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To Whom is Your Philanthropy Accountable?

April 01, 2019

A Discussion on Values, Perceived Role, and Social Compact            

At recent workshops with foundation and philanthropy executives, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors posed the question, “To whom are you accountable?”

This query was part of a discussion on social compact, a core element of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Philanthropy Framework. The Framework helps drive practical analysis on the inner workings, culture, and structure of a philanthropic organization, how it carries out work, and how it can increase effectiveness in light of the challenges and complexities facing society today.

Along with accountability, an organization’s legitimacy, transparency, influence on society, and approach to risk are all part of its social compact–the explicit or implicit agreement with communities served and society at large about the organization’s role in society.

Of the 150 individuals surveyed across the three workshops (held in Scotland and the United States), we found clear patterns on accountability.  When asked, “To whom is your organization accountable?” and allowed to select the top three of eight categories, the most frequently selected categories were:

  1. Board or Trustees – there was nearly universal agreement on the need to be accountable to this leadership cohort.
  2. Communities Served – a highly significant number of philanthropies ranked the communities served just below the board as the entity to which they are most accountable.
  3. Grantees / General Public / Cause or Issue – these three categories were essentially tied, substantially below communities served.

While not surprising, these results bring to life common themes with respect to accountability:

  • Tensions can arise between the staff, the board, and the overarching mission, resulting in an often productive push and pull when it comes to considerations of accountability. During our research, the California Endowment president and CEO Robert Ross shared, “Most of the time my team and I are pushing the board, but sometimes the board pushes us about thinking differently. It’s a good healthy balance. We believe in spending the reputational and political capital of the foundation in pursuit of key objectives, but we try to do this thoughtfully, selectively, and surgically.”
  • Organizations may grapple with various levels of formal and informal accountability, and can demonstrate their accountability differently depending on their sense of obligation, culture and values, and their operating approaches.
  • Some organizations view themselves only as accountable internally – and that may influence how intentionally they choose to approach relationships with–and feedback from–other stakeholders. An example of this is found in the comment of Kresge Foundation president and CEO Rip Rapson, “By definition, we’re not really accountable to anybody. And so, it is only the intentionality of our ability to be transparent, listen to criticism, and adjust course that ultimately serves as a check on our innate authorities.”

Even when there are similar perceptions of accountability, how each organization chooses to honor that accountability varies widely. We found at these workshops–and in our research leading up to the publication of the Philanthropy Framework–that some philanthropies prefer to exist free from external input and scrutiny. Others are motivated by the inclusion of voices from both inside and outside their walls. No view of accountability is more ethically or strategically ideal than the other, but one thing is clear: as your organization considers and reflects upon its relationship with society, a clear social compact, fed by a shared sense of accountability based on an articulation of values, can better orient organizational activity around a well-defined purpose and process, thereby optimizing overall effectiveness.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ Philanthropy Framework delves into the specifics of Social Compact, as well as the core elements of Charter and Operating Model to provide philanthropic organzations a structure for better aligning resources for maximum impact. To read the full publication, please click here.

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