With all the accountability talk, it’s a bit funny how unaccountable many foundations and non profits are to the actual clients. I know. I worked at one that peered into the abyss, didn’t like what it saw, and I don’t think it has looked back again. And we chanted a mantra around accountability.
A long time ago in a land far away—where you can’t get sued—I worked for a large non profit. We had over 40 million dollars, and were tasked with supporting urban school reform. As I was joining the organization it had a third party talk to the clients, and have them assess our services.
I don’t know what the bosses expected, but the results from clients showed a few strong supporters, but mostly—meh. And the support level wasn’t tied strongly to how much support we had given to the particular client.
I think the Board thought the clients would be effusive in praise. That the grants would buy proportionate gratitude—they didn’t.
The reality was that clients were just working really hard on the ground in very challenged and impacted communities, and maybe felt a little less grateful then they visited our $60,000 a month offices.
Heads rolled at the organization. And not much changed, except we stopped asking clients how we were doing and caring what they said.
Accountability for and to whom
It’s funny—not in a ha ha way—but we were the accountability guys. We were always pushing “performance based grant-making” with rigorous accountability measures. And when I interviewed for the gig, I knew I had to keep saying “accountability” and “rigor.” Partially because that’s who they were, but also as a Black man, sometimes folks make assumptions about whether you get their talk and understand accountability and rigor.
I have some great stories there for another day.
And in a way I am and always was the “accountability” guy, but in a different way. Trying to think about how we are accountable to the actual clients, rather than the foundations footing the bill. And maybe that’s the rub. There are many thoughtful foundation folks, and its tying their actions to community or client accountability.
We have heard a lot recently about the unaccountability of philanthropy. The Zuckerberg story in Newark, critiques of some of Gates’education giving, and local critiques in Oakland as well. At the same time, we need more money in California schools, and targeted money to really develop new or neglected areas.
And, let’s be honest, the reality of a lot the critiques of outside funding is selective. Where some funding folks like and some funding they don’t like, screaming about one, while remaining silent and attending press conferences about the other.
An accountability revolution
I wonder what would happen if more foundations did what mine did, if they actually asked the clients, or in some cases the public, how they are doing. And held themselves accountable to that standard.
I think that would be a new day in philanthropy.
I also think a lot of heads would roll.