May 12, 2010; Source: Wall Street Journal | “Nobody loves a critic,” says a senior attorney with the nonprofit Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) in New York City. Oh boy do we know that! Here at Nonprofit Quarterly, we’ve seen not only a less than welcoming embrace from some of the subjects of our articles, but a few exhibiting the thinnest of skins to anything other than effusive praise.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his City Council allies are taking aim at cutting the funding of the publicly funded Office of the Public Advocate by 11 percent this year after having sliced off 40 percent of the Public Advocate’s budget last year. Some of the 2010 funding for the office may have actually been to pay for the overspending of the previous Public Advocate, Betsy Gotbaum. The current Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, thinks, as one might expect, that the budget cut is “ill-considered to say the least.”
Noting that it is “not a politically popular thing to be a watchdog,” de Blasio says that “it’s a ridiculous contradiction to have watchdogs’ budgets determined by the people they’re supposed to be watching.” In the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, there’s a comparable situation, with foundations funding—or sometimes defunding—the entities whose missions might include watchdogging philanthropic grantmaking and expenditures.
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There is a fallback position in the public sector—the voter. Mayor Bloomberg and City Council President Christine Quinn (who both aver that they are not trying to “starve” the Public Advocate’s office) can be voted out of office by the New York City electorate. No one can vote foundation executives and trustees out of their sinecures. That’s why in the nonprofit sector, it is important for foundations to suck it up and provide continuing grant support to the nonprofit journals and watchdogs that sometimes find themselves pointing out institutional philanthropy’s shortcomings.
As one foundation CEO once said, sotto voce, to this author, philanthropy needs to be kept honest by watchdog organizations that occasionally stick an elbow into foundations’ ribcages. Otherwise, like the challenge facing de Blasio in New York, reduced funding “is tantamount to ‘lowering a cone of silence’” over the nonprofit press and nonprofit watchdogs.—Rick Cohen