Transparency Talk

Losing the Social Anxiety
January 26, 2015

(Sally Crowley is the communications director for The John R. Oishei Foundation.)

Sally4x6When I first suggested to our organization that we enter the social media scene a few years ago, my colleagues and I shared anxiety about it.  

Would it be worth our time to tweet? Will we open ourselves up to criticism or attack? How could we use the social outlets effectively?  

I reminded myself and my team of two of our strategic goals: “to better communicate our work and role to the community” and “to serve as a leader, convener and network builder.”

I did not want us to be thinking at the “tactical level,” which can be easy to do when it comes to communications. After serving on nonprofit boards and spending many years as a communications consultant, I was used to pulling folks out of the “tactical basement.” My peers and I have a name for the often-requested tactic-without-objective. We call it a “COULDN’TCHA JUST.”

“COULDN’TCHA JUST write a press release? COULDN’TCHA JUST do a flyer? Or a billboard?”  

Social media allows us to inexpensively promote not just our own events, activities, and programs, but also those of our grantees and community partners.

The answer is NO. Wildly created tactical communications can actually be effective, but it is RARE and based upon, pretty much, pure luck.

I am a firm believer that effective marketing communications stem from clearly defined goals and a well-thought-out communications plan. One of the first steps in developing a yearly communications plan is writing a situation analysis that includes an environmental scan, or a review of the “market,” in which one looks for best practices, benchmarks, and the newest trends.

In our scan, we found that social media has many benefits for foundations. The reach is amazing, and the promotional costs are minimal when compared to traditional paid media. The numbers we found were astounding...

  • 72% of all internet users are active on social media

  • 18-29 year olds average 89% usage with 30-49 year olds at 72%

  • 60% of 50-60 year olds and 43% of age 65+ plus are active

  • Facebook has over 1.15 billion users, with 23% logging in at least 5 times per day

  • Twitter has over 550 million registered users, 215 million of which are active

  • Pinterest has 20 million active monthly users

  • Instagram counts 150 million active monthly users

  • LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr, Vine, Slideshare and others also continue to grow in popularity

In addition, most social media is easy to track, so we can see what topics our audiences are most interested in, and what types of content and media are most effective.

Social media allows us to inexpensively promote not just our own events, activities, and programs, but also those of our grantees and community partners.

We’re reaching out to our audiences rather than simply building a website where we hope “they will come.”

Plus, we’ve created a two-way dialogue, one where anyone interested in our work and/or our community can comment and share a photo, video, or link. We’re reaching out to our audiences rather than simply building a website where we hope “they will come.” We’re using social media to drive folks to our website, maximizing our substantial investment in a content-management-driven, open source, cutting-edge website.

However, the use of social media, and any communications tactic, is most effective when used as part of a strategic, integrated, thoughtful communications plan.

If you haven't taken the "social" plunge, and it’s a tactic that comes out of your long-term plan in support of your mission, then it’s time to take the leap!

 --Sally Crowley

Transparency Chat: Exponent Philanthropy Shares Foundation Successes and Failures
January 21, 2015

Jeanne Metzger headshot September 2014Jeanne Metzger is the chief development and marketing officer at Exponent Philanthropy, which recently received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI).FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Jeanne Metzger about the work this grant will fund.

Janet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Jeanne Metzger: We are the largest philanthropic support membership organization representing approximately 2,300 foundations and other funders who operate with few or no staff. Our mission is to empower philanthropists to leverage their resources and amplify their impact. We achieve this mission through a strategic framework that defines our activities into three areas/goals: Guide, Connect, and Champion. 

In philanthropy, going public refers to intentionally engaging publicly with the communities, causes, and conversations that matter to you and your mission. Going public for a philanthropist is also about raising and leveraging capital – philanthropic capital – or the connections, expertise, influence, and dollars that allow funders to achieve their charitable missions.

By creating a safe place for grantmakers to share information and learn from one another, they report back to us that they are more effective and fulfilled by their philanthropy. We are hoping that by getting some of our member stories on video through the Fund for Shared Insight grant we will be able to improve the effectiveness of more grantmakers.

Throughout our 18 year history (originally as the Association of Small Foundations and now as Exponent Philanthropy) we have found that our members learn a tremendous amount from one another. By creating a safe place for them to share information and learn from one another, they report back to us that they are more effective and fulfilled by their philanthropy. We are hoping that by getting some of our member stories on video through the Fund for Shared Insight grant we will be able to improve the effectiveness of more grantmakers.

