Increasing Philanthropic Impact Through Criticism

In his guest post about the lack of criticism in philanthropy creating a failure of the information markets needed to create impact, Tony Wang demonstrated how infrequently guest authors on this blog are critical of foundations. This theme resonated with a  number of readers who share Tony’s concern that a culture that avoids criticism of donors and funders will end up with underperforming philanthropy.

Building on this theme, Bill Schambra of the Hudson Institute recently emailed me a link to a 2005 article about the the interaction between four major education funders and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute who had written an article critical of their grantmaking strategies. In the article, Hess argued – as Tony did – that there is not enough criticism in philanthropy and made a case for foundations to encourage and welcome critical input. Hess even did a study similar to Tony’s showing how rare criticism in the sector is.

I’ve reprinted Hess’s argument below with some text removed due to its length:

“Good intentions shouldn’t insulate education scholars, reformers, or philanthropists from criticism. Even when we regard critiques as wrong-headed or inadequate, we should recognize that such scrutiny keeps us honest, helps others assess our arguments, and helps protect us from hubris. In a democracy, the hurly-burly of rough public discourse is essential.

One may honor the noble intentions of philanthropists… and still discuss the limitations of their efforts.

This does not mean that a critic’s view is the “right” one; only that such a perspective is crucial to the democratic process and the spirit of public accountability. Unfortunately, respect for the nobility of philanthropy and fear of offending philanthropists make such hard looks rare.

Just how rare such critiques are has rarely been documented. In light of the controversy stirred by my article, I thought it appropriate to explore the media coverage bestowed upon the foundations discussed in the article. They appear to routinely receive kid-glove treatment from the press and the education community; even obliquely critical accounts are hard to find.

My research assistants and I examined how the educational activities of the Annenberg Challenge, Broad Foundation, Gates Foundation, Milken Family Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation were depicted in major national media from 1995 to 2005. Using Lexis-Nexis, we searched the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and Associated Press. We examined all 46 articles available on the Annenberg Challenge and the first 25 on the educational activities of the other four foundations (in the case of the Walton Family Foundation, where just nine articles were located, we also examined articles on the Children’s Scholarship Fund that mentioned the Walton Foundation). We coded each article as primarily positive, primarily negative, balanced, or primarily factual.

Of 146 national media articles, editorials, and op-eds examined, just five were largely critical of the activities discussed. The remaining pieces were positive, neutral, or factual, with 65 positive, 67 simply relaying facts, and the remainder balanced. In other words, there were 13 positive articles for every critical account. The stories and editorials were often accompanied by glowing headlines like “Grant Helps Principals Get Plugged In,” “The Gift Sends a Powerful Message,” or “Two Teachers Go to Head of the Class with Awards for Excellence.”

Now, I recognize that those who steer leading foundations often make concerted efforts at disciplined self-appraisal. They evaluate the effectiveness of grants, engage in self-criticism, and convene working groups to assess their giving. This is sensible and desirable. It is not, however, what I mean when I talk about the benefits of public criticism. These conversations take place privately and away from public scrutiny, allowing foundation officials to reassure themselves that they’ve heard the array of arguments, sorted through options, and made the best decision they can. I’m happy to concede that they probably have.

These sessions, however, have a limited impact. It is hard-hitting public exchanges that can most effectively change the way options are weighed, alter the attractiveness of certain courses of action, or even reframe the context in which decisions are made. The groups convened by foundations tend to include, naturally enough, their friends, allies, and grantees. Such groups are less likely than outsiders to offer a radically different take on strategy or thinking—especially given the sensible disinclination of grantees to offend their benefactor or reformers to offend the engine funding their cause.

Because negative publicity can rile boards of trustees or disrupt relationships, one readily understands why foundation leaders are sensitive to suggestions that their efforts may be ineffective or wasteful. Foundation staff feel subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure from their boards and benefactors to support projects that will demonstrate results and earn acclaim in a window that matches their grant-giving cycle.

If, as we have seen, the disinterested media go easy on foundations, leaders in the education and policy worlds are even more hesitant to turn their piercing gaze on foundations for at least three reasons. First, philanthropists are, almost by definition, worthy of praise. After all, they are giving money away in an effort to help others. Second, academics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty—where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood. Even individuals and organizations who also receive financial support from government grants, tuition, endowment, or interest groups are eager to be on good terms with the philanthropic community.

