On My Own




As I started talking about last time, these are the tenets of the archetypal charitable foundation in the U.S.

Autonomy means that no one other than their own board of trustees tells them what to do. They’re not beholden to shareholders, the government, the public – they have the ability to make up their own minds.

At modest asset sizes, this doesn’t seem too problematic at first glance – you want to have your own idiosyncratic agenda, hey, more power to you.

But when we’re talking billions of dollars, that’s when people start getting suspicious. Arundhati Roy’s recent piece about the pernicious role of US foundations abroad (which, interestingly enough, is an argument being echoed, in a different key, at the Hudson Institute next week) targets certain large and familiar names like Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates. To a degree, these folks are setting themselves up for such scrutiny by promoting their own brands more aggressively (see Alison Bernstein’s reflections on how Ford’s branding has changed over the years). (H/T GiftHub for these three links.)

But let’s not forget, even with all their billions, these groups are a drop in the bucket of the economies of social problems. As Sandy Vargas of the Minneapolis Foundation pointed out at the EPIP conference last year, her budget when she ran a county administration in the Twin Cities metro area was $2 billion. One county, in one state! OK, a big county, but still – in government terms, foundations are a drop in the bucket. Always healthy to remember that.

But I think the real issue arises when autonomy is exercised by big fishes in small ponds. This goes back to the idea of funding ecosystems – funders need to be aware of how they’re situated in their individual fields, and what are the impacts of the choices they make on the health of the ecosystem. When everyone gets too focused and no one supports the broad-based, bread-and-butter groups…the ecosystem suffers.

Autonomy becomes a challenge when funders operate in fields with few other actors, where their decisions have outsize consequences. Even if in the aggregate, foundation dollars are a drop in the bucket, at the micro level, or even field level, they can have an outsize influence. All the more important then to adopt the Spider-man model as a default: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

When you combine this kind of autonomy with privacy, it can be difficult for actors in the field to figure out how to relate to “their” funders. If the default setting is for funders to keep things internally oriented, then information may not flow freely enough to enable the ongoing health of the ecosystem. If water plays a critical role in biological ecosystems, then information is the water of funding ecosystems. Privacy and autonomy throw up dams that need to be acknowledged, understood, and managed. And sometimes replaced….

Next, I’ll look at how the goal of perpetuity interacts with privacy and autonomy.


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One Response to “On My Own”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Who Wants to Live Forever Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday (for now). « On My Own […]

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