Philanthropic Accountability is a Two-Way Street

Photo by Bruno Bergher on Unsplash

[This essay by Jack Wertheimer will be followed by a series of pieces from leaders in the field of Jewish philanthropy, who will offer reactions and analyses to Wertheimer’s report, Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy, commissioned and released earlier this year by The AVI CHAI Foundation.]

By Jack Wertheimer

The Jewish philanthropic sphere, much like the wider world of American giving, is undergoing a far-reaching revolution. Gone are the days when givers wrote large checks and took it on trust that recipients will spend their money wisely. Today’s big funders not only target their gifts to address very specific needs; they also insist on accountability.

Driving these changes are staffed foundations, of which there are roughly 100 with a strong interest in some aspect of Jewish life. Staffing has made it possible for foundations to monitor the work of grantees, both because there are enough personnel available to pay attention, and, even more important, because foundation staffers regard oversight as part of their responsibility.

Accountability unfolds in several stages. First, grantees are asked to develop a strategy to achieve their goal(s). Backward design, for example, starts with the articulation of desired outcomes and then develops a set of interventions and activities likely to achieve the end-goals. Personnel at foundations employ such logic models with their own internal work and increasingly expect grantees to do the same.

Once that is accomplished, the next step is to develop a process to document change. Often this involves the use of metrics to demonstrate how the programs they are funding are making a difference. The simplest – and crudest – measure counts heads: how many people attended a program and are the numbers increasing or decreasing? More sophisticated are the efforts to measure how a program may have influenced behavior or thinking. And then there are questions about lasting effects versus short-term ones.

Undoubtedly, the reporting requirements place new burdens on grantees and divert staff time at not-for-profits away from other activities. But personnel at these agencies also acknowledge that funders have helped them sharpen their focus. It’s not unusual for not-for-profits to describe how with the aid of funders they learned how to work more efficiently and deliver on their own stated goals. Data collection also has helped grantees tell their own story more effectively, thereby attracting new funder support. In short, such reporting can be clarifying for grantees.

Undergirding the insistence on measurement is a strategic approach to philanthropy. Melissa Berman, CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, has emphasized the significance of this dimension of the new philanthropy: “For many years, people funded the problem and not the solution. Many funders would allocate their dollars based on how terrible the problem was – throwing money at the biggest issues even if there wasn’t a true fix available. Now, savvy donors are asking questions like: ‘What is the solution to the problem?’ and requesting that nonprofit organizations show them evidence that their approach actually works.”

This makes a good deal of sense. But why, one wonders, is the same hard-nosed approach not applied to the funders themselves? Some foundations, of course, engage in internal strategic planning and evaluation. But there are no external checks on the big funders.

It doesn’t help that neither the media nor academic researchers scrutinize the activities of big funders. These potential watchdogs don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them – or may feed them in the future. There is little pay-off for holding funders accountable, but potentially there’s a good deal to lose. And then there is the reality of philanthropic autonomy. As long as laws are observed, donors are free to spend their money as they see fit. No one can dictate where and how they should designate their giving.

Making matters worse, to the extent Jewish philanthropy is the subject of public discourse, the wrong questions are asked. Usually motivated by ideological animus, articles and blogs will express outrage about the political orientation of a donor. Shame on Birthright Israel, some commentators on the left exclaim, for taking so much of its funding from Sheldon Adelson, a staunch right-winger. Their counterparts on the right are equally aghast over funders who support organizations espousing dovish positions on Israel or left-wing American domestic policies. Such blatant partisan attacks are unlikely to sway either donors or grantees.

But there are more serious questions to ask: Have new initiatives accomplished what the funders had hoped? And if not, what can others learn from their failed bets? Are dollars flowing to the most worthy causes or is there an unhealthy fixation on a few sectors while other important ones are left to languish? As the biggest funders remove themselves from the communal system, are their decisions wiser?

Ironically, the few voices calling for such appraisals are emanating from the ranks of Jewish foundation professionals who understand that the lack of funder accountability is unhealthy. The Jewish press, which has not been shy about reporting on the failings of Jewish organizations, rarely subjects funder initiatives to similar critical analysis. When will we see some investigative journalism probing for wastefulness, mismanagement or poor judgment in the Jewish philanthropic sector? A recent report titled, “A Foundation Gives One Billion Dollars in One City and Things (Mostly) Get Worse – What’s the Lesson?” traced the failure of a major initiative by a non-sectarian foundation. At present, a comparable critique of a Jewish funder initiative is hard to imagine.

Fortunately, the larger field of American philanthropy seems to be embracing greater transparency. As cutting-edge practices spread through the largest foundations supporting Jewish causes, we may see a similar trend among Jewish funders. But that’s not the same as being held to account by external watchdogs. A healthy communal system would insist on the same kind of accountability for funders as the funders expect of their grantees – by asking whether “their approach actually works.”

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His report, Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy, was prepared under the auspices of the AVI CHAI Foundation. It may be downloaded here.