Thank you for the interesting feature on the Gates Foundation in the last issue of Alliance. Clearly there are some people who remain concerned about the accountability of the Gates Foundation. However, the topic is relevant not just to the Gates Foundation but to any foundation, as size should not matter. The essential question is who can demand what type of accountability from foundations?
In my view there are two main groups that can step up and ask for more accountability. On the one hand, the governments that provide the foundation with tax benefits; on the other, the communities that the foundation tries to serve.
Foundations’ relation to the government is always a difficult one as they base their existence partly on a clear separation from the government and its policies. The strength of civil society, of which the foundations are a part, is that it operates independently and without involvement from the government. Any accountability should therefore be limited to allowing the government to check whether the foundation does harm, which can be covered by legislation.
The other group that can require accountability is the community on the receiving end of the projects undertaken by organizations that receive foundation grants. It is their lives that are involved and any intended good concerns them. They cannot always be precisely or easily identified, as in global health issues, but an active effort should be made to try and demonstrate responsibility by the foundation for the actions taken on their behalf.
In both cases the accountability should not be about how much money is spent or on what it was spent, but about whether the programme achieved the intended results in line with the mission of the foundation. The key, therefore, is the proper evaluation of projects and programmes. Without knowing what the results are, it is impossible to hold any organization accountable for what they are doing.
The Gates Foundation is also at the forefront of the integration of evaluation methods within their programmes as they recognize its importance for learning and accountability purposes. There is no use stressing the need for accountability without also stressing the need for suitable evaluation methods for what the foundation is actually achieving. Showing the proper results is the best way for foundations to account for their actions.
Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy, Netherlands