Do Non-Profits Criticize Foundations? Or Are They Too Frightened to Do So?

Earlier this year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) issued a report titled “Philamplify Poll Results: Nonprofits Don’t Criticize Foundations Because of Funding Fears.”

The report seeks to explain a phenomenon whose existence it does not bother to establish. Rather than presenting evidence that non-profits are in fact intimidated into silence by grantors, the report instead simply assumes that they are. Its first paragraph declares that “Given the power imbalance between foundations and grantees, grantees are often wary of providing foundations with constructive criticism.”

No evidence is presented to substantiate or quantify this claim. How often? How wary? Says who?

Assumption in hand, the NCRP is off to the races, asking its website visitors to speculate on this hypothetical question “What is the top reason why a nonprofit would choose not to openly criticize a foundation?”

Of course those speculations would be of dubious value even if the report had bothered to establish this phenomenon’s existence. The poll answers would not tell us if even one actual non-profit had held its tongue for the reason alleged, merely that some anonymous website visitor(s) thought it plausible.

Even if we grant that it might be difficult to collect hard evidence on cases of non-profits refusing to criticize prospective donors, it does not excuse publishing a “report” devoid of relevant facts.

Consider, too, that it might be comparatively easy to collect data on non-profits that have criticized foundations. An advantage of this flip-side approach to the question is that the critics themselves can be asked why they published their criticisms. I say this as the author of an empirical study whose findings were deeply unflattering to philanthropies seeking to scale-up charter school networks.

Why did I do it? It’s my job. I study comparative education policy, seeking to understand which policies are most effective in delivering the outcomes that families value. A key question within that field is to determine which policies lead most consistently to the “scaling-up” of educational excellence—which is to say the replication and/or imitation of best practices. Since that has long been a goal of donors to charter school networks I felt it important to determine empirically the extent to which their efforts were proving effective. It being an empirical study based on a large dataset (all the charter networks operating in the state of California) there was no way to predict the outcome prior to crunching the numbers. Nor was there any need for such a prediction.

Contrary to the speculations of NCRP’s website visitors, my highest priority as a think tank researcher is not to avoid antagonizing potential donors, it is maintaining my personal integrity and guarding my reputation and that of my employer for producing reliable, useful empirical research. I am certainly not alone in holding these priorities among think tank scholars. With that observation in mind, dear reader, please contact me if you have another example in which a non-profit published work critical of foundations/potential donors. I will relay the results to NCRP in the hope that they may wish to make amends for their earlier baseless, question-begging speculations.