The Art of the Steal: A Lesson in Ethics and the Public Trust

March 22, 2010

This week, some of MCF’s staff went to see The Art of the Steal, a film documenting the fight over The Barnes Foundation and its $25 billion collection of post-Impressionist and early Modernist art.  This private collection includes seminal works by Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Manet, Monet and Van Gogh, but this isn’t a movie about art.

It’s about governance, transparency, donor intent and the interpretation of these principles by people who are entrusted to act in the best interest of the foundation.

Over his lifetime, Dr. Albert Barnes amassed an incredible collection of art at his foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, unrivaled by many of the large, prestigious art museums in the United States, including the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art.  But Barnes did not amass this collection to be viewed extensively by the general public; he established the foundation to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.”

First and foremost, Barnes thought of his foundation as a school for artists, a place where sincere students could view important and influential works of art away from the tourism of art museums.  Henri Matisse said the Barnes Foundation is “the only sane place to see art in America.”   Barnes was explicit in his trust documents that the collection should not be sold, moved, or loaned for any purpose, unless those demands became unreasonable or impossible due to unforeseen circumstances.

Therein lies the crux of the struggle to control the Barnes collection.  While Barnes loyalists say that to remove the collection at all would be a direct contradiction to Barnes’ original intent, several powerful people and institutions in Philadelphia, including the former Governor of Pennsylvania, several well-known philanthropists, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have vied to move the collection to Philadelphia, where it would be more accessible to the general public (and a huge tourist attraction for the city.) They claim that The Barnes Foundation is financially unstable and has no other choice but to move the collection.  The film chronicles this fight, leading up to the dramatic decision as to the future of the foundation.

The Art of the Steal is definitely a movie with an agenda and a point of view (read this New York Times article for a full review of the film).  Funded and produced by several former students and teachers of the Barnes, the film is one-sided and paints the other side in an unflattering light.  Many of the people that the film accuses refused to participate in the movie, but some have made statements in response to the movie, including the Pew Charitable Trusts and Bernard Watson, chairman of the Barnes Foundation board of trustees.

No matter on which side of this argument you fall, The Art of the Steal provides an excellent case study on the topic of ethics.  Whether you have heard of this controversy before or not, you will walk away from the movie questioning how people can ensure that foundations and nonprofits maintain accountability with the public and whether a controversy like this could have been avoided.

At the Minnesota Council on Foundations, our members created, endorsed, and do their work by the Principles for Grantmakers & Practice Options for Philanthropic Organizations to prevent situations like this from happening.  Updated in 2009, the Principles are a how-to of principled philanthropy. Not only do they outline what philanthropic organizations are legally required to do, the Principles are also aspirational, encouraging foundations to reach for more than what the law says is necessary.  All MCF members are required to subscribe to the Principles.  In the preamble of the Principles, it reads:

“We acknowledge the fundamental roles and responsibilities of engaged individuals and the public, private and nonprofit sectors in a just and equitable society.  As a community of grantmakers, we embrace philanthropy’s role in a civil society.”

It is controversies like the one depicted in The Art of the Steal that remind those of us in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors that we must work daily to uphold the public trust.  We must take responsibility for the privilege of sustaining a just and equitable society.  We must respect and honor the people who turn to our organizations in search of support and guidance.  And we must appreciate the opportunity to assess ourselves against written and unwritten standards of ethical principles and practice, and value the chance to reach for a higher standard.

The Art of the Steal is playing now at the Landmark Edina Cinema.

– Stephanie Jacobs, MCF member services manager A New Website Bringing Transparency to Philanthropy

March 15, 2010

There are 97,000 foundations in the United States, and each year these foundations control more than $500 billion worth of assets and distribute $46 billion a year in grants and programs (Smith, 2010.) The influence of philanthropy on the well-being of the nation is profound, yet strangely, although foundations wield so much power, the average individual often struggles to even define what philanthropy is.

In the past, many working in the field of philanthropy, although not actively trying to keep the public “in the dark” about their activities, were complicit with this general state of ignorance in the sense that they did not strive proactively to educate the public about their work. This old way of conducting business has fallen into disfavor with many large grantmakers, and is a powerful example of how these foundations are now making efforts to communicate clearly about their grantmaking and practices.

Launched in January by the Foundation Center, in conjunction with a number or partner organizations,’s mission is to “bring transparnecy to the world of philanthropy.” The site has a wealth of information on a number of large, well-known foundations such as:

The transparency of each foundation’s practices are rated on the site in a series of reports that look at 28 key indicators of transparency and accountability, including if they explain their grantmaking process, whether they provide a public assessment of their performance, and if they offer opportunities to share program evaluations and lessons learned with the public and grantees.

Other features of the site include a search tool called the “Only Foundations Search” that allows the user to search the websites of thousands of private foundations for information on their grantmaking activities. The search tool can be found at the bottom of the homepage. In addition to the search function, there are also resources that share general facts about philanthropy based on the Foundation Center’s research, as well as special focus pages that delve into to specific topics — like relief work in Haiti.

Join the conversation: Although many leaders in the philanthropic field are praising and its mission to encourage philanthropists to communicate about their work, there are some who feel that private foundations are not obligated to share this information. Do you support the mission of philanthropic transparency, or do you feel that this focus on transparency unduly impinges on the activities of private foundations?

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate

Sometimes less is less. The case for focusing on outcomes, not overhead.

August 27, 2009

I remember the question clearly, because it totally shifted my thinking:

“Could you do more if you had more money?”

Many nonprofits are feeling the squeeze from funders to keep overhead low. But at what costs?

Many nonprofits are feeling "the squeeze" from funders to keep overhead low. But at what cost?

The question was posed to me after I made a presentation on the costs of our website redesign to the board of the nonprofit that I volunteer for. I can’t remember who asked the question, but I was grateful that she did. It felt like a weight had been lifted.

I had been so focused on keeping our budget tight that I hadn’t stopped to ask, are we cutting corners? What could we do if we did have more money? What opportunities to better serve our beneficiaries were we missing by being so conservative?

At that moment I realized that I had internalized a “do more with less” mindset, without really considering the consequences of doing so. According to the article “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” in The Stanford Social Innovation Review, many nonprofit leaders have also internalized this thinking, often due to the unrealistic demands of some of their funders.

What are the consequences of our “do more with less” fixation?

Article authors Ann Goggins Gregory and Don Howard report that the result has been a hollowing out of nonprofit infrastructure that has crippled the ability of many organizations to fulfill their beneficiaries’ needs.

Their solution? Fixing funders’ unrealistic expectations about how much it costs to run a sustainable nonprofit organization. Unfortunately, the power dynamics inherent to the grantmaker-grantee relationship make it very difficult for nonprofits to be brutally honest about how much it costs, particularly in terms of overhead expenses, to run their organization.

But if the nonprofits can not be relied on to stand up for themselves, what can funders do? Gregory and Howard recommend that funders shift their focus from costs to outcomes.

This shift is fundamental to getting away from the current culture of “low pay, make do, and do without” that has created dysfunction in some organizations.

The one question you should ask grantees.

Gregory and Howard recommend that funders clearly establish that they and their grantees share the same goals. Once goals are clear, funders should ask grantees to answer honestly this question, “What will it take to deliver these outcomes consistently, or to deliver these outcomes at an even higher level of quality or quantity?”

Outcomes, not overhead.

This question, and the question that I was asked at that board meeting, both get beyond the question of money and refocuses the listener on the question of results. Because ultimately, none of us, neither grantee nor funder, is in it for the lowest overhead, we’re in it for outcomes.

For a more complete description of the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle, and actions that funders and grantees can take to break it, read the article at The Stanford Social Innovation Review website.

Join the conversation: Are you taking steps to ensure that your grantees are making sustainable choices and spending adequately on technology and staff? Do you think we can even begin to address the issue of under reporting and underfunding overhead within the current economic context?

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate

Photo CC Accent on Electric

Social Giving Contests, a New Trend in Corporate Philanthropy?

June 12, 2009
As the economy tightens and the Costanza wallet becomes a thing of the past, I encourage more companies to engage in their own social giving campaigns. The cash-strapped public will appreciate the chance to donate, even when they cant afford to give as much personally.

As the economy tightens and the "Costanza wallet" becomes a thing of the past, I encourage companies to do social giving contests. The cash-strapped public will appreciate it.

As a web-junky up to her eyeballs daily in news about philanthropy, I am excited to note what may be a new trend in corporate giving, letting the public decide where dollars should go through what I’m calling corporate social giving contests.

Both Target, an MCF member, and Toms of Maine have recently launched online campaigns to engage the public directly in deciding where their precious giving dollars should go.

Target’s campaign, conducted entirely on Facebook, allowed members of the popular social networking site to vote on how $3 million would be distributed among 10 different pre-selected charities. St. Jude’s was the eventual “winner” of the campaign, receiving almost $800,000 from the online contest.

Similarly, Toms of Maine announced a new campaign and site entitled 50 States for Good. At the site visitors can nudge their favorite nonprofits from anywhere in the nation to apply for the competition until August 30.  Then on September 21, voting begins!

Any site visitor will be able to vote on the nonprofit finalists to determine who will receive a $20,000 scholarship out of a pot of $300,000 to be given away.

I salute both Target and Toms of Maine for embracing innovative ways to get the public engaged in their own corporate giving.

Not only does it help them be more transparent in their giving practices, something that we at MCF advocate, and get some great PR, it also gets people engaged in giving at a time when many of us may find our own ability to give diminished.

Let’s face it, as our wallets get thinner, it’s nice to have a chance to get that warm-fuzzy feeling by giving away someone else’s cash!

It’s my hope that this recent activity becomes a trend, and I’ll see more tweets about companies undertaking their own corporate social giving contests.

Update: Just saw a tweet that said Staples has begun its own Facebook campaign with Participants can fill a virtual backpack, and then go to the store and buy the items to donate to students of low socioeconomic status. It’s not a social giving contest, but definitely in the same vein. Read more about Staple’s campaign here. (6/19/09)

-Cary Lenore Walski, MCF Web Communications Associate