Letters to the editor: Review

A review of letters to the editor received in response to the Alliance magazine, September 2011 edition.

The September 2011 edition of Alliance magazine’s focus on Living with the Gates Foundation attracted a fascinating array of Letters to the Editor. These were published over the subsequent editions of Alliance and were received from leaders of the philanthropic sector globally. In many ways, I found the letters even more engaging than the original articles.

Firstly there are differing opinions on the controversial use of a picture of a big gorilla to depict the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gerry Salole, European Foundation Centre, found the “winking allusion to the Gates Foundation unhelpful and detracting” reducing the Gates Foundation to merely its size, rather than acknowledging its many achievements.

On the other hand Karla Simon, Professor of Law, Catholic University of America, liked the “tongue-in-cheek allusion to the size of the Gates Foundation”, noting the size of the Gates Foundation does not detract in any way from the wonderful work it does. Indeed Simon went on to describe the gentle and compassionate nature of gorillas, much like the Gates Foundation, concluding that perhaps the allusion is valid after all.

Charles Keidan, Pears Foundation in UK notes that: “Depicting the Gates Foundation as a gorilla was perhaps not the most subtle way for Alliance to raise the debate about the role of philanthropy in society. But the kind of scrutiny the issue is receiving is precisely what philanthropy needs to help raise its game and realise its full potential as a major force for good in the world. There is probably no one better placed than Bill Gates to personify this change.”

However, most agreed with the sentiments of Robyn Scott, CEO of Philanthropy New Zealand. She  thanked Alliance magazine for highlighting the most challenging of all issues in philanthropy: the power and influence of significant size, and the freedom that philanthropy enjoys where accountability is not required from voters or shareholders.

“Posing such questions is rare and generally occurs behind closed doors,” she says. Indeed Aaron Dorman, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy USA, said: “Discussing openly issues of accountability and impact related to the foundation is credibly important, especially because so many people are fearful of speaking publicly about the world’s largest grant maker.”

Marcos Kisil, Institute for Development and Social Investment in Brazil, raises the issue of accountability in his letter: “not Gates’ own accountability as a foundation,” he specifies, “but its contribution to increasing the accountability of the philanthropic sector as a whole.”

He describes accountability as saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and doing what you say you are going to do.

He notes that High Net Worth Individuals are not only economically powerful, they are also influential in the political and social life of the countries where they live and made their original fortunes. Their actions and attitudes and the use they make of their wealth are followed by the media. In some ways they can serve as a beacon for good, and unhappily for bad.

In the Gates’ case, because of their size, visibility, iconographic presence, and present and future influence over other philanthropic entities, they have a tremendous influence on the accountability of the whole sector.

For Charles Erkelens, Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy in the Netherlands, the essential question is who can demand what type of accountability from foundations? In his view there are two main groups:

1. Governments: they provide foundations with tax benefits. The strength of civil society, of which foundations are a part, is that it operates independently and without involvement from government. Therefore, any accountability should be limited to allowing the government to check whether the foundation does harm, and this can be covered by legislation.

2. Communities: This is the group that foundations try to serve. Foundations’ activities directly impact the lives of people who make up communities. They are directly impacted because any intended good concerns them. Therefore, active effort should be made to try and demonstrate responsibility by the foundation for the actions taken on their behalf.

The key for Erkelens, therefore, is proper evaluation of projects and programs, not just how much money was spent on what.

Taking a different tack on the accountability question, Lisa Jordan from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, also in the Netherlands, states that: “private foundations and private companies are exactly that – private.” She says that if we are uncomfortable with the scale of private companies or philanthropies that spin off from an enormous profit base, we should all be funding more advocacy to rebalance the public and private interests in our societies, not attack the governance arrangements of a private institution.

She argues that the Gates Foundation operates with exactly the same principles as most family foundations, so if Gates is to be targeted for its governance structure, so should all family foundations. However she does advocate two changes that the Gates Foundation could undertake to further accountability in the philanthropic field:

1. Firstly, it could publish its failures, as it is vital to have information in the public domain about why some approaches to social needs work and others don’t.

2. Secondly, she would like the Gates Foundation to publish all knowledge generated through and by its programs without copyright and for public use. As she notes large foundations sit on tons of grey literature that helps program officers discern patterns in complex social fields; helps executives and boards make decisions on which field to operate in and which fields to leave; and helps evaluate wider societal trends. Most of that information never makes its way into the public domain. Making it available would increase the Gates Foundation’s accountability on the issue that matters most: how it makes decisions on what to fund.

Challenging much of the concern of article-authors and letter-writers is Diana Leat, from the UK, who asks: “But is the potential power of foundations necessarily a bad thing?”

She and Helmut Anheier have argued in their book Creative Philanthropy that independent foundations may fulfil an important and unique function in challenging the orthodoxies and powers of the day. At a time when governments, business and the not-for-profit sector all seem increasingly to speak the language and values of the market, the capacity of foundations to provide alternative viewpoints may never be more important.

Hear, hear!

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