters.

Jane Wales

Vice President, The Aspen Institute

President and CEO, The World Affairs Council

Founding President, The Global Philanthropy Forum

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