Even if the scandals that have rocked corporate America had not reached the world of philanthropy and Congress were not considering restrictive legislation, it would still be imperative for foundations to report openly, honestly, and comprehensively to their boards and to the public. By law, foundations are accountable to their boards of trustees—and, of course, to regulatory agencies, principally the Internal Revenue Service, and state attorneys general. But in a larger sense, foundations are public trusts, serving as stewards of private resources for the public good. As such, they have an obligation to be publicly accountable.
Accountability can be viewed in at least two ways. It can refer to financial accountability—being transparent and ethical in keeping the books and reporting on financial transactions. IRS Form 990-PFs are publicly available and accessible to all. This is a major step toward promoting financial accountability, even if, like most tax forms, the 990-PF is an arcane and not always easily understood document.
The second type of accountability—programmatic accountability—receives much less attention. It refers to transparency in letting the public know what a foundation has done with the private dollars it has been given or bequeathed, why it did so, and, under the best of circumstances, what lessons can be learned from its grantmaking.
I am fortunate to be leading a foundation that has such a strong tradition of public accountability, of both the financial and the programmatic varieties. Since its earliest days, the Foundation’s presidents have used the Annual Report to share information and concerns about substantive health matters. Our newsletter, Advances, provides an even broader public with capsule descriptions of the Foundation’s grants and the activities of our grantees. Reports of more than 1,500 grants are now posted on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Web site, as are findings from Foundation-funded research.
In addition, the Foundation produces To Improve Health and Health Care: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Anthology, a book series published annually by Jossey-Bass. At the convergence of evaluation, communications, and program analysis, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Anthology series opens up our programmatic books to the public. Volumes produced over the past eight years contain chapters ranging from large topics, such as the Foundation’s efforts to reduce smoking and to improve care toward the end of life, to small projects, such as New Mexico’s Recovery High School and San Francisco’s Homeless Prenatal Program. By critically examining the work of its grantees and revealing the inner workings of the Foundation itself, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Anthology also helps to demystify the often opaque world of philanthropy.
Through these mechanisms, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation seeks to achieve programmatic, as well as fiscal, accountability, and to meet our obligations as a public trust. We may not have gotten it quite right yet, but we are pointed in the right direction.