Stuck in the Middle with You

(With apologies to whatever band played that song in Reservoir Dogs for the title. There’s a TV show where all the episode titles are the titles of songs. I might try that for a while with blog post titles, this makes two in a row….)

Continuing this week’s theme on decision-making and transparency:

Congressional appropriations are a kind of grant. What if foundations had to go through a Congressional-style process while making grants? What kind of theater would ensue? Would you see foundation staff whispering in the ears of trustees, who would be seated behind nameplates and microphones, asking questions of the grant applicant, who’s shifting uncomfortably in the hotseat, reading prepared testimony?

The giving circle I’m involved with, the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund, has a version of this, come to think of it. We do a “pitch night,” where our three finalists for one annual grant come to present to the membership, who afterwards get to deliberate together and vote online about which organization receives the grant that year. There’s definitely an element of theater there, of performance. And it’s interesting how it’s semi-public, for an audience that has ante’d up for the privilege of making that decision together. We have a lot of criteria we use to make the decision, and the deliberation is genuinely enjoyable. Feels like crowdsourcing at its best.

And see, there’s one of the challenges with transparency and decision-making. Whatever the experience of being in that deliberating group is like, I can’t think of a way to describe it without raising the potential, however remote, that someone might call into question the nature of the process. As much as I know internally that we do a careful job, from the outside looking in, it’s always going to have the potential to be mysterious or even suspicious. Even when there’s nothing going on. The very nature of the situation has the potential to breed mistrust. And that potential is amplified when you have – wait for it – more people involved in the conversation. Which is why observing Congress drives people crazy, because so many people are watching and the stakes are so high. (And, well, because there actually is a lot of venality going on.) So what would my giving circle’s pitch night look like with a lot more people watching?

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, I guess I’m trying to abide honestly in the place of ambivalence that drove me to this series of posts and to which I return in the end. I’m open to ways more transparency can improve decision-making, but I continue to have my doubts, or at least my questions….


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