Transparency Talk

Transparency Tips: Foundation By-Laws, In-Laws, and Outlaws
May 20, 2015

(Mary Gregory is vice president and director of program at Pacific Foundation Services, a San Francisco Bay Area-based company that provides customized and strategic management services to private foundations.)

Mary-Gregory-150As a philanthropic advisor who has a portfolio of six family foundations, I have become a great fan of foundation by-laws, and in particular, of well written by-laws.  So I was particularly pleased to discover that by-laws are included on Glasspockets, since they tend to be either misunderstood or only considered at the founding stage and then forgotten. 

So, what are by-laws and why do they matter?  They are the basic operating instructions for any nonprofit organization including all foundations.  By-laws define an organization and how it does its business: who may serve on the board (for instance, are in-laws eligible or only descendants?), how many people sit on the board and their terms of service, what officers need to be elected and how often and what their roles are.  By-laws can tell you when and how members of the board can be removed (“outlaws”?). They specify how decisions are made, and they even inform trustees about how they can change the by-laws in the future.

Recently the president of one of our client foundations said to me, “We want to change our by-laws to adapt to new leadership by the next generation. What should we include?”

But, true to the old saying, “You’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen ONE foundation,” there can be many varieties of by-laws.  I work for a small company that manages 23 family foundations, and recently the president of one of our client foundations said to me, “We want to change our by-laws to adapt to new leadership by the next generation. What should we include?” I was able to send them straight to Glasspockets to view the sample by-laws that are available through the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” feature.  I suggested that foundations that have smaller asset sizes might be the best place to look, since those would likely be family foundations and not independent foundations, and thus more relevant to the vision these trustees have for their own small family foundation.  And I knew that the information that the trustees would find on Glasspockets had been freely placed there by foundations willing to share their experience and their ideas (including three of the six foundations with which I work directly).

Whether you are creating a first set of by-laws for a new foundation, or you are re-visiting by-laws to reflect current circumstances, looking at examples may help you think about aspects of stewarding a foundation that you haven’t considered before:

  • Should trustees be compensated?
  • What standing committees should there be?
  • Can decisions be made without a meeting, and if so, how?
  • What are the duties of each officer?
  • What happens in the future if a successive generation wants to partition the foundation?
  • When and where should the annual meeting be held?
True to the old saying, “You’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen ONE foundation,” there can be many varieties of by-laws.

Some by-laws are more detailed than others, so although you can learn a great deal from examples that relate to other foundations, it is always a good idea to have a lawyer look at your by-laws in order to make sure that they are complete.  Once you have your by-laws (and it is a good idea to read them every year to make sure that they still seem relevant to the current trustees), consider adding them to the growing knowledge base on Glasspockets.  Although by-laws may communicate some of the priorities of a family, they are not personal documents, and your example may help other foundations in the future. 

Foundations often think that they need to be highly original, but I would urge you to use your imagination for developing new ways to collaborate to solve social problems, not for creating new phrasing of by-laws. Use Glasspockets as the great resource it is, and contribute your information to Glasspockets to make it even more useful.

--Mary Gregory

Capacity Building Session Livestream Available for Viewing
May 19, 2015

On April 29, we held a session at our San Francisco office on Capacity Building and Foundation Maps Professional 2.0. Our presenters included Foundation Center’s own Lisa Philp, vice president for strategic philanthropy, and Jen Bokoff, director of GrantCraft. Lisa gave a demo of Foundation Maps, taking us on a cross-country road trip in philanthropy. Jen presented on GrantCraft’s most recent publication, Supporting Grantee Capacity: Strengthening Effectiveness Together. She also spoke with Jamaica Maxwell, a program officer at the Packard Foundation about best practices in capacity building grantmaking.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend the session in person or as part of our virtual audience--even if you did join us and you want to rewatch it--we’ve got you covered. We recorded and edited the session, which you can view here

Are foundations using feedback loops? The Fund for Shared Insight has answers
May 14, 2015

(Eliza Smith is the special projects associate at Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiThe Fund for Shared Insight (FSI) is all about opening up philanthropy. You might remember, we published blog posts earlier this year from its 2015 openness grantees--organizations that are working hard at making our sector more transparent. But FSI isn’t just encouraging their beneficiaries to promote openness: they aim to walk the talk themselves. Recently, they published a report, Feedback Loops and Openness: A Snapshot of the Field that looks at how (and if) foundations are using beneficiary feedback to improve their grantmaking.

