Last week, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) launched its new website Philamplify.org. Marketed as the “Yelp for the philanthropy sector,” this website seeks to provide “honest feedback to improve philanthropy” (not unlike GuideStar or Charity Navigator). At its best, Philamplify provides comprehensive assessments of foundations using reports, websites, and online polls to cultivate “key recommendations” for each organization. Overall, the site attempts to provide an intersection between philanthropy scholarship and the general public to yield ‘more effective’ philanthropic strategies.
Since the website just went live last week, it currently houses only three reviews – the Lumina Foundation for Education, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation. Each “review” includes a splash page with an over-produced video, key quotes from the full assessment, and recommendations where visitors can vote to agree or disagree, as well provide commentary. (As of Monday morning, the highest single-vote count on a recommendation was “31 people.”)
A brief perusal of the vote-able, broad recommendations to these three foundations discovers some key themes – transparency, effectiveness, “strategy,” and diversity. However, if these are the findings, then what are the methods?
While each assessment requires its own methodology (which are explicitly listed in each downloadable full assessment on each foundation’s “page”), the guiding principles are that “foundations must be both strategic and just.” Additionally, NCRP offers four groupings of questions that each assessment seeks to answer. The groups are: “Goals and Strategy,” “Outcomes and Impact,” “Partnerships with Grantees,” and “Internal Operations and Other Practices.” In order to answer these questions, the assessment conducts surveys, interviews, reviews, and analyses to determine how the foundation stacks up to NCRP’s rubric.
According to Philamplify’s launch video:
“[T]he reports offer to the specific foundations data. Data we hope they will use to consider their grant making, their practices, their policies, and the impact of their grant making.” (As stated by NCRP Board Chair Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, President and CEO of Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation)
Although it is certainly justified for philanthropic organizations to acquire feedback and/or guidance from third-party groups or consulting firms, the danger of Philamplify is twofold: 1) the democratic angle distracts meaningful improvement and 2) the principles forwarded by NCRP may clash with the organization’s principles.
First, regarding the democratic angle, the voting feature on recommendations is questionable. While not as open-ended as a Yelp review, there are multiple outlets within each recommendation for anonymous comments. Yelp seems to make sense for restaurants (e.g., if a restaurant provides poor service, an anonymous online outlet detailing such service may provide helpful advice to other potential patrons); however, this approach is likely inapplicable to philanthropy given complexities of funding and administration.
Additionally, voting is far too easy. For example, one has the opportunity to agree with the Lumina Foundation’s recommendation to “Heed stakeholders’ concerns by boosting funding and capacity to support ambitious community-based strategies.” The voting process is far too simple because it does not require that the individual know anything about the assessment (let alone, anything about the Lumina Foundation) before he or she votes. All it takes is one celebrity with a lot of Twitter followers to completely mess with Philamplify’s system.
Second, while I certainly think NCRP’s motives are well intentioned, it seems a bit authoritative for them to assess a foundation using principles that are not necessarily endorsed or forwarded by that foundation itself. Sure, most of the recommendations strive to remain value-neutral, but fulfilling this goal is likely easier said than done. For example, Philamplify’s call for “social justice philanthropy” (particularly considering any potential ideological implications of that phrase) may be contrary to an individual foundation’s own core values. Thus, Philamplify has the potential pitfall of authoring "scorecards" instead of assessments.
Philamplify has prospective benefits for the philanthropic community; however, before NCRP issues broader evaluations, they should first better evaluate their own project.