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The Debate Continues: NCRP Report Should Spur Reflection About Social Justice, Not Attacks

Resource type: News

The Council on Foundations |

Original Source

By: Gara LaMarche

The recent report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), “ Philanthropy at its Best: Benchmarks to Assess and Enhance Grantmaking Impact,” has stirred up a storm among foundations not seen since, well…the last time foundations were called upon to be more attentive to addressing social justice issues and serving the needs of diverse communities.

That wasn’t too long ago. Last year, a number of California foundations were up in arms about a Greenlining Institute report purporting to find that communities of color were underrepresented in their grantmaking. This was followed by a clumsy effort by the California Assembly to require foundations to be more transparent about their practices and efforts to ensure diversity. The bill was dropped when the 10 largest foundations in California agreed to “settle out of court,” as it were, by announcing a set of steps to pump more money into low-income minority communities.

The objections to the Greenlining report and the California Assembly bill had some merit. First, there were some legitimate concerns about the study’s methodology. And second, many were alarmed with the crudeness of the legislature’s effort, which had the quality of a shake-down operation and may in fact have treaded on important values of philanthropic independence and pluralism. Nevertheless, it is inarguable that philanthropy has far to go to in dealing with the appalling inequalities in American society, and the structures of exclusion that have produced, perpetuated, and exacerbated these divisions. We need all the help we can get to move us to a better and more effective place.

You might think, therefore, that a careful and thoughtful report by the NCRP, a respected nonprofit watchdog, would be welcome. Especially since the report represents a real effort to feed the discussion about philanthropy and social justice and set forth voluntary benchmarks meant to promote debate. (Full disclosure, I serve on the NCRP’s board, which is composed of nonprofit and foundation leaders.) But the report has hardly been welcomed.

The attacks from the Wall Street Journal and the few avowedly right-wing foundations are predictable, since they have a forthright ideology that sees racism as yesterday’s problem, government as the enemy, and inequality as something for the free market to sort out, if at all. What has been more surprising and troubling, however, is the intense opposition from some quarters of the philanthropic community—from people of reputation and goodwill who are genuinely concerned about inequality and racism and who want to make philanthropy more strategic and effective.

In recent years, the philanthropic effectiveness movement has promoted all kinds of metrics for impact and benchmarks for best practices. I have sometimes quarreled with the particulars, but the effort is worthwhile. Yet this movement has been to a considerable degree technocratic, and the discussion it has generated has had a certain sterile quality much of the time. This is so because the discussion of effectiveness is too often detached from the social worthiness of the aims of philanthropy.

As a practitioner of advocacy grantmaking, I can admire, for example, the Bradley Foundation’s strategic success in promoting school voucher programs. At the same time, I abhor the creeping privatization of education it has spawned. The NCRP report goes further to provide real tools for measuring effectiveness within a social justice framework and thus, combines the drive for effectiveness and the kind of change so many of us seek.

I am not equally enthusiastic about every recommendation put forth by the NCRP report, just as I do not equally support every recommendation made by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, though I admire each group and Atlantic supports both of them. Atlantic, like virtually all foundations, does not meet every benchmark in the NCRP report, and some we care about more than others. The report recommendations are meant to be viewed as aspirational, more in the nature of one’s New Year’s resolutions than stone tablets handed down from Mt. Sinai, and there is nothing in the report that suggests otherwise. We in philanthropy should be gratified to see a serious effort made to assist foundations in advancing equality and social justice. The report should be engaged on its merits, and not with ad hominem attacks.

No one has a monopoly on the benchmarking business, and those who attempt to marry two important philanthropic movements—one for social justice and the other for effectiveness—deserve our congratulations, not condemnation. We need to ask ourselves why the sector has raised it voice loudest in opposition to efforts to assure its social responsibility. We can and will do better.

Gara LaMarche is the president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies.