Accountability to Our Common Tradition

Stewardship is a term that is healthily disciplining, but it is also too passive: it does remind us of the specific trusts we have accepted, but it does not suggest the creative roles we inescapably play. We are stewards not merely of money, but of a tradition–a tradition [that] is still evolving. And that makes us accountable not only for what we preserve but for what we create. —Paul Ylvisaker


Accountability, in my mind, has always been a rather simple thing. Accountability is simply the idea that when certain people ask certain questions, one has to be able to give certain answers. Of course, that definition doesn’t tell you too much: who is to be held accountable? How? By whom? Accountable for what? Why? These are open questions to which there are no easy answers, and the field has set about trying to clarify this nebulous concept. We are accountable to our boards, our staff, our grantees, the Internal Revenue Service, Congress, the general public, our families, our own values, and, just when we thought there couldn’t be anything else we had to answer to, Ylvisaker argues that we are accountable to a tradition.

Although it is similar, being accountable to a tradition isn’t the same as answering to our own values. Accountability to a tradition is accountability to the institutions that sustain our values. If we are to be accountable to our shared tradition, philanthropy, it follows that we must be doing our part to ensure that the institutions of philanthropy are alive and well in this generation and the next. To that end, we need to be ready to see our tradition as a faithful one, and, then, to explore and celebrate that tradition.


Philanthropy: A Faithful Tradition

Ylvisaker’s rhetoric can easily make philanthropy sound like a sort of secular religion. After all, his words appear in an essay entitled “The Spirit of Philanthropy and the Soul of Those Who Manage It.” While we can safely say that philanthropy isn’t religious in and of itself, I don’t think that we can say philanthropy isn’t a faithful practice. The history of American philanthropy is, in many respects, a history of religious giving. The spiritual element of charity is there for too many of us to ignore it. The language of faith saturates our sector. A good percentage of us manage charitable “trusts,” which makes some of us “trustees.” We speak of “public trust” and “good faith” and we all really “believe” in what we’re doing. It’s not exactly religious, but a measure of the spiritual meaning remains in our language. In addition, our entire sector is built on trust: on the idea that you can allow individuals to command multi-million-dollar endowments and trust them, largely on their word, not to keep most of it for themselves. It’s a leap of faith we make every day. Our giving may not necessarily be explicitly religious in nature, but we are nonetheless creatures of a certain faith, a faith in people.

We believe that people can make a positive difference in the lives of others and that organized philanthropy is a way of accomplishing that. It’s not the most substantive faith in the world or the most lively, but it is an ancient and rich tradition of which we are the stewards.

At the very least, important lessons can be gained about philanthropic accountability simply by viewing philanthropy as a sort of faith. We have long viewed philanthropy as a trust. Why not use the synonym “faith” just to see what happens?


Exploring Our Tradition

I had the opportunity recently to attend a discussion with the Honorable Bruce Cole, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He spoke about “American Amnesia” and the importance of knowing our history in order to meet the challenges of the future. After all, he said, quoting George Will, “We cannot defend what we cannot define.”

In much the same way, if we are to meet the challenges of increased calls for accountability and effectiveness, we must reacquaint ourselves with our own faith tradition. Here’s a quick quiz:

These questions may seem relatively unimportant on a day-to-day basis. Aeschylus isn’t going to give us a spending policy, reorganize our boards, or settle family disputes, but the words of the past inform a great deal of what we do, if only we’re willing to look. The result can be a real and lasting transformation.

For Lynn Schusterman, President of The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, that transformative moment came with a trip to Israel. She writes:

It was not until our family traveled to Israel in 1977, the first visit to the Jewish homeland for all of us, that Charlie and I decided to adopt a new approach to giving…As a result of the trip to Israel, my Jewishness and my cultural heritage became essential aspects of my life rather than simply means of self-identification. I was inspired to increase my commitment to Jewish groups and causes.

When Schusterman was faced with the majesty and power of her faith tradition, it inspired and motivated her, and that transformation has created a tremendous legacy. Unless we are prepared to view our own traditions as faithful practices, to view philanthropy as a faith, we deny ourselves such moments. We deny the ability of the past to inform the future and our own ability to meet the future’s challenges.

At your next board or family meeting, set aside time to discuss your board’s mission and engage the texts that have informed your own religious or secular traditions. Perhaps, you may want to look at specific verses from the Bible, Koran, or Torah. Perhaps, a novel you read in high school still resonates with you. Whatever gave a voice to your values – be it Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha or Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go—should have a voice in your meetings. Maybe your board has never actually read Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth. Share these texts and your thoughts on them, and think about how you might translate those thoughts in to philanthropic action. For more information on how you might set up such a meeting, contact The Project on Civic Reflection or the Maine Humanities Council’s Thoughtful Giving Program.

