THE BLOG
12/10/2013 03:19 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

It's Time to Burst the Isolation Bubble Foundation Leaders Inhabit

Institutional philanthropy operates in a bubble. Foundations lack feedback loops and accountability mechanisms that are built into other sectors of society. Most don't really know if they could be doing their work better or how: they don't hear constructive criticisms from their peers, their nonprofit grantees or members of the communities that benefit from philanthropic giving. Some gather data and have a strong commitment to organizational learning, but important pieces of information remain tightly guarded and unshared.

Pathways for change are determined behind closed doors, messages are formulated and spread through whisper chambers and the very voices that could make a difference by providing feedback are boxed out of the process entirely.

The culture of deference, which often masks outright fear, is not healthy for the sector. The cumulative effect of each individual foundation operating this way is that philanthropy as a sector is not as impactful as it could be. Foundations have the opportunity to leverage their limited assets to tackle serious challenges facing our society, such as income inequality, education disparities and the effects of climate change. We cannot afford to let them operate at anything less than their maximum potential. There is too much at stake.

Key thought leaders in philanthropy agree on this important point, including Paul Brest, Michael Edwards, Emmett Carson, Phil Buchanan, Cynthia Gibson, Buzz Schmidt and many others. Over the last decade or so, some have sought to address this problem by offering tools for peer benchmarking and stakeholder input. These tools are very valuable, yet they don't break through the bubble completely.

As long as foundation leaders maintain control over the information they collect and are not accountable to anyone outside of their institutions for how they use that information, there is no way for the public to respond to the findings of these self-assessments. Consequently, there is no meaningful incentive to change other than the disciplined passion of the people involved in the philanthropy.

That's why we need a comprehensive, nuanced examination of foundation goals, strategies and practices to understand how a foundation can best achieve its own goals. maximize impact and benefit society. We need to fully liberate the collective wisdom stakeholders have about these institutions, wisdom often shared in whispered conversations. We need to invite robust dialogue and debate about what foundations are doing well and what they are doing that is ineffective or even harmful to the very communities they seek to help.

In other sectors, assessment tools have proliferated to help entities self regulate and improve accountability and performance. For example, One World Trust assesses the largest international intergovernmental, non-governmental and corporate organizations, focusing on transparency, accountability and responsiveness to external stakeholders' needs and interests. Philanthropy needs such tools all the more, given the lack of built-in accountability systems.

Today the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which I lead, released the findings of an assessment of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation's grantmaking. This report is significant for a number of reasons.

First, it is NCRP's initial attempt at piloting an assessment tool that aims to be a nuanced and comprehensive look at how effectively foundations balance strategy and social justice. "Real Results: Why Strategic Philanthropy is Social Justice Philanthropy" argues that to maximize impact, foundations must have clear goals, strategies and ways to measure impact. Additionally, they must also consider who benefits and how, seek input from affected communities and pursue systemic change strategies. The existing assessment tools do not address these areas directly. We believe such a tool, if well crafted and flexibly implemented, will benefit all types of foundations, not only those with an overt social justice mission.

Second, WRF's leaders agreed to publicly share the findings of our assessment up front, before they saw the results and our recommendations for improvement. Too often, foundations commission evaluations and reviews only to bury the findings when the foundation leadership doesn't like what they read. Sometimes they don't even share the results with their own staff.

Third, this assessment provided a vehicle for WRF's own stakeholders - grantees, philanthropic peers, government officials and others concerned with the foundation's mission - to provide anonymous feedback to the foundation about its goals, strategies, impacts and operations. This kind of input is difficult to attain unless the shield of anonymity is assured - such is the fear of reprisals that permeates our sector.

WRF's board and staff leadership should be commended for taking such a risk. It is a bold step at bursting the isolation bubble that has been enveloping the world of philanthropy for far too long.

Aaron Dorfman is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Follow NCRP on Twitter (@ncrp).