How a Zagat-Style Website Will Make Philanthropy More Accountable

"Philamplify" features not only crowd-sourced reviews but in-depth, expert evaluations as well.

Time to scrutinize the flow of donations. (Reuters)

Among the philanthropic sector’s distinguishing characteristics, perhaps none is more often remarked upon than its lack of accountability. It’s this trait, commentators often note, that separates the sector from the free market and the political realm—and from many of the other institutions that make up the broader nonprofit sector.

Politicians who pursue unpopular policies will eventually face disgruntled voters. Companies that offer shoddy products or services will ultimately feel the wrath of disgruntled consumers. Nonprofit revenues depend on a combination of fees for service, government contracts and grants, and foundation support, and incorporate a measure of accountability into their operation through all those relations. But whom do grant-makers answer to?

Within broad constraints, an endowed foundation can pretty much dole out its funds without any consideration of the likely response from the public. And it’s the rare grantee willing to speak candidly about foundation performance or priorities, given that a negative review might jeopardize philanthropic assistance somewhere down the line. As prominent jurist Richard Posner has written, “a perpetual charitable foundation ... is a completely irresponsible institution.” He wondered why we don’t consider them “total scandals.” Perhaps part of the reason why is that such critiques have become so routine that we’ve become somewhat desensitized to them; their grooves have run so deep into the contemporary discourse on philanthropy that they seem more often to substitute for, rather than to stimulate, action.

Which makes the latest project of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), an independent watchdog of foundations, all the more promising. This month, the NCRP unveiled Philamplify, a website that the Washington Post describes as “Yelp for the philanthropy sector.” But that sells the site short. It offers not just crowdsourcing intel on philanthropy, but also expert evaluations, two types of assessments that are rarely conjoined. Philamplify features detailed, independent reports on the nation’s leading foundations produced by NCRP staff and provides a forum for the public to weigh in on those foundations’ successes and failures.

Philamplify builds on recent efforts that the sector has undertaken in its almost fanatical dedication to achieving and monitoring “impact.” Many foundations, for instance, contract with policy shops to conduct rigorous evaluations of their own programs. There is no reason to doubt the integrity or the rigorousness of these arrangements. But the analysis that comes out of them is left entirely in the control of the funders themselves. Sometimes summaries are released to the public; sometimes not. Similarly, many leading foundations have embraced the “Grantee Perception Reports” developed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which allow funders to solicit feedback from key constituencies and stakeholders. But again, the process is wholly driven by the foundations themselves.

Philamplify, on the other hand, grounds the task of evaluation outside the foundation walls. As Lisa Ranghelli, the organization’s director of foundation assessment, explains, NCRP designed Philamplify out of a belief that “any organization, whether it welcomes feedback and seeks to change, or does not, benefits from having external stakeholders who can help hold that organization to account.” The reports it produces are made public and the site that houses them actively solicits input from “everyone involved with or touched by philanthropy,” turning foundation assessment “into an interactive experience.” These assessments, in a marriage that the NCRP has long championed, incorporate the sector’s preoccupation with impact—requiring the development of clearly defined objectives with metrics to measure progress—with a commitment to equity, asking that foundations confront systems that perpetuate inequality, specifically target underserved communities, and involve all those affected by philanthropy in the grantmaking process. They demand that foundations be both “strategic and just.” Each report includes a series of recommendations along these lines that the public can vote on and offers a comment section to elaborate on these views.

Philamplify is now up and running with three assessments, though a number of others are in the works and the NCRP hopes to take on many of the 100 largest foundations in the U.S. in the future. There is a report on the William Penn Foundation, which has become the leading grantmaker in the Philadelphia region; one on the Lumina Foundation, in Indianapolis, which focuses on expanding access to higher education; and another on the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation in Atlanta, which focuses on science and education. The NCRP researchers appreciated that the foundation world would consider the prospect of independent assessments “scary,” but they have produced analysis that is rigorous but fair—and never gratuitously critical. For instance, the assessment on the William Penn Foundation reports that many community members think highly of its programs in the arts and in the environment, but are also skeptical of some of its leading education programs, and want the foundation to take a more aggressive leadership role in the Philadelphia area.

These assessments, based on surveys and interviews with grantees and other individuals deeply familiar with the foundations’ work, provide a counter to the internal perspective of most evaluations commissioned by foundations themselves. The NCRP made the important decision that their assessments would not rely on full foundation cooperation, and that they would not allow foundations to opt out of the assessment if they deemed its timing inconvenient; it would never seem an especially convenient time, the NCRP determined, for a foundation to submit themselves to independent scrutiny. And so, for instance, even though William Penn was undergoing an especially messy leadership transition, and suggested that during a period of particular uncertainty for the foundation, it would be especially difficult for grantees to respond to survey and interview requests, the NCRP did not relent. The foundation asked the NCRP to postpone the study while it considered its level of cooperation, but the organization refused to do so.

Ultimately, William Penn did not offer full cooperation, refusing to grant NCRP access to its staff or board members (it did, however, review and comment on a draft of the report). However, the foundation did seem generally appreciative of the final version and resolved to take its findings seriously—at least if a commendatory letter from the foundation’s managing director featured on the Philamplify site is any indication.

Of course, the foundation is also free to ignore the assessment entirely, and so in that regard, Philamplify has not truly solved the problem of philanthropy’s accountability deficit. The NCRP knows it will not be that easy. But they are committed to building “a culture of transparency, mutual accountability and knowledge sharing” in which that challenge is more easily met. “We wanted to do something that would up the caliber and the amount of serious reflection in philanthropy,” explained Aaron Dorfman, NCRP’s executive director.

Philamplify is an important step in that direction, though it has its kinks to iron out; the feature that allows the public to vote on NCRP staff recommendations seems a bit too gimmicky, for instance. And so far, the comment sections do not yet seem to be brimming over with trenchant community insights. But even that fact has its place in a culture of accountability; for Philamplify does not just hold foundations to account, it also asks those affected by foundation grantmaking—really, the entire public—to become better informed about philanthropy and to enter into a conversation about how it can work more strategically and justly. It lays the burden of philanthropic accountability on all of us.