External Accountability in Philanthropy

It takes self-discipline to stick to a workout schedule and get in shape. However, research shows that one of the best ways to stick to your plan is to voluntarily create external accountability by getting a “workout buddy” to go to the gym with you. While both of you might feel like skipping the gym on any given day, the worry about letting down your “buddy” gets each of you to go.

Foundations have the gift of being essentially free from external accountability. Just as I think that each individual should have personal control over their own health, I think that each foundation should have control over their own actions. But that still leads open the possibility that foundations might choose to voluntarily subject themselves to external accountability as a tactic to achieve better results.

Deciding to post Grantee Perception Reports from the Center for Effective Philanthropy is one way that foundations are already doing this. It seems to me that another way they could utilize external accountability would be to announce at the beginning of a new program what their metrics for success are and then commit to a schedule of progress reports.

Some major foundations have already begun to share the results of their programs with the public. But generally these reports are released as a retrospective. It would be far more useful to helping the foundation achieve results if they released information at the beginning of a new program. In our workout analogy, simply telling people after you’ve been working out for awhile how you’re doing wouldn’t be very effective. The key is making a commitment to an external party in order to voluntarily put pressure on yourself to follow though.

In a recent post on the GiveWell Blog, Holden Karnofsky highlighted a nonprofit called GiveDirectly that intends to make cash transfer payments to very poor people in Kenya instead of providing social services. Holden highlighted the fact that GiveDirectly is subjecting their work to a randomized controlled study at the very beginning of their program and noted that they’ve “pre-announced” the design of the study.

Holden wrote:

“Our #1 suggestion for making social science research more credible is to “pre-register it,” i.e., announce in advance what data will be collected and how it is intended to be analyzed, so that the final result can be compared with the initial plan and a reader can form their view of whether the results are an artifact of publication bias. We made this case to GiveDirectly and it sent us (see below) a template for the full survey it will be using and a plan for analyzing the data. Now that we have seen these and posted them publicly, GiveDirectly won’t be able to cherry-pick results in the same way that we suspect many studies do. (Of course it will still be possible for the researchers to perform different analysis than they had originally planned; but they won’t be able to sweep any unfavorable conclusions of their analysis under the rug.)”

I think foundations should be free to run their programs in any way they like within the bounds of the law. But for foundations that strive to be effective in their giving, some sort of “pre-registration” of new programs could be very helpful in keeping them focused and motivated.

Self-discipline is critical for success in every domain of human endeavors. But self-discipline is hard. One savvy way to stay on track towards the results you seek is to voluntarily create systems that maintain pressure on you to perform. We all face moments when we’re tired and can’t keep up. Or moments of judgment when we need to grade ourselves but go too easy and choose not to face hard facts. Creating a system of external accountability can help us accomplish our goals, whether those goals are getting in shape or running effective philanthropic programs.


  1. This is a thoughtful, provocative post, Sean (as usual!) I don’t know if this qualifies as a full-fledged “workout buddy”, but Irvine now posts our Annual Performance Report, which includes specific grantmaking goals, progress indicators, and evidence of progress towards those indicators over the last year. You can see it all in the Outcomes section of each program in our annual report: http://bit.ly/pqfUEW. We are open to anyone’s comments about this attempt at external accountability.

  2. Thanks! This helps me clarify my thinking regarding my craigconnects thing. (Not speaking for craigslist here.)