Third, even if scholars themselves are insulated enough to risk being impolitic, they routinely collaborate with school districts, policymakers, and colleagues who desire philanthropic support. Incurring the wrath of a major giver may make it harder for otherwise blunt scholars to collaborate with skittish colleagues, public officials, or educators. The irony is that leading experts on high schools, school choice, or urban school reform, for instance, tend to avoid commenting starkly on funders like Gates, Walton, or Annenberg.

All of this results in an amiable conspiracy of silence. The usual scolds remain in the good graces of the foundations by training their fire on other, less sympathetic targets. Even if foundation personnel choose to turn a blind eye towards this phenomenon, they should be aware of how the chill of a heavy-handed response to criticism can make an already skittish education community even more reticent.

I suggest, then, that foundations need to make it conscious policy to welcome—and even encourage—criticism. I’m not talking about hired evaluations or strategic assessments conducted by friendly critics but about rigorous debate over objectives, strategies, and performance. Given that even tart-tongued observers will be unusually reluctant to share their thoughts, foundations need to make it extravagantly clear that they will not blacklist critics—or look kindly upon those who do. Of course, such debate inevitably entails critiques that may seem incomplete, wrong-headed, or unfair—especially compared to the warm bubble in which foundations have long resided.

Only this kind of scrutiny, however, will flag blind spots, wishful thinking, or ineffective spending. The point is not that skeptics are always right, but that most efforts to change policy or organizations enjoy mixed results. The value of skeptics is that they raise unpleasant issues. Whether or not the foundation personnel agree with such assessments, engaging with them is essential to forestalling the plagues of hubris and groupthink that are so much a part of human nature.

The harsh cultural change I’m suggesting will not be easy. It will require foundation boards to become more accepting of negative publicity and foundation staff to acknowledge themselves as fair game for public criticism, rather than unsoiled stewards of noblesse oblige. This may seem like a lousy deal. But I think one of the lessons of the education philanthropy I discussed is that universal approbation is incompatible with fundamentally changing troubled social institutions.

What the new breed of muscular philanthropists have spent recent years learning is that mixed reviews just may be the painful price of relevance.”


  1. I can see the headlines in Philanthropy News Digest:

    “Politeness Fatigue Crippling U.S. Foundations: Grant Impact Index Dives to Record Levels”

    Hess and Wang are right. The so called “conspiracy of silence” is well documented in many other disciplines.

    But can we put down our defibrillators for a moment and take stock of what is going right?

    First of all, the observation that the field lacks the capacity for self-critique is old hat.

    Pablo Eisenberg made this point in 1968, 1978, six times in the 1990’s and once with a hand puppet at the Times Square Hilton.

    He is the national critic laureate – God bless him.

    You gotta give a shout out to Aaron Dorfman and his tactical strike force at NCRP, regularly lobbing grenades at our most sacred of cows.

    GEO has taken over as the lead pot stirrer among affinity groups. At last, we have a mainstream funder group that is noisy, provocative, and lively.

    And if you go beyond the popular press (yawn, what do you expect?) most of the academic literature on philanthropy is rich with history, data, stories, and a scalding critique of the field.

    Who doesn’t look forward to the healthy grumbling on the pages of SSIR, Nonprofit Quarterly, or Alliance magazines?

    Better yet, go search and you will find that most of the dozen books published in the past two years about philanthropy have a critical perspective.

    And yes, the blogosphere is indeed thin on frank talk and thick on the love-fest echo chamber.

    The blog posts that get the most comments are due to a crafty zinger that grabs us by our collars and roughs us up a bit looking for our lunch money.

    For this we thank Sean, and our national treasures of the critical philanthropic blogosphere, Phil Cubeta and Albert Ruesga.

    Pablo is a softy compared to these ninjas.

    Last but not least, the entire nonprofit sector may be the most insightful and articulate voice of them all. Anybody listening?

    Who else have I missed in the critical philanthropy roll call?

    Are we making any progress?

  2. Good points here. I would also say that the whole non-profit world is so starved for money that most people are loathe to admit failure, at least big failures that are irreparable, because someone else might not, and that would lead to money being diverted to another organization. An equally ineffective, but less scrupulous, organization.

    First and foremost philanthropists are in a position to change this by demanding specific, verifiable results and pulling out of projects that aren’t working. They have so much more freedom than larger political donors like multi- and bi-lateral aid agencies and can have longer funding cycles. It would be great if change started with them.