Accountability should be a two-way street

[Editor’s note: The author of this column is a veteran foundation officer who wishes to remain anonymous.]

The Insider

We talk a lot about metrics and results in the philanthropic world these days.

Apparently, it is not good enough to be helping people help themselves or making a difference – or any other of the stock phrases we have used in the trade for years to describe what we do.

We are now trying to remake ourselves to be an unholy trinity of actuaries, social-change leaders and total-quality-management gurus, and driving the nonprofit community crazy.

The problems are twofold: We don’t know much about what we are talking about, and we don’t force any of this kind of thinking on ourselves.

For years, funders have taken credit for the work of others without much in the way of demonstrated causation or sometimes even correlation

Were you aware philanthropy has caused increases in school test scores across the U.S.?

Except, of course, in schools where scores are not increasing, where other factors must be at play.

The movement to try and figure out what is actually working in the community is a good one. After all, who wants to keep funding stuff that doesn’t work?

But like most funder-community dynamics, the relationship is as unequal as the expectations.

Unfortunately, the average program staffer knows less about both the content and measurement of specific grant-funded programs than do hundreds, if not thousands, of people in any particular state.

There is no easy fix to this dilemma; no one thinks we should be staffed with knowledge experts in all the areas we fund.

But the accountability we are asking for from our constituencies far exceeds our knowledge and roles.

We end of parroting some phrases from a book – The Tipping Point was a favorite at one funder where I worked – and dismissing promising ideas as not measurable and not fundable.

Externally, then, we are all about having grantees measure their immediate impact – even when the applicant is dedicated to a 10-year transformation of a housing issue that’s been getting worse for 50 years.

Internally, we say we are going to get to that.

One tactic is to change funding strategies every so often. Then we can’t be held accountable for the work that we did previously.

We all have our evaluation experts, of course, but that’s much more about making us look good than doing anything self-reflective.

We can blame our boards for their random actions and messing up the purity of our strategies.

And finally, we can always say we are a very minor player in the context of governmental funding, so anything we do is colored by uncontrollable environmental factors.

We often do not know of what we speak, or do it.

One foundation CEO I worked for used to brag that he hadn’t read a book since college.

That’s not the norm but the thirst for knowledge and self-awareness isn’t necessarily a characteristic of philanthropy.

That’s for us to demand of others.

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