A recent scholarly conference on “Foundations, Accountability, and Transparency in a Democratic Society” sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund raised once again the long-standing issues of accountability in the foundation world.  The primary focus of the conference was the tension that has existed since the emergence of private foundations at the beginning of the 20th century, between the private nature of foundations (as “private preserves and none of the public’s business”) and their public character as influential players in a democratic society and therefore appropriately subject to democratic control. 

How accountable should foundations be?  The first challenge in answering this question of course is defining what “accountability” means for foundations:  Accountable to whom—their donors? their grantees? the IRS?  the public at large?  And accountable for what, performance?  responsiveness? achieving equity?  advancing social creativity? Neither the historical origins nor the legal status of foundations provide unambiguous answers to these questions.

The current version of the debate between private and public purposes of foundations can be found in discussions of the recent recommendations of the Independent Sector Panel to the Senate Finance Committee (too much circling of the wagons?); the Council on Foundations’ action in censuring the J. Paul Getty Trust for its failure to disclose information (too mild/too harsh?); and foundation payout requirements (to increase or not?).  Rob Reich’s cover essay in the current issue of SSIR raises the issue in yet a different way:  Should foundations be encouraged or compelled through mandates or incentives to give preference to organizations that pursue the democratic ideal of social equity?  All of these questions return to the fundamental issue of whether there should be greater public control over foundations in a democratic society.  What do SSIR readers think?