Transparency Talk

Building the Social Sector's Collective Brain Trust: Redesigned IssueLab Launched
June 23, 2016

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena photo

Recently when I was helping my son cultivate his ant farm, I learned that a lone ant is a dead ant.  Ants are the ultimate collective, working in teams, and by doing so, they accomplish amazing feats that no lone ant alone could do. 

Do Ants Know Something Foundations Don’t?

As you may know from unwelcome encounters in your home, ants tend to move very effectively by moving in swarms.  They operate with what scientists call a “collective brain” or “swarm intelligence” that helps them share knowledge, move quickly over great distances, build bridges and highways, organize, and make collective decisions that accomplish tasks that they couldn’t do alone. 

"IssueLab’s relaunched website has almost 20,000 knowledge resources, covering 38 different issue areas, from 7,000+ organizations around the world."

Philanthropy by contrast is increasingly fragmented, with individual foundations developing and often holding lessons learned, strategic direction, and operating plans close to their vests. Yet, like ants, they are often trying to move proverbial mountains and accomplish goals that a single institution can’t do alone. So, is there something we can learn from the insect world, much like how observing bird flight informed and inspired the development of aircraft?  Can we observe insects to inform the development of collective intelligence?

There is hope here in that increasingly, philanthropy articles and conferences are turning to the theme of collective impact, and knowledge sharing, which are in many ways a departure from the current practice in philanthropy in which fragmentation - or the “lone ant” phenomenon - tends to be the prevailing norm. And there is also hope in the form of new tools that are available to you to help us all work smarter, provided we commit to take advantage of them.

Moving Toward a Collective Brain Trust

New tools recently launched by IssueLab may give us all a roadmap to how to go from struggling, lone ants to mighty ants. IssueLab’s relaunched website has almost 20,000 knowledge resources, covering 38 different issue areas, from 7,000+ organizations around the world. Each resource includes links to the full report, and helpful data, such as article abstracts, related articles, and author information. 

Many of these resources include lessons learned and were funded directly by foundations. Together, IssueLab resources represent one of the greatest assets of the social sector, provided they remain easily findable and usable by others.

The Path to Open Knowledge

Toward that end, IssueLab's relaunched website also includes helpful resources aimed at helping the social sector commit to creating a culture of open knowledge. The website includes recommended principles and also tactical practices that organizations can adopt to move toward this vision of a collective brain trust, from which we can all mutually benefit.

Given the critical connection between transparency and shared learning, earlier this year Glasspockets added Open Licensing to the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency self-assessment profile. Since this is one of our newest elements, and it is an emerging practice among foundations, we want to draw particular attention to a set of tools now available on IssueLab's redesigned site that aim to demystify the path to open knowledge.

IssueLab breaks it down into the following practices:

  • Articulating an open knowledge policy; 
  • Using open licensing on all knowledge products; 
  • Using open knowledge repositories like IssueLab to catalog and better share your work; and 
  • Using a shared descriptive vocabulary, such as schema.org, on your organization’s website to make it easier to discover and index knowledge products.

To learn more about each practice, visit IssueLab's Open Knowledge area.

How Can We Know What Others Know?

And to continue building a bigger and bigger brain trust that truly represents the shared knowledge of our labors, the redesigned IssueLab also makes it easier for anyone to upload, find, and freely share research by providing metadata and links to original documents on publishers' websites.

New features include:

  • An improved interface that makes it easier and faster to upload research to IssueLab and share items via a website, blog, or on social media.
  • Filtered search, the ability to curate user libraries, and "what to read next" suggestions for related research.
  • The ability to use Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) to increase a document's long-term accessibility across the Internet and on archival sites like WorldCat, the world's largest library catalog.
  • Metadata such as keyword search, date published, geography, and language to facilitate powerful searching and browsing capabilities.

Visit IssueLab to start collecting, connecting, and sharing knowledge, and just maybe collectively moving mountains.

--Janet Camarena

IRS Releases 990 Forms as Machine-Readable Data
June 16, 2016

Editor's Note: Last month, Transparency Talk featured a blog post by Foundation Center president, Brad Smith on the coming of open 990 data and its implications for philanthropy. Read here for additional perspective on the news story below that the IRS has now formally started its release of 990 Forms, including 990-PFs, as machine-readable, open data.

Irs-logo-250 Amazon Web Services has announced that the Internal Revenue Service has made more than a million electronic 990 tax forms available as machine-readable data through its Amazon Simple Storage Service.

Released Wednesday, the public data set includes certain Forms 990 filed by nonprofit organizations with the IRS since 2011, Forms 990-EZ filed by smaller nonprofits, and Forms 990-PF filed by private foundations. The data from each 990 is provided in an XML file that includes the main 990 form, other filed forms and schedules, and any information detailing how the document was filed; some non-disclosable information is excluded.

The release of 990 filings as machine-readable data by the IRS, which plans to add new 990 data on a monthly basis, will make it easier for anyone to search the forms digitally for information about an organization's finances, trustees, lobbying activities, and salaries. Even when nonprofits or foundations filed them electronically, the IRS previously had stripped the forms of confidential information, converted them to TIFF (image) files, and released them as PDF documents. But in response to a lawsuit filed by open-records activist Carl Malamud in 2015, a federal judge ordered the IRS to release machine-readable Forms 990 from nine nonprofits. The IRS's Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities subsequently called for the agency to require nonprofits to file their financial data electronically, and the agency announced that it would begin releasing electronic versions of the forms this year.

This post originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.

