How to Deal with Critics
FN&C asked: Should foundations respond directly to their critics or does that make matters worse?
A note about our unscientific survey: We called about three dozen grantmakers and grantseekers completely at random, without prior knowledge of how respondents felt on the issue, seeking only to capture sentiments from the field in a man-in-the-street format. Most people began to answer this question by saying, "It depends..."
There are some instances where it might be best to let sleeping dogs lie. You have to consider the source and context of the argument, the history of the argument, and also the political environment in which the comment is made.
I say all this assuming that the criticism is coming directly to the organization head or that someone has contacted the foundation directly. Criticism in the newspaper, or criticism that's not specifically addressed to your foundation requires you to make the same considerations. It becomes a bit more difficult to know whether or not a response is needed. I think that if the criticism is broadcast widely, especially if it includes misinformation, it needs to be addressed. There are ways to do it that are rational and reasonable. You've got an opportunity to educate the critic and the public.
Thomas Clements, Trustee, Clements Family Charitable Trust, Key West, FL
David Enger, President, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Detroit
For example, if you're programming in education, and your foundation has taken a specific tack at trying to reform the system by doing charter schools, there's a whole contingent that doesn't like charter schools. If the contingent unites and criticizes your grant, I don't think the foundation can get into the mix about that. It's a philosophical difference that's inherent in the criticism. All a foundation can do is say why it's doing what it is. However, if there's a group of charter school enthusiasts and they criticize your charter schools grant, you should respond. They have the same common goal and purpose. It's a learning opportunity.
There's such a wide range of criticism launched without thought against foundations, and for that matter, against politicians and those trying to make a difference in general. If you responded to every criticism out there, you wouldn't have any time left in the day.
And, of course, there's always the issue of strategy. I think there are four questions you have to ask in deciding whether or not to respond.
If the answer is no, then I don't think you should respond.
If the answer is yes, then you should.
Donald E. Poppen, Executive Director, Norman W., Jr. and Andrea H. Waitt Foundation, Dakota Dunes, SD
Mary Witten Neal, President, Foundation for the Tri-State Community, Ashland, KY
Raymond Reisler, Executive Director, S. Mark Taper Foundation, Los Angeles
If it's a local story, then I think its incumbent upon the RAG or the individual foundation leaders of that community to respond. If it's a national story, and a national newspaper calls up for a reaction, I'd be inclined to suggest that individual foundation leaders consult with people like Dot Ridings and other national foundation leaders for a response. [Is a unified response best for national stories?] Unified, yes and no-I'm not saying there should be only one spokesperson, but if lots of Council on Foundations board members are called, it's worth checking to see what kind of thinking they are doing. Consultation with others first would be wiser that just giving an immediate personal response. And if it was important enough that a unified-meaning collaborative-response was necessary, then that would help.
David Miller, Executive Director, Denver Foundation, Denver
I can think of one case where someone was critical of us. One of our board members had drawn my attention to it, so I did call that person. When I pursued it, I learned it was a someone who had been involved with a grantee organization who was not happy with a decision our board made-it was kind of a sour grapes situation-but the way it was communicated to our board made no mention of that grantee relationship.
C. Harold Brown, President, A.J. & Jessie Duncan Foundation, Fort Worth, TX
Scott McVay, Executive Director, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Morristown, NJ
Robert DiLeonardi, Executive Director, VNA Foundation, Chicago
Ten years ago or more there was a film from Council on Minnesota Foundations called, "What is Philanthropy?" They went out in the street with a camera and a microphone and asked people that question. The answers were hysterical-but the non-funny part is that many people don't know. I think that myths are just perpetuated if you don't respond.
[Do you think it depends on the situation?] Saying, "it depends" is a cop-out. This is just a threshold responsibility if you're going to work in the field of philanthropy. I don't like the idea of philanthropy as secret world-I think foundations should be very open. If you're going to enjoy the benefits of not paying taxes, there's a little bit of responsibility that comes with it. If you don't like it, then give up your 501(c)(3) status. As you can tell, I'm not very opinionated.