Freedom vs Accountability

One of the strengths of being an independent funder – whether a foundation or a philanthropist -  is in that very independence. It means you can act quickly, take risks, or take a long-term view in ways that statutory funders can’t. But as with most things philanthropic, there is a flip side. Independent funders are not accountable to the public and they don’t have to base their giving on research or recognised priorities such as the Sustainable Development Goals. This lack of accountability opens them to criticism, for example, of being driven by a donor’s preference or desire for status instead of need.

To ensure their decisions are relevant and they are working for the greater good, it is up to independent funders to introduce ways to hold themselves to account. Institutional funders use several mechanisms to do so. For example:

  • Increasing the voice of beneficiaries in decision-making e.g. The Blagrave Trust
  • Increasing the diversity on their Boards e.g. Kellogg Foundation
  • Commissioning research e.g. Lankelly Chase
  • Opening their decision-making up to scrutiny. 67 UK grant makers have published their data on 360Giving
  • Asking grant applicants and recipients for feedback and benchmarking themselves against each other e.g. using CEP’s grantee and applicant perception reports

These measures are all optional and rely on the funder’s desire to develop their practice and allocate resources to listening to the views of others and being transparent. Funders are not immune to external pressures to become more accountable. They care about their reputation and there is kudos to be gained by being a pioneer or innovator. Can change be driven – or at least accelerated – by bringing more external pressure to bear? One interesting development in the US is the ratings site Grant Advisor, where organisations seeking funding can review and rate funders in the style of Tripadvisor. Grantees can give ratings on accessibility, the relationship and comment on the philanthropic goals e.g. “Be prepared for a very bureaucratic process and program officers who are not that knowledgeable about the overall goals.” The site launched in 2017 and for now covers California and Minnesota.

It will be interesting to see if rating sites such as GrantAdvisor catch on and serve to increase accountability by driving greater transparency and comparison. Or is there a danger that they will encourage ‘safe’ grant making and so undermine the very value of funders’ ability to act independently?