Giving Pledge Announces the Class of 2016
June 1, 2016

Eye on the Giving Pledge

The Giving Pledge, in a press release made public today, announced that 17 new participants have joined the effort launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in 2010 to encourage the world's wealthiest to commit the majority of their assets to philanthropic causes. This number includes the six previously unannounced pledges by Sir Tom and Lady Marion Hunter, Margaret and Sylvan Adams, Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, and Robert and Arlene Kogod, and Gary K. Michelson -- bringing the total number of pledgers to 154. The class of 2016 includes a Saudi prince and a Chinese dairy magnate, as well as computer developers and technologists, including the co-founders of Airbnb -- a path followed by many partner-entrepreneurs already committed to the Giving Pledge.

Profiles for all signatories are now available as part of our Glasspockets feature Eye on the Giving Pledge.

 

Since its inception in 2010, the Giving Pledge, Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates' effort to encourage the world's wealthiest to commit the majority of their assets to philanthropic causes, has garnered 154 signatories in 18 countries with a combined net worth of more than $750 billion.

Learn more about all the pledgers in our Glasspockets feature Eye on the Giving Pledge.

-- Daniel Matz

Foundation Transparency: Game Over?
May 23, 2016

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center).

BradfordKSmithThe tranquil world of America's foundations is about to be shaken, but if you read the Center for Effective Philanthropy's (CEP) new study -- Sharing What Matters, Foundation Transparency -- you would never know it.

Don't get me wrong. That study, like everything CEP produces, is carefully researched, insightful and thoroughly professional. But it misses the single biggest change in foundation transparency in decades: the imminent release by the Internal Revenue Service of foundation 990-PF (and 990) tax returns as machine-readable open data.

Clara Miller, President of the Heron Foundation, writes eloquently in her manifesto, Building a Foundation for the 21St Century: "…the private foundation model was designed to be protective and separate, much like a terrarium."

Terrarium photo 2Terrariums, of course, are highly "curated" environments over which their creators have complete control. The CEP study, proves that point, to the extent that much of the study consists of interviews with foundation leaders and reviews of their websites as if transparency were a kind of optional endeavor in which foundations may choose to participate, if at all, and to what degree.

To be fair, CEP also interviewed the grantees of various foundations (sometimes referred to as "partners"), which helps convey the reality that foundations have stakeholders beyond their four walls. However, the terrarium metaphor is about to become far more relevant as the release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within.

What Is Open Data?

It is safe to say that most foundation leaders and a fair majority of their staff do not understand what open data really is. Open data is free, yes, but more importantly it is digital and machine-readable. This means it can be consumed in enormous volumes at lightning speed, directly by computers.

"The release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within."

Once consumed, open data can be tagged, sorted, indexed and searched using statistical methods to make obvious comparisons while discovering previously undetected correlations. Anyone with a computer, some coding skills and a hard drive or cloud storage can access open data. In today's world, a lot of people meet those requirements, and they are free to do whatever they please with your information once it is, as open data enthusiasts like to say, "in the wild."

Today, much government data is completely open. Go to data.gov or its equivalent in many countries around the world and see for yourself.

The theory behind open data, increasingly born out in practice, is that making information available leads to significant innovation for the public good while the demand for and use of such data also improves its accuracy and quality over time. And some open data is just fun: one of my personal favorites is the White House visitors list!

What is the Internal Revenue Service Releasing?

Irs-logo-250Thanks to the Aspen Institute's leadership of a joint effort - funded by foundations and including Foundation Center, GuideStar, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, and others - the IRS has started to make some 1,000,000 Form 990s and 40,000 Form 990PF available as machine-readable open data.

Previously, all Form 990s had been released as image (TIFF) files, essentially a picture, making it both time-consuming and expensive to extract useful data from them. Credit where credit is due; a kick in the butt in the form of a lawsuit from open data crusader Carl Malamud helped speed the process along.

The current test phase includes only those tax returns that were digitally filed by nonprofits and community foundations (990s) and private foundations (990PFs). Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data. In other words, that which is born digital will be opened up to the public in digital form. Because of variations in the 990 forms, getting the information from them into a database will still require some technical expertise, but will be far more feasible and faster than ever before.

"Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data."

The Good

The work of organizations like Foundation Center-- who have built expensive infrastructure in order to turn years of 990 tax returns into information that can be used by nonprofits looking for funding, researchers trying to understand the role of foundations and foundations, themselves, seeking to benchmark themselves against peers—will be transformed.

Work will shift away from the mechanics of capturing and processing the data to higher level analysis and visualization to stimulate the generation and sharing of new insights and knowledge. This will fuel greater collaboration between peer organizations, innovation, the merging of previous disparate bodies of data, better philanthropy, and a stronger social sector.

The (Potentially) Bad

The world of foundations and nonprofits is highly segmented, idiosyncratic and difficult to understand and interpret. GuideStar and Foundation Center know this.

But many of the new entrants who are attracted by the advent of open 990 data will not. They will most likely come in two forms: start-ups claiming their new tools will revolutionize the business of giving, and established, private sector companies, seeking new market opportunities. Neither of these is intrinsically bad and could lead to some degree of positive disruption and true innovation.

The negative potential could be two-fold. Funders will inevitably be intrigued by the start-ups, their genius and their newness and divert funding towards them. Foundations are free to take risks and that is one of their virtues. But while needs grow, funding for the data and information infrastructure of philanthropy is limited, technology literacy among foundations relatively low, and many of these start-ups will prove to be shooting stars (anybody remember Jumo?).

"Once the 990 data is 'in the wild,' conclusions may be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair."

The second category of new entrants is far more complex and will come in the form of for-profit data analytics companies. Some of these have business models and immensely sophisticated black box technologies that rely heavily on government contracts for defense and national security. They will be lured by the promise of lucrative contracts from big foundations and mega-nonprofits and the opportunity to demonstrate social responsibility by doing good in the world.

