I’ve gotten lots of fascinating suggestions from readers of potential candidates to replace Paul Brest at the Hewlett Foundation. But first I want to discuss some pushback I’ve been getting from people who believe we shouldn’t even be having this discussion (to be clear, I’ve received no such complaints from anyone at the Hewlett Foundation).
The Hewlett Foundation is a private foundation whose board has sole and absolute authority to select their next president. But they are also an organization that seeks to exert influence on the public good and actively seeks to engage with the public. I see absolutely nothing wrong with having a public discussion about the decisions that Hewlett, or any large foundation, makes or contemplates making. These sorts of discussions happen all the time in regards to large for-profit companies. In both the for-profit and nonprofit case, the boards have authority to make the decisions they see fit and the public has the right to express any opinions they might have.
That being said, the emails I’ve gotten from very senior members of the philanthropic community – people whose opinions I respect very much – suggest that my hosting this discussion is far more controversial than I might have guessed. I intend no disrespect to the Hewlett board. I do not believe that anyone other than the board has or should have any vote on the matters of the Hewlett Foundation. I do not presume that my opinions or the opinions of my readers are any more valid than anyone else’s. I readily admit that my goal – advancing the field of philanthropy – overlaps with only a portion of the Hewlett Foundation’s mission.
But there is nothing wrong with the public, stakeholders in the common good over which the Hewlett Foundation and all large foundations seek to exert influence, holding discussions and expressing opinions on the actions of these foundations.
Why am I hosting this discussion? Because I, and every reader of this blog, have a vested interest in the development of the field of philanthropy. The Hewlett Foundation has been the most influential foundation exerting influence over the development of our field under the leadership of Paul Brest. With Paul announcing he is stepping down, I care a lot about who replaces him. Do I have any say in the matter or should I have one? No. But the public has every right to discuss those things which effect us. This is a bedrock principal of a vibrant public commons and the field of philanthropy does itself a disservice if it seeks in any way to limit public discourse about the development of the field.
The majority of the comments I’ve received about this discussion have been very positive. Of the negative ones that suggested I was breaching some kind of taboo, most were framed as not so much a complaint from the author but a warning that the discussion would be frowned upon by others.
Maybe I am breaking some unwritten rule that the decisions of foundations boards should not be discussed in public. But if that is in fact an unwritten rule, it is one I feel completely at ease breaking. I see no ethical prohibition on members of the public debating the decisions of foundations boards. I also will defend completely the right of private foundations to make whatever decisions their boards’ see fit.