FSI teamed up with ORS Impact, an evaluation firm, to do a landscape analysis across the philanthropy sector.  ORS’ current analysis focused on openness and beneficiary feedback loops and here is a summary of the key findings:

  • Foundations understand conceptually what beneficiary feedback loops mean, but few have strong internal practices for intentionally collecting and putting to use feedback that comes from "the people they seek to help";
  • The three most common barriers to implementing feedback loops into foundation practice are organizational capacity, organizational culture and technical challenges;
  • Prior to the launch of Fund for Shared Insight, ORS Impact found some instances of feedback-focused content in a broad based review of sector-related blogs, reports and publications but there is definite room for more voices discussing this work;
  • The two most common barriers to foundation openness are organizational culture, including a fear of sharing failures, followed by time and resources.

FSI_logoFSI reviewed the evaluation findings, and found that “while the baseline report indicates that nonprofits and foundations seem to be talking about feedback loops, there isn’t a widespread understanding of how to do it well, how to integrate it into practice, and how to take action based on the feedback.”

As FSI found, it can be scary for foundations to adopt a culture of openness. Sharing anecdotes about positive impact and success is always much easier since it feels good to share news when things are going well. But broadcasting defeats, failures, and tough lessons learned can be intimidating and gives many foundation leaders pause. But with FSI’s help, we’re excited to see a greater culture of willingness and courage develop around transparency and accountability. 

--Eliza Smith

“Get on the Map”: Technology Fostering Collaboration and Shared Knowledge
May 4, 2015

(Sara Davis is the director of grants management at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California. She can be reach at sdavis@hewlett.org or on Twitter @SaraLeeeDeee.)

Sara will continue the conversation about foundations and collaboration on May 13, in the Visualizing the Past, Present, and Future of California Philanthropy session at our San Francisco office. If you can't attend in person, you can join virtually via live stream.

SaradavisWhy don’t Foundations collaborate more? Why isn’t philanthropy more “we’re all in this together” and less “we’ll do it our own way”? I’ve heard these questions and discussed possible answers many times during my years working in our sector. The literature pointing to the need for, and positive results arising from, effective collaboration is abundant. Yet too often, funder collaboration still remains a hope rather than a reality, and we default to going it alone. Things are beginning to shift, however, and I'm optimistic that a “collaboration-first” mindset can take hold. Over time, we’ve seen collaboration, sharing, and transparency increase in philanthropic practice. One thing fueling this shift, among many other factors, is the way technology makes sharing and interconnection more attainable, and helps swiftly cut through barriers to collaboration.

Over time, we’ve seen collaboration, sharing, and transparency increase in philanthropic practice. One thing fueling this shift is the way technology makes sharing and interconnection more attainable.

Technology’s capacity to enable collaboration makes me excited about the nationwide campaign for philanthropic organizations to “Get on the Map” and participate in collective data sharing and visualization about our grantmaking. Once we've all shared our grant data through the Foundation Center's eReporting Program and it pushes the data to the Foundation Maps tool, not only will we be able to see the flow of philanthropic dollars within the state’s social sector, we’ll also be able to put that information to work. With this new tool, we’ll finally be able to answer within a reasonable time frame some key questions that have thus far eluded us: who else funds a specific organization, what other organizations are doing, where gaps exist, and how our work fits within the full philanthropic context for our regions. This technology will give each of us the ability to see our work in a broader context, explore giving trends over time, reveal connections, see gaps, and discover new partners. It will make collaboration and impact more possible and more visible—things we all want.

As the Director of Grants Management at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, I’ve experienced first-hand the power that high-quality, timely data can bring to improve decision-making, monitoring, and overall grant practice. We frequently use and discuss data internally about our own grant practice—a good example is the project our President, Larry Kramer, described in his Annual Letter last year. Because data can inform and create change, sharing and availability of relevant data is a key strategic goal for many of our programs. The Hewlett Foundation was an inaugural participant in the Reporting Commitment, managed by the Foundation Center, and we participate in the International Aid Transparency Initiative by sharing our data. We do these things because we know that data can fuel insight and support greater impact, not only for Hewlett but for all of us. Sharing our grantmaking data as part of the “Get on the Map” campaign is just the logical next step in acting on this knowledge.

