NCRP at its Most Presumptuous

03/05/2009 09:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Earlier this week, The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) published a paper entitled Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best®: Benchmarks to Assess and Enhance Grantmaking Impact. NCRP starts from the premises, which I share, that philanthropy is seriously underperforming in achieving "social benefit or impact" and in helping "solve the most urgent problems facing our nation and the world," and that disparities of opportunity, wealth, and power, especially when systematically coupled with race and other personal characteristics, are high among these problems.

From these premises NCRP derives prescriptions for both the proper ends and the proper means of philanthropy. With respect to ends, NCRP asserts that no foundation can have as important a goal--whether it be curing cancer or mitigating climate change--than addressing the plight of marginalized communities. Therefore, at least 50 percent of any foundation's grants must be devoted to this cause.

As for means: "it is almost impossible ... to examine each of the nation's more than 70,000 grantmaking institutions and determine the extent to which that foundation is enhancing the public good, creating positive social benefits or advancing the public interest." In an effort to impose a common metric, NCRP would require that 50 percent of a foundation's grants be spent on general operating support and 25 percent be devoted to advocacy. It also sets some requirements for foundation governance and accountability.

Even for someone who shares NCRP's concerns about marginalized communities, its hierarchy of ends is breathtakingly arrogant. Its prescriptions of means are more of a mixed bag. Many of the 70,000 foundations in the United States might actually contribute more to society if they followed some of the Criteria. But the tremendous social good done by others would be severely compromised. In aiming for the lowest common denominator, NCRP pushes the entire sector toward mediocrity.

NCRP has issued the Criteria at a time when philanthropy is highly concerned about social impact, good practices, and evaluation. Many of the issues NCRP discusses--such as forms of funding, payout, and mission investments--are the subjects of vibrant ongoing discussions in the sector. Surprisingly, the Criteria don't recognize that foundations' approaches to these matters ultimately depend on their particular missions and strategies.

If NCRP's main purpose were to present its strong opinions for the benefit of foundations and other practitioners, the Criteria would be a valuable contribution to the debate. NCRP makes the most comprehensive case I've seen for what might be called "progressive" or "social justice" philanthropy. Although it presents a tendentious one-sided brief for one position rather than a balanced set of arguments, that's the nature of debates.

Rather than participate in the debate, however, NCRP seeks to control it. By trademarking the unremarkable phrase "Philanthropy at its Best," the organization apparently aspires to create a philanthropic version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But while NCRP disclaims any "call for regulatory action," the introduction to its Criteria states that policymakers "will find the benchmarks ... informative when considering issues related to philanthropy." The version that NCRP sent around for prepublication endorsements was more direct: "Policymakers may find the criteria valuable when considering regulations or legislation that affect institutional grantmakers." For anyone who has experienced the Greenlining Institute's efforts to legislate social justice philanthropy in California and watched its efforts in other states, this lets the cat out of the bag. NCRP has just concealed Greenlining's fist in a velveteen glove.

Although I would oppose legislative enactment of the Criteria, NCRP's earnest contribution to the discussion of these issues deserves an item-by-item response, and that's what I shall try to do in the posts that follow.

Before signing off, though, I should note that though we often disagree with its positions, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has provided NCRP with general operating support as part of our grantmaking for the infrastructure of the philanthropic sector. Ironically, this grant would not count as Philanthropy at its Best®, since NCRP is not a disadvantaged community. It is just a minor sign of NCRP's tunnel vision that, while issuing rules for the proper practice of philanthropy, it ignores the value of grants whose purpose is to help the field become more effective.

Moreover, the Hewlett Foundation actually follows many of the precepts articulated in the Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best. Much of our grantmaking focuses on disadvantaged communities, not just in the US but also in developing countries--whose billions of impoverished citizens NCRP largely ignores, notwithstanding its throwaway statement that philanthropy should help solve urgent problems worldwide. And the Foundation pursues its goals through advocacy with ample amounts of general operating support.

But that's not the point. Rather, the point is that many foundations whose goals and methods differ from Hewlett's provide no less value to society. Indeed, it is differences among the missions and practices of foundations and the diverse nonprofit organizations they support, that give the US the most vibrant civil society of any country in the world.

So much for generalizations. Next week, on to NCRP's specific recommendations about governance, some of which are pretty unobjectionable.