But these for-profit analytics companies will quickly discover that there is only one Gates Foundation among the 87,000 private foundations and only a handful of richly-resourced nonprofits among the 1.3 million on the IRS registers. And those who choose to contract the services of "Big Analytics" will need to consider the potential reputational consequences of aligning their "brands" with the companies behind them.

Sound defensive? Not at all: Foundation Center welcomes the competition, has been building for it since 2010, and knows the challenge can only make us and the social sector better.

The Ugly

Once the 990 data is "in the wild," it is possible if not probable, conclusions will be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair. Those who are new to the field and relatively uninformed (or uninterested) in its complexity, may make claims about executive compensation based on comparisons of foundations of wildly disparate size and scope.

The same could be done with overhead rates, payout, or any other figure or calculation that can be made based on information found in the 990-PF. Some foundations already chafe when responsible sector advocates like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) use Foundation Center data to rank foundations according to their Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. Imagine claims coming over the transom from individuals and organizations whose core values do not include a belief in the practice of philanthropy and a normative vision for how it could be better.

"Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing."

Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing. This was the spirit in which Clara Miller introduced her terrarium analogy to highlight what she sees as the artificial disconnect between the controlled, strategic, and curated world constructed by the grants side of foundations and the sometimes contradictory forces at work in the larger economy in which their assets are invested.

Foundations like Heron are striving to put 100% of their assets toward mission, while others like Rockefeller Brothers Fund are divesting their investment portfolios from fossil fuels and re-investing those assets in ways that further the goals of their climate change grantmaking, rather than exacerbate the problem.

A recent (and as of yet unpublished) Foundation Center survey found that 60% of foundations were not engaged in impact investing and had no plans to do so. That is their choice, but open 990 data may well put them in a position of having to publicly explain it.

For example, using Foundation Center databases, I searched across several hundred thousand foundation 990-PF tax returns and found 37 foundations that held Corrections Corporation of America stock in their investment portfolios. These foundations may well believe, as the majority of foundations insist, that the purpose of the investment arm of the foundation is to generate the highest sustainable return possible in order to fund the mission through grants. But if a foundation holding that stock is striving to work on juvenile justice or improve the lives of black men and boys, an investigative reporter or activist might well ask why they are investing in a corporation that runs private, for-profit prisons

It's 10:00pm, Do You Know Where Your 990 Is?

With the game over for foundation transparency, the big takeaway is to know your 990-PF (or 990 for community foundations). Suddenly, it will be transformed from a bureaucratic compliance document into one of your foundation's key communications vehicles.

"Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable."

Right about now, you may be thinking: "What about the website re-design we spent all that money on, with our new logo, carefully crafted initiative names, and compelling photos??" It's still important, and you can follow the lead of those foundations guided by the online transparency criteria found on Foundation Center's Glasspockets website.

But for the sector as a whole, while fewer than 10% of all foundations have websites, they all file 990 tax returns. As the IRS open data release unfolds and mandatory digital filing kicks in, the 990-PF will become one of the primary sources of information by which your individual foundation will be known and compared to others.

I recently asked a group of foundation CEOs whether they ever had an in-depth discussion about their 990-PFs among their board members and was met with blank stares. In a world of digital transparency, this will have to change. As 990s become a data source and communications vehicle, the information on them will need to be clear, accurate and above all, a faithful representation of how each individual foundation makes use of the precious tax exemption it has been granted to serve the public good.

A few simple tips for starters:

  • Take advantage of Section 15 (block 2) to talk about your priorities, grant process, limitations, and restrictions.
  • In Section 15 (block 3) write the correct, legal name for each grantee organization and add its EIN or BRIDGE ID
  • In the same section, write clear and compelling descriptions for the purpose of each grant (more than you might think, people look at foundations by what they fund).
  • Make sure all numbers on the form add up correctly (you'd be surprised!).

Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable. Philanthropy is essential to American society and a positive source for good in a challenging world.

As the terrarium walls insulating individual foundations fall, we will surely face a few moments of anxiety and discomfort. But greater transparency, fueled by open IRS data, can only make us more conscientious stewards of our resources, more effective decision-makers, and better collaborators on our way to achieving greater and greater impact in the world.

Game over? It's just beginning!

-- Brad Smith

Prince: The Artist Now Known as a Philanthropist
May 12, 2016

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

Prince was known for his over-the-top showmanship, his musical genius, and for notoriously changing his stage name to a symbol after a copyright battle.

Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the prolific artist released 39 albums over a 40-year career; his last two, HITnRUN Phase One and HITnRUN Phase Two, were released in September and December 2015. A mentor and producer for an entire generation of musicians, Prince also penned Top 40 hits for more than a dozen artists - in all,  winning seven Grammys along the way.

Prince Photo
Despite his iconic fame and success, few knew of Prince’s generosity to the causes and organizations he cared about.

Since his unexpected death in April, Prince’s philanthropic endeavors are now coming to light as friends, family and charity organizations are speaking up about his quiet, anonymous giving.  

Van Jones, a friend, philanthropic advisor and attorney for Prince, shared his memories on YouTube, describing how Prince was quick to act whenever a friend or stranger needed aid, from installing solar roofing panels for poor families to making sure a friend’s children were cared for during a crisis. Jones recalled Prince saying: “Don’t give me the credit, don’t give me the glory.”

Anonymous Giving

Interest in Prince’s philanthropy will likely raise the visibility of causes he cared about, with news of his good deeds now circulating widely in the media.

"It seems anonymity has a shelf life...We now know that Prince was a long-time supporter of a range of causes in his native Minnesota and across the country.”

