Transparency Talk

Group of 9: Setting the Stage for Grantees to be Transparent with One Another
October 22, 2014

(Kristin R. Goerg is the grants manager at the Colburn Foundation.)

Goerg_ColburnIn the years since our most recent economic decline began in 2008, foundations have been looking for new ways to provide support to grantees “beyond the grant.” For some foundations, providing inspiring and creative technical assistance and professional development opportunities can be an option, but for a smaller foundation like the Colburn Foundation, we have to be creative with the limited resources we have beyond the grant dollar.

Businessman, philanthropist, and amateur violinist Richard D. Colburn established the Colburn Foundation in 1999 to support and promote a healthy and vibrant classical music community, primarily in Southern California, and to make grants to artistically excellent organizations for the performance and presentation of classical music, as well as for music education and the training of musicians. 

Our philanthropic niche allows us to focus our funding objectives within a single nonprofit community for maximum impact – which also allows for the development of longstanding, strong relationships with our grantees and a deep knowledge of their programming.

Picking up on the need for a neutral zone in which grantees could come together to openly discuss challenges, we decided to host a group of grantees.

In late 2009 the noticeable deleterious effects of the economic downturn were beginning to wear on some of our grantees both professionally and personally. At the same time, in meetings, some executive directors began mentioning how nice it would be to have a safe space to commiserate with others in their field. Were they also having a difficult time fundraising and bringing in revenue? What new approaches were organizations taking in programming to broaden their audiences? But simply approaching an associate and asking these very confidential questions in the absence of an invested relationship wasn’t a realistic option.

Picking up on the need for a neutral zone in which grantees could come together to openly discuss challenges, we decided to host a group of grantees in early 2010 with only three conventions in mind:

  1. All participating members must be the executive directors (or equivalent) of their organizations.
  2. Participants must agree to be involved in conversations, and in return we offer them a safe space for sharing (or a “circle of trust”). The spirit of being in this group is to be real, and to create relationships through honesty and integrity (through all the grit and the glamor).
  3. Participants must represent organizations with an annual budget of between $100,000 and $4.5 million per year. This criterion was set to reflect the majority of the organizations we serve (eliminating only a few outliers) allowing for more relateability in conversation between peers.

Colburn_logoThese three requirements served only to set the stage for dynamic and often therapeutic discussions in which all was laid bare, as well as the development of personal and professional relationships that would eventually forge partnerships and collaborations. Addressing more particularly the participants in our group circle, a range of experience, background, budget size, and leadership styles is represented. We believe having a breadth of diversity in a group like this is preferable. What it seems to inspire is quick group brainstorming over concrete obstacles, and (when needed) a more concentrated topical discussion touched by a variety of perspectives.

In the years since that first meeting, there have been inevitable leadership transitions; if a director has had to discontinue their participation, we have offered suggestions of other individuals to invite into the group, but leave in tact its overall autonomy.  

There is something beautiful in empowering a group of your grantees over time to face and tackle – on their own terms – relevant issues with a collective of trusted peers.

There is something beautiful in empowering a group of your grantees over time to face and tackle – on their own terms – relevant issues with a collective of trusted peers. We do very little planning – if any planning at all – for the majority of our group discussions. What we provide is space, time, and a free lunch. What this group provides in return is invaluable: a raw, real look into our grantees lives, and the information we need to serve them better.

While we as funders can offer excellent suggestions to grantees based on what we see in the field, what we read in research and reports, and what we observe of each individual organization through the relationships we develop, our perspective can’t compare to the cohesive and energizing nature of providing a group of cohorts a sacred space to share, vent, and collaborate.

-- Kristin R. Goerg

The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s Kelly Fitzsimmons Discusses a New Blueprint for Evaluation Plans
October 15, 2014

The Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a White House initiative and program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, has recently created a new document that’s designed to help organizations build a comprehensive evaluation design. The Social Innovation Fund Evaluation Plan Guidance aims to share best practices to benefit and strengthen the sector as a whole.

Recently, Transparency Talk conducted an online interview with Kelly Fitzsimmons of The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) and with Michael Smith, Director of the Social Innovation Fund, to learn how the new framework provided by SIF can be adapted for use in assessing foundation program impact.

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Kelly Fitzsimmons

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Michael Smith

1.    Please tell us a little bit about the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and why you became involved in the Social Innovation Fund?  

EMCF: The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation seeks to transform the life trajectories of vulnerable and economically disadvantaged youth by making multi-million, multi-year investments in nonprofits with a potential for growth and compelling evidence that they can help more young people become successful, productive adults.

We agreed to become a SIF intermediary based on our belief that the Social Innovation Fund could become a catalyst for scaling "what works” by encouraging the public and private sectors to direct more resources to the most effective solutions to some of our nation’s seemingly intractable social problems.  

As a SIF intermediary, we have helped mobilize a total of $120 million in 12 promising, evidence-based organizations: $30 million in federal funds from the SIF with $30 million from our own resources and, through the True North Fund, helped our grantees secure the $60 million required for match. Our SIF grants are designed to build the evidence base and organizational capacity of this portfolio of nonprofits so they can, within three years:

  • Significantly increase the numbers of youth served by effective programs, and
  • Substantially advance the evidence of their effectiveness with rigorous, independent program evaluations.

2. What do you see as the value of program evaluations in your field?

For us at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, one of the biggest positives is that evaluation can expand what you know about what “works” as well as about what doesn’t work. It’s our belief that program evaluations are a key driver of innovation.

EMCF: I think there are some misconceptions about what you “do” with program evaluation. For us at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, one of the biggest positives is that evaluation can expand what you know about what “works” as well as about what doesn’t work. It’s our belief that program evaluations are a key driver of innovation.

Whether a study shows positive, mixed or disappointing results, if carefully designed it almost always unearths information that can be used to innovate and improve how a program is delivered to boost quality and impact.  To get the most out of an evaluation, we believe it is critical during the planning stage for organizations and their evaluators to ask themselves not only what impacts they are looking to test, but also what they’d like to learn about the program’s implementation.  For example, answering questions such as: “How closely is the program run compared to the intended model?” or “To what extent does this or that program component contribute to impact?” can yield important insights into how well a program is implemented across different sites (or cities or regions) or reveal differences in impacts depending on the population served or environmental factors.

3.     How does having evaluation plans, like the Social Innovation Fund’s Evaluation Plan Guidance, help nonprofits become more effective?

EMCF_logoEMCF: The Social Innovation Fund’s tool is a useful resource for organizations interested in building their evidence base and thinking about how to plan thoughtfully for evaluation. It offers practical takeaways that organizations should consider when thinking about evaluation, from structuring an evaluation plan to what elements should be considered in an evaluation, and even ways to assess the feasibility of undertaking one. A thoughtful evaluation plan can also inform an organization’s larger plans. For example, if an evaluation requires that *X* number of kids must participate in order for a program to be assessed, does your organization need to grow or adapt in order to meet that threshold? If so, how will the organization get there while maintaining program quality? 

In essence, a strong, multi-year evaluation plan is much like a strong business plan—it helps you think about the resources you need, identify your interim and ultimate goals, and even decide what to do and how to communicate if your plan goes off-track. 

4.     How do EMCF and your grantees use the data you’ve collected from evaluations?

EMCF: We like to approach evidence building from the premise that we’re seeking to understand *how* a program works, not just *if* a program works. From this perspective, whether the findings are positive, mixed or null, evaluating programs over time can yield insights that inform practice, drive innovation and ultimately ensure the best possible outcomes for youth and families. 

In essence, a strong, multi-year evaluation plan is much like a strong business plan—it helps you think about the resources you need, identify your interim and ultimate goals, and even decide what to do and how to communicate if your plan goes off-track.

