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#268 Can One be a Truly Independent Advisor/Consultant and an Outspoken Advocate at the Same Time?

May 19th, 2017

Richard Marker

#268 Can one be a truly independent advisor/consultant and an outspoken advocate at the same time?

Someone asked me that question this week. They noted that I am far from reluctant to express my political positions on Facebook, Twitter, and even here, and at the same time, as a philanthropy advisor, pride myself on my independence. S/he went to on to ask the derivative question? If I can comfortably advise funders without imposing my own politics, why couldn’t I do fundraising for one organization while I am advising a funder of another? If I insist on the perception of independence in one, why not the other?

Two fair questions: Let me respond to them in reverse order.

Why I won’t do fundraising?

The easy answer is that I don’t know how. Fundraising isn’t my expertise and I don’t take any professional contracts in areas I consider beyond my expertise.

The less easy answer: I consider that it crosses a philanthro-ethics line. For me, [but, I recognize, not for everyone in our field] I don’t see how one can be paid to advise funders and at the same time be paid to raise money for organizations that want their money. Funders wants to be confident that my responses to their priorities, questions and decision-making are never self-serving. The minute I am paid to raise money, that question is inevitable. And even recusal is a problem because it means that the funder is getting less of me than he/she has a right to expect. Since I don’t raise money, I cannot speak from experience but I suspect an organization paying a development consultant would want to know that the consultant is prepared to open doors to any funder with potential interest.

That answer might not be persuasive to everyone, and as I acknowledge above, there are many honest and trustworthy consultants who feel no professional ethical conflict in having clients on both sides of the table.

Of course, then, how do I answer the presenting question of this post – how do I articulate political convictions and at the same time serve as an independent advisor to clients?

First, my political positions are unequivocally my own. I am not paid to say them and I don’t work for any organization. Anyone who pretends not to have a political position is either fooling him or herself, or trying to fool others, well-meaning though they may be. In the present environment, I feel that there is a mandate to articulate and advocate for things one believes in.

Secondly, I have had a good deal of experience differentiating what is opinion with what isn’t. Two of my proudest moments as a public speaker on philanthropy underscored that: in one case, the ED of an organization that invited me to give a major talk told me that an attendee said, “I don’t agree with his politics but I could listen to him all day long.” In another similar situation several years later, an attendee said, “I could do without his political positions, but when is he speaking again? – I would love to sign up!” It is awfully difficult to be a speaker on the topic of the intersection of public policy and private philanthropy without some personal perspective seeping in.

Thirdly, when I work with funders, especially families, it is inevitable that diverse opinions emerge, sometimes about politics, sometimes about succession, sometimes about the direction of how to run the foundation, and more. I agree with some more than others. But I wouldn’t be very successful for very long if I led the discussion with an articulation of my own personal points of view rather than helping the family or foundation come to conclusions that will work for them long after I walk out the door.

I suspect that not everyone is persuaded by my answers to either of the questions. More to the point, as I said above, many first-rate professionals find no ethical challenge following different practices. Even though I adhere to a policy of an impenetrable wall between those who want money and those who give it, many firms feel that their own self-discipline, and disclosure to clients obviates the challenge.

As for the other question: It is gratifying that many have applauded my outspoken stances these past months. Some have commented that, even knowing me for many years, they never realized I felt so strongly. At the same time, some have criticized me for that very outspokenness. If they have said that to me, I am quite sure that, for others, I have rendered myself out of the running for some valuable speaking invitations or advisory contracts. So be it; it is the literal price to pay. The times and the challenges facing our nation and the world do not allow for silence. I do hope that my voice is raised responsibly, and words used for good, and that they add to a constructive public discourse.

After all, what is philanthropy for if not to make our world safer and saner – even if doing so doesn’t please everyone?

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