This technology will give each of us the ability to see our work in a broader context. It will make collaboration and impact more possible and more visible—things we all want.

The “Get on the Map” campaign is itself an example of effective collaboration in action. The campaign is a joint effort led by the regional associations across the country in partnership with the Foundation Center and the Forum for Regional Association of Grantmakers.  As a member of the committee working on the California-wide effort through our regional associations - Northern California Grantmakers, Southern California Grantmakers and San Diego Grantmakers and supported by the James Irvine Foundation- I’ve already experienced effective collaboration across the state of California. As a supporter of the campaign it’s been heartening to see, and support, a true spirit of excitement, encouragement, and optimism for this project across the state. It’s a great example of how building in infrastructure together makes better grantmaking and more sharing possible. The campaign tagline, “Doing Good, Done Better,” rings true for me, and I encourage all of us in our various regions to participate and "Get on the Map." We can do better together.

--Sara Davis

TAG and GMN: State of foundation transparency may simply be due to lack of technological know-how
April 30, 2015

(Eliza Smith is the Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiThe Technology Affinity Group (TAG) and the Grant Makers Network (GMN) partnered to create a report that assesses how well foundations are using technology. Lisa Pool, executive director of TAG found that, "While many foundations are very progressive with respect to their grantmaking programs, they are not nearly as forward-thinking with respect to the strategic use of technology in their business practices.”

Since online information resources are the first place people look these days when they want to learn more about an issue or institution, clearly the weaknesses in technology know-how are slowing the adoption of tools that could lead to greater foundation transparency. 

Though this puts some foundations at a transparency disadvantage, it doesn’t have to.  Glasspockets and Foundation Center have plenty of resources designed to help usher foundations into the digital age. Our Foundation Websites service helps foundations build websites for free. The hGrant Format is a cloud-based grants data sharing platform. Transparency 2.0 shows which foundations are using which social media and online communications tools, from Vimeo and Twitter, to RSS Grants Feed and Wiki. The Who Has Glass Pockets? application checklist gives a list of elements foundations should consider adding to their websites, including audited financial statements and governance policies and information. 

--Eliza Smith

The Purpose of a Foundation's Website
April 27, 2015

(Jay Genske is the director of digital, communications at The Rockefeller Foundation. Marc Mertens is the CEO of A Hundred Years. This post originally appeared on The Rockefeller Foundation's blog.)  


What’s a foundation website for?

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Jay Genske

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Marc Mertens

We aren’t the only ones who have asked this question. After all, foundations are not in the business of raising money or selling products or services. So what good can a foundation website do?

The Rockefeller Foundation has over one hundred years of experience promoting the well-being of humanity around the world, we have a significant amount of knowledge that can be leveraged to influence every sector to help us achieve our mission. We also recognize digital media’s transformative power to find and accelerate new ideas and networks to solve some of the world’s greatest social problems.

To reimagine the purpose of the Foundation’s website, we knew we needed to find a partner to step outside a traditional vendor relationship. This would mean becoming an extension of each other’s team, and establishing a deeply collaborative, transparent and open process. The Foundation’s partnership with A Hundred Years resulted in a new depth of insight and understanding of the Foundation’s knowledge, content and systems-level approach to philanthropy. Dozens of staff, grantees, and partners helped to co-design the experience and purpose of the site, which we’re thrilled to launch today.

Here’s a look at what you’ll find:

What solutions are hiding in our PDFs?

A few months ago, the World Bank published a noble and important report noting that nearly 50 percent of their policy reports have the goal to inform and influence the social impact sector, yet more than 31 percent of these reports are never downloaded, and 87 percent are never cited. Like so many organizations, the Foundation produces a number of informal and formal reports, publications, blog posts, stories from the field, thoughts shared on social media, and even drafts of “in-process” work. In a busy and crowded Internet, how can we be sure that our audience is discovering the information they need to make important business and policy decisions?

Rockefeller3

You might call this knowledge management in the world of digital media, and definitely a work in progress. To start, we’ve pulled out the key facts and figures on each initiative page, paired with recent tweets from our grantees and partners. The numbers represent statistically important numbers surrounding the work, such as a staggering fact about the problem we’re trying to solve, or a key learning from our research that could be leveraged by others. We’ve also affixed a topical and geographical tagging structure to all knowledge to enable dozens of entry points to our learning. Finally, we’ve installed a best-in-class Search tool to scan and surface intelligence, hopefully providing a little serendipity along the way.

