What’s your line of integrity?

What research in Berlin, London, New York, Ohio, Stockport and Watford taught the Wellcome Trust about the accountability of foundations.

Go to the profile of Dan Metcalfe
May 16, 2019
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Who is your philanthropic foundation accountable to for the decisions it takes and the investments it makes? This may seem an esoteric question, but it is one that Wellcome, the health research foundation I work for, believes is increasingly important. Foundations don’t have the checks and balances of many systems, we can’t be voted out of office or fired by shareholders. Arguably, we are the most lightly (if imperfectly) regulated multi-billion sector in the world.

To better understand what citizens thought about our accountability we adopted an innovative qualitative approach. Firstly, we ran extensive discussion groups in late 2018 with a politically and demographically diverse range of citizens in Berlin, London, Stockport, Watford, New York and Ohio. Next, we interviewed a range of experts from political, academic and philanthropic backgrounds. And then we interviewed our own senior leaders. Three findings were remarkably consistent across ages, attitudes and geographies.

Most citizens see a positive role for philanthropy

Irrespective of politics, the research found once people understood what foundations were they liked them. Being independent of government, commercial or fundraising interests was seen as essential to making a difference. The much-discussed hemorrhaging of trust was not apparent here – participants assumed foundations were well run, trusting health foundations the most and corporate foundations the least. 

This goodwill is fragile

Citizens knew very little about foundations, and thought very little about them. Their trust was predicated on positive assumptions, not detailed knowledge. As participants thought more about the role of foundations many became uneasy about the potential influence such below-the-radar organisations have. It would take very little for citizens to move from broadly supportive to broadly hostile.

Foundations have a "line of integrity", and crossing it makes citizens much warier about our role

Participants wanted foundations to be free to make the world a better place. But some worried about the potentially undue influence of organisations they did not understand. In particular, explicit attempts by foundations to influence policy worried many citizens and experts. In Wellcome’s case, participants were comfortable with us advocating for change only when the connection to our mission to improve health was clear – e.g. policy about antibiotic resistance.

The research then explored options for improving the accountability of foundations. Interestingly, citizens wanted us to keep free and make decisions – options around greater regulation or consultation weren’t popular. By far the most popular suggestions were about foundations acting to increase transparency and clarity – we can increase accountability and trustworthiness by making it easier for citizens to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Foundations can maintain and even improve this license to operate. But doing so requires us to behave differently. Our societal license to operate is not irrevocable - foundations need to open up, be our own harshest critics and put trustworthiness at the heart of our approach to delivering our mission.

Some may worry these steps would inhibit foundations, and make them take middle of the road decisions. That’s not my interpretation. The citizens and experts we spoke to want foundations to be bold in a way that governments or the private sector can’t be. Our conclusion is that to be accountable foundations need to lead change, to be the innovators – not just in what we do, but in how we do it.

Of course, qualitative research in three countries never represents a definitive answer, and I’m looking forward to hearing from other experts at OECD Forum 2019 about what else foundations, and other organisations, can do to increase accountability. 

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Related Topics 

Integrity
OECD Forum 2019

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Go to the profile of Dan Metcalfe

Dan Metcalfe

Head of Campaigns, Wellcome Trust

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