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Foundations: Ways To Improve Feedback & Credibility

image from scholasticadministrator.typepad.comIn Philanthropy gets in the ring, AEI's Rick Hess highlights the current danger of funders creating or sticking to bad policies because of (a) a dearth  of honest criticism from fearful observers who don't want to risk losing funding or panel invitations and (b) the preponderance of "incendiary voices and marginal figures with ideological agendas and nothing to lose."

Quite reasonably, Hess suggests that funders encourage more public debate and constructive criticism, but he doesn't address is exactly how Gates and Broad and others should operationalize any new open-ness to legitimate criticism they might hope to foster.

Not to worry.  I have lots of ideas -- most of them probably not very good ones.  

One model that comes to mind is some sort of an in-house ombudsman -- a semi-independent position created by a newspaper to serve as a liaison between readers and reporters and to ensure that newsgathering is accurate, complete -- and to recognize and correct errors.

Another is some sort of annual 360 review process in which successes and failures are discussed publicly -- akin to the "failure" panel at NSVF last year -- rather than swept under the rug (or, even worse, oversold).  

Last but not least, foundations could publish the internal program evaluations they conduct to determine what if anything was accomplished or whether to grant or continue funding.  Grantees wouldn't like it much, but they would learn to suck it up and benefit in the long run from the credibility.

Somewhat related, I would recommend some sort of ongoing effort to engage with reform critics and knock down misinformation that spreads unchecked online. There are a lot of pro-reform think tank bloggers out there, and the occasional mainstream coverage, but you'd be amazed at how little direct communication foundations and reform groups themselves send out (to me, at least).  Blogs are dead -- it would have to be a Pinterest or Twitter feed or something -- but my favorite example from the past is still the AFT blog that was created after the enactment of NCLB. 

I've said this before:  Reform-minded funders and nonprofits want educators to make their classroom practice public, to open themselves to constructive criticism, and to commit to continuous improvement.  They could do much to make that approach credible and legitimate by bravely and regularly modeling it themselves.  

But the main reason to do so would be practical rather than moral: making sure that their ideas and initiatives are carefully considered, regularly adjusted, that those who have to implement them are engaged, and that they ulimately work.

Nobody but perhaps a handful of us really want Gates and Broad and all the rest to fail, give up, and go off and do something else with their loot. Which is what they'll eventually do if they make lots of bad decisions and decide they are going to end up lumped in with Annenberg and so many previous efforts.   A better feedback loop would help prevent this.  

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All new ideas have to be tested somewhere. But clearly it's immoral to test them all on low-income kids and their schools. What about if these funders tested their notions on their OWN kids' schools? Obviously they have the means to make that happen.

The idea of a Board Ombuds has been suggested by others. After researching philanthropic boards, Prof. Joel Fleishman at Duke proposed that all boards of a certain size have an ombuds. Other experts on board governance have argued that boards should have ombuds as part of a comprehensive conflict resolution scheme. More information about organizational ombuds is available from the International Ombudsman Association.

foundations could publish the internal program evaluations they conduct to determine what if anything was accomplished or whether to grant or continue funding.
Grantees wouldn't like it much, but they would learn to suck it up and benefit in the long run from the credibility.

I think ultimately, it’s because these programs are targeted, without being explicitly stated so, at improving quality of education for those in difficult situations financially, socially, or otherwise. Most Philanthropists would naturally send their children to expensive, prestigious schools where the typical model for education doesn’t apply to such an extent...

At the same time, it stands to reason that funders are removed from the situation; the only risk they therefore face is public image should a program fail. It’s immoral most of all to me that such men and women are detached from their causes. Go to the schools themselves you’re helping. Interview board members. Find out the problems before backing any policy that sounds good.

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