Rockefeller11

Building on the success of our blog, the new Insights and Ideas section surfaces the thoughts and theories of some of the world’s brightest and boldest social innovators. We’ve posed questions around topics the Foundation is investing in–such as building urban resilience or advancing health–and curated ideas and options from our network of staff, grantees, and partners. These ideas are at once diverse and interrelated, and we believe they’ll spark new thinking and connections in our global audience.

The Foundation’s grantees are tackling pressing problems, and they have the stories and knowledge to prove it. We want the website to be a medium and mouthpiece that promotes their work to the important funders, influencers, and policy-makers who visit our site. Each grantee now has their own page, showcasing the publications, reports, and storyline of our shared journey.

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Finally, a new section on the Foundation’s strategic approach to philanthropy. This section illustrates our broad view of systems and how we identify spaces where there is momentum for innovation that makes change likely to take hold. We also to seek to intervene where our “risk capital” can usher in new actors and larger flows of capital that have a shared interest in solving these problems.

Just like the Foundation, our website will continue to evolve and refocus. So take a look today and let us know of any feedback in the comments below.

--Jay Genske and Marc Mertens

True Board Engagement: How openness and access to board conversations has changed Creating the Future
April 23, 2015

(Karl Wilding is the director of public policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the umbrella body for charities and the volunteer movement in England. Justin Pollock the principal and founder of Orgforward, a community-focused consultancy working with organizations and their leadership to build the capacity to sustain thriving communities. Both Karl and Justin are Creating the Future board members.)

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Karl Wilding

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Justin Pollock

It’s a widely held maxim that sunlight, read as transparency and openness for the purpose of this post, is the best disinfectant. While true, we feel this view has an unfortunate undertone of emphasising the negative: greater transparency is needed in order to prevent and/or catch wrongdoing. It focuses attention on what we hope to avoid rather than what we hope is possible.

At Creating the Future, rather than thinking of sunlight as that thing that disinfects, we embrace the photosynthetic view that letting the light in allows for growth and transformation. We recognize our role in supporting thriving communities and believe that the community should have a role in creating our success at all levels of the organization. Though Creating the Future is not a grantmaking foundation, we believe that all organizations, including foundations, gain by opening up to and actively engaging the communities we are passionate about and that we profess we serve.

In a conversation about boards and governance recently, someone remarked to one of us that “transparency can be transformational,” and it’s this sort of thinking that powers Creating the Future’s approach to leadership, trusteeship, and governance. Beyond just being transparent – allowing people to see us, we are open – people can actually interact with us and influence our growth in real time.  This approach to governance is open, not just in the sense of visibility, but open to challenge, praise, and, since board members live stream from various places around the world, the occasional ribbing for the state of our living rooms and barking dogs (how much more “real life” can it get than that?).

We use Twitter, monitoring our hashtag during the meeting, to encourage people to share their curiosity and brilliance so we can respond in real time to the ideas that break us out of the group-think commonly found when people of like passions gather.

All well and good in theory. But what does this really look like in practice and what does it make possible for us as trustees and anyone else interested in the work of the organization we serve?

In practice, our board meetings are entirely open, end to end. We leverage Creating the Future’s presence online. Prior to every monthly board meeting, our board chair posts a blog providing the context and agenda for our upcoming meeting, our operational leaders post video progress reports, and you can find a link to our upcoming meeting which are all live-broadcast using Google Hangouts.

We use Twitter, monitoring our hashtag during the meeting, to encourage people to share their curiosity and brilliance so we can respond in real time to the ideas that break us out of the group-think commonly found when people of like passions gather. But it doesn’t stop there: most board meetings, we invite a guest to take part in the broadcast in the anticipation that they might just lead us to change the questions that we’re asking ourselves. And if you missed something and want to know what happened next, or would like to check back on something we did, we’re in plain sight - all the meetings are archived and available on the website.

And  anyone can see this. In fact, the world gets to see it at the same time as we can, and it’s the internet, so they can share their opinions and thoughts freely. Now, we understand that this might be heresy to a foundation, in which board meetings often include sensitive topics such as grantee deliberations, however, board meetings also include strategy, planning, and policy discussions, which are exactly the conversations that thrive at Creating the Future through this open model. Thankfully the web makes it easy to segment out each part.

You might be wondering what is the value of this approach and how does it ultimately help us?What does all this effort make possible?

