May 19, 2005
by Tim Walter
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.
TO WHAT, or to whom, should philanthropy be accountable?
Let me begin by admitting that when I agreed to write this essay, I thought it would conclude in a different place. I had initially intended to promote the idea that a foundation should support people of courage, and that trustees themselves should demonstrate courage, as well as maintain a personal sense of generosity and caring. But my arguments along the way pulled me into an unexpected direction. Allow me to walk you through the logic.
The first part of this essay examines the words in our opening question, and what they mean to us. Let’s take a minute to be sure we’re thinking along the same lines.
“What or whom”
These terms can refer to an idea, a person, persons, organizations, government, or more. Pretty much anything is fair game. We’re wide open with possibilities, and I list a few below.
I’m partial to a meaning with more “oomph” than a simple ranking of preference, like “Should I go to New York or San Francisco for vacation?” Our “should” is more on the order of a moral imperative. “Should” also makes one wonder to whom or what philanthropy actually is accountable today.
In preparation for writing this essay on accountability, I came up with a list of possible people and beliefs to which a donor or a foundation might consider itself accountable:
Once I had this list (and more) on paper, I began to wonder if I was making an accurate distinction between accountability and obligation. For instance, most people would say a parent is obliged to protect and raise his child. But I don’t think we’d say that a parent is accountable to the child. Instead, we’d say the government could hold the parent accountable. Thus, differing from obligation, accountability seems to imply the presence of an outside power that can compel someone to fulfill an obligation or sanction him.
Also, an obligation is transferable, as is accountability. If I agree to babysit my friend’s child, I assume an obligation of care, and I can be held accountable (by my friend, backed up by the government) if I fail to fulfill my obligation. Thus, even a transferred obligation, once accepted, becomes an expectation subject to accountability.
Tim Walter is CEO of the Association of Small Foundations.
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