COF: Look Out, Foundations: Here Comes Everybody

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

By Paul Connolly, TCC Group

While talking and listening to a bunch of funders and experts at the Council on Foundations conference this week, I have been thinking a lot about how the means for keeping foundations accountable are rapidly expanding. Over the past century, lawmakers and regulators have been the major forces that have monitored foundation activity. The Foundation Center was founded in the 1950’s by philanthropies to increase transparency about foundation activities — to create "glass pockets." In the 1970’s, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy emerged to act as a watchdog for the field. More recently, the Center for Effective Philanthropy has provided helpful tools that have enabled foundations to do a better job assessing and reporting on their own work.

Lately, more grantmakers have, appropriately, become interested in scrutinizing the performance of their nonprofit grantees. A few have even hired independent journalists to objectively report on the effectiveness of certain nonprofit organizations. Yet fewer funders are comfortable evaluating their own capacity, behavior, and impact. How many philanthropic leaders would provide funding to enable an investigative journalist to examine the performance of their own foundation and have an unsanitized version of the report disseminated widely? Very few, I would guess.

New social media technologies will heighten the scrutiny of foundations by a broader range of engaged constituents. Online resources have emerged for rating nonprofit organizations, using the same bottom-up approach that has allowed customers to voice their opinions online about businesses on Yelp, Zagat, and Angie’s List. One of these sites, GreatNonprofits, enables donors and other stakeholders to review nonprofit groups, including ones that are great … and not-so-great. But there are no reviews of nonprofit grantmaking foundations on this site — yet. Online rating systems for foundations are bound to arrive soon. And public officials and critics will pay attention to them. With more and more people twittering on handheld devices these days, the amount of decentralized, real-time feedback for funders will inevitably grow. The power imbalance between funders and grantees will probably always exist, but dynamic technological tools will close the gap at least a little. Look out foundations, as Internet guru Clay Shirky says, here comes everybody.

Paul Connolly is Senior Vice President of TCC Group, a 30 year-old management consulting firm that provides planning, evaluation, grants management, and capacity building services to funders.

One Comment

  1. I think you bring up a great point here – everything is fair game now. It will certainly raise the bar in terms of performance of non-profit organizations everywhere. I, for one, think that’s a great thing.