For us as board members, the most powerful thing about openness is that it fosters conversations where there is nothing to hide and therefore nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed by (we are sure that there is some social science that helps explain this – but we just feel it in our bones).

At the top of our list: better conversations that lead to better decisions. We think this might be one of the most compelling reasons for foundations to consider, since foundations are in the business of decision-making and idea generation. What does that look like? We actually dialog with one another, asking better informed questions, hearing different perspectives and reflections, getting positive affirmation, and gaining more confidence in the decisions we make. The last bit is important: we’re all human, taking on leadership as a trustee isn’t always easy, so it’s nice to get a bit of praise for a decision we’ve made.

For us as board members, the most powerful thing about openness is that it fosters conversations where there is nothing to hide and therefore nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed by (we are sure that there is some social science that helps explain this – but we just feel it in our bones). Any decision we make has been vetted and thought through. The assumptions that can often go unidentified when making decisions are all brought into the open so that we, in our leadership roles, deeply understand the implications and rationale behind the actions and decisions we make. Personally, we love this aspect as it encourages our own growth and strengthens our resolve around the beliefs and values we hold.

Next is the thing we often hear is missing - better engagement. We’re all in one way or another seeking to better engage board members, beneficiaries, and stakeholders. For us, this is at the foundation of our work. We know we are “better together” when we can draw on the abundant wisdom that is out there. So involving stakeholders and other interested people in the leadership and governance of Creating the Future is pretty much saying to them that they are as important as us – it’s not about the people in the room, but rather about the ideas, plans, and actions that result from the gathering.

CreatingtheFutureLogoB&W492x104Finally, we find openness raises trust – among each other as trustees, with the community that supports us, and with the staff that work tirelessly to facilitate the execution of our strategy. Everyone has an opportunity to shape decisions and everyone can see we’re just ordinary people, not some nonprofit rock stars or even mysterious alchemists who work in dark smoky rooms. And we reckon ultimately that engagement and trust build capacity: people want to join us on the journey because they realize they can be part of it in meaningful ways.

The skeptics at this point are probably wondering: what could go wrong? What about sensitive issues, confidentiality, or errant voices? This is straightforward: there’s always going to be stuff we want to think or talk about without the world watching, and for that we allow for closed sessions. And we  do this transparently as well, acknowledging the rationale each time it is needed. We think people appreciate us for being honest and up front about that. And for those  who may fear negative comments or hijacked conversations, all we can say is that it just doesn’t happen. Rather than taking us in a direction we don’t want to go, external voices elucidate new paths that we excitedly travel down and may not have seen because of the inherent nature of “group think.”

We honestly have not experienced anything scary: openness has become mundane, with many of us shedding the nervousness that comes from thinking about the fact that the world could be watching. This is a good thing, unless you are offended by seeing an untidy living room or a person eating their lunch.

Things have occasionally gone wrong: the technology is the obvious candidate, with broadband connections dropping out. But this is part of the warp and weave of normal life, and we’ve found people stick with us. In fact, the biggest risk is that no one cares, no one’s watching. And if that’s the case you may well have some bigger issues to contend with, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Our aim is to tip the scales from the common practice of making openness rare and exclusivity common (think of most every board meeting you’ve been to), to making exclusivity that rare bird that is hard to find. In fact, we honestly have not experienced anything scary: openness has become mundane, with many of us shedding the nervousness that comes from thinking about the fact that the world could be watching. This is a good thing, unless you are offended by seeing an untidy living room or a person eating their lunch.

Openness is our “not-so-secret sauce.” Maybe it’s just the people around the virtual table, maybe it’s keeping the meetings open to guests, or just the sense that we’re visible, but the meetings are highly enjoyable and stimulating; plus, we get business done. We think opening up gives boards more vitality, richer conversations, and better engagement.  And we reckon fear of failure, of “getting found out,” is the biggest barrier to opening up. So foundations: be brave, join us for one of our board meetings to see how we roll, then hopefully try this format for yourself. You have nothing to lose but your broadband connection. 

--Karl Wilding and Justin Pollock 

5 Questions for Bill McKibben, Co-Founder, 350.org
April 22, 2015

(Bill McKibben is the co-founder of 350.org. He spoke with Kyoko Uchida of Philanthropy News Digest; this interview, part of the "5 Questions" series, was originally featured on the PND blog.)

