Transparency Chat: An Interview on Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability

(Chris Gates is executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, and Brad Rourke is a program officer at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Transparency Talk conducted an online interview with them based on their organizations’ new report “Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: a Relationship of Respect and Clarity,” which was released this summer.)


Chris Gates


Brad Rourke

Glasspockets: Thanks to the Kettering Foundation and PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) for hosting and sharing this timely discussion on the needs and pressures of greater foundation transparency and accountability.  The report does a very thorough job of detailing the debate around transparency and accountability and the pain points foundations face around these issues.  But I noticed the report stops short of taking a position.  Does PACE itself have a position on whether increased transparency and accountability are good for philanthropy, or does it plan to issue one at a later date?  Why or why not?

Chris Gates: Our goal was to catalyze a conversation about a complex, textured, and potentially controversial, topic, and we think the paper does that. There is no clean answer here about what the field ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do, but we feel that the time has come for a fresh conversation. Technology has created fundamentally new society-wide expectations about transparency and accountability and philanthropy will have no choice but to think through what this means for our field, how ‘public’ are we?, and how ‘private’ are we?

The fact is that we manifestly live in a world with increased calls for accountability and transparency. Philanthropy needs to respond to this (in the same way any sector needs to respond). It can do so by denying or ignoring it is happening, or it can address the phenomenon directly.

Brad Rourke: Agreed, and I would argue that whether increased transparency and accountability are good for philanthropy sidesteps the point. The fact is that we manifestly live in a world with increased calls for accountability and transparency. Philanthropy needs to respond to this (in the same way any sector needs to respond). It can do so by denying or ignoring it is happening, or it can address the phenomenon directly. The purpose of holding these conversations, and of developing the report, was to try to stimulate the field to address the issue.

: The paper refers to accountability throughout.  Can you explain how you are defining accountability and how is responsibility different from accountability, and what role does transparency have in facilitating either?

Brad Rourke: I think the fundamental point that the paper makes about this is that what people mean by "accountability" varies widely. There's a big gap between an institutional response to the term and what the public means. Organizational leaders typically see "accountability" as a requirement to prove effectiveness: here are the numbers. The point the paper makes is that this is not the only thing that people are asking for when they ask their institutions to be accountable. People want to know that an institution is responsive to them: is there someone there who will answer my questions, or pick up the phone when I call? In a Public Agenda report referred to in the paper, the frustration that the public expresses toward voice mail systems is emblematic. There is literally no one there to answer, and it is infuriating. The gap between an institutional view of accountability (what are the numbers?) and a public one (do they care about me?) is important because the harder an institutional approach works to be accountable, the more it is likely to frustrate a public sensibility. In this respect, transparency can become a complicating factor. Yes transparency is important but in itself it does not add up to accountability – and in fact may work counter to it.

Glasspockets: Much of the debate you outline around transparency and accountability swirls around public vs. private money and foundation leaders expressing concerns about not wanting to be turned into mini-governments and why that isn’t appropriate.  But what about the notion of leading by example by putting a foundation through the same set of standards it expect of its grantees?  Did the idea of a transparency and accountability double standard come up during your discussion?

Brad Rourke: There was a real concern expressed by almost all participants about this difficulty – that of an increasingly burdensome set of grantmaking standards. Nonprofit leaders were especially vocal about it, but I don't think there was any foundation leader who was blind to the issue. But to be honest, the level of self-awareness in the field really varies, some folks were quite aware that they regularly asked for things like clear goals and specific metrics from their grantees but didn’t hold themselves to the same standard, and others seemed comfortable living by what the field sometimes calls ‘the golden rule’.

Glasspockets: Glasspockets recently reported that only 7.5% of all U.S. foundations have a web site.  And the report begins with the very eloquent statement from an unnamed tech executive that “…inside every device and every piece of software is the DNA of both democracy and transparency.” Can you talk about the role of technology in creating the “accountability society” the report describes and whether there were any discussions around philanthropy needing to adapt to new technologies to fulfill increasing public expectations?

Brad Rourke: By "accountability society" I think what is meant is the growing public call for accountability that the paper discusses. In this respect, talking about "technology" sharply limits the scope of what are much more sweeping attitudinal changes that have taken hold in society. Technology (which is really just a vague way of saying "the Internet") has accelerated this but the roots of the shift go back at least to the 1970's. After the social revolution that enabled the Civil Rights movement, women's rights, and the antiwar movement, and on the heels of Watergate and other scandals, the long-stable authoritarian was upended. Trust in institutions (all institutions) has fallen steadily since then. So we defer less. Technology (the Internet) has enabled a quicker, more robust lack of deference, especially to "experts." And it has enabled ordinary people to organize more quickly and with less friction.  The conversations that formed the basis of this report did indeed touch on technology, but more by way of critique. It is hard to find an organization leader who would disagree with the idea that "philanthropy needs to adapt to new technologies" but I would argue that this can become a smokescreen as I alluded to in my response to your second questions above.

Glasspockets: In recent years, a number of high profile individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, whom you feature in the report, have taken the Giving Pledge, which publicly declares that they plan to give away more than half of their wealth during their lifetime.  Do you think those who have taken the Giving Pledge should be subject to some kind of transparency and accountability around this promise?

Brad Rourke: I'm not sure I would go so far as to say donors "should be subject." That implies that there's an overarching entity determining what is good and what is not good philanthropy. That said, I see nothing wrong with an individual donor (or any donor) "subjecting themselves to" some outside accountability regime. Indeed, taking such a pledge publicly serves as a kind of accountability device.  Here again we may be looking at a kind of gap between differing views of accountability. It comes back to how people view philanthropic dollars. Some people consider them fundamentally private assets that are being repurposed to provide public good, but they believe in the notion of private nonprofit activity. Others think that once a philanthropic dollar has been created, and a tax advantage realized, that dollar then becomes a quasi-public dollar that should be held to some of the same standards that we hold government spending.

Glasspockets: What are the next steps for PACE and Kettering around this work?

We are holding a webinar on this topic on Thursday, September 4th and funders can sign up for it by visiting the PACE website.

Chris Gates: We are encouraging philanthropic conferences and regional associations of grantmakers to do programming around this topic to promote a safe and civil conversation around a difficult topic. We don’t think that ‘demands’ from the outside will catalyze much change, the field first needs to have a conversation with itself about how we view our work and how we view our role in society. We are holding a webinar on this topic on Thursday, September 4th and funders can sign up for it by visiting the PACE website.

Brad Rourke: In a very real way, this interview is an important next step. The point of the report is to stimulate conversation and so far we have been pleased to see that beginning. I hope the webinar Chris mentions will also be a part of that conversation.

-- Chris Gates and Brad Rourke


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