What’s “Best” in Philanthropy: A Debate Recap with Aaron Dorfman and Adam Meyerson

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Aaron Dorfman  Adam Meyerson

Philanthropy New York proudly hosted a recent debate between Aaron Dorfman (pictured left), Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), and Adam Meyerson, President of The Philanthropy Roundtable, that focused on issues and concerns raised by NCRP’s recent report, Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best: Benchmarks to Assess and Enhance Grantmaker Impact.

We asked Mr. Dorfman and Mr. Meyerson for a follow-up to their debate, which they both graciously provided.

Aaron Dorfman:
I really enjoyed the debate—thanks so much to Philanthropy New York and its members for hosting the event. It was the most thoughtful and substantive examination of Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best since we released the report two months ago. The event embodied exactly the kind of serious dialogue we were hoping to provoke. Much of the credit for that goes to Vincent Stehle, who did a fantastic job moderating the debate and the discussion.

NCRP’s unique role within the philanthropic community is to bring the voices of nonprofits and of marginalized communities into discussions and deliberations within our sector. I think the debate helped make clear that Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best puts forward aspirational goals that represent exemplary philanthropy through that NCRP lens. I think people are now starting to understand that we’re not talking about mandates; we’re calling for mutual accountability.

Everything that we advocate is intended to generate the greatest amount of social good possible with limited philanthropic funds—a goal I know was shared by everyone in the room, regardless of whether or not they agreed with NCRP’s recommendations.

Critics—especially those associated with The Philanthropy Roundtable—have said that total, unfettered freedom is what makes philanthropy valuable and that NCRP’s criteria are somehow a threat to that freedom. But we all know that foundations have rights and responsibilities as philanthropic citizens.

In the debate, I was disappointed that Adam Meyerson wasn’t able to articulate any responsibilities he thinks foundations should live up to, beyond complying with the law. The legal minimum is a pretty low threshold for excellence in philanthropy. I hope that by our next debate, on May 28th in Washington, DC, he’ll have a better answer to that question.

Adam Meyerson:
I, too, enjoyed the debate, and appreciate the invitation from Philanthropy New York. As we discussed, The Philanthropy Roundtable has multiple concerns about the NCRP criteria, among them:

  • NCRP offers a very narrow definition of excellence. Many of the historic achievements of philanthropy—from medical research, to the arts, to environmental protection, to religious education, to the support of private and public universities, to Andrew Carnegie’s construction of public libraries—would fail to meet NCRP’s criteria. One of the greatest achievements of grantmaking in the last decade—networks of schools where low-income children excel academically—doesn’t meet NCRP standards for advocacy.
  • NCRP’s standards for governance and grantmaking are arbitrary. To cite one example, while most foundations have volunteer boards, many find it helpful to offer reasonable compensation to their trustees. For instance, the Woods Fund of Chicago paid a young law professor and state senator named Barack Obama to serve on its board. We think decisions such as this should be a judgment call for foundations. So, too, we don’t think “philanthropy at its best” is limited to general operating support. When the St. Giles Foundation launched a sickle cell research program at Columbia University, it wisely recognized it could not achieve its objectives through a general operating grant to Columbia.
  • Most of all, we are concerned by NCRP’s argument that foundation dollars are “partially public” dollars and that “the generous tax subsidies provided to donors and to foundations make the government and the public partners with philanthropists in pursuit of the public good.” This premise, based on a misunderstanding of preferential tax treatment for charities and foundations, is an open invitation for legislative and regulatory interference in the decisions of private organizations.

As for the question Aaron Dorfman raises in this blog post, foundations are properly held accountable to government and to the public to ensure that they are using their assets for genuinely charitable purposes. This is a serious and weighty responsibility. Foundations have multiple other responsibilities as they carry out the charitable mission and strategy which their donors and trustees have defined. For these responsibilities, as private organizations that must comply with the law but otherwise have the freedom to determine how to achieve their charitable objectives, foundations are accountable to their trustees.

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