(Michael Remaley is the director of Public Policy Communicators NYC and president of HAMILL REMALEY breakthrough communications. In a previous post for Transparency Talk, he wrote about identifying transparency benchmarks in foundation communications.)
More and more philanthropic professionals are accepting the idea that their organizations should be transparent and, in part because those who founded the organization took major tax benefits when it was established, have some accountability to the public. Many of our field's big thinkers are making a compelling case that public accountability in philanthropy should be a core value in our work. But when it comes to accountability, what if foundations and the public are talking about entirely different things?
New research from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation presents evidence that the public and leaders across many sectors hold strikingly different ideas about what it means to be accountable. The report, "Don't Count Us Out: How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public's Confidence in Schools, Business, Government and More," is based on new public opinion research. It outlines the key dimensions of accountability as the public defines it and contrasts the public's perspective with prevailing leadership views. Although it isn't mentioned in the subtitle, the report explores the ramifications for foundations, too.
For philanthropic professionals, the implications are significant – both for their foundations and the institutions they support. There are several pros and cons in the research for those foundations already committed to transparency and accountability. For those foundations on the fence about accountability, the research reinforces the fact that the public expects institutions to be accountable, but raises questions about just what that means.
There are several key points from the research that philanthropic professionals will want to consider:
Accountability requires ethics.
For foundations, the biggest "pro" in this research is that the public sees accountability first as a dimension of ethics and responsibility. Foundations – especially those with an orientation toward accountability and transparency – will likely fair well with the public in this regard. On the "con" side, many leaders who see accountability measures as the principal way to ensure that their institutions meet their obligations to the public may be putting too much faith in how much the public values the setting of benchmarks, collecting data, measuring performance, disclosing information, and organizing system-wide reforms. Those mechanisms, while often valuable as management tools, fall far short of relieving the public's most potent concerns, especially their fears about an ethical decline in our society. Foundations that demonstrate they are acting responsibly and ethically will be thought by the public to be accountable more than those that simply talk about benchmarks.
More information does not equal more trust.
Typically, people know almost nothing about specific measures, and they rarely see them as clear-cut evidence of effectiveness. Many Americans are deeply skeptical about the accuracy and importance of quantitative measures. Most are suspicious of the ways in which numbers can be manipulated or tell only half the story. So on the "pro" side, this research is good news for those foundations that have become adept at getting their message out with personal stories of those affected by their programs. For those that are still trying to talk about their impact with lists of grants made and lots of data, the "cons" in this research may be quite jarring. Many members of the public feel confused and overwhelmed by the detailed information flying past them in the name of "disclosure" and "transparency." Many fear they are being manipulated by the complex presentations. More and more statistics do not reassure, so in fact, more information can actually lead to less public trust. It's not that they don't want accountability and information from foundations, but a whole lot of data (without any qualitative context) isn't reassuring to them.
Responsiveness is just as important as benchmarks.
For the public, being able to reach someone who listens to you and treats your ideas and questions respectfully is a fundamental dimension of accountability. This may be the biggest challenge for foundations in this research, since even the most transparent rarely open the door more than a crack to let the general public in to give feedback on the funding programs aimed at them. For most people, not being able to talk to someone is a signal that the institution doesn't genuinely care about those they serve. Foundations are particularly opaque to the public. The message is clear for those in philanthropy and other sectors who may fear being besieged by community input: the public wants a better balance and authentic mechanisms that allow them to be heard. On the "pro" side, those foundations that do seek community input and can demonstrate they are listening will likely be afforded a great deal of public trust. Foundations that rate well on the Foundation Center's Glasspockets measures of transparency, especially those dealing with grantee surveys and grantee feedback, can probably feel some relief that they will likely be considered accountable in the public's eyes.
The public expects to be held accountable, too.
For most Americans, the return to real accountability is not the job of leaders alone. Time and again, people in focus groups spoke about their own responsibilities and the near impossibility of solving problems without a broad base of responsibility at every level of society. Many foundations already get this. Institutions that embrace the idea of a public role in fostering institutional accountability must think creatively and proactively about how typical citizens can contribute their knowledge and actions to fulfill the organization's mission. The report emphasizes that giving people more and more information or giving them more and more choices without truly considering public priorities and concerns is likely to backfire.
The "Don't Count Us Out" report is getting a lot of attention in policy circles. The Washington Post's education columnist Jay Mathews said, "Its message is vital. Accountability is a key word in our national debate… The Public Agenda/Kettering report may have exposed the greatest obstacle to getting our kids the educations they deserve." And The Nonprofit Quarterly said, "The authors suggest that there is one other area that needs equal attention: philanthropy, which they say has 'fewer true accountability mechanisms than any other field.' However, there is one dimension of accountability in which philanthropy may be the strongest: the 'publicly stated moral convictions of its leaders.' How to measure that will, perhaps, be the biggest challenge of all."
For foundation professionals involved in communicating the results of their organizations' work, the first thing to recognize is simply the different orientation of your audience. The second is to understand that people expect more than just statistics and analyses of results to feel that the foundation is indeed accountable. Many foundations are hesitant to allow outsiders to even have easy e-mail access to staff (another Glasspockets transparency measure). So allowing the public to give feedback on the programs that are directed at them may seem like a radical idea to some. Many foundations are already doing grantee surveys and allowing public commentary on their blogs. These are likely to go a long way in engendering trust with the public.
Many foundations have already realized that telling stories is a more effective means of communicating with people than rolling off statistics and spewing facts. When it comes to demonstrating our foundations' accountability, it may be time to consider the idea that bringing the public into the process is as important as enumerating outcomes.
-- Michael Remaley