Recent Gatherings

Conflicting Visions of Philanthropy

Mindy Duitz

GIA Newsletter editors welcome reports on conferences and meetings that might be of interest to GIA members. The following report also led to a longer feature by Stanley Katz in this issue.

Conflicting Visions of Philanthropy
June 3, 1998
Presented by the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers at the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundations).

Presenters: Gene Bryan Johnson, senior producer for news, WNYC New York Public Radio; Dr. Stanley Katz, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University; Sandra Silverman, president, the Scherman Foundation

Moderator: Gara LaMarche, director of U.S. programs, Open Society Institute

Over 100 people listened and participated in a spirited discussion ranging from a review of the history of philanthropy to how to listen to criticism, why we need better communication with grantees, and how to foster a sense of professionalism within the field. The breadth of discussion reflected the subject — conflicting visions — and other topics raised by the four presenters.

Gara LaMarche introduced the meeting as a “newcomer” to philanthropy who spent twenty years on “the other side” and now works for a foundation known to attract both criticism and attention. Stanley Katz followed with an educational and entertaining review of the history of philanthropy. He opened his presentation by reminding the audience that philanthropists and foundations have been criticized since they appeared in the early part of the century. The focus of that criticism merely changes with changes in national political ideology. [See Criticism of Foundations for Katz' remarks.]

Sandra Silverman talked about the clear focus of the Scherman Foundation and its commitment to progressive ideals. She urged listeners to pay attention to criticism about the field and about ourselves as practitioners. Gene Johnson opened by asking why media is not paying more attention to this sector — it gives away a lot of money, is only accountable to itself, and doesn't pay taxes. He felt it is a prime target for scrutiny and should prepare for this eventuality.

Sandra Silverman welcomed the scrutiny, particularly for the great work that goes unnoticed. Gara LaMarche felt that there is not enough intelligent analysis from the media, and that ideological attacks have little regard for facts. He called for more careful analysis of the work foundations do in relation to the goals of the projects they fund.

Attendees raised a series of interesting questions in response to the presenters including: Does the sector have a responsibility to educate the public about what it does? How do we make ourselves better understood by our peers, and who are our peers outside the field? How can we get feedback from grantees? Should there be an institute to develop leadership and increase the professionalism of the sector? What is the relationship of foundations to the not-for-profit world? What changes have past criticisms of philanthropy made?

Stanley Katz stated that he thought the “field was impervious” to criticism, and discussion followed about the difficulty of developing means of accountability in such a diverse field.

The session closed with suggestions for possible actions relating to increased cooperation and communication between foundations and grantees. What began with conflicting visions ended with discussion about self examination and better communication both inside and outside the sector.

Mindy Duitz, Arts Initiative, OSI