In a field not generally known for the extraordinary, an extraordinary thing happened some three years ago at the Council on Foundations annual meeting in Denver: philanthropy was put on trial. By philanthropy I don’t mean the outpouring of generosity by individuals and families, but so-called “organized philanthropy,” characterized by the work of foundations and other institutional grantmakers.
Gara Lamarche, then-CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies, was the prosecuting attorney, opening his case with a spirited “J’accuse!” Ralph Smith, Senior Vice President at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, parried with a heartfelt defense.
A jury of twelve was assembled from the audience and they were taken away to deliberate on the evidence presented. Was philanthropy, or was it not, underperforming in its quest to help create social change? Should it, or should it not, be convicted for its lackluster outcomes?
In the end, these twelve jurists failed to reach a verdict and the jury was declared hung.
I mentioned that an extraordinary thing happened three years ago. In fact, several extraordinary things happened. First, the Council on Foundations had the courage to organize such a trial in the first place. Strangely, although the session was enthusiastically received, nothing like it was ever staged again, as far as I know. And although it wasn’t widely reported at the time, ten out of twelve jurists voted to convict.
Most extraordinary of all, perhaps, was the fact that there was no follow-up to explore what it meant for the grantmaking profession that five out of six of its practitioners, chosen at random, voted to condemn it. No outcry, no sackcloth and ashes, no gnashing of teeth over martinis in the hotel lounge. Try to imagine five out of six phlebotomists denouncing their trade, or five out of six train conductors.
Was the session’s outcome an embarrassment to the panjandrums of philanthropy (to borrow a phrase from Bill Schambra)? Was it now to be swept quickly under the rug, like so much else of moment in our amnesic field?
While philanthropy may have gone on trial three years ago, we’re not past the moment when we can fruitfully ask those five out of six why they voted as they did. If, as I suspect, their judgment represents the general sentiment of the field, what, in their view—in our view—are the primary reasons why grantmakers tend to underperform? Is it because foundations generally fail to identify and address the root causes of our problems, treating only their symptoms? Is it because foundations are too top down, woefully in the habit of doing “to” rather than “with”? Do they fail to deliver social change because their work is little governed by metrics or business principles? or is it because there’s such an attenuated sense of accountability at many of these institutions?
Moreover, wouldn’t it be valuable to know if there’s any measure of consensus on the two or three factors that, in the view of foundation leaders or of the people they purport to serve, contribute most strongly to holding back the field? How would our most experienced grantmakers answer this question? And why on earth haven’t we bothered to ask them?
Based on closed-door conversations with peers, I believe that near the top of our list of failings (or the reasons for them), we would find a general lack of candor—with our colleagues, with our trustees, with ourselves—about the forces that create, maintain, and perpetuate many of our social ills. As Wittgenstein famously said, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence.”
If we can’t expect grantmakers like me to be especially good at catalyzing significant social change, might we be expected to have some clarity about why we so often fail at the attempt?