JC: Since your specific funded project is to produce videos tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

JM: In 2015, we will be producing a series of videos that capture stories from Exponent Philanthropy members about lessons learned from their grantmaking. We will be encouraging our participants to share lessons learned through successes and failures.  The videos will all be posted to our website and we welcome other organizations to link to them and help spread the word so that the largest community of funders possible can benefit from them. We hope these videos will help to inspire dialogue on platforms such as Transparency Talks. This dialogue will lead to shared learning.

Exponent-logoJC: Greater openness in philanthropy can encompass a lot of elements--why did you choose to tackle lessons learned from both successes and failures? And also why are you choosing video as a way to tell this story over other forms of media (as opposed to podcast, webstory, blog, etc.)?

JM: People can learn a lot from their failures. And, let’s face it, not every grant and/or investment results in the outcomes that it was intended to have. Embracing failure is a unique attribute of the American culture and one that fuels our entrepreneurial spirit. Video is a powerful medium and one that is growing in use and popularity. We already tell our members’ stories through social media, our blog, our website, our publications, and in our programs. A natural progression is to leverage the power of video and it’s something we have wanted to do for several years but have not had the financial resources to do so. The grant from the Fund for Shared Insight is providing us the opportunity and we are really excited about the potential of this project.

JC: Exponent Philanthropy brings a lot of expertise in terms of working with smaller foundations, who often decide that the effectiveness and transparency conversations are better left to the larger foundations that have more staff capacity. What are your thoughts around how to best engage smaller foundations in these kinds of initiatives?

People can learn a lot from their failures. And, let’s face it, not every grant and/or investment results in the outcomes that it was intended to have. Embracing failure is a unique attribute of the American culture and one that fuels our entrepreneurial spirit.

JM: We find that our members are very much interested in effectiveness and how to amplify their impact. That is why they seek out our resources, attend our programs and are part of our community. It is true that many small foundations are private about their philanthropy but a growing number of our members see the benefit of being more open about their activities, collaborating with other funds, and convening key stakeholders around key issues. We hope that these videos will inspire more small foundations to be more open in the future.

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented.

JM: One of the key findings of our recent strategic planning process was that our members unite around a unique style of philanthropy that is agile, responsive, grounded in their communities and in their key issues. Philanthropists who work with few or no staff are different in many ways from larger foundations and I think because of their agility and size tend to be more open to change than larger institutions. There is also a generational change happening in philanthropy and we are finding that the next generation of philanthropists think about their philanthropy differently than the previous generations. All that said, there is still a lot of work to be done to move more small funders to be change oriented.  Highlighting examples of how change and new approaches have resulted in increased impact will help push the needle further.

--Jeanne Metzger

Transparency and accountability: two sides of the same coin
January 14, 2015

(Dharmendra Kanani is a fellow and policy director at the European Foundation Centre. This post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

DKananiTransparency is often in the eye of the beholder. Grantees and applicants want to know the criteria for funding; NGOs want to understand the sources of funding; interested members of the public want to know why something got funded or not. Transparency is the flip side of accountability, of the same coin of trust, the guiding force as well as the central emotional force that affects so much public and private activity.

What does this mean for funders? Like any public or private body, foundations are subject to the demand to demonstrate trustworthiness. Being open about why you fund something, and the basis on which you fund it, is important. The systems and processes you set out to achieve this should be a core matter for the foundation, rather than a formula based on standards set by others. The approach a foundation takes to being transparent and accountable communicates a lot about how it sees itself and its relationship with the communities it serves.

Making a lot of data public may assuage the desire to be transparent, but does it actually amount to anything in terms of improving trust, or a better understanding of how decisions are made, or the strategic intent of a foundation, or even how people and communities might engage with a funder?

There will be occasions when there are legitimate reasons for not sharing publicly the nature of a foundation’s income and its investment practices. Similarly, publicizing the activity being funded by foundations – funding in certain countries or certain causes that might be deemed controversial by governments – might at times do more harm than good. Therein lies the dilemma for some foundations.

The notion of glass pockets is important but it has to be balanced with authenticity of purpose. Making a lot of data public may assuage the desire to be transparent, but does it actually amount to anything in terms of improving trust, or a better understanding of how decisions are made, or the strategic intent of a foundation, or even how people and communities might engage with a funder?

Sometimes, we go full tilt into responding to a trend without taking time to be clear about the why and how. It pays to be thoughtful on this issue as it will improve trust. Most people can sniff out gesture from authentic engagement.

A development that puts transparency on to a different level is the digital revolution. Everything is public in the 21st century. Digital communities will know or find a way of knowing. Foundations and independent funders should embrace this challenge. In the next ten years, the foundation world will become as transparent as any other aspect of life. It’s best not to sleepwalk into this emerging reality.

-- Dharmendra Kanani

Big Ideas That Matter for 2015: Are Philanthropic Organizations Ready?
January 12, 2015

(Sara Davis is the Director of Grants Management at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California. She can be followed on Twitter @SaraLeeeDeee or reached via e-mail at sdavis@hewlett.org. This post was originally featured on the Grant Craft blog.)

Sara davisOne way I mark the passage of another year is the welcome arrival of the latest Blueprint — the annual industry forecast report written by Lucy Bernholz and published by GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center. This year’s report, Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2015, provides us once again with a rich opportunity to look back at the past year and to ponder what’s to come in the year ahead. The Blueprint is a great marker of time and creates a moment to pause for reflection. As I read this year’s report, I found much to digest, understand, and learn. Like the five previous editions, Blueprint 2015 is provocative, and — as I settled in to read — I was humbled to discover that it brought up many more questions than answers. The report piqued my curiosity about the state of the social economy and more explicitly about organized philanthropy and how we do our work. Specifically:

Are we agile and flexible enough? Are our philanthropic organizations ready?

The words “dynamic” and “dynamism” show up throughout the Blueprint 2015, and the pervasive thought I had while reading was that this is an exciting, creative, and expansive time for the social economy. Given this, I couldn’t help but wonder if philanthropic organizations are ready — will we be able to flex, bend, and adapt at the same pace as the change around us? Our ecosystem is evolving, moving, and reorganizing. In this time of globalization, disruptive technology, digital activism, new organizational forms, and even new language, are philanthropic organizations keeping pace? Do we have a picture of what “keeping pace” would really mean?

In this time of globalization, disruptive technology, digital activism, new organizational forms, and even new language, are philanthropic organizations keeping pace? Do we have a picture of what “keeping pace” would really mean?

My experience is that folks doing the work of philanthropy take their role very seriously. It’s a tremendous responsibility to be entrusted with private resources in order to create public benefit. That we take that trust seriously is a good thing. In practice, this means that we tend to be careful, we analyze everything thoroughly, and we remain deliberate, trying hard not to make mistakes. This subtle — or not so subtle — perfectionism creates a tension against our desire to also be nimble, innovative, creative, and dynamic. I wonder: how can we talk about and manage that tension? Are there times we should be using philanthropy as true risk capital, maybe leaping more and looking less? Can we be nimble enough to fail, learn, and course-correct quickly, and have that process be okay, even celebrated? It’s clear that many of the newer entrants in the social economy are working from this spirit of moment-to-moment dynamism. How can we collaborate with openness, adaptability, and readiness for change? Are we learning how to be more agile and flexible along the way?

Are the right people/skills at the table?

The other thing that struck me as I read the report is the variety of new skills and voices needed to work well within the changing social economy. We know, for example, that new technologies and digital data are emerging as important sources and byproducts for learning, innovation, and achieving results. It follows, then, that we need to make sure technology and data capacity are being fostered, used, and advanced within philanthropic organizations and across the sector. Together, we need to gain expertise as we take on challenging topics like intellectual property, open licensing, transparency, and privacy. Further, working in a digital world during this time of rapid change requires operational savvy. We need to build and maintain necessary infrastructure to execute well today, while also forging the space so we can adapt and shift easily in the future. Collectively, this is a tall order. Are we listening to the right experts to make this happen? Are we building the necessary capacity and knowledge?

We need to make sure technology and data capacity are being fostered, used, and advanced within philanthropic organizations and across the sector. Together, we need to gain expertise as we take on challenging topics like intellectual property, open licensing, transparency, and privacy.

As “pervasive digitization” has become the new normal, have we changed the way we think about technology and data expertise in our grantmaking? It doesn’t seem reasonable that all program officers now also need to be technology experts (though some are.) How do we make sure the technologists are being included at the right times? How can our daily work be informed by data expertise and digital best practices, and how do we successfully integrate these into our grantmaking? Bernholz notes that “technologists are becoming part of the sectors that they serve” and imagines a future where “data analysis and sensemaking skills” are integrated into strategy and grantmaking. What new understandings do we need in order to know how we will do this? And, who do we need to include in the conversation to live this out fully?

