Belly of the Beast

The Komen/Planned Parenthood thing is an omen of further struggles to come within philanthropy. Private foundation decision-making is notoriously opaque; a frequent complaint of grantseekers is that it’s not clear why they’re denied, and they don’t usually get feedback about why. (All too often, they don’t even ask.) This was somewhat tenable when private foundations stayed safely on the margins of social and political discourse.

Now, more and more private foundations are seeking attention, publicity, interaction. But their practices around decision-making are not well-suited for this new reality. As Phil Cubeta at GiftHub points out, Karen Handel from Komen, the exec at the heart of the Planned Parenthood controversy, used all the “right” technocratic phrases. But the baldly political nature of the decision-making created an uproar precisely because Komen has been so successful at branding. Foundation governance and decision-making have a long way to go, in other words, to catch up with new ambitions for, I guess you could call it, belovedness.

Be careful what you wish for, because loyalty cuts both ways. In our strangely entitled consumer economy (Louis C.K. has a good bit about this, H/T avclub.com), where we expect gratification that’s not just instant but predictive (it knows what you want before you do), those brands that do pass the loyalty bar inspire such devotion that when they “wrong” us, we lash out at them. Just ask Netflix.

Decision-making and governance are the soft underbelly of the foundation world, and as the Komen thing demonstrates, when you poke it, the results aren’t pretty. Time for some sit-ups….

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