Philanthropy on Trial at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference

Gara Lamarche

Ralph Smith

At the closing plenary to the 2011 Council on Foundations Annual Conference, a mock trial was held to consider the question: "Is philanthropy meeting its mission of fulfilling the public good?"  In the current tax and budget reform climate, are foundations at risk of losing their tax-exempt status if they are unwilling to be accountable to the communities they serve and unable to demonstrate their value to society?

Serving as the prosecution, Gara LaMarche, president and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, called on the philanthropic community to hold itself to a higher standard of transparency and accountabiliity when demonstrating its impact on the common good.  "Our sector," he cautioned, "has eroded its moral authority through self-interest."

In defense of institutional philanthropy, Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, noted that foundations already make an enormous effort to show what they do and how they do it. Speaking of the diversity of the sector and the innumerable risks and successes of foundations and philanthropists "that benefitted all of society" he concluded, "we have been persistent and engaged, not missing in action."

The trial ended in a hung jury, heavily weighted to the prosecution arguments, but this debate will surely continue.  Visit the COF site to read LaMarche and Smith’s remarks. Do you think foundations succeed at both benefitting society and demonstrating that benefit?  In what ways can foundations do better?

-- Daniel Matz

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