Forty-five years after the first Earth Day in 1970, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have stalled and the planet faces the potentially devastating effects of accelerating climate change. At the same time, calls for educational and philanthropic institutions to rid themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies have gotten louder and a grassroots divestment movement has emerged from college campuses across the country.

PND asked noted environmental activist and author Bill McKibben about the impact of the fossil fuel divestment movement, the role of philanthropy in the fight against climate change, and the prospect that something meaningful will come out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year.

Bill-mckibben-co-founder-350.org_full_imagePhilanthropy News Digest: The name of the organization you co-founded, 350.org, refers to the goal of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current level of 400 parts per million to 350 ppm — a level, according to climatologist James Hansen and others, that is necessary to preserve conditions on Earth similar to those which prevailed as humans evolved and flourished. Where do things stand as of 2015? And do we have any chance of meeting the 350 ppm target?

Bill McKibben: Where we stand is the CO2 level in the atmosphere climbs 2 ppm annually — and the Arctic and the Antarctic are dealing with preposterous changes that even the most pessimistic scientists thought would take many decades to arrive, oceans are acidifying, and the cycle of floods and droughts is deepening. If we managed to get off fossil fuels with great haste — if we worked at the outer edge of the possible — then by 2100 forests and oceans would have sucked up enough carbon that we'd be moving back toward 350 ppm. Much damage would be done in the meantime, but perhaps not civilizational-scale damage. But that window is small, and closing. 

Is divestment the best way for philanthropy to support action on the climate, or should it be doing something else?

PND: 350.org's Fossil Free campaign aims to convince educational and religious institutions, governments, and other organizations that serve the public good to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel companies. One frequently heard criticism of the campaign is that it is trying to put out a fire with a garden hose. That is, getting a few dozen or hundred institutional investors to divest their portfolios of fossil fuels will have no measurable impact on the activities of large energy companies — or on other investors who may see an opportunity as those stocks are sold. What's wrong with that argument?

350logoBM: If it was all anyone was doing, it would not be enough, not even close. Of course, we're also fighting against new pipelines and coal mines, and for the rapid spread of renewable energy. But divestment is one of the things that knits it together — it's been the vehicle for spreading the news that these companies have four times the carbon in their reserves than any scientist thinks we can safely burn. That's why everyone, up to the president of the World Bank, has hailed divestment as a crucial part of the fight.

PND: Private foundations, including the two largest in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK-based Wellcome Trust, have been the target of divestment campaigns mounted by a group here in the U.S. called Divest-Invest Philanthropy and, in the UK, by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper. Is divestment the best way for philanthropy to support action on the climate, or should it be doing something else?

BM: It doesn't preclude them from doing other things — indeed, since fossil-free portfolios are outperforming the broader market, it will give them more resources to do those things. But it is a necessary thing for them to do. Otherwise their investments will only work against their own programs, as dozens of top scientists have tried to tell Wellcome and Gates.  

We're focused on grassroots organizing because the fossil fuel industry is sprawling and protean, and we need to be as well. Call it the fossil fuel resistance — it's the fastest spreading movement on the planet, which is good, because this is the first truly global crisis.

PND: A handful of leading conservation organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, argue that the best way to change the behavior and practices of large energy companies is to engage and make them partners in the fight against climate change. What is your response to that argument?

BM: It's not serious. There's no sign of any of these companies abandoning their core business models as a result of engagement; they're only interested in more greenwashing. That became clear when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund divested in September 2014. They had worked for a decade to "engage" Exxon — which is the family company — and failed completely. I don't think it's actually what TNC is doing, but if it is, it's a bad idea. 

PND: 350.org is known for a distributed, grassroots organizing model in which local campaigns are run by independent, loosely affiliated organizations. Is that kind of decentralized model the right model for a movement with such large ambitions? And will we see a meaningful climate change agreement come out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year?

BM: We're focused on grassroots organizing because the fossil fuel industry is sprawling and protean, and we need to be as well. Call it the fossil fuel resistance — it's the fastest spreading movement on the planet, which is good, because this is the first truly global crisis.

We'll see a little more progress than we did in Copenhagen — because there is a movement now in various countries that is pushing leaders to act. But whatever happens in Paris is not going to solve the problem — it will be one small step along the way.

