Foundations and charitable organizations love good publicity for the simple reason that people like to hear good publicity. Human beings are created in such a way that receiving praise is overwhelmingly more pleasant that being the object of criticism. This may not be the only reason for the development in recent decades of the publicity and media relations arms of major foundations. At one time, foundation executives were content to do their work behind the scenes, outside the glare of the media. But today, the leaders of many charitable organizations work hard to cultivate a brand or identity through programs and activities that catch the favorable attention of reporters and editors.
The downside of media coverage, of course, is that writers and editors will take notice and comment unfavorably on the work of foundations. This happened in a recent piece on the Templeton Foundation that ran in The Nation. As fair and balanced as the feature was in much of its coverage, a sense of fear was not merely in the subtext but also in the text. The particular worry was that Templeton was using its considerable assets to sponsor the study of religion and science, and giving grants to conservative organizations. The story included this:
Like debates about religion broadly, debates about Templeton often get mapped onto the culture wars in black and white, or red and blue. It doesn't help that the foundation is a longstanding donor to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. And while its founder preferred eternal questions to worldly politics, the son who has succeeded him, John Templeton Jr.—Jack—is a conservative Evangelical who spends his personal time and money opposing gay marriage and defending the Iraq War. Since his father's death, concerns have swirled among the foundation's grantees and critics alike that Jack Templeton will steer the foundation even further rightward and, perhaps, even further from respectable science.
The Nation is not alone is criticizing or trying to generate worries about assets outside the control of the government or right minded people. Anyone can conduct a search at Google for news of their favorite charity and find stories, or op-ed pieces, or blogs that complain about the power of philanthropic do-gooders who actually do much harm. For every positive story about a foundation’s grant-making, negative ones abound, such as ones about the Rockefeller Foundation’s support for African farming programs, the Gates Foundation’s funding for maternal health, or even documentary films about the Pew Charitable Trusts’ support for museums in the city of Philadelphia.
The lesson for philanthropists may be that criticism comes with the territory of public relations and media interest. If charitable organizations want favorable press clippings, they need to be prepared for negative stories from those who don’t share the organization’s mission or ideals. But as long as the organization stays true to its mission and follows procedures that employ the standard checks and balances of internal oversight and external peer review, they will likely receive positive comments even from hostile sources, such as the positive remarks about Templeton in The Nation’s piece:
. . . the foundation is also better positioned than most to foster a conservatism—and a culture generally—that holds the old habits of religions and business responsible to good evidence, while helping scientists better speak to people's deepest concerns. On issues that range from climatology to stem cells, science has too often taken a back seat to the whims of politics, and Templeton's peculiar vision offers a welcome antidote to that. To live up to this calling, Big Questions are one thing; but the foundation will have to stand up for tough answers, too, as it did when announcing the findings of a major study that intercessory prayer doesn't improve medical outcomes, or when rebuking intelligent design.
That may not be news to write home about, but it is not all bad.