Even with all of the press attention, much remains unknown about Prince’s philanthropy. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince may have felt compelled to keep his giving private. Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral and are discouraged from engaging in voting, advocacy or activism. These factors may have spurred the singer-songwriter’s desire to remain anonymous about his philanthropy.

However, it seems anonymity has a shelf life. Although he may have desired to remain below the philanthropic radar, with his death, we now know that Prince was a long-time supporter of a range of causes in his native Minnesota and across the country.

Prince often focused his support in helping youth and disadvantaged communities, contributing to #YesWeCode, an organization that equips urban minority youth with technology education and Green for All, which creates green jobs in struggling communities. Prince also gave $12,000 to help prevent the closure of the Western Branch Library of the Louisville Free Public Library in Kentucky, the nation’s first full-service library for African Americans.

Prince First Avenue & 7th St - Tenaja
Purple Rain Philanthropy

The Purple Rain philanthropist supported local causes and used his platform to draw attention to his community.  Many point to the fact that Prince made his home in Minnesota rather than pick up and move to Hollywood or New York as further evidence of his commitment to his community.

His 1984 movie, Purple Rain, was about the music scene and life in Minneapolis; several scenes were filmed at local music venues, First Avenue and 7th St Entry. And well beyond the making of the film, his philanthropy continued to rain support on local issues.

“The Purple Rain philanthropist supported local causes and used his platform to draw attention to his community.”

In Minnesota, he secretly gave $80,000 to Urban Ventures Leadership Foundation and $50,000 to a fund for the victims and families of the 2007 I-35 West bridge collapse.

Prince’s former wife, Manuela Testolini, described him as a “fierce philanthropist.” In fact, the couple met doing philanthropic work together. Testolini credited Prince for inspiring her to start her own charity 10 years ago.  Just before Prince’s death, her foundation, In a Perfect World, had announced plans to build and name a school in his honor.

Prince’s foundation, Love 4 One Another Charities, gave away $3.2 million to charities from 2001-2007, according to federal tax returns. In that same time period, Prince gave $10.9 million to his foundation. The foundation was funded, at least in part, by Prince’s 1995-97 Love 4 One Another tour.

It is unknown what happened to his foundation, as tax returns are unavailable beyond 2007, at which point the foundation held $11.9 million in assets.

In 2007, his foundation’s largest gifts included $800,000 for the Peccole Lakes Kingdom Hall Fund, in Las Vegas, to support a Jehovah’s Witness organization; $50,000 to the aforementioned Minnesota Helps Bridge Disaster Fund; $50,000 to Testolini’s In A Perfect World, in Minneapolis, which supports education for at-risk children; and $40,000 for Urban Farming, in Southfield, MI, to support healthy living and food for the hungry.

Prince the Activist

Although Prince quietly conducted his philanthropy, he seemed aware of the power and light he could shine on social issues important to him, and he often used his influence to take very public stands.

In 2004, he publicly criticized the music industry for promoting sex, violence and drugs in rap and R&B.  On his 1999 album notes, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, Prince, a vegan, wrote about the cruelty of wool production.

More recently, the “Purple Rain” philanthropist spoke out against racial injustice

Prince held benefit concerts for organizations and individuals in need. He gave money to the family of Trayvon Martin, the African American youth shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012.

In response to the deaths of young black men at the hands of police, Prince wrote and performed a new protest song, “Baltimore,” at his 2015 Rally4Peace event.  The song included references to Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and the chorus: “If there ain't no justice then there ain't no peace.”

At the 2015 Grammys, Prince alluded to the Black Lives Matter movement while presenting the album of the year, declaring: “Albums still matter. Like books and black lives, albums still matter. Tonight. Always.”

A will for Prince’s estate has not been found, so it is uncertain if he earmarked funds for favorite charities. However, with the legacy of his philanthropy in the spotlight, perhaps the causes and organizations Prince supported will benefit anew from the visibility and influence the knowledge of his support brings.

--Melissa Moy

The Next Generation of Nonprofit Data Standards
May 2, 2016

(Jacob Harold is president and CEO of GuideStar and Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. Join Harold and Smith for their webinar, How Data Standards Can Help Save the World, on May 12 at 2:00 pm EDT. In the webinar, Harold and Smith will discuss the ways data standards are already improving the grantmaking process for both funders and grantees. They'll also address how foundations can participate in these initiatives and promote a better information system for the sector. See you there! This post first ran in PhilanTopic.)

Our current moment in the human story is often called the age of information. And indeed, we are too-often overwhelmed by the torrent of data coursing through our lives. As a society, we have developed many tools to organize the information we rely on every day. The Dewey Decimal System helps libraries organize books. UPC codes help stores organize their products. Nutrition labels help to present information about food ingredients and nutritional value (or lack thereof) in a way that's consistent and predictable.

Data Standards Image-600wi
The nonprofit sector has also relied on data standards: we use the government's Employer Identification Number (EIN) to identify individual organizations. The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) is used by many — including GuideStar, Foundation Center, and others — to help reveal the diversity of the nonprofit community, guide funding decisions, and foster collaboration.

But just as other information systems have continued to evolve so must ours. When the Dewey Decimal System was developed in 1876, Melvil Dewey could not have imagined Amazon.com, e-readers, or Goodreads.com. Similarly, the EIN/NTEE framework is simply not enough to explain, organize, and share the complex story of nonprofits.

So we are glad to share the news that a new generation of social sector data standards is emerging. These can help us all do our work better, making smarter decisions while saving time to focus on that work.

There a several standards that are important, but we'd like to direct your attention to four:

Standard

Description

History

BRIDGE

A unique identifier for every nonprofit organization in the world.

A joint project among GlobalGiving, Foundation Center, GuideStar, and TechSoup Global.

