May 19, 2005
by Peter Frumkin
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on accountability in philanthropy—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
THE WORLD of philanthropy is largely quiet, secure, and comforting. Donors are routinely praised for being smart, insightful, and helpful, even if they possess none of these characteristics. In few fields other than philanthropy is it possible to be applauded and embraced regardless of merit and performance. While there is no one in a position to ask tough questions about philanthropic choices, some donors—particularly within the larger foundations—have in recent years begun to worry quietly about their work. They have struggled publicly to find more strategic forms of giving.
One of the most common ways in which the striving of the field for self-improvement manifests itself is the ritual recitation of two issues that are thought to be absolutely central to philanthropy’s future. These issues are effectiveness and accountability. What I want to suggest here is that both of these concepts are routinely misconstrued and that they actually obscure the far more interesting concept of legitimacy.
Let’s start with effectiveness. In its most commonly understood form, a donor’s effectiveness has come to be associated with the performance of the vast array of grant recipients that receive the largesse. Thus, in the search to take seriously the charge of improving the field, large amounts of resources have been devoted to the evaluation of nonprofit programs. To breathe life into the concept of effectiveness, donors look out into the world of nonprofits and apply metrics of all sorts in order to come to a conclusion about effectiveness. The problem with this approach is that it overlooks a more important dimension of effectiveness in philanthropy, one that demands an inward-looking perspective. The main challenge for donors is not to track their many recipients, but to focus instead on the relative fulfillment of their own missions. The real question that donors should obsess over is whether their own philanthropic missions are being achieved, which is very different than tracking individual grants and hoping that in some way they aggregate to something larger than the sum of the parts. In reality, meaningfully addressing the effectiveness question requires a steady and daunting introspective gaze about the quality of decision-making within both institutional and individual philanthropy. Donors need to ask about how effective they are in achieving their objectives and in fulfilling their missions. This is very different than assuming the concept of effectiveness resides somewhere across the diffuse and distant grantee community.
If the confusion about effectiveness were not enough, philanthropy is even more muddled when it comes to the meaning of accountability. The most comforting and common translation of accountability concerns is into a non-threatening conversation about transparency and the provision of documents and information to the world. In search of greater accountability, many foundations have gone to great length to make their grantmaking procedures more clear, to publish annual reports, and to meet regularly with nonprofits to explain their work. The premise of accountability as transparency is that the main problem to be overcome is one of information sharing. Donors often seem to be
Peter Frumkin is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School. Frumkin is the author of On Being Nonprofit: A Conceptual and Policy Primer and Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy, and co-editor of In Search of the Nonprofit Sector. He has written articles on topics related to nonprofit management, philanthropy, cross-sector partnerships, and service contracting, including a 2004 monograph for Hudson Institute's Bradley Center entitled Trouble in Foundationland.
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