Freedom & Effectiveness Through Accountability
Because a body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody. – Thomas Payne
It should go without saying that families who embark on philanthropy together have good intentions—to give back to communities where families live and have made their wealth, to make a difference in the world, and to provide a place where the family can engage in collective good work. And yet, good intentions are not enough, and all too often philanthropic efforts result in unintended outcomes, and sometimes even harm to the intended beneficiaries. Opportunities for families to lean into and learn from a practice of accountability exist in the gaps between intentions and outcomes.
What do we mean by that? As described in our Guide for Effective Family Philanthropy, accountability is a critical foundation for trust-building, healthy relationships, and recognizing and mitigating power dynamics. However, there are relatively few forces truly holding philanthropy accountable. There are minimal legal requirements for private foundations or donor-advised funds; philanthropy doesn’t have shareholders in the manner of public companies; nonprofits are dependent on philanthropy for grants, which makes it challenging for them to hold philanthropy accountable in any meaningful way; and there are—at best—nominal requirements for philanthropy to be transparent about its actions.
Yet, truly effective family philanthropy leaders and practitioners voluntarily accept and address accountability in purposeful and profound ways. Why? And how is this an advantage?
The Benefits of Accountability
Families that ground themselves in asking and answering the question, “to whom are we accountable?” recognize that they are accountable to the general public; that the assets they are stewarding are set aside to advance positive change in communities, not for personal interests. Questions of accountability also recognize that philanthropy operates within a set of complex systems of communities, peoples, public policies, and history, and is not functioning within the narrow bounds of a single family.
If you embrace accountability, you free yourself from the trap of perfection. It is easy, as a funder, to believe that you have to be perfect or mistake-free (i.e., that every grant has to achieve exactly what you think it will). In a framework of accountability, if you act in good faith, in partnership with community and people with lived experience, and are willing to accept that things may go differently than you expect, you learn from those unexpected outcomes, accept responsibility, and move forward with new knowledge and stronger relationships. A posture of accountability affords you the freedom to take risks, make mistakes, and be innovative—making you a more effective funder.
To bring to life the challenges, opportunities, and possibilities of accountability, we sat down for a conversation with Ashley Blanchard, a fourth-generation board member of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, and the vice chair of the NCFP board.
What does accountability in philanthropy mean to you?
Let’s start with the fact that philanthropy is uniquely unaccountable! There is basically no accountability built in. I’ve long been astonished that you have this institution that is, in part, publicly funded and that has as little accountability as philanthropy does. These are public trusts: for every dollar that your family put into a foundation or other charitable vehicle, the public matched those funds through tax breaks. Absent some media watch dogs, and annual IRS filings, there is little external accountability.
So, the only real accountability we have in this field is the accountability we impose on ourselves. And there are truly great benefits to that. We know that collective process in and of itself leads to better outcomes. In the context of family philanthropy, more minds challenging each other, exchanging ideas, bringing diverse perspectives to the table makes us better.
If we dig in a little further on the family angle, how do you think about accountability in the context of family philanthropy?
As a public trust, philanthropy is rooted in a social contract in which families contribute to foundations or other philanthropic vehicles and in exchange get to retain some authority over the use of those dollars. But this is a contract that people have been challenging, and for good reason. In this day and age, does it still make sense to have the original donors’ families involved in this way? What is the cost of family involvement? And what does the public get for it?
As we continue to have conversations about the ways in which wealth is generated and preserved, it is critical that families ask themselves this question: what is the value we are bringing to the philanthropic work? At Hill-Snowdon, we ask this a lot, in different ways. What is our value-add and does it justify the continued authority and involvement of our family? Are we operating in ways that justify that authority?
Over the years, we’ve adapted how we operate to be more accountable to the communities we serve and the beneficiaries of our grant dollars. We hired professional staff with experience in the community organizing work we support. We have added community members to our board, to bring in those with more expertise. We are also deliberate about creating spaces outside the foundation for the “family stuff.” There are some great things about being a family doing this work together, but we are deeply cognizant of the fact that a public trust is not intended to support the weight of our family’s cohesion.
How has this approach to accountability shown up in your grantmaking?
When we re-imagined the Hill-Snowdon Foundation about two decades ago, we did so with the guidance of advisors with backgrounds in running nonprofits, and community organizing. So out of the gate, we did a lot of things that are now considered “best practice”—we funded general support, long-term relationships, and took risks on small grassroots organizations.
The type of work we support isn’t easily assessed with traditional evaluation methods. We’re looking for base-building, the development of community leaders and strong organizing strategies. That stuff is nearly impossible to understand in a grant report. You have to have conversations with the people doing the work and you have to understand how change happens.
We’ve also learned from our mistakes. Early on, we thought we wanted to do an initiative around fatherhood. It’s a pretty good example of family foundation trustees being out of touch with the communities they’re hoping to help, and luckily it was short-lived. But it helped us understand the need for community input, input from those affected by the issues we’re hoping to address.
Now, when we’re considering changes, we get input from our grantee partners. We seek input into our grantmaking process and practices and funding strategies. We’re a small foundation—we have to make choices about what and how to fund. So we’ve gotten grantee partner input into how to manage declines in our endowment, whether and how to have time limits on our grants, what our application and reporting process should look like. We’re all working toward the same goal, and all invested in using these resources to achieve our mission.
For good reason, there’s been some pushback in recent years against the notion of “strategic philanthropy” that was so big in the ‘90s and 2000s, which has come to be associated with top-down, prescriptive approaches, and really intensive forms of evaluation, of questionable utility. But I think “strategy” is an important part of accountability, particularly in family philanthropy. Because family philanthropy is a collective act, you need a shared framework for effective decision making. Stewarding these resources requires intentionality. We may never know for sure what was achieved with our grants, but we should have a pretty good idea of the context in which we’re operating, and what could be achieved.
You also need to be clear about what you support and what you don’t. Part of accountability is being able to transparently and truthfully say why we did this and not that. There’s a lot about philanthropy that is—and should be—uncomfortable: the power imbalance, the fundamentally arbitrary nature of selecting among any number of worthy organizations.
At the end of the day, we’re accountable to two groups: the beneficiaries of our funding, who are dependent on us to do their work, and the tax-paying public, who has contributed funds that we have the privilege of directing. Can we look those parties in the proverbial eye and say we’ve been thoughtful about our decisions?
What would be your call to action for family philanthropy around accountability?
Families need to have more open conversations about the value they bring to their philanthropy and whether the value they bring justifies the costs of their ongoing authority. At the end of the day, it’s really about intentionality, clarity, having values-based principles that are informed by those affected by the issues you’re seeking to address, and having the humility to recognize when something has gone wrong and to make amends and course-corrections.
Ashley’s philanthropic journey and the work of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation mirror many of my experiences and reflections working in large and small for-profit companies, for the federal government, and in large and small nonprofits. Over the years, I have grown in my understanding of the richness and freedom that comes from asking, ‘to whom am I accountable?’ We all exist in relationship—to our families, communities, friends, coworkers and the people we encounter every day. If the last years have taught us nothing else, it is that we rise and fall together, and that holding ourselves accountable for both our intentions and impacts is the pathway to a stronger future.
The Hill-Snowdon Foundation has been a longtime member of NCFP. You can learn more about their work by visiting their website. How is your family philanthropy practicing accountability? Learn about recommended practices and explore the five principles of effective family philanthropy here.
Miki Akimoto is the chief impact officer at NCFP
Ashley Blanchard is a trustee of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, vice-chair of the NCFP board, and head of philanthropic services at Lansberg Gersick Advisors