Philanthropy Classification System

A taxonomy that describes the work of foundations, recipient organizations, and the philanthropic transactions between them.

Led by Foundation Center, with significant input from hundreds of stakeholders.

GuideStar Profile Standard

A standardized framework for nonprofits to tell their own stories. Used by more than 100,000 nonprofits.

Includes the five Charting Impact questions (developed in partnership with Independent Sector and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance). GSPS feeds the GuideStar for Grants system that was developed as part of the Simplify Initiative in partnership with the Technology Affinity Group.

eGrant/hGrant

An easy way for foundations to share the grants they make in near-real time.

Over 1,200 foundations use eGrant to report their grants data to Foundation Center and 19 foundations publish their data in open format through the Reporting Commitment.

This list is by no means comprehensive — other standards are also important, including but not limited to IATI and PerformWell. Others, such as XBRL or LEI, could become important for the field. But for now, we urge the nonprofit sector to understand these four standards and, where possible, to adopt them for your own use.

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It is worth noting that we in the nonprofit sector use the word "standards" in two distinct ways. First, there are "practice standards" that work to define excellence. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance Standards for Charity Accountability or Independent Sector's Principles for Good Governance and Effective Practice fit this definition. Practice standards are a powerful way to help define and promote good practices.

But here we're pointing to "data standards" that are simply a way of organizing information in a consistent format to make it more useful. Both practice standards and data standards exist to help us do our work better. Neither guarantee excellence, but in different ways they help us drive toward excellence.

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As a field, we need to absolutely minimize the amount of time we spend managing data — and maximize the time we spend solving problems. Think of these standards as enablers to help us do just that, and do it at scale.

--Jacob Harold and Brad Smith

Walking the Talk on Foundation Openness: Behind the Scenes in the Making of an RFP
April 19, 2016

(Chris Cardona is program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation.)

Chris Cardona Photo

When the latest Star Wars movie came out on DVD, Disney made a big deal about its inclusion of deleted scenes. Director J.J. Abrams announced the deleted scenes on social media and mentioned them in magazine interviews.

While we haven’t just directed a billion-dollar-grossing movie, the Fund for Shared Insight (“Shared Insight”) is taking a page from Abrams’ playbook and offering the following commentary on our own deleted scenes. In our case, they’re from our recently published request for proposals for projects that advance foundation openness.

Come take a look behind the scenes of how a philanthropic initiative evolves….

"Compared to what nonprofits do on the front lines, foundations talking about failure is not particularly courageous."

Shared Insight is a funder collaborative working to improve philanthropy by increasing foundation openness – i.e. sharing our goals, strategies and failures; listening and engaging in dialogue with others; acting on what we hear; and, sharing what we have learned.  We made our first round of grants in 2014, and have been learning a lot alongside the grantees with whom we’re privileged to work. And as my colleague Melinda Tuan wrote about on the CEP blog, one of the things we’ve learned from our evaluation partners at ORS Impact, who are looking at the impact of our grants as well as that of our own collaboration, is that we’re not making as much progress as we’d hoped on foundation openness. (To download the full report, please see Fund for Shared Insight: Theory of Change Progress and Lessons.)

In an effort to do better, we sought the advice of our philanthropy infrastructure colleagues and had a number of productive conversations among members of the collaborative. Based on those discussions, we developed a draft request for proposals (RFP), and decided that we should model the behavior we hope other funders will adopt by publishing the draft online, and inviting anyone to comment.

If you compare the draft and the final version, they’re pretty different.

So what changed, and why did we take certain things out in response to feedback?

We were honored to receive 18 pages worth (!) of feedback on the draft request for proposals. Here’s what we took away from the comments:

  • Don’t impose a framework where it doesn’t belong. At the core of the draft RFP was a three-part model distinguishing among “closed organizations,” which don’t practice any openness; “fundamental openness,” in which foundations broadcast information in a one-way manner; and “courageous openness,” in which they engage in two-way dialogue with outside parties. This framework went through much iteration in our internal discussions. Somewhere there’s a PowerPoint slide with an image of a mountain, with “courageous” at the summit, “fundamental” at the basecamp near the foot of the mountain, and “closed” in a cave underneath the mountain. We talked about it as a spiral. We talked about multiple points of entry. Gosh, foundation folks sure do love our frameworks. But this one just didn’t work. No matter how we tried to frame it, people told us, it’s not a spectrum. All three levels are valid and have their benefits, and all three require changes in practices and/or culture. So, we dropped the idea of a spectrum with judgments about more or less desirable kinds of openness.
  • “Courageous” we’re not. That specific label was VERY unpopular. We were inspired by one of our colleagues who used that term to describe (we thought) things like foundations talking openly about failure. Yet that very person wrote to us to say that we’d gotten it wrong! Compared to what nonprofits do on the front lines, and what the people we seek to help face in their daily lives, foundations talking about failure is not particularly courageous. Whatever risk a funder might face in engaging in dialogue about what works and what doesn’t pales compared to the risks our partners and beneficiaries take all the time. So we dropped that label.
  • Listen to the sounds of silence. Our category of “closed foundation” didn’t take into account funders that deliberately remain anonymous for personal or ethical reasons. Anonymous giving is a tradition with deep cultural and faith-based roots, and is very different than the case we had in mind, of a foundation just neglecting to share information it has ready at hand. So we dropped “closed foundation” as a category or point of contrast, and focused instead on the positive or affirmative elements of openness that we seek to foster.
  • Don’t assume you have control over your message. This is the flip side of anonymity. One commenter pointed out that because of the increasingly public nature of foundation tax returns (known as 990-PFs), which are starting to become machine-readable, foundations do not have the luxury of remaining anonymous. As this commenter observed, soon, two kids in a garage in Ohio could be able to write a program that searches machine-readable 990-PFs and produces analyses of giving patterns. Another commenter made a related point; we shouldn’t assume that foundations have control over their communications and information, because in an increasingly social-media-saturated and surveilled world, they don’t. To assume that a base level of openness is a choice may not turn out to be true. This is another reason we dropped the “closed foundation” as a point of contrast.
  • What will it take to make this real? Finally, we heard from commenters who asked about the implications of foundation openness for decision-making. Under the kinds of practices we’re encouraging, will foundations retain control over decision-making about resources? In “courageous” openness, how much decision-making power are you giving stakeholders? While it only came from a couple of people, this was a particularly interesting piece of feedback, because it gets to a core issue in foundation openness: the desire for control, and the fear of giving it up. Foundation openness does usually mean real change in organizational practices and culture. That’s not something we took out in response to feedback; if anything, we’re doubling down on that notion. We are betting it will take real commitment by CEOs and boards to change their culture and become more open.