--Kyoko Uchida

Social Sector Knowledge Sharing: A Manifesto for 2015 and Beyond
April 20, 2015

(Lisa M. Brooks is the director of knowledge management systems at Foundation Center. Gabi Fitz is the director of knowledge management initiaives at Foundation Center. You can find them on Twitter @IssueLab. This post was originally featured on the Markets for Good blog.)

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Lisa Brooks

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Gabi Fitz

Within the last six months, three of the world’s largest foundations—the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation—have all announced that they will require open licensing of all grant-funded products and content. In doing so they build on the leadership of early adopters, such as Wellcome Trust, the Shuttleworth Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. While it’s not yet clear if this is a smoke-signal or the beginnings of a wild-fire, these actions are significant and could catalyze positive change across the social sector.

In being purposeful about how they want the work they produce and fund to be shared, these foundations are following in the steps of hundreds of thousands of individuals and organizations who, for many years, have used open licenses to spell out how the content they produce can and should be used by others.

A large percentage of the products that these three foundations are now choosing to openly license, and requiring that their grantees openly license, is “grey literature”—the case studies, evaluations, and research reports that capture valuable front-line lessons about the social interventions we create, support, and implement. This grey literature results from one of the sector’s key purposes: the production and publication of knowledge that helps us better understand social problems and their solutions. But rarely is this literature, and our role in producing and sharing it, thought of as published work. More often we think of these products as communications pieces meant to be immediately disseminated, or as a kind of procedural artifact of rational grantmaking. But why does that matter as long as we are getting the products out the door and available on our websites?

It matters because when we begin to think of this activity as publishing we also begin to think about the kind of publisher we want to be. And we begin to see steps like the ones recently taken by Ford, Gates, and Hewlett around one aspect of publication: licensing. In being purposeful about how they want the work they produce and fund to be shared, these foundations are following in the steps of hundreds of thousands of individuals and organizations who, for many years, have used open licenses to spell out how the content they produce—music, images, design, text, and more—can and should be used by others.

Moving toward open licensing is as good a place to start as any when talking about best publishing practices. The licensing piece is not a small thing; it’s also not the only thing we can start doing collectively and cohesively to share our knowledge better today and tomorrow. There is much to learn from the self-publishing masses and the multi-billion dollar publishing industry alike. Over the years, as we in the sector have placed hundreds of thousands of publications on our web servers, announcing their release on our “What’s New!” page, then moving those no longer new publications into a list of available titles in our “Publications” sections, and finally removing that knowledge-in-a-PDF from the Internet entirely during a website redesign (“let’s get rid of anything that is more than five years old!”), self-publishers and the publishing industry have moved toward new publishing mechanisms and paradigms that ensure that the works they create stay in the game for the long run. Open licensing is part of that. The increasing acceptance of the “open access” concept, and increasing use of open access repositories as an expression of that concept, are another part.

The good news for the social sector is that the “open” ethos (open content, open access, open source, open license, open culture) that has cropped up on the Internet over the last decade or so plays to our strength.

The good news for the social sector is that the “open” ethos (open content, open access, open source, open license, open culture) that has cropped up on the Internet over the last decade or so plays to our strength. We have openly (albeit haphazardly) released content online since “online” became a destination. We know that the Internet is a largely decentralized and dynamic self-publishing space. What we don’t seem to know is how to capitalize on “open”, and stop operating in ways that limit our ability to truly tap into our collective intelligence.

Although a “how-to” guide is probably needed, what the sector really needs at this moment is a publishing manifesto. Here’s a starter manifesto for all of our consideration, offered as a means to begin a dialog about our publishing habits, behaviors, actions, and reactions:

  1. We recognize and value the power of our collective intelligence.
  2. We acknowledge that publishing is a key activity for many foundations and nonprofits.
  3. Our publishing practices should and can be better aligned with why we publish in the first place: to better understand and inform social change.
  4. We will stop focusing solely on one-off dissemination and ad hoc solutions and will start paying attention to—and using—shared systems for open publishing and knowledge sharing.
  5. We can learn from and build on what’s happening in other sectors.

If you agree with these principles, say so! And if you don’t, say so! Suggest alternatives, tell us what holds you back, and what your obstacles are. Open up! Change depends on it.

--Lisa Brooks and Gabi Fitz

Overcoming Website Angst: Keeping it Simple, Easy- to-Manage and Cost Effective
April 15, 2015

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

Sally CrowleyDid you know that less than 10% of all charitable foundations have a website? It seems unbelievable in this day and age, but research conducted by Glasspockets finds that it’s true.

