Friday, December 19, 2008

Who will answer the call?

Ah, yes. Two words - philanthropy and transparency - that go together quite frequently in "insider baseball" discussions among foundations and nonprofits.

Unfortunately, the general public is standing outside the ballpark on this one. Two major public events on this issue - the release of the list of donors to the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative and inquiries into new-Senate wannabe Caroline Kennedy and the Fund for Public Schools - will raise these questions in a way and for a public that's been having a very different conversation these past few months.

Of course, these public revelations - most shocking perhaps only in that they needed to be made public (i.e., weren't already public) - are coming on the heels of the Madoff Ripoff, an SEC that essentially admits to being asleep at the switch, and a financial services bailout in which it remains unclear which is the fox and which is the henhouse. In other words, philanthropy is being asked to explain itself at a time when the average American (if such a thing exists) is pretty tired of listening to bankers, mortgage brokers, government watchdogs, elected officials, auto companies and even former Presidents and the heir to Kennedy icon status explain themselves. That "average American" appears to be even more fed up with bailing out or being left with the costs of these institutional explanations.

All this leaves me to ask what I believe is a rhetorical question "Will the calls for new regulatory oversight of financial services lead to calls for new oversight of philanthropy?"

And, when that oversight gets called for, who will come forward with proposals and policy ideas that represent the best thinking from the field?

Who will lead a discussion informed by all that has been learned by those "inside baseball players" and the tools, benchmarks, practices, ethical statements and on-the-ground wisdom that those in the industry have been developing?

Who will lead this discussion from a place of true commitment to public transparency and a knowledgeable regard for what works and is feasible so that new regulations might spur better practice rather than be heavy handed slap backs?

Who will inform these negotiations with real knowledge of online giving markets, micro-philanthropy, volunteerism, small donations, community organizing, flash causes, twitter-enabled giving, social actions, networks enterprises, diverse cultures of giving, hybrid business models, social capital markets, and institutional philanthropy? (Oh, and it would be nice if they also understood industry incentives, policy making, regulation writing, and enforcement)

Who is planning for this now, when we can see it coming, rather than panicking to a defensive place when the call comes from Capitol Hill or the IRS or the White House or the State House or the SEC or a new Fund for Social Innovation or community service overseers?

I hope someone is.

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