Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Do the research

I got another one of those "that wasn't a very good study" comments last week. People are still complaining about the Georgetown study on trustee fees, a phenomenon I dealt with in this post.

Geez. Will you people ever let this go?

Apparently not.

In a recent conversation about board compensation, statistics from the Council on Foundations and the Georgetown study were cited. The Georgetown study provoked the bad study remark despite the fact that you can't exactly say that the Council's numbers are much better. They're better, I suppose, but they're not perfect either. The Council only surveys its members. Respondents tend to be larger foundations who are more likely to pay higher trustee fees, artificially inflating the bounds of acceptability, and, from what I understand, the information given in the management surveys isn't double-checked against the organizations' 990's. (I'm not saying the Council's members can't be trusted. I'm just saying people make mistakes.) So you've got a small, unrepresentative sample and a questionable self-reporting methodology. Nonetheless, the Council's numbers pass with a nod, but Georgetown is mentioned in a huff.

For the umpteenth time, it's not intended to be the definitive statement on trustee fees. It says so on page 4. What it is intended to do is draw attention to the fact that some people in the foundation world are paid incredible amounts of charitable dollars to do work that could just as easily be done by motivated, creative volunteers. And considering the effort that is expended by philanthropoids in attempting to dismiss its findings, I can say that it's certainly doing its job.

What I'm attempting to understand is why no one will fund the research to replace it. I mean, if that research isn't the best, stop complaining about it, and give Ahn, Eisenberg, and Khamvongsa the money to do the right kind of study.

Why aren't we funding the university centers to do the research? As it is, you're pretty much paying nonprofit infrastructure groups to do research, and these groups live and die by the information of which they can be the exclusive provider. Ask them to do a research study, and it's going to be very difficult convincing them to share information in the way that universities do.

If the foundation world is serious about research, serious about doing scientific research in order to really examine itself in the face of so much scrutiny, it would do well to fund independent university research. There's an entire research apparatus we are simply not using and could be to greater ends. We're not going to make everybody happy, but the mode of thinking around here ought not to be "that's a bad study" but "here's a better one."

No comments: