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Philanthro-ethics, Transparency, and the Political Process

January 17th, 2017

Richard Marker

Caveat Reader: Once again, this post speaks to a contemporaneous issue in the political realm. I am publishing it, although, alas, I fear that the moment for the message has passed.

For fifteen years, I have been advocating credentialing in our field. Those of us on the giving side of the philanthropy table are responsible for allocations of billions of dollars, the state on an entire sector, and, directly or indirectly, public policy in a range of areas. Unlike almost any other field, there are no formal barriers to entry – except for having one’s own money. One can hang a “philanthropy advisor” shingle at will, with no evidence of competence or training. One can be hired by a foundation to make grantmaking decisions without any credentials or commitment to get them. To put it bluntly, I consider this unconscionable.

When I entered the field, one still heard the bon mot: “You’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation.” Uttered with a chuckle or smirk, it reflected the autonomy most funders felt. It also implied a level of arrogance: no one can tell us what to do or how to do it.

I came to see that perspective as simply wrong. Of course, no one can or should tell any funder what to fund or even how to make decisions. But for someone to have a career in our field should require that there is evidence that one knows the laws, the ethics, the best practices, and the policies that define a responsible field of service. Many in our field are beyond reproach and have made it their business to be well informed and educated, behave ethically and responsibly, and care deeply about good decisions that reflect equity and equitability. Some have taken courses and others have accreted this knowledge by experience and other initiatives. While they don’t now have a formal and recognized credential, they easily could – and should.

Sadly, though, there are too many for whom this cannot be said. Their knowledge of laws and ethics is limited; their awareness of best practices in the field non-existent; their own experience limited to a single funder who may or may not be exemplary. Some, but thankfully very few, abuse this extreme autonomy and the absence of formal accountability.

The laws of private foundations do try to compensate for this through very strong restrictions on self-dealing, private inurement, transparency of grants and boards, and more. But there is nothing that guarantees that those working in those settings know the ethics and the laws – except, and here is a key point and our segue – by government insistence and enforcement. Abuses can be penalized severely.

Government appointees are subject to strict ethics standards, and, at least until this bizarre and problematic transition of power, were held accountable as a precondition for consideration. Or at least were formally reviewed prior to consideration.

It is disgraceful and shameful that the ethics standards that enforce the restrictions on self-dealing and private gain for government appointees, and yes, the president elect, have so easily been pushed to the side and dismissed by an administration that seems to believe that they don’t matter. Faith and confidence in our system and those who govern depends on those ethics rules. They matter a lot.

For 15 years, I have been arguing that there should be institutionalized standards for those in our field. Happily, there are many more taking formal courses designed exclusively for philanthropists and foundation professionals than there were when I began my teaching and advisory work. Nevertheless, it has been a personal disappointment that the advocacy for official credentials for professionals in the funding field has not yet struck a broadly responsive chord.

As big and important as we like to think our philanthropy field is, though, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to the government. And for there to be such a visible and cavalier retreat from widely accepted standards should give us all pause.

Ethics matter. As we see in our field, it is difficult to get to a point where we agree upon and then enforce ethical standards. For years, the federal government was way ahead of us, at least in the vetting process. There was no guarantee there could never be abuse, but it did guarantee that no one took appointed office without being subject to an ethics screening, and an awareness of what the rules are. At least until now.

Once ethical standards are lost, it is awfully hard to get them back. I hope it isn’t already too late.

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