The upshot of this feedback is we’ve produced an RFP that we hope is more streamlined, more straightforward, and more direct. We added several more examples of the types of projects we’re interested in funding, and we made our definition of openness much simpler, without a framework. The process of gathering the feedback was tremendously informative, and we deeply appreciate all those who contributed their time and wisdom to this effort. We hope the result was worth it – and that in the end, we’re able to fund even better projects that advance foundation openness.

Apparently, a feature of the new Star Wars DVD is that if you already have a toy of the robot* BB-8, it can react to what’s playing on the screen. While we can’t promise anything as cute or compelling as that, we hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the scenes of how a philanthropic initiative evolves. We look forward to the projects that will result, and to the impact that they’ll generate.

*Yes, I know it’s technically a droid!

--Chris Cardona

Blind Spots No More: Introducing Transparency Trends
April 13, 2016

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena

There are some lessons you learn that you never forget. "Mirror, signal, blind spot," is thankfully one of those lessons for me, dating all the way back to driver's ed when I was equal parts excited and horrified that someone was handing me the keys to a moving vehicle. I still recall the teacher emphasizing how important it is when changing lanes to first check the mirror for what is behind you; signal to let others know you are entering/exiting a lane; and then to check your blind spot, assuming there is someone invisible to you that only looking over your shoulder and out the window will reveal.

"The new Transparency Trends tool helps foundations benchmark openness."

So, is our new Glasspockets' Transparency Trends a mirror, a signal, or a viewer for revealing blind spots a foundation may be creating? It actually serves all of these purposes. Transparency Trends, created with support from the Barr Foundation, aggregates the data we have collected from all foundations that have taken and publicly shared their "Who Has Glass Pockets?" self-assessment transparency profiles, and allows the user to interact and display the data in a variety of ways.

The default view displays data about all 77 participating foundations, and users can perform a number of helpful transparency benchmarking activities with the tool, including:

  • Learn which transparency elements are most and least commonly shared online;
  • Access lists of which participating foundations share each transparency indicator;
  • Access statistics about the sharing frequency of each transparency element;
  • Compare a specific foundation to a select peer group by region/asset/foundation type; and
  • Download a customized report detailing suggested improvements for a particular foundation.

Some interesting facts quickly reveal both strengths and blind spots:

Searchable Grants Performance Assessment
  • Nearly two-thirds of participating foundations provide searchable grants via their websites;
  • 87% of participating foundations provide key staff biographies;
  • Fewer than half of participating foundations post a Code of Conduct online;
  • Despite all of the talk about impact, only 22% of participating foundations share foundation performance assessments via their websites; and
  • Only 31% of participating foundations use their websites to collect grantee feedback.

The more I explore Transparency Trends, the more excited I became about the "Mirror, signal, blind spot" rule of the road as a metaphor for the importance of philanthropic transparency. After all when you are handed the keys to a foundation, it's great if someone also hands you some institutional memory so you can have a view of the road travelled so far and what has been learned so you can actually get somewhere rather than driving in circles.

And since there are likely others who are travelling a similar path, the notion of signaling to the world what direction you are going resonates as well, since you might get there faster (and more efficiently) via a pooled or shared ride approach, or by at least sharing your road maps and shortcuts.

And finally, are you and the others on the road actually creating blind spots that prevent those around you from knowing you exist and building on your shared efforts? From Transparency Trends, you can see that fewer than half of participating foundations have a Knowledge Center that shares the lessons they are learning, and only 12% have open licensing policies that make it clear how to build on the knowledge the foundations funds and produces.

Knowledge Center Open Licensing

As fun as it is to explore the data on the pinwheel display, don't miss the opportunity to download a customized report. Since the reports are particularly helpful as a mechanism to surface both the transparency blind spots and strengths a particular foundation might have, Transparency Trends is accessible to any foundation, whether or not they have previously participated in Glasspockets.

So, if you have not submitted a profile to Glasspockets, you can still explore and extract helpful information from the tool by completing a short questionnaire about your existing transparency practices. The questionnaire will not be shared without your permission, but it will allow you to view your foundation as compared to others in our database.

Customized ReportA customized report from Transparency Trends

Our hope is these reports will serve to encourage greater foundation transparency by quickly surfacing data that identifies areas in which a foundation is behind its peers in regards to specific transparency indicators. And for those foundations that have already participated, you get a shortcut to your customized report since you will skip the questionnaire and go directly to a report to reveal your strengths and weaknesses, or areas where you may inadvertently be creating blind spots.