For example, take Reading Partners, which connects students who are half a grade to 2 ½ grades behind in reading with trained volunteers who use a specialized curriculum. A recently released MDRC evaluation found these kids made greater gains in literacy—1.5 to two months—than their peers after an average of 28 hours of Reading Partners’ instruction. During the evaluation, MDRC was able to corroborate that local sites were implementing the program with a high degree of fidelity, including providing appropriate support and training to volunteer tutors. The data collected also indicated the program was effective across different subsets of students, increasing reading ability across 2nd to 5th different grade, varying baseline reading achievement levels, for girls and boys, and even non-native English speakers. This knowledge is now helping Reading Partners think more strategically about how and where it expands to impact more kids. 

We worked with Reading Partners as we do with other EMCF grantees, bringing in experts to help them develop high-quality evaluation plans, often connecting them to other experts, and also funding their evaluations. We help them identify key evaluation questions at the outset, work together to monitor progress toward evaluation goals, to make revisions to their plans when circumstances change or new information arises, and to communicate results when they become available. Evidence building is a continuous, dynamic process that informs how EMCF as well as our grantees set and reach our growth, learning and impact goals.

SIF_logoWe also use quality and impact data to help measure and track quarterly and annually the performance of each grantee and our entire portfolio, including whether our investment strategy is having its intended effect of aiding our grantees in meeting the yearly and end-of-investment milestones and evidence-building goals on which we have mutually agreed.

5.  Many funders express that they are using such evaluations as learning tools.  But there is a fear factor that comes in when grantees have specific benchmarks to meet and then fail to meet them that it will mean they will not receive renewed support.  And that speaks to the tension between risk, innovation, and accountability.  How do you navigate those tensions so that the assessment process doesn't actually stand in the way of risk and innovation?

SIF: Our grantees have expressed this concern too and the way we have answered it is this: evaluation should be about proving and improving. Evaluation results should represent the beginning of a process where all stakeholders use what is learned to enhance and even overhaul programs.

The Social Innovation Fund is, at its core, a grand experiment. As part of this experiment, we are here to learn and together. The investment we are making in our grantees’ and subgrantees’ innovation is a risk, but it’s a measured, calculated risk.

The Social Innovation Fund is, at its core, a grand experiment. As part of this experiment, we are here to learn and together. The investment we are making in our grantees’ and subgrantees’ innovation is a risk, but it’s a measured, calculated risk. Their evaluations will help us understand what works.

If their program comes back with, say, null results but some really valuable information about how the program was implemented or a specific population that needs a different approach to achieve impact – we will not write that off as a failure. But we will demand that our grantees use that information to get the positive results next time. And we expect that they will share this information with their peers so that other programs can learn and build on these lessons.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done in the field to make sure evaluation information released isn’t treated as binary – it works or it doesn’t. All of the evaluation reports we’ve seen to date are more in the gray area, even those with truly positive impact. There is always some element of a program that doesn’t work as anticipated. We know that most folks don’t dig in to find those details, and we have committed to working with our grantees to start the conversations that will help others utilize the evaluation information coming out of the SIF so that the results aren’t seen as an up or down vote – they are seen as rich sources of information that can be truly useful.

-- Kelly Fitzsimmons and Michael Smith

Cutting-Edge Philanthropy
October 13, 2014

(Our Glasspockets team is thrilled to be included on NPC’s list of 10 innovations in global philanthropy and touted as philanthropic pioneers with ideas worth spreading. Plum Lomax is the deputy head of the funders team at UK-based NPC. NPC consults with foundations, strategizing their giving to maximize social impact. This post originally appeared on the NPC blog.)

Plum-new-150x150Well-known economist, Thomas Piketty, says wealth inequality is at its highest point for 100 years. Needs are rising, the problems we are trying to solve are getting more complex—and yet giving levels have remained relatively static.

