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Impartiality, Journalism, and Philanthropy
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Impartiality, Journalism, and Philanthropy

Thoughts on an increasingly activist philanthropic sector.

A column by David Carr in the New York Times got me thinking about the nature of impartiality and activism, and how they apply—or don’t—to professional philanthropy. With the headline “Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted,” Carr says that “the line between two ‘isms’—journalism and activism—is becoming difficult to discern.” Carr defines an activist as “someone driven by an agenda beyond seeking information on the public’s behalf.” Is philanthropy headed in the same direction?

Carr is well known in the Twin Cities as a journalist, including his role as editor of Twin Cities Reader. His piece was prompted by the Guardian’s coverage of the Edward Snowden case, and he continues from there to explore the ways activism both fuels and hinders news coverage. “I do think that activism—which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery—can also impair vision. If an agenda is in play and momentum is at work, cracks may go unexplored … the tendentiousness of ideology creates its own narrative.”

What does this have to do with philanthropy? First, a bit of history. In 1965, the Council on Foundations, a membership organization for foundations and corporate giving programs, had 244 organizational members. By the 1970s, professional philanthropy began getting traction, and it became possible for professionals to have a career in private philanthropy. Today the council’s membership stands at 1,700 worldwide, and its operating budget is $17.8 million.

To help inform best practices as the field grew, in 1980 the council developed a formal statement of principles and practices of effective grantmaking. Providing guidelines for effective governance, transparency, and respectful relationships with applicants and grantees, the landmark document created new expectations for private philanthropy’s public accountability. (The Minnesota Council on Foundations was the first regional association to adopt Principles for Grantmakers, in the early 1990s.)

Since then individual philanthropies have gone further, creating ethics codes for their program officers and staff. The Kresge Foundation, based in Troy, Michigan, (now led by former Minneapolitan Rip Rapson), posts its Grantmaker Guidelines on the web. The guidelines commit foundation staff to timely communication (an oft-cited problem with foundations) and to being “respectful of applicants’ agendas and priorities.” However, philanthropy’s ethics codes are far less strict than those of most journalism organizations. The comparisons are worth exploring. Both operate effectively only when the public trusts their institutions, and both receive special legal treatment (journalists have constitutional protections under the First Amendment, and foundations are tax-exempt).

Both professions are gatekeepers for limited community resources—in one case dollars, in the other column-inches or airtime. Both must be open to new ideas, whatever the source, perspective, or agenda, and both should be able to sniff out the difference between proposed agendas and realistic outcomes.

Public trust in any institution relies on our perception of its ethical principles. Public trust in journalism and in non-governmental organizations is falling. Much of the general public questions journalism’s adherence to fairness, accuracy, and balance—the profession’s ethical foundations. For philanthropy, are existing ethics codes strong enough to instill public trust in our increasingly polarized society? “Activists can and often do reveal the truth, but the primary objective remains winning the argument,” says Carr. Is activism in foundations an equally blinding force in determining who wins the money?

There’s no easy line to draw for philanthropy, no absolute measure of whether an unhelpful activism has overtaken the grantmaking process. It’s worth reflecting on this subject and reviewing the practices of leading journalism organizations for insight, admitting first that journalism ethics are themselves a contentious subject. That said, they do provide the public with a standard against which news practices can be assessed.

Consider these excerpts. “No significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or underrepresented,” states the BBC’s statement of editorial values. “Journalists should not take part in public relations workshops that charge admission or imply privileged access,” says the New York Times. “No one may wear campaign buttons or display any sign of political partisanship while working for our company inside or outside the office,” the Times continues. “Journalists do not take part in politics. . . . They may not give money to any political candidate or election cause or raise money for one.” How many philanthropies hold staff and trustees to these standards of impartiality?

In fact, nonprofits and foundations are increasingly involved in advocacy causes. The tax code permits this involvement within limits (and among nonprofit associations, it is strongly encouraged). I am not suggesting that nonprofits relinquish their role in informing public policy. What I am saying is that there is a relationship between earning public trust and the public’s growing cynicism toward and distrust of activism when it is disguised as impartiality. I’m drawing a comparison between scrutiny of breaches in the published ethical standards of journalists and the lack of more detailed ethical codes in philanthropy.

Such comparisons can lead to important discoveries about who is present and who is left out when we set the philanthropic table. Today society views objectivity as an unattainable stance: Each of us carries biases of which we are more and less aware. Ethical practice in philanthropy, as well as in journalism, means examining our biases, and exploring the terrain of impartiality. Carr’s column is a great starting point for the conversation.

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