Grant Got Your Tongue?
Theres a subliminal message that grantees seem to play across their brains the day they receive a foundation check: Lips will be zippered from this point forward.
Youll notice that in our "critics" cover story, those offering negative opinions about grantmakers are mostly arms-length observers. Whats missing are comments from those closer in; those who have routine and ongoing relationships with foundations. You could call that category any of these things: foundation customers, constituents, collaborators, partners. Most often we call them grantseekers and grantees.
Grantmakers may be especially sensitive to being bashed, publicly or otherwise, because they are less used to it. A grantmakers day is more than just devoid of criticismits filled with shovels-full of sycophancy. What would that do to perspective?
Its not that grantees have no complaints. In fact, the opposite is true. Its just that some force keeps most of them from saying out loud anything critical about people with power over them. It reminds me of the "Wizard of Oz" scene in which Aunt Em, outraged by a tiff about Toto, tells her mean old neighbor Elmira Gulch, "Just because you own half the land in this county doesnt mean you have the power to run the rest of us. For 23 years Ive been dying to tell you what I really think of you..."
But right then, as shes about to blurt out the chest-unburdening truth, her self-censor kicks in. "But, being a Christian woman," says a distraught Em, "I just cant say it."
"Its natural that grantseekers dont want to bite the hand that feeds," says Catherine Lerza, a foundation executive. "I dont know why people expect it would be otherwise. Most corporate people wouldnt go into their bosss office and start pointing out all the things they dont like about their bosss style. And most grantees wouldnt do that with a grantmaker, either."
At a National Network of Grantmakers meeting a few years back, one speaker was memorable for his blunt appraisal of the power imbalance between those who ask for money and those who grant it. "Lets stop pretending," said Eli Lee, of the National Organizers Alliance of Albuquerque, "We will never be equal with funders. The dynamic of moneyand the imbalance of power that goes with itwill always be there."
Some grantmakers have taken up talking about a related topic: How the lack of criticismor lack of feedback of any kind, reallyis due to more than tongue-biting grantees. The foundation institution is untested by markets, ballot boxes or, until recently, muckraking reporters. (In fact, I think pointing out the fields lack of fetters in the opening lines of a speech or article has become the new requisite, replacing the old de Toqueville quote.) We know the freedom to be creative in problem-solving is philanthropys defining characteristic. We know foundations were not accidentally set up this way; this freedom was and still is a good idea. And we know that the last thing foundations want is to squander this freedom.
But so often the talk stops there, and Im longing to hear more on the part about what we do to prevent this defining characteristic from getting chipped away. The part about, to whom much public trust is given, much self-policing is expected. The part that points out points out that the freedom to fund daring projects and not care what the critics say is different from the freedom to be unapproachable and not care what the critics say.
As Im writing this, the Rockefeller Foundation 1997 annual report has just hit the mail. Peter Goldmarks presidents letter reflects back on his ten years at the foundation before he left it last December. He wrote: "What is needed is bracing self-examination, and the balance, rigor and nerve to face ones own shortcomings and requirements." There are steps foundations can that would, as he put it, "shore up...the occasional wobbling in standards of professional behavior and personal interaction" that takes place in the grantmaking field, as it does in other fields.
So, criticism of grantmakers from grantees will continue to be rare. Self-criticism is not an end to itself. And criticism from any source, inside or outside the field, is really only useful when its used to inform constructive action steps.