The 2015 Blueprint marks a time that is vibrant, rich, and exciting for us to be working in this sector. It also invites us to adapt, flex, and change — more than ever before. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but sometimes I find myself thinking about the proverb of the shoemaker whose children have no shoes. Those of us who work in philanthropy understand that our grantees need to adapt within changing circumstances and must constantly evolve. We know that executing well is the challenging standard we place upon grantees as we give them resources. I’m not sure we always hold ourselves to the same standard, or that we take the time to know what executing well might mean within our own changing context. Just as we offer capacity building support and technical assistance to the organizations we fund, it’s also important that we do our own capacity building work, making the necessary changes within our organizations to be effective, real-time participants in the social economy. Are we checking ourselves to make sure we have the skills, roles, knowledge, and processes needed to do that?

Our changing ecosystem will certainly require that we become comfortable with the continued blurring of lines and re-imagining of everything around us. As we strive to achieve impact and social benefit, it may mean we need to bring new people to the table, while developing new skills and new ways of working ourselves. My hope is that all of our good intentions and hard work continue to fuel the adaptability, learning, and dynamism that Bernholz points to so brilliantly.

--Sara Davis

A pragmatic approach to transparency
January 7, 2015

(Fran Perrin is the founder and director of The Indigo Trust, and a founding member of 360givingThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

FranPerrin‘Transparency for funders is a helpful idea, but it’s not a panacea. If private foundations and grantmakers think it is, then their attempts to bring a measure of sunlight to a sector shrouded in mist are likely to fail or, much worse, do damage.’

We welcome Jo Andrew’s article ‘When is transparency a really bad idea?’ as an important contribution to the debate on transparency, open data and philanthropy.

Jo lists some obvious cases: for example, transparency is a bad idea when it subverts your basic grantmaking purpose. We can all agree with that. In fact, we can add other examples from outside the human rights field. For example, it wouldn’t be appropriate to publish the details of a grant if it referred to the location of a vulnerable women’s shelter. In the vast majority of cases, though, transparency can offer many benefits to grantmakers and those whose lives we aim to improve. We should be careful not to generalize from exceptions.

In the vast majority of cases, though, transparency can offer many benefits to grantmakers and those whose lives we aim to improve. We should be careful not to generalize from exceptions.

Grantmaking in the UK remains astonishingly opaque – for funders and grantseekers alike. Not knowing who funds what creates huge inefficiencies that affect how well we can work to distribute funds; and how grantseekers apply for them. Lack of information makes it harder for those starting out as philanthropists or trying to fund in new areas.

Our own work on the 360giving open funding initiative (while in its very early stages) encourages a pragmatic, needs-led approach to transparency about grantmaking. We provide funders with an easy way to publish their grant data for others to re-use. We would never, ever suggest that people publish grant information that could reasonably be foreseen to undermine their grantmaking purpose. As grantmakers we know that funders need to make an informed choice about which of their grants they publish, and 360giving has deliberately not pursued a regulatory-led approach so as to enable these decisions to be taken with care by funders.

Opacity and secrecy make it hard for those doing the right thing to argue and defend their position. It was striking that, when the government made policy noises about changing the tax status of donations to charities, the sector could not easily point to a comprehensive body of evidence of its good work.

There are sometimes good reasons not to be wholly transparent, but if we generalize from exceptions we can miss the opportunity to help inform grantmaking and improve impact for the whole sector.

The Indigo Trust publish all their grants both on their blog and in an open data format. They have withheld information about a grant which concerned anti-corruption activists in a developing country where transparency could have jeopardized their lives. They handled this by publishing the fact that a grant of ‘x’ amount had been made, but detail wasn’t being published for security reasons. When the situation changed, with the permission of the grantee they published the full information, and were encouraged to blog about the project by the grantee.

There are sometimes good reasons not to be wholly transparent, but if we generalize from exceptions we can miss the opportunity to help inform grantmaking and improve impact for the whole sector. Is transparency a panacea for funders? Absolutely not – but it can improve our decision making. Could more information really make our decisions any worse?

