NCRP Launches Unusual and Intriguing Foundation Assessment Website

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Today, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy announced the launch of an interesting and perhaps groundbreaking new product called Philamplify. It’s a modern response to the age-old problem of there being no natural accountability market for philanthropic institutions. The project is aimed at assessing the top 100 foundations (by asset size) in the United States and helping them to learn through a combination of publicly delivered criticisms and kudos.

The website currently features three assessments of large foundations: the William Penn Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation. The project makes good use of research and technology in identifying and reaching out to foundation stakeholders; as a result, none of these foundations had to be asked if they would allow the exercise. This, in the end, is what could be the intriguing value proposition of the program.

Each of the assessments took eight months to complete, according to Aaron Dorfman, NCRP’s executive director, and they got varying degrees of cooperation from the foundations being reviewed. For instance, although some did share their contacts for grantees, others did not. When they did not share this information, it had to be gathered by hand. But any lack of initial cooperation did not deter the effort, so in the end all three foundations made themselves available for interviews to discuss and clarify any issues and questions raised by the report—because, after all, would it have been wise to not do so?

Each report addressed questions of strategy, outcomes and impact, partnership with grantees, and other effective practices, including transparency, investment and payout, and governance. The methodology included a review of foundation materials, interviews with key staff, a confidential survey of current and past grantees, interviews with selected grantees, and interviews with local, regional and national stakeholders. And each also includes key findings and recommendations.

The idea of assessing foundations without their permission and without being under contract with them is both inspired and sorely needed, but there are still inherent structural problems that will need to be overcome for the project to make a significant mark on the philanthropic landscape. The most significant of these potential problems is the revenue model for the sponsoring organization. NCRP is fond of saying that it has specialized in biting the hand that feeds it for four decades, but ideally the managers of such a project would have no financial ties to philanthropy such that they might be punished for being critical. NCRP is funded by philanthropy, and complete independence may be hard to achieve. Dorfman told NPQ that this particular project is not supported by any specific funder, but by the organization’s unrestricted funds. “Our funding comes from institutions who value the role of an independent critic on philanthropy,” he said.

For NCRP, he said, this is a way of getting more specific to the work of foundations. “Too much of what we recommend ends up being experienced as abstract by specific foundations,” he said.” This is a way to look at how social justice philanthropy plays out for them as individual institutions in their communities.”

Philamplify—and we hate the name—appears to be nicely designed for impact in a field where feedback can often be muted; naturally, this blocks accountability, learning, effectiveness, and any number of other valuable organizational characteristics. NPQ is generally a hard sell on new projects to improve philanthropy, but this one, at least in its early stages, seems to hold promise. 

  • Kathy Daugherty

    I’m so glad that the opportunity is now out there for the public to comment on foundations, and the information will be out there for all to read. I hope that those who comment will remain professional at all times.

  • Marian

    I think this is being released prematurely. It is like teaching Common Core (at least in NY). The teachers had to begin teaching it without proper training and preparation and the students did not have enough time to absorb the differences before they were tested for the first time. If there is going to be a grading system for foundations, there should be a framework released 24 months ahead of time for foundations to make adjustments.

    Most foundations want to pay for those huge strategic changes to the world, develop better models of funding and service delivery, increase the scale, and all the other popular phrases. In the meantime, while they are creating that model to solve the inability of people to obtain food, someone has to feed the hungry. How do you grade that type of philanthropy?

  • Sally Falkenhagen

    The most egrigous social ill related to community foundations, in my opinion, is that donor-advised funds do not have ANY payout requirement. No social good is served by giving individuals a tax break for making a donation to a donor-advised fund that does not then gvie some portion of its assets away annually.

    Check out Ray Madoff’s article in the Chronical of Philanthropy:

    It’s outrageous!