Accusations recently arose that Lady Gaga’s charitable foundation, Born This Way, was spending its money irresponsibly. For example: according to 2012 tax filings, the Born This Way Foundation spent almost $60,000 on publicity fees, $50,000 on social media, and nearly $80,000 on travel, but spent “only” $5,000 in the form of “grants to organizations or individuals.”
BTWF was founded in 2011 to “foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.” But how, commenters wondered, could the foundation accomplish that mission when the vast majority of its spending goes to what many organizations would consider mere overhead?
Gaga’s mom (who is also co-founder and president of BTWF), Cynthia Germanotta, responded recently, saying that the nature of BTWF had been misunderstood:
“First and foremost, we are an organization that conducts our charitable activity directly, and we fund our own work. We are not a grant-maker that funds the work of other charities, and were never intended to be.
“Our activity has included the Born Brave Bus Tour, which has travelled to 23 communities, interacting with more than 19,000 young people and raising awareness to the tune of more than 300 million media impressions. The foundation’s messages of kindness and bravery have touched more than half a million online users via our website, which includes the Bravest Map Ever and the Play Brave Game, as well as social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook—which on a peak week can hit 50 million individual users.”
In other words, the ShowBiz411 story betrayed a lack of understanding of what BTWF is for, and what it takes to run a foundation of that kind. It doesn’t make sense to insist that a charity give away more money to charity—when it is itself dedicated to doing what most charities do, namely spending donated money in ways that aim to help people directly.
Of course, the fact that BTWF (or any other foundation) is dedicated to doing good does nothing at all to put them beyond critique. Indeed, a do-good mission is itself a good reason to insist on accountability, since a do-good mission is liable, in at least some cases, to make those who run a foundation feel a sense of entitlement. And the need for accountability is all the more relevant with regard to charities that accept donations from the general public: when people are trusting you with their money and when all they get in return is your promise to use it well, well, you’ve got an obligation to live up to that trust.
So yes, accountability at charitable foundations is an important topic. Too many (that is, more than zero) foundations spend too much on overhead and too little on doing good. Were I a donor to BTWF, I would like to know a little more about just how the foundation spends its money, why it had to spend so much in 2012 on lawyers ($150,000).
The lesson here is one that should be heard not just by charitable foundations, but by organizations of all kinds. It’s not enough to be doing good. You have to communicate that to key stakeholders. And that means telling them not just that you are doing good, but letting them know how you’re doing it.