When you think about it, though, it’s actually understandable. Building a dynamic, professional website can be a daunting task. Maintaining it with up-to-date content can be even more daunting. Plus, some price tags will just give you sticker shock… and maybe a bit of angst.

So was the case with ours here at The John R. Oishei Foundation.

When I first started working with the Foundation in 2006, its website was built in HTML and had about three pages, basically listing contact information and directions on how to apply for funding. This was a typical foundation website at the time.

We set out to create a more contemporary, content-rich site… a site where we could feature the work of our grantees, share information and disseminate key research findings.

In 2007, driven by the goals outlined in our strategic plan, we set out to create a more contemporary, content-rich site… a site where we could feature the work of our grantees, share information and disseminate key research findings. We worked with a website design firm that used a proprietary Content Management System (CMS), which, at the time, was a standard way of building websites. The process was extremely labor intensive for us and involved a somewhat substantial investment.

By now, most people know the meaning of a CMS, but just in case, here’s a quick definition:

CMS is a website software that allows content contributors to publish from a central, online web interface without knowing HTML, Javascript or any other complicated computer language. And among CMS programs, you can choose “open source” or “proprietary.”

Open source software is developed by a global community and is typically available at no charge. It is developed and upgraded in a collaborative way, relying on input from thousands of people from around the world. Here’s an example.

Proprietary CMS is developed, owned, and promoted by a private company and is updated/improved at the company's discretion. Here’s an example.

Our website is an extremely valuable tool that helps us communicate with our varied audiences. As our ideas of how and what to share continue to grow, a website that keeps up with our pace has become that much more essential.

Many proprietary CMS website developers offer a “handcrafted CMS” which they claim is better than their competitors’ products. In the past, this was the primary method used to build websites. The open source alternative was not yet mature, so vendors who wrote their own software provided a unique product with relative reliability for that time.

By 2012, the site we had built at Oishei using proprietary CMS was outdated. We wanted to update the site and be “cutting edge,” yet fiscally prudent. Luckily, by then, things had changed in the world of web development. Reliable open source website platforms had become commonplace. Today, I would say WordPress, which the Foundation Center uses for its web hosting services, is probably the most well-known, followed by Joomla! and Drupal. (Our site uses Joomla!) Some open-source platforms have even become so easy-to-use that sites can be created by non-technical staffers with no actual coding, a little bit of know-how and a fair amount of determination.

I am huge proponent of open source websites. Here's why:

  • I want to own my organization's site and I want to be in charge. Using an open source CMS vendor means that I own my website, and that the code and content are portable. There's no proprietary code that can't be shared with me. The website hosting is also under my control. If I become "disenchanted" with my CMS vendor, s/he can't walk off with my site. I can hire another vendor to maintain it for us. We also asked ourselves, "What would happen if our vendor goes out of business"? These days, that could happen to any company, no matter what its size. With open source, another vendor could take over our site with little disruption. 
  • I refuse to pay an arm and a leg for substantial site changes and upgrades. The Oishei Foundation recently changed its logo, core branding elements and moved its offices. This meant many changes to our site to match our new colors, replace the logo wherever it appeared throughout the site, etc. This was too much for me to handle on my own, so our web group handled it for us. Because they use Joomla!, the cost was minimal. (Note that when it comes to spending on communication efforts, we are "uber" frugal -- we'd rather use the funds to support our community.)
  • We want to stay up-to-date. In the ever-changing digital world, new design standards develop frequently; new website features pop up all the time. In addition, there's the human element. People just get bored with what they have over time. So, even though our audience might not be tired of the Buffalo skyline photo featured on our home page, our staff and board might be. Plus, who doesn't love a new bell or whistle on their site from time to time? Open source CMS vendors have a large team of active core developers, and many more third party extension developers as well. They are much more likely to offer new technologies and features faster.

Our website is an extremely valuable tool that helps us communicate with our varied audiences. As our ideas of how and what to share continue to grow, a website that keeps up with our pace has become that much more essential. Open source platforms are always improving, with developers constantly and collectively experimenting with new ideas. This means that as we become more open about the work we do, our technology is right there with us, helping us to communicate even more effectively.

What has your foundation’s experience been with proprietary vs. open source? 

--Sally Crowley

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."

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