Signed by:

Fran Perrin  Indigo Trust, founding member of 360giving

William Perrin  TalkaboutLocal, Indigo Trust

Alice Casey  NESTA

Ed Anderton  Nominet Trust

Tim Davies  Practical Participation

Transparency, yes, with governance and excellence
December 29, 2014

(Ronald van der Giessen is the CEO of Oranje FondsThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

RVDGiessenJo Andrews argues that increased transparency may not always be a good thing, and gives two examples where she sees dangers. With her examples she inadvertently highlights the importance of continued attention towards increasing transparency.

Her first argument is that handing out data and information also gives ammunition to ‘those passionately opposed to our ideals’. That is exactly the way democracies work: if we cannot find better arguments against the crossfire of ‘those passionately opposed’, you might conclude that our actions were not best in class.

Second, she points out the risks that recipients of our grants in a potentially hostile political climate (she gives the examples of Hungary and Uganda) might run when opponents get wind of our openly advertised, well-meant gifts. The problem is that they run potentially even more risks when receiving our monies secretly because open relations with parties abroad provide better shelter than nothing.

In 2004, when we founded Oranje Fonds (the national foundation for social development in the Netherlands), we took transparency as one of three values for our foundation, the others being governance and excellence. And, as is the way with values, they have no limits.

If we cannot find better arguments against the crossfire of ‘those passionately opposed’, you might conclude that our actions were not best in class.

No matter how well you run your foundation, it can always be run better. However good your governance standards, society forces you to continuously review your governance principles and assumptions and to adapt and improve accordingly.

Transparency has proved to be the most accessible value for everybody inside and outside our foundation; governance and excellence are part of the professional domain, but transparency rings a bell for everyone, regardless of education and intellectual capacities.

For our colleagues it means that they have access to all the information in our system (apart from the personal files, which fall under the Law on Privacy). Every week we invest half an hour of everybody’s time in an information session in which we evaluate and present our plans, decisions and actions.

For our applicants it means that they have full access to decisions concerning their grant application, and that they may contest grant decisions. For all others outside the foundation, it means they can inform themselves about our policies and our grants.

It has made us at Oranje Fonds aware of the need for consistent argumentation, a reliably fast application procedure, and in-depth analysis of every possible consequence of our grants – for us as grantmakers, not wishing to create unwanted precedents; for our grantees, not wanting to burden them with unrealistic expectations or unachievable aims.

Over the last ten years we have seen that transparency is time and again the key to improving governance and excellence. The three together provide us with a most sound foundation for our foundation!

-- Ronald van der Giessen

When is transparency a really good idea?
December 23, 2014

(Brad Smith is the president of Foundation CenterThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

Brad SmithWhen it comes to philanthropy, the answer to this question is a simple one: almost always. This may seem to put me at odds with Jo Andrews’ well-reasoned argument against transparency in all circumstances, but it doesn’t.

Jo is not really talking about philanthropy writ large, but rather a small group of funders with which she has had the privilege to work directly or collaboratively through her leadership of Ariadne (European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights). In her sphere she has indeed been a data warrior. But her sphere is specific and modestly sized: the funders she works with number in the low hundreds, whereas there are over 200,000 public benefit foundations in the US and Europe alone.

Jo rightly points to foundations’ unique independence as precisely what makes them so appropriate for supporting high-risk activities dealing with human rights. But the reality is that the vast majority of funders do not get anywhere near these issues.

The reality is that the vast majority of work done by funders, be it through grants or operating programmes, is in areas that are rarely controversial. In the US, where Foundation Center has access to comprehensive and detailed data on the grants of all foundations – thanks to regulatory oversight that requires baseline transparency – we know that more than 60 per cent of all foundation philanthropy goes to health and education. Survey data from other parts of the world shows similar priorities. Jo rightly points to foundations’ unique independence as precisely what makes them so appropriate for supporting high-risk activities dealing with human rights. But the reality is that the vast majority of funders do not get anywhere near these issues.

I couldn’t agree more that funders who do take risks have a responsibility to minimize potential danger for their grantee partners. This principle is embodied in the Global Philanthropy Data Charter, developed by the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), which states: ‘Data should be public in principle, but clear policies and procedures should be implemented to ensure an adequate balance between openness and privacy and security.’ This can be easily accomplished by making the recipient of a grant, or even the donor if necessary, appear as ‘anonymous’. But even among funders who do work on human rights issues, many of their grants are not particularly controversial. The Sigrid Rausing Trust sees no need to make its £9.6 million support for Human Rights Watch anonymous. Why should it?

