Last week the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Rice University hosted an insightful lecture by Dr. Bob Reid on transparency in private philanthropy:
“A Foundation of Trust: Should Private Philanthropy be More Transparent?” (see featured image)
Reid is the Executive Director of J. F. Maddox Foundation, a private philanthropic institution in Hobbs, New Mexico. While the talk was the presentation of the results of his doctoral dissertation, Reid’s hands-on experience turned his lecture into anything but a dry academic reporting of data.
The audience was engaged and interrupted the speaker often with questions. One in particular stood out to me: Fran Sanders, director of the Houston nonprofit “Public Poetry” was curious about the relationship between Reid’s findings and the concept of “noblesse oblige”, a French expression that means the inferred responsibility of the privileged (the nobility) to give to those less privileged. Reid agreed that his own conclusions, supported by very recent literature, corroborated this concept. However, the focus of his research design is the idea of transparency of lack of (i.e.: opacity) as it relates to private philanthropy.
At the reception that followed I heard several attendees say that the presentation had been very interesting but maybe slightly too academic, and that it had not addressed the main question of how to tap into these unattainable resources named ‘private foundations’. I have to disagree. I think Reid did a superb job of articulating a theoretical framework with two main principles – Moral Licensing Theory (Klotz & Bolino, 2013) and Dependency Theory (Delfin & Tang, 2007) – that inform the discussion and understanding of issues of entitlement and power imbalance in private philanthropy. He suggests that often (all the time?) a theoretical framework is needed to explain the complex dynamics behind private foundations, often coined as mysterious and non-accountable.
Caption: Dr. Bob Reid, Executive Director, J. F. Maddox Foundation.
One of Reid’s research questions was “Does opacity exist in private philanthropy?” His results point to a resounding “yes”. However, what was less obvious when he started his work was that a lack of transparency might have positive aspects in a philanthropic setting. The lack of external accountability goes hand in hand with (1) the ability to resist external influence and (2) the freedom to experiment, and these are two aspects that lead grantees to forgive the system’s opacity.
So we return this question to you…. What is your perception (and experience, if any) on the opacity, accountability and “mystery” surrounding private philanthropy?
- Delfin, F.G. and Tang, S.-Y. (2007). Elitism, pluralism, or resource dependency: patterns of environmental philanthropy among private foundations in California, Environment and Planning A, 39(9), 2167-2186.
- Klotz, A.C. & Bolino, M.C. (2013). Citizenship and counterproductive work behavior: A moral licensing view. Academy of Management Review, 38(2), 292-306.