Led by Cindy Gibson, a group of us has helped the Case Foundation to develop an innovative grant competition that involves online voting about which proposals to fund. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ran a story about this competition that, as Cindy says, was “fairly balanced and thorough.” However, it put most of the focus on the voting part of the competition. A vote can be “gamed” or manipulated in various ways. It doesn’t necessarily reflect a group’s judgment, nor does it necessarily increase accountability to the public (since the whole public won’t vote).
I like the Case Foundation’s experiment with voting because it’s part of a broader foray into public participation. There will not just be a vote, but also a structured discussion. Crucially, the proposals will be evaluated for how much they enhance public voice. As in the formal political system, granting people a vote is a gesture of respect; it says that power will not be monopolized at the center. But the vote is insufficient to achieve public judgment. If anything, the voting portion of the Case Foundation’s new program is valuable as a symbol of a deeper commitment. Case is experimenting with a new relationship between the foundation (whose funds are tax-exempt by law) and the public.