Thursday, May 19, 2005

Accountability and Legitimacy

The next installment in the Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy occurs today in St. Paul and is entitled "Accountability: For what and to whom should philanthropy be responsible?"

I think Peter Frumkin's analysis of accountability is dead-on. Expanding on his diagnosis of the philanthropic sector in Trouble in Foundationland, Frumkin argues that debates over accountability and effectivness obscure the real question of philanthropic legitimacy. Our preoccupation with effectiveness and accountability is merely a manifestation of our collective insecurity about our sector's legitimacy in a democratic society.

How do we reconcile the vast amount of wealth allowed to accumulate tax-free in the hands of self-appointed stewards of a public trust with the egalitarian and democratic ethos of our society? How does one legitimize such a practice?

Usually, legitimation requires some vision of the just society. Anybody up for demonstrating that philanthropy follows from John Rawls' "original position?"

Thankfully, we have a vision of the just society, a democracy, and we might simply say that the more democratic a practice is, the more legitimate it is. We're looking for a more democratic philanthropy. Although Frumkin never says the word democracy, I think his second definition of philanthropic legitimacy is working at a vision of a more democratic sector:
Philanthropic legitimacy can be defined as the just and fair exercise of philanthropic power. By this, I mean donors can claim to have met the test of legitimacy when they are perceived by the full range of relevant stakeholders around them as acting in a way that is just, fair, and free of caprice and ill-intent.
Frumkin then goes on to claim that by engaging the issue of legitimacy, the sector will find:
...it is impossible to be legitimate without being substantively accountable for their work. They will also soon discover that it is impossible to be substantively accountable without being able to demonstrate their effectiveness at achieving their own objectives and missions.
That is where I disagree. I do think that a more democratic sector, a philanthropy "of the people, by the people, and for the people," would certainly be a more responsive, more responsible sector. That isn't the same thing as a more accountable sector.

I'm of the frame of mind that the philanthropic sector is largely unaccountable, and this is as it should be. This doesn't mean that philanthropy doesn't have responsibilities. I think it does. This doesn't mean that an unaccountable philanthropy is undemocratic. In fact, I think the opposite. I think unaccountable philanthropy can actually serve democracy more than it harms it.

I think the problems start when we start to appoint people who will hold philanthropy accountable for its philanthropic choices because, as much as democracy is about checking and balancing power, it is also about creating spaces in which we don't have to answer to anybody. Philanthropy ought to be one of those spaces as long as there are matters that are not up for a vote or up for sale. There ought to be a way to affect the political process, to gain control of the forces that affect your life and the lives of your fellow human beings, without having to effectively ask somebody else's permission first, and philanthropy is one of those ways.

I don't want an accountable sector as much as I want a philanthropy that inspires, and I find very little inspiration in a sector that is so insecure about its place in a democratic society that it is willing to accept the chains of accountability in the hope that it will somehow be ennobled and made better by those chains. Prometheus wasn't more philanthropic because he was chained to a rock. Prometheus was chained to a rock because of his philanthropy.

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