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When Accountability Doesn’t Work

June 9, 2011

How can a private philanthropy be “accountable” to certain standards, when the philanthropy itself sets those standards? What happens when those standards are at odds with those of the international development community? And is there such a thing as being too accountable?

Like most others in the development community, CGP is always interested in how to improve the accountability of aid organizations. That’s why, two weeks ago, we attended a panel discussion of Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman’s new book, Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results. Hosted by Hudson’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, the event featured Thomas Tierney, Jeff Cain (Executive Publisher of Philanthropy Daily), and Kristi Kimball (Hewlett Foundation). Their discussion focused on the challenges of accountability and how the zeal to pursue measurable results can obscure alternate sources of success.

Tierney, who holds an M.B.A from Harvard University, has worked in the private-sector for most of his life, and his new book reflects a decidedly market-oriented sensibility. Rather than offer specific strategies (consider Easterly’s work), Give Smart centers on six questions to guide philanthropists to what Tierney and Fleishman term “high-impact results”:

  • What are my values and beliefs?
  • What is “success” & how can it be achieved?
  • What am I accountable for?
  • What will it take to get the job done?
  • How do I work with grantees?
  • Am I getting better?

Collectively, these questions read a bit like a SWOT analysis—that age-old practice of asking businesses to identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Unlike businesses, however, foundations cannot rely on market forces to regulate their activity. As Tierney noted, if a company produces products that no one likes, it will go out of business. But if a foundation has enough resources, it can enable NGOs to deliver sub-standard products indefinitely. Goals are set at the behest of the foundation, and the foundation is answerable only to itself.

This unfortunate situation illustrates the first of Tierney’s “Three Terrible Truths”:

  1. All philanthropy is personal.
  2. Results are a choice.
  3. Excellence is self-imposed.

Together, these statements pose serious challenges to the question of accountability. If foundations can exist for no other reason than to “unite a family” (which Tierney offered as an actual example) and if private philanthropists determine their own standards, then “accountability” is an empty term. Panelist Jeff Cain was particularly critical about this issue and pointed out that a serious drawback of “high-impact giving” is its intense subjectivity.

Audience member Brigid Splika suggested as a standard that all foundations could adhere to their own version of the Hippocratic oath, a promise to do no harm. And while that certainly sounds reasonable as a measure of what should be done, private philanthropies can simply ignore those kinds of demands. There exists no mechanism to ensure that what should be done actually is done.

In addition to prompting these vexing moral questions, Tierney’s standards of accountability can also create problems of implementation. In particular, Kristi Kimball argued that Give Smart’s six questions seem to lead philanthropists to define not only a mission but also a “theory of change,” the specific instruments by which a mission is achieved. (For example, if the mission is to improve women’s education, a theory of change might be to fund more teachers.)

If Tierney's hope is that philanthropists are driven, disciplined entrepreneurs, Kimball's fear is that they turn out to be obsessive, ineffectual micro-managers, like the Office's Michael Scott. Source: NBC Photos

Referring to her recent paper “Letting Go,” Kimball argued that a narrow focus on results and a slavish devotion to one “theory of change” can impair a foundation’s ability to find the best solution. The Hewlett Foundation, she notes as an example, tried to significantly improve education policy in California, and their preferred method of change was through state policy. In 2001, this theory looked promising, and Governor Schwarzenegger even declared 2008 “the Year of Education Reform.”

Then the recession hit California, and its education budget went up in flames. The Hewlett Foundation, which had pinned its hopes on one approach, was left in a tough situation. Although the California state government had seemed enthusiastic about school reform, changing economic conditions devastated Hewlett’s carefully-planned theory of change.  The decision to fund one poor-performing strategy diverted resources from other, potentially more successful projects. Hewlett’s failure to diversify strategies ultimately harmed school reform efforts.

For the most part, Tierney seemed to agree with Kimball’s assessment and acknowledged that those dangers existed. But both Tierney and Kimball also emphasized that the existence of these possibilities need not be paralyzing. While rigidity may be the dark side of discipline, philanthropists can embrace the former while avoiding the latter. Vigilance is all that is required.

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