And speaking of blind spots, I have been thankful for the "Mirror, signal, blind spot" mantra many times when it has literally saved my life. I can recall several occasions when I've ritually check the blind spot, convinced it was empty, and only because I did the over-the-shoulder check did I avoid a collision. I'm reminded of this particular lesson at the launch of Transparency Trends because perhaps philanthropy needs a way to do the over-the-shoulder check as well. By visualizing both philanthropy's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to greater openness, we can collectively work toward a future with fewer blind spots, more awareness of those around us, and a clear view of what we have learned from the road travelled so far.

Explore Transparency Trends and let me know what you think.

-- Janet Camarena

From Cardboard to the Cloud: Grantmaking Systems in an Era of Collaboration and Learning
April 6, 2016

(Adriana Jimenez is grants manager at the Surdna Foundation and also serves on the board of directors of the Grants Managers Network.  She regularly contributes to Transparency Talk, discussing issues pertaining to transparency, data, and grants management.)

AjimenezThe Surdna Foundation’s first grants management system was made of cardboard: it was a shoebox filled with index cards. (Next there was a custom-built system, followed by an off-the-shelf installed one). For decades, this box served the foundation’s basic record-keeping needs, but technology –and transparency – eventually took precedence.  

Now in its 99th year, the foundation has since ditched the cardboard for the cloud. In 2015, Surdna transferred its grantmaking database to the workflow- and cloud-based system, Fluxx.

Moving to the cloud has helped the foundation become more open, streamlined and transparent.

These benefits were not accidental. Our decision to switch grants management platforms arose from a 2012 three-year strategic Roadmap which recommended the following changes in support of mission: 

1) Working more collaboratively with grantees.

2) Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

3) Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

To implement these changes Surdna’s Roadmap suggested retooling outdated systems and processes. It was clear we’d need a new grants management system: we’d reached the limits of our next cardboard box.

Surdna’s transition to the cloud highlights how foundations are beginning to use grants management systems to inform and improve their overall strategic directions. Through the use of data- and community-driven platforms, funders can support their efforts in collecting, harnessing and sharing better information, while working more collaboratively across teams and beyond.

Here’s how our new grantmaking system is helping us advance Surdna’s strategic goals.


1)  Working more collaboratively with grantees.

Cloud-based platforms provide actionable data on-demand. This has been empowering for staff, particularly those who previously lacked direct contact with our grant information (and those with busy travel schedules).

Phil Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation, says: “Our new system has made data accessible on the fly. I can now review and approve grants from any location and drill down to get more information.” (And by “drill,” he means literally – he recently approved a grant from his dentist’s chair.)

"Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes."

Beyond its streamlining implications, this opens new channels for deepening our connections with grantee partners and empowering our senior leadership. For example, while on the road the president can now use organizational and grants data to help him strategize for site visits, or identify grantees to greet at a reception. With the aid of a mobile app a data point becomes a real person, fostering face-to-face collaboration.

Via the cloud-based grantee portal, invited applicants can now work collaboratively with program officers throughout the proposal-writing process and get feedback from staff in real time.

Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes. For instance, in our previous system grantees had no way of accessing their “final” proposal (with edits made by Surdna’s program and grants management staff) online; now they can view revisions in real time, as well as access information on upcoming payments, reports, and past grants.

For Jose Garcia, Program Officer for the Strong Local Economies Program, the portal has expedited the proposal formulation process and created a new, direct line of communication between program staff and applicants. Moving to the cloud has “decreased bureaucracy in our work with grantees and prospective grantees, allowing greater responsiveness to both. It has eliminated unnecessary paperwork so we can spend time on the important stuff.”

By “important stuff,’ he means our mission, and the people working to make it happen. Streamlining our processes means grantees can spend more time on their own mission-related activities, rather than draining resources on fundraising.

In a recent survey, grantees described the portal as “accessible,” “user-friendly,” “easy” and “organized”. 85 percent of respondents were “satisfied” to “very satisfied” with the accessibility of Surdna’s application forms.

But there is room for improvement. Grantees felt ambivalent about their level of satisfaction with the portal as a tool for communicating with Surdna staff. Only a total of 23 percent were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied, while 1/3 were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied,” and 52 percent were “unsure”.

By making future enhancements to the portal we can continue to unlock its potential as a robust communication tool.


2)  Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

Unlike many installed databases (designed primarily for grants managers), our workflow- and cloud-based system is used regularly by everyone on staff, from the receptionist to the president. Working on a single platform has reduced shadow systems while supporting a more holistic understanding of our work across programs.

Intuitive searches and dashboards provide a birds-eye view of Surdna’s grantmaking landscape, past and present. This has aided our cross-programmatic learning:

“One of Surdna’s strengths is that each program exists within a larger ecosystem of all programs. In the Thriving Cultures Program, we also think in terms of Sustainable Environments and Strong Local Economies [Surdna’s other 2 programs areas]. We can now view the arts in that broader context,” says Shin Otake, Program Associate for the Thriving Cultures Program.

Shared workflows help his team (and others) keep track of grants in the pipeline: “the grant approval process from invitation to approval is seamless. Any member from my team or the Office of Grants Management can see the status of any grant at any given moment, or create reports to map out where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

"Using data- and community-driven platforms, funders can better share information and collaborate internally and externally."

Increased collaboration among finance, grants management, and program staff has also improved our internal controls.

For example, the finance department can now reconcile grants payments by running monthly reports in the system. The timeliness of these reports is key, as it allows grants management to address errors early on, and provide accurate spending data to program staff for budgeting purposes.  

Non-grant contracts (such as fees for consultants, research, grantee convenings, etc.) have also migrated to our grants management system, where they can now be approved and monitored in a central location by Surdna’s Chief Financial Officer. For Controller Matt Walegir, “this has provided a great oversight procedure which did not exist before. We can now get a complete picture of where our contracts are at any given moment.”

