If the health and viability of the charitable sector matters to you, if the charities you care about are supported by foundations and particularly if you think the work foundations do is important, brace yourself. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), has produced a report misleadingly titled “Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best; Measurable Benchmarks to Assess Foundation Performance.”
The full text of the report came out March 3, but NCRP has been circulating a 15-page summary that already makes clear that this paper is not only replete with flawed logic, poor economic understanding and selective data, but is most disingenuously an Orwellian world of deliberate redefinition, where benign and admirable words are used but have meanings very different from common understanding.
Why? Because this report is a tool to a larger end. The document says it’s to be used to “criticize those who do not measure up.” Moreover, “Policymakers may find the criteria valuable when considering regulations or legislation … and the media will find the resource helpful for reporting.”
Back up a minute. NCRP has been around for 30 years. Its Web site homepage features “Happy Birthday, Saul Alinsky,” for the radical-left union and community organizer. Though self-styled as an independent “watchdog” of foundations, the reality is that NCRP doesn’t care about charity broadly–indeed it’s quite contemptuous of large swaths of it. It only cares about encouraging ever-greater flows of funds to the groups it deems worthy and truly serving of the public good, chief among which would be “social justice” activists like ACORN, an NCRP member.
Now I will be the first to vigorously defend NCRP’s right to advocate anything they deem worthy, including ideas that may sound good but in the long term would be destructive to the very communities they wish to serve. But they are not the neutral advocates for the wellbeing of the charitable sector they imply, and it is most important to understand their objective and the intended effects of what they propose.
Under NCRP’s criteria, as enumerated in the report’s summary, most good charities will find they don’t count toward “philanthropy at its best.” For foundations to qualify as having good values, in NCRP’s worldview, at least 50% of their grants must go to charities that explicitly target lower income or designated ethnic and marginalized groups.
Great charities like the Susan B. Komen foundation, which works on breast cancer, a disease that affects people of all stripes, don’t meet NCRP’s criteria for serving the “public good.” Even when the mission of the foundation has little to do with NCRP’s agenda–e.g., endangered species preservation–it does not qualify unless at least 20% of its grant dollars go toward NCRP-preferred groups. Moreover, 25% of any foundation’s funding has to go to groups like (no surprise here) NCRP and many of its members that practice advocacy and organizing. The fine print seems to indicate that a charity only counts if it is organizing for NCRP-approved ends.
As a result, the funding of many charities would be hurt, since the goal of the study is to create pressure to redirect resources away from the vast majority of worthy charities to the small subset that NCRP prefers.
Another concern is that foundations that are ethical, effective and doing good work will find that they are rated as not being any of those things. The study redefines those words in ways that have nothing to do with the common understanding of what they mean and everything to do with NCRP’s brand of political activism.
Case in point: the Ruth & Lovett Peters Foundation, which provides scholarships for over 1,000 Cincinnati-area children who last year otherwise wouldn’t have been able to escape from demonstrably failing schools–a worthy philanthropic effort by any normal standard, but not by those in this report.
“Effectiveness” for NCRP has nothing to do with whether you are solving problems or whether your grantees are actually accomplishing what they set out to do–NCRP only cares, for example, that 50+% of the grants come without requirements of any kind and that 50+% of the grants be multiyear. That’s a recipe for funding-ease for recipients, not an assessment of effectiveness.
Similarly, being ethical is defined solely as “demonstrating accountability and transparency to the public, its grantees and constituents.” Not even a nod is given to adherence to donor intent or matters that are actually ethical questions, like conflict of interest. It’s just a focus on process that in and of itself tells you nothing about ethics as practiced.
What the “ethical” section is really about is board structure and management practices, starting with an antipathy for family control–which was stated in the initial summary but more couched in the final report. Whether a foundation is “ethical” is measured not by the integrity and practices of the trustee and staff, but by whether there are at least five people on the board (of sufficiently disparate non-family and socioeconomic status). The board has to be uncompensated, save for board members who are lower-income (never mind that this is bizarre management practice, how does NCRP propose to know who is lower income?). And most importantly, if the foundation refuses to strip naked for anyone who asks, their ethics are suspect.
In the NCRP worldview, philanthropic freedom is not only at risk, it’s an oxymoron. Foundations aren’t free to make their own judgments about efficacy, best practices and ethical behavior: It must be NCRP’s way and only their way.
NCRP’s underlying premise for the report (and the justification for the “on-demand, on-everything” capitulation to voyeurism it requires), is the specious idea that foundation dollars aren’t private, but instead are public, money. This idea is unfortunately gaining vogue with various state and federal politicians and others eying foundation reserves. NCRP likes the argument because it follows that the government, NCRP and its fellow self-styled public advocates should be every foundation’s “partner.”
They get to the “public money” claim through the magic of semantic transubstantiation: Tax exemption is redefined as “economic benefit,” which then slips into “subsidy” (a sacramental term), which–poof!–they claim transforms private money into public money that ought to serve a public purpose. Never mind that many projects are both exempt or actually subsidized and do not forfeit their private character; similarly, tax exemption isn’t predicated on some bureaucratic Pooh-Bah or self-styled “watchdog” determining public benefit but merely that the gift went to an accredited organization.
In NCRP land, foundations will not only be measured on what they give to but how much they give and how they invest. Presently, the minimum payout is 5% of average assets, which includes expenses and overhead. In an NCRP world, payout goes to 6% minimum–excluding all expenses. I personally favor higher payout but would encourage it through voluntary incentives and leave the judgments to the trustees. Twenty-five percent of investments need to be invested “in ways that support its mission.” Such mission investing, on which foundations should now expect to be pressured, includes shareholder advocacy and proxy voting.
Beyond the increased payout to their preferred organizations that NCRP is obviously hoping for, the goal of the report is to establish a false standard of best practices and use that to push for trumped up media stories. You can see the headlines now–“Far Too Few Foundations Ethical” or “Best Practices Rarely Followed By Foundations”–even though the criteria on which they’ve been judged are not about ethics or best practices at all. But that’s not the end of it.
As we learned in California last year, and see now in Pennsylvania and Florida, this is part of a larger strategy. Getting that type of headline or sending out a letter demanding information and then claiming non-response enables partisan political advocacy groups to push for regulations and proposed legislation that affect foundation governance structures, grant making and investments–a coercive misuse of philanthropic resources.
There is no doubt that many charities wish they could wave a wand and require contributions to their cause rather than having the hard job of persuading people of their worthiness. But NCRP’s report is the equivalent of having the one redheaded child in a large family declare that “the standards of best parenting is for 50% of the resources–education, clothes, toys, time–to go to redheads, because they are most deserving,” regardless of what the other children do or need and regardless of how well the redhead behaves or performs. One has no doubt the redhead means it, but such a statement would nonetheless be risible.
This study is no more credible than that and should be treated the same. The diversity of interests and freedom of action of our private, voluntary philanthropic charitable sectors is one of the most unique and powerful features of American society; particularly at a time like this, impeding its efficacy for political ends is advocacy at its most irresponsible.
Heather Higgins is vice chairman of the Philanthropy Roundtable and a co-founder of its Alliance for Charitable Reform project.