So while I agree with Jo on many of her core points, I am worried that, much like the Hungarian government that she criticizes for using ‘left-leaning’ NGOs as an excuse for a blanket crackdown on foreign funding, foundations will too easily use the exception to justify the rule. Too many times I have heard funders talk about their work being so sensitive that data about it cannot be shared, when in fact the vast majority of their work is not sensitive at all.

While I agree with Jo on many of her core points, I am worried that... foundations will too easily use the exception to justify the rule. Too many times I have heard funders talk about their work being so sensitive that data about it cannot be shared, when in fact the vast majority of their work is not sensitive at all.

As president of Foundation Center – an organization created by foundations that saw transparency as the best way to respond to McCarthy-era hearings accusing them of supporting communism – I believe in the concept very deeply. Transparency is entirely appropriate for organizations that receive some kind of tax benefit in exchange for providing public benefit. It is a valuable means of informing the public while also supporting foundation collaboration and sharing the kind of knowledge and lessons learned that alone can make funding more effective in the future.

As I write, I am also plagued by the nagging feeling that we may be caught up in yesterday’s debate. In an era of Big Data, in which governments either abuse or struggle to protect citizens’ information while those same citizens open up their lives on mobile phones and through Facebook, secrets of any kind are getting harder to hold. The idea that a foundation could fund something that no one would know about seems increasingly unrealistic in our digital world – and perhaps a bit dangerous.

Transparency is inevitable. Being wise and proactive about how philanthropy uses its information is imperative; believing that we can continue to fly beneath the radar is impractical.

-- Brad Smith

When is transparency a really bad idea?
December 22, 2014

(Jo Andrews is director of Ariadne European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights. Email jo.andrews@ariadne-network.eu This article was originally featured in Alliance Magazine.)

Jo AndrewsFashions in philanthropy can be every bit as startling as the catwalk: evaluation methods and grantmaking approaches change as fast as hemlines. But one fashion that is probably here to stay (a bit like men’s suits) is transparency, which makes it worth taking a longer look at.

Transparency for funders is a helpful idea, but it’s not a panacea. If private foundations and grantmakers think it is, then their attempts to bring a measure of sunlight to a sector shrouded in mist are likely to fail or, much worse, do damage. We need to recognize that glass-pocket principles need to be more nuanced than they have been so far and that there are circumstances in which transparency can be a really bad idea. This is not saying funders should not share data – they should, as there are significant benefits – but we need to think harder about what we share publicly.

We need to recognize that glass-pocket principles need to be more nuanced than they have been so far and that there are circumstances in which transparency can be a really bad idea... we need to think harder about what we share publicly.

This won’t be an entirely welcome message. But it comes from someone who has put in time as a data warrior, persuading foundations to contribute details of their grantmaking to the part private, part public Advancing Human Rights: Knowledge Tools for Funders project created by the Foundation Center, the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG), Ariadne and the International Network of Women’s Funds (INWF). The project has now processed nearly 75,000 grants and the publicly available analysis is transformative. And the project will become more powerful over time as we track trends.

The private part of the project drills down much further and shows which grantmaker made what grant to which organization for what purpose and at what date. It makes a host of previously expensive and time-consuming activities cheap and simple. This is available only to Ariadne, IHRFG and INWF participants, because this is the level at which transparency becomes more difficult.

Effectively the Knowledge Tools project and others like it allow us as grantmakers to take off our blindfolds and pin the tail on the donkey with some clarity. The trouble is that we aren’t the only ones interested in where the tail goes. When we publish detailed data we hand information to the media, governments, corporations, bloggers and those passionately opposed to our ideals. At a time when the space for civil society is closing and cross-border funding is becoming contested, this is potentially dangerous – especially, but not only, in the fields of human rights and social change.

Once this data is public, it remains public permanently... We simply can’t tell how things will play out, so caution is vital and the safety of those on the ground needs to be paramount.

Here’s an example: at the request of the European Union, Norway Grants has funded a number of civil society groups, including human rights groups in the EU and neighbouring countries. In Hungary, the government accused the Norwegians and the local grantmakers who administer the funds of political meddling. It carried out what appear to be unauthorized early morning ‘audits’, removing and publishing a list of grantrecipients, calling some of them ‘problematic’ and ‘left-leaning’. This is extremely worrying coming from an EU member, and 20 Ariadne members have condemned it. In this atmosphere is it sensible to be transparent about grantmaking to Hungarian organizations, now or in future? How much danger do we put grant recipients in?