Tracking non-grant contracts in a grants database has significant implications beyond internal controls and budgeting. By co-mingling contracts and grants in one space, we are reminded that our tools for impact extend beyond traditional grantmaking. At Surdna, we also have program-related investments (also tracked in Fluxx), mission-related investments, contracts, funder collaboratives, and of course, communication.

Thinking of these “tools in the toolbox” holistically is critical for foundations as they continue to look less “traditional” in the future.

3)  Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

This priority has the greatest implications for advancing Surdna’s commitment to transparency.

Helen Chin, Director of Surdna’s Sustainable Environments Program, says the new system has “opened up how we interact with the grantmaking process and compliance protocols. It has allowed staff to access reports and other data without having to bypass its gatekeepers, the Office of Grants Management.” 

The “democratization of data” she describes has been a major cultural shift at Surdna, and will continue to transform the way foundations work as the boundaries between different roles are shifted. For example, if program staff can access reports and other data on their own through streamlined processes, the role of grants management can continue to become more strategic, helping foundations interpret their data (rather than merely provide it) to drive decisions. Data-driven foundations can learn from their work over time and share their lessons with the field, helping them become more transparent about their work.

A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that most foundations’ top barriers to achieving transparency are staff-related: 31 percent do not have the time to invest in working to be transparent, and 28 percent lack consistent levels of transparency across staff.

Staff limitations such as these can be appeased by putting the right tools in the right hands (if you hired the wrong hands, that’s a different story!). Cumbersome systems – not people – are what often create stopgaps and inconsistencies.

Fortunately, technology can capture such stopgaps.

Our new system enables the sharing of data with the sector through its ability to communicate with external datasets. One example is our adoption of the Foundation Center’s GeoTree, a taxonomy to classify grants by geographic area served.  This information can now be aggregated into the Foundation Center’s repository and made available to a community of funders, non-profits, and researchers seeking to understand the broader funding landscape.

Taken further, foundations can expand the capabilities of their grantmaking systems through the integration of third-party programs to enhance data analysis, visualization, and operations.  Grants management systems are just beginning to facilitate the connection of their platforms with tools like Tableau, PolicyMap, Census Data Mapper and Foundation Maps to help funders make better sense of their data and aid them in decision-making.

We’ve only scratched the surface. For Jonathan Goldberg, Director of Grants Management, Learning, and Information Systems, “The real power could come from what we learn and share with others outside the foundation.  Consider all the data that foundations currently maintain, and all the untapped knowledge that we might extract by aggregating and sharing that information within and beyond the grantmaking community.  It’s something this platform is tailor-made for, and it could be transformative to the field of philanthropy and those who benefit from it.”

As we enter a new era of collaboration and learning, we’re excited to explore the vast possibilities of continuing to break down foundation silos through cloud-based systems.

We may not have all the answers yet, but when we do we promise not to hide them in a cardboard box.

--Adriana Jimenez

Size Doesn't Matter
March 28, 2016

(Molly Talbot-Metz is vice president of programs at the Mary Black Foundation.)

Molly Talbot-MetzWhat does the Mary Black Foundation, a small private foundation in Spartanburg, SC, have in common with some of the country's biggest and most well-known foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation?

The Mary Black Foundation is pleased to announce that we have joined 19 other U.S. foundations that have each joined the "Reporting Commitment," an initiative managed by Foundation Center. The Reporting Commitment is intended to shed light on the flow of philanthropic dollars. Housed at Foundation Center's Glasspockets, the Reporting Commitment calls for foundations to make grant information available to each other and the public at least quarterly in a common reporting format that shares the kinds of grants we fund, including the amount, duration, and purpose.

Mary Black FoundationOur decision to participate in the Reporting Commitment is a reflection of our desire to be a transparent community partner. According to Merriam-Webster, to be transparent is to be "easy to notice or understand; honest and open; and not secretive." Having been in philanthropy for almost 15 years, I know that transparency is not a word many use to describe foundations. For most people, the work of philanthropy is a mystery. There is often confusion and uncertainty about how foundations work and what they fund. They are often disconnected and isolated from the communities they serve. Slowly, this may be changing.

The Mary Black Foundation strives to be transparent in all that we do, and our participation in the Reporting Commitment was a logical addition to our existing efforts to be open and transparent with our community partners, the nonprofit sector, other foundations, and the general public. Since its inception, the Mary Black Foundation has published its grants in an annual report in print or on our website. In 2014, we redesigned our website to more clearly communicate our grantmaking process and guidelines.

"Openness requires a culture of transparency."

Now, in addition to our annual report and listing of funded organizations, you will also find on the Foundation's website its bylaws, code of ethics, financial statements for the past five years, listing of staff and board members, strategic plan, and funding logic model. It is important to the Foundation's board and staff that we go above and beyond the required IRS disclosure of funded grants. This kind of openness is not difficult for foundations of any size, but it does require a culture of transparency. 

Our commitment to transparency goes beyond openly reporting our policies and procedures and the grants we fund. The Foundation strives to be actively involved in the community and to be equal partners in community initiatives. Our public commitment to partnership is one of the reasons we were selected to lead Spartanburg's involvement in a national competition to improve health outcomes in our community. We will ensure that lessons learned and changes in health outcomes are tracked and reported. In that way, our successes and challenges both can help others as they embark on similar efforts.

We hope other foundations - big and small - will see the importance of being more transparent and engaged in the communities they serve and make the Reporting Commitment pledge. By collectively being transparent about our work, we strengthen our credibility and increase public trust, improve grantee and community relationships, facilitate collaboration among each other and reduce duplication of efforts, and build a shared community of learning.

-- Molly Talbot-Metz

About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, 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, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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

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