BLOG: Supporting Sector Transparency & Accountability
6 May 2014 at 10:22 am
In this latest Blog, Not for Profit Fulbright Scholar Dr Tessa Boyd Caine reflects on the importance of research for foundations and other philanthropic enterprises seeking an evidence-base about how to achieve their aims and maximise the effectiveness of their social contribution.
This week I began working at the Foundation Center as part of my Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Non-profit Leadership. The Foundation Center is the leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide, using data, analysis and training to connect people who want to change the world to the resources they need to succeed. At its core, Foundation Center’s mission is to strengthen accountability and transparency across philanthropy.
I am interested in how the Center builds a commitment to accountability within philanthropy; and to consider how Australian charities and non-profit organisations might support such an agenda within our own sector.
With the benefit of one week ‘on the job’, data is the first lever I see. Over more than 60 years Foundation Center has amassed an incredible wealth of data, which informs its active and ever-growing research agenda and its direct engagement with philanthropists. It is the value of this knowledge-base to philanthropists, particularly about who else is supporting similar aims and where, that stimulates them to provide the Center with data on their activities in the first place.
From my day job, I’m accustomed to working with charities and Not for Profits who provide data to inform our research as a peak organisation; and with how important that applied research agenda is to those who provide its data. Often the strongest motive is how to increase the activity or improve the effectiveness of the work of those organisations.
What’s interesting to see at the Foundation Center is how some of the motivations have changed over time. The Center was established in 1956 – a good sign I thought when I was first writing my Fulbright application, being the same date that ACOSS was established. The US at this time was gripped by McCarthyism, which brought with it a sudden and growing mistrust of philanthropic activities. And so there was a dire imperative to demonstrate the value and legitimacy of philanthropy at that time.
Since then, both philanthropy, and what we know about it have grown significantly, thanks in no small part to the Foundation Center’s work. It now maintains the biggest database on philanthropy in the US and increasingly worldwide.
But where the Center’s original driver was to provide reassurance to those outside of philanthropy about the value and legitimacy of philanthropic activity, much of the drive behind the Center’s work today comes from philanthropists themselves. The key to that relationship is the importance of the Center’s research for foundations and other philanthropic enterprises seeking an evidence-base about how to achieve their own aims and how to maximise the effectiveness of their social contribution.
In building a sector-led agenda, be it for accountability and transparency or some other purpose, that agenda needs to support the organisations it relies upon to be effective.
While the focus of this blog is on my Fulbright project with philanthropic and charitable organisations in the US, the Scholarship is essentially a cultural exchange which brings with it the opportunity to meet and visit a broad range of people and organisations.
I had the privilege of visiting the House of the Redeemer, an historic house built by a member of the Vanderbilt family and one of the very few remaining examples of early 20th century residential architecture in New York City. It survives thanks to the foresighted bequest as a multi-faith retreat by its original owner; and from the clever income-generating activities undertaken by the Board of Trustees, including as a guest house (so take note, any visitors to New York, particularly given its affordable rates!).
The past week also had a particularly international flavour. Through the Foundation Center I had the opportunity to join a meeting of the International Human Rights Funders Group and gain a first insight into a well-developed network of organisations providing infrastructure for philanthropic activity – something I will be exploring much more in the coming weeks.
With Fulbright colleagues I visited the Council on Foreign Relations, a membership-based Not for Profit think tank with an impressive line-up of experts, publications and outreach activities.
And I had the privilege of listening to a world expert on development economics, who had a couple of choice insights that I leave you with. The first was that the flaw in the Occupy Wall Street movement was its focus on 1 per cent, because it was an arbitrary number (apparently missing the point about the gross concentration of wealth in just 1 per cent of the population).
But my favourite was that internationally renowned economist Thomas Picketty, whose work on inequality is the talk of the town and whose 2014 book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ has already sold out, didn’t really know what he was talking about ‘because, well, he’s French!’.
About the author: Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is the Deputy CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, the peak body for charities and social services and the voice for people experiencing poverty and inequality in Australia. She was awarded the inaugural Fulbright Professional Scholarship in non-profit leadership in 2013 and is currently undertaking her Fulbright at the Foundation Center in New York City and the National Center for Charitable Statistics within the Urban Institute in Washington DC. The Fulbright Professional Scholarship is sponsored by the Origin Foundation and supported by the Australian Scholarships Foundation. Applications for the Fulbright Scholarship are open now and close August 1.