Cynthia Gibson

Cynthia Gibson is author of the blog CitizenPost and of the Case Foundation commissioned report “Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement”. She emailed me after reading the James Canales interview to point out her post “Can Philanthropy Be Citizen-Centered”. In the post, she explores recent experiments by the Case, Knight and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations to let the public vote on where they should send their grant dollars.

Essentially, foundations need to start exploring new ways to develop stronger partnerships between the professionals that staff foundations and “real people” on the ground living in real communities. And that means going beyond simply hiring consultants to interview those people for “input” that usually gets fed back to the foundation experts who ultimately decide what they’re going to do. It means working with people to figure out how foundations can best to address the issues they say are important to them and their communities.

I think that for foundations that want to try this approach, it might lead to exciting results. But I also want to be clear about my continual urging for a broader philanthropic conversation and more foundation transparency. I do not think that foundations should be required to be transparent. The concept of private foundations having a right to “privacy” is not something I disagree with at all. I think that foundations should be free to pursue whatever course of action they desire and that they should not be obligated to take any direction from the public. This distinction is why I talk about transparency as an issue of philanthropic effectiveness, not public accountability. I commented on this issue during the James Canales conversation:

Just to clarify, I don’t believe that foundations have an "obligation" to be transparent. They don’t have an "obligation" to other funders. I just think they should, not in a moral sense, but in a self interested sense. I think that we will find that transparency is good for foundations, good for nonprofits and good for the public. But at the end of the day, I think that the transparency decision is completely up to each individual foundation.

This is why I make the distinction between "public accountability" transparency and "philanthropic effectiveness" transparency. I’m interested in the second type.