Once this data is public, it remains public permanently, so 2010 data on grants to LGBT organizations in Uganda had the power to endanger lives when the Ugandan government passed laws against ‘aggravated homosexuality’. We simply can’t tell how things will play out, so caution is vital and the safety of those on the ground needs to be paramount. This doesn’t apply just to human rights funders; those funding in the fields of the environment, women and girls, reproductive rights, labour rights and supply chains also need to be cautious.

The second and more domestic problem centres on accountability and trustworthiness. Transparency is not the same as either and shouldn’t be mistaken for them. It might contribute to them; there again it could detract from them. One of the greatest and most important freedoms private foundations have is that they are not accountable in the same way as public bodies or politicians. The Daily Mail or other tabloid newspapers may huff and puff all they wish, but a funder can do what they think is right as long as it’s lawful. My concern is not in handing over the information but in how it will be used, the impact on the sector’s reasonable reputation for trustworthiness, and the impact on a sector that already finds it difficult to take risks.

Increased transparency means these attacks will grow; it will undoubtedly make how we give away funds more contested in the UK and Europe, as it already is in the US. How do we develop the resilience and the skills to deal with that?

-- Jo Andrews

Transparency Chat: Why transparency matters, and what it takes
December 18, 2014

PhilbPhil Buchanan is the president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy, which recently received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Phil Buchanan about the work this grant will fund.

Janet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Phil Buchanan: We see in our surveys of grantees that one of the most important dimensions in their views of foundations is the perception that foundations are clear about their goals and strategies. They are looking for specificity about what foundations are trying to do, how they are trying to do it, and how they fit in. They’re not especially concerned about 990-PFs, annual reports, or charter documents – but they care about the specifics of the work, and what foundations are learning about what is and isn’t working. All of that affects grantees’ abilities to be effective in pursuit of shared goals. So I think openness and effectiveness often go hand in hand.

CEP LogoJC: Your specific funded project is a research project and publication entitled, “Foundation Transparency: Why It Matters and What It Takes”.  Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be. Also, when do you expect the report to be available?

PB: We’ll be analyzing our data set of grantee perceptions of foundations on several questions about transparency that we added to our grantee survey in recent years. This will allow us to profile the exemplars. What do they do? Why do they do it? We’ll also look at foundations’ attitudes and practices with respect to transparency and we’ll connect those to the grantee experience. We can also examine the relationship between grantees’ perceptions of transparency and their perceptions of foundations’ impact – what is the connection? Our report on results will be available in early 2016.

JC: One of the assumptions about any data related to philanthropy and perceptions is that there is a positivity-bias among those grantees who have received funds and a negativity-bias among those how have been declined support.  How does CEP overcome that challenge in its work?

I think almost all powerful institutions can be resistant to change. But what we have seen is that foundations can – and often do – change in response to relevant data about how they are doing. Colleagues influencing colleagues – that is a powerful part of the change equation.

PB: As critical as nonprofits can be of funders in general – and they can be – they of course tend to rate the specific foundations that fund them toward the high end of an absolute scale on most dimensions. That’s not surprising – they’re getting crucial funding from these institutions. But there is meaningful variation within the range of average ratings that foundations receive. That’s why comparative data is so crucial. We are able to compare results across hundreds of foundations whose tens of thousands of grantees we have surveyed. That way a foundation can understand what are really strengths and what are weaknesses – or, in the euphemistic jargon of today, “opportunities for improvement.”

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?​

PB: I think almost all powerful institutions can be resistant to change. But what we have seen is that foundations can – and often do – change in response to relevant data about how they are doing. That’s been the inspiring part of our work at CEP for the past 13 years. We have seen, and evaluations have confirmed, that foundations change practice in response to our research reports and assessment tools – and that those changes are experienced as positive by grantees. Not all the time, and not every foundation. But a meaningful number. There are some ways to make it easier for foundations, including sharing exemplars of various types from which they can learn. Colleagues influencing colleagues – that is a powerful part of the change equation.

-- Phil Buchanan

Declining a Grant: How Funders Can Help Turn a Negative into a Positive
December 11, 2014

(Steven Green is the director of grants management and administration at the Jim Joseph Foundation.This post was originally featured on the GrantCraft blog.)
 
