Foundations have a long and distinguished history of influencing social change. From the Rockefeller Foundation’s work on the Green Revolution through the initiatives that helped to establish the civil society sector in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, to the contemporary work of Gates and others on neglected tropical diseases, foundations have played a key role. And they have done so not just passively by providing grants but actively, by using their knowledge, contacts and money to influence the programmes they support. But what gives foundations the right to affect public policy in this way? Where does their legitimacy come from?
The refrain has become familiar: strategic philanthropy is effective philanthropy. Foundations are at their best when they are focused, have a clear sense of purpose, take a long view and use all their resources to pursue that purpose. The pages of this magazine are full of examples and there is a growing body of commentators (including this one) who exhort foundations to do more.
But the very success of these strategic programmes can give rise to some uneasy questions. By whose warrant do foundations seek to influence change? What right do private organizations have to affect public policy (especially when they receive public subsidies in the form of tax reliefs)? To whom are they accountable? In short, what gives them their legitimacy?
These questions have been rising up the agenda. Last summer’s edition of Effect (the house magazine of the European Foundation Centre) gave room to a number of authors to express their views. As Gerry Salole, the EFC’s chief executive, made clear in his introduction, it is an issue where foundations need to have a clear narrative.
The sense of concern takes different forms and has different causes. It helps to distinguish between them.
Bad behaviour is not the main problem
One cause of concern is the scandals that occur from time to time when foundations are found to have behaved in ways that are ethically dubious or even illegal. Such scandals are rare, and while they should not be taken lightly they are not in my view an important factor when it comes to thinking about wider questions of legitimacy. In most countries where there is a mature foundation sector, there are clear laws and frameworks for accountability. Bad behaviour is rare, and where it exists there are ample means to deal with it. I do not believe the bad behaviour of the few undermines the legitimacy of the many, any more than a scandal in one hospital undermines the good work done by the great majority.
There can of course be times when bad practice has become endemic, where a single episode turns out to be symptomatic of a deeper malaise; witness the present state of the banking sector. But I do not believe that that is remotely the case in the world of foundations. There are tougher questions we have to answer.
The influence of the mega-foundations
One of these concerns the influence of the mega-foundations, Gates being the obvious example. If a foundation is so large that its decisions determine those of governments and global agencies then, as Caroline Hartnell says in the same issue of Effect: ‘… it suggests that Gates might wield more power than is comfortable within a democratic setting’ (p20). This is surely correct, but, important as such cases are, they are exceedingly rare. There are no more than a handful of foundations whose scale is large enough for this to be a problem. For most of the time most foundations are minority funders, and usually small minority funders at that. Indeed, for most of us the uncomfortable questions we face are the opposite to those raised by Gates: what right do we have to a say, given that the sums we contribute are so small?
In short, I do not think the case of Gates (and in earlier eras Ford and Rockefeller) should overly influence the way that the great majority of foundations think about their own legitimacy. The mega-rich are different. They are special cases and should be treated as such.
The issue for the majority: legitimacy lies in the quality of our work
For most foundations the question is more down to earth: what right do we, as small independent organizations, have to attempt to influence policy and bring about social change? In his article in Effect Michael Goring, director of the Zeit Foundation, says: ‘… excellent work and successful projects remain the decisive source from which foundations can gain legitimacy’ (p12). In my view this gets to the heart of the matter because it reminds us of two things. First, legitimacy lies in the quality of the work we do; second, it depends on how that quality is perceived by others. Legitimacy lies in the eye of the beholder.
If we are seeking to influence change we must always ask ourselves about the audience. Who needs to be persuaded? What arguments will convince them? What standards of evidence do they require? If we put our actions and arguments to the test of judgement by others, it is their opinion of them that counts. And those judgements will be decided by the quality of the work we do in particular circumstances, not by appeal to some abstract and general state of legitimacy that is held to apply to our organization in and of itself. This means of course that a foundation can act legitimately in some parts of its work and not in others. That is surely a sensible conclusion to reach.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics
An example from my own experience is the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The Council was set up by Nuffield some 20 years ago. Its role is to examine ethical issues arising from developments in biology and medicine. These days most countries have a national bioethics council that is run by government. The UK is unique among developed countries in having one that is organized and funded completely independently of government (the Council is co-funded by Nuffield, the Wellcome Trust and the UK Medical Research Council).
The Council issues weighty and authoritative reports which contain recommendations for policy and practice. It has been remarkably successful in having these recommendations accepted, both in the UK and elsewhere. Inevitably, given its subject matter, it reaches conclusions that not all agree with, and some of its recommendations are contentious. The question of its legitimacy is never far away. What right, some ask, does an independent and self-appointed body have to seek to influence important and contested matters of public policy? Shouldn’t this kind of work be done by government bodies, with their democratic mandates?
The Council’s work is reviewed regularly by experts from around the world. Two themes emerge from these reviews. The first is the consistently high quality of the Council’s work. The second is that the independence of the Council is crucial to this high quality. It is precisely its freedom from government pressure and interference that allows it to choose what topics to study and to produce reports that are objective, well argued and hence influential. But it is clear that the Council’s legitimacy derives from the high standard of its work, not from its independence per se.
As I see it, the Bioethics Council is an example of what Michael Goring is arguing for: a virtuous circle, in which the quality of a foundation’s work earns the respect of those it is trying to influence. If its work is truly excellent it will deserve that respect, and the influence that may follow. If it fails to live up to those standards it will lose that respect and influence. In this respect, I would argue, a foundation is no different from any other organization that tries to influence public debate, and nor should it be.
Foundations we don’t agree with
This still leaves the awkward problem of the foundation that works well and effectively to support ideas and causes that one does not agree with. A classic case is the foundations that supported the right-wing think-tanks that gave such impetus to the neoliberal movement in the US. Many people in the foundation world are deeply opposed to the agenda they have sought to promote, but there is no denying their success and there is no suggestion that they acted illicitly, only cleverly.
A more nuanced example is the case of the Sutton Trust, which has been very successful in influencing government education policy in the UK. Few in the educational world would disagree with Sutton’s overriding aim, which is to tackle educational disadvantage, but many are unhappy with some of their programmes, which involve placing bright children from poor backgrounds into elite schools (thereby further impoverishing the schools the children originally came from). But Sutton’s success has come about by using methods that one can only admire. They have been open about what they do, and active in commissioning research, which they have energetically put into the public domain. They have sought to back up their arguments with evidence and they have been politically neutral, working with governments of both persuasion.
What is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. If we want to claim legitimacy for our own work based on the excellence of what we do, we cannot deny that legitimacy to others, provided that they act within society’s accepted rules and laws. We may dislike the arguments and positions of others, but if so we have to argue our case in the court of public debate. The plurality of foundations and their views does no more than reflect the plurality of society at large. Long may it last.
1 Effect, vol 5, issue 2, autumn 2011, p2.
Anthony Tomei was director of the Nuffield Foundation from 1995 to 2012. Email firstname.lastname@example.org