Such pursuits do not have to be so formal, however. Simply set aside time in your personal life to acquaint yourself with the history of philanthropy, and discuss it with others. The result may not be as powerful as Schusterman’s journey, but such pursuits do have power nonetheless.

Celebrating Our Tradition

In the same way that we celebrate our faiths and our values, we need to celebrate philanthropy. That may seem rather alien to philanthropy, but as Virginia Esposito, President of the National Center for Family Philanthropy, relates in this anecdote, we might need to rethink celebration:

A very distinguished group spoke of the public policy, economic climate, and sense of duty that would be required to ensure the healthy future of our sector. At the end, a woman stood who had been quiet throughout most of the proceedings. She told us what a privilege it had been for her to work in philanthropy, how much she had learned and gained. She said she had heard many important things about the future of philanthropy but she was disappointed to have heard nothing of the joy it brings, not just to others but also to donors and trustees. She said if she could communicate that joy to her children so they were inspired to continue in this work, she might do her part to ensure the future of private philanthropy in America. That remarkable woman was Lucile Packard, co-founder, donor and trustee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

To be accountable to our tradition we must be prepared to celebrate the joy that it brings us. Frank Butler, President of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, Inc), observes in Faith and Family Philanthropy: Grace, Gratitude and Generosity:

In the 1940s and 1950s, Catholicism was a distinctive and dominant cultural institution…Who could have suspected that in a mere three decades much of this rich and colorful Catholic subculture would fade away, and that the institutional life that it reflected would undergo a profound transformation?

As President of FADICA, Butler now leads a new generation of Catholic donors in their support of Catholic schools, programs, and initiatives. Catholicism brought joy to their lives and now they do their part to communicate that same joy to others by protecting the institutions which gave them birth. As Schusterman puts it, the foundation’s “primary objective is to achieve [a] philanthropic mission; however, it also serves as a vehicle for expressing and transmitting values to our children and grandchildren.” We create legacies not only of wealth but of value; we bring joy as well as grants.

Amidst great scrutiny, accountability to our tradition demands we protect the institutions which help so many, and, simply by logging on to the internet, we can do much to celebrate philanthropy. Many foundation websites are filled with donor biographies, mission statements, and success stories. All of these serve to communicate who we are and what we do. Much of this, though, lacks a certain authenticity because it strikes many as self-congratulatory, and, as Ylvisaker said, we need to be wary of giving merely because it makes us feel good about ourselves.

Madeline Lee, former CEO of the New York Foundation, gives us the antidote in Listening at the Grassroots: Reflections on 25 Years of Grantmaking in the World’s Greatest City:

People solve problems. Money sometimes helps people. The distinction is important. It is your inoculation against the arrogance that is like an endemic disease in philanthropy. Remembering the difference keeps you talking about what you have supported rather than what you have done. It’s pretty common in philanthropy to hear people say “Oh yes, we started that organization.” We did not. We gave money to the people who started it.

Sharing Our Tradition

As much as we need to constantly remind ourselves of our true goals and aspirations, we also need to share what we’ve learned and gained through philanthropy with the rest of the world. Technology and the internet have proven to be incredible tools for many family philanthropists by providing efficient, low-cost means of publicizing the successes of nonprofits they support. Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of web logs, orblogs, which provide an easy way of communicating with an authenticity and intimacy some websites lack. Blogs are online diaries and run the gamut from political pundits exposing forged documents to regular people talking about what they had for dinner. Some philanthropy-related blogs include: Gift Hub and Philanthropy 2225.

Logging on to the Internet, philanthropists can show the world what it is that they actually do: all the joy and frustration that comes with being a part of this tradition. Like any diary, you write in it whenever you have a story to tell. Some blog every other hour; some, every other day or week. Blogs can be set up as a separate site or as the newest feature of your foundation’s website. Either way, others get to see the people, the values, the faith that animate your giving. You can set up your own blog for free with programs like Blogger orTypePad. If you’re not into the idea of blogging, present the option to an enthusiastic staff member or to the next generation of your family foundation as a way of involving them in the discussion.

In one way or another, tell your story – on your website, in articles, in speeches, in conferences, in meetings. Colin G. Campbell, Chairman, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, writes in Living the Legacy:

No one can deny that accountability has its quantitative aspects. But accountability also comes with a second set of associations that ought to be far more appealing and comfortable to family foundations. For in addition to taking a measurement, accountability means giving an account of yourself–put simply, it means telling your story.

After all, as stewards of a faithful tradition, we are “accountable not only for what we preserve but for what we create,” not only for the chapters we save but for the chapters we write.