StevenGreenJJFdnWhen I am asked what I do for a living, I often explain my role as a program professional at the Jim Joseph Foundation, working to support compelling and effective Jewish learning opportunities. Or, sometimes, I discuss my particular role in the Foundation’s grants management process. What I often gloss over entirely is the seemingly less glamorous responsibility of managing the Foundation’s declination process—basically carrying out the Foundation’s collective decision to sometimes say “No” to a potential grantee. Even with a policy of accepting grant inquiries by invitation only, this is an important and necessary part of the grantmaking process.

Examining this declination responsibility raises questions and offers important lessons both for funders and for organizations. On a fundamental level, are we abrogating our responsibility of;Tzedakah(charitable giving) whenever we say no to a meaningful cause? When an organization’s grant request is declined—admittedly, not the answer it was seeking—are there any positives it can take away from the process?

JJFdnTo properly address both questions, we should first acknowledge a simple truth - saying “No” can be challenging. The Jim Joseph Foundation is privileged to work with passionate and determined grantees—and always searches for the next successful initiative. Still, while the Foundation has affected tens of thousands of Jewish youth and young adults (Jim Joseph Foundation Portfolio Analysis), all pools of funds are finite; all grants have their limitations in terms of scope and reach. This fact only makes saying “No” more difficult. It goes against our desire to help support more Jewish learning opportunities.

We want to be positive but not patronizing, direct without being disrespectful, and still find a way to be helpful.

So how does the Foundation both approach and implement its declination process? One of the foremost, authoritative documents in Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, states: “One able to motivate others to contribute receives greater reward than the giver (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 249:5).” We believe this holds true in our philanthropic world. Many of the potential grantees who reach out to the Jim Joseph Foundation represent organizations or institutions with which we would hope to maintain ongoing relationships, regardless of whether the Foundation awards a grant. These include summer camps, day schools, social service organizations, study abroad programs, universities, Federations, and many other worthwhile institutions with pressing capital needs. We want to be positive but not patronizing, direct without being disrespectful, and still find a way to be helpful.

A foundation can, in fact, turn the moment of declination into positive outcomes for the grantseeker by being transparent about funding priorities, delivering the message with clarity and with sensitivity, and by assisting, as appropriate, in other ways. This includes:

  1. Helping the organization better understand the strategic priorities of the funder, leaving open the possibility for future funder-organization alignment
  2. Identifying other potential funders that are a better fit for the organization or specific initiative

For the applicant itself, the organization can act intentionally after the grant process and improve efficiency and effectiveness by:

  1. Expending less of the organization’s fiscal resources on pursuing grants that do not align with its mission
  2. Reassessing the proposed grant to learn what about it could be more compelling or perhaps adapted to align with a specific potential funder
  3. Further targeting the list of potential funders based on funding priorities and subsequently reducing staff-time invested to solicit funds
  4. Asking for outside advice on how to improve the organizational model or find avenues for future funding
But when a potential grantee and potential funder are not a match, saying “No” reflects the Foundation’s best judgment that the proposed grant initiative does not align with the Foundation’s strategic grant making priorities. It is not a comment on the quality or premise of the grant idea.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, funding can be awarded to an organization for a grant proposal and its renewal. Typically, funding that is awarded to an organization for several grant cycles eventually comes to an end. It is not prudent for either the funder or the grantee to assume that a grant will continue to be renewed in perpetuity. Even if a grant had previously been made to an organization, it is imperative for the Foundation to clarify, with as much advanced notice as possible, whether there will be an opportunity for renewal. This will allow the organization to leverage the remainder of the grant as a runway to find new funding. It is similarly necessary for a grantee organization to make it clear if its mission has changed, which would affect its eligibility for foundation grants.

A majority of the organizations funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation have experienced at least one declination for an initiative that was not a fit. But when a potential grantee and potential funder are not a match, saying “No” reflects the Foundation’s best judgment that the proposed grant initiative does not align with the Foundation’s strategic grant making priorities. It is not a comment on the quality or premise of the grant idea. Beyond this, Saying “Yes” to everything or even saying “Maybe” to everything is both unrealistic and counterproductive for a funder trying to efficiently work towards—and achieve—its goal. And even when a grant is declined, a grantseeking organization can turn a “No” into a positive by charting its next steps to secure necessary funding and further working towards its mission.

-- Steven Green

About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, the Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, San Francisco Office
    The Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

Subscribe to Transparency Talk