Cutting-edge thinking is being applied to all areas of our lives, and giving is no exception. It’s astonishing to think that at the start of my working life (and I’m not that old!), there was no internet, no email, no networked computers. We are continuously changing the way we shop, catch up on the news, book a holiday, listen to music, find a new partner—all of these new methods supposedly improving our lives in some ways.

But is the evolution in giving keeping pace with other areas? And more to the point, are resources being better used as a result: to help more people, to solve complex problems, to improve the world in which we live?

NPC is excited to launch 10 innovations in global philanthropy, a new report on the most pioneering approaches to philanthropy worldwide.

Maximising social impact is at the heart of NPC’s mission—deriving the greatest value from limited resources. But this requires constant innovation on the part of both charities (in the way they approach issues they want to tackle), and donors and funders (in the way they spend their money).

That’s why today we’re excited to launch 10 innovations in global philanthropy, a new report on the most pioneering approaches to philanthropy worldwide. The aim was to discover what could be brought back to or scaled up in the UK, and now, after months of desk research and interviews with experts from every continent, we hope it kick-starts more innovative action in this field.

We found some fascinating developments—new uses of data, greater sharing of information, different types of collaboration between funders, better ways of investing for impact and more. From an initial list of 42 initiatives, we narrowed down our selection to ten concepts we believe have significant potential for transforming philanthropy in the UK, as shown in the table below.

10-innovations-table

We at NPC hope to take some of these concepts forward ourselves; in particular, research-based giving circles, based on Dasra’s model in India, and knowledge sharing within sectors, looking at whether the water and sanitation sector’s online portal—WASHfunders.org—can be adapted to other sectors. But we hope the report also inspires others to try these and other approaches, so that ten years from now we can look back and confidently say that giving has been transformed as much as other areas to great effect.

Over the next few weeks, NPC will be writing a series of blogs on innovation within philanthropy, highlighting some key examples from the report. We welcome all your comments.

-- Plum Lomax

Eleanor Roosevelt and data post-2015
October 8, 2014

(Angela Hariche is the director of international data relations at the Foundation Center.)

140421-732Two weeks ago, I was down with the flu AND jetlagged so all I could manage to do in the evenings was get under a blanket and watch all 14 hours of “The Roosevelts” on PBS. I thought it was riveting and the timing of it was perfect. It has been a particularly busy time for us at the Foundation Center and there have been an inordinate amount of meetings and conferences around UN week. Happily, most of the people sharing a table with me at these events had also been watching “The Roosevelts”. We all admitted that it nice to discuss something else other than the grind during the lunches and coffee breaks for once!

So, it was no surprise when Kathy Calvin, President of the UN Foundation said at a recent Ford Foundation event last Thursday, “Channel your inner Eleanor Roosevelt Post-2015”. I think that was my best tweet all week. But what does that mean? Well, Eleanor certainly was a force. She was the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was able to change things in the face of incredible resistance. Post-2015 is about what comes after the Millennium Development Goals which end in the year 2015.

The event brought together leaders from philanthropy, UN, business and civil society to talk about philanthropy and the role of the sector in the coming years. Brad Smith, President of the Foundation Center, and Helena Monteiro from Wings convened a session on the data revolution. The angle for this session was around the data and knowledge needed to a) get a better grip on what we know and don’t know about funding for global development goals, b) how to get an accurate picture of development progress, c) how to build standards and trust so working together isn’t so hard, d) how to climb the mountain of definitions when so many cultures (both organizational and geographic) name things differently, and e) how to remember that we are talking about people’s lives here and citizen empowerment is paramount to success. It was noted during the session that 10 years ago nobody would have wanted to attend a session on data!

So what came out of it?

It was no surprise when Kathy Calvin, President of the UN Foundation said at a recent Ford Foundation event last Thursday, “Channel your inner Eleanor Roosevelt Post-2015”. I think that was my best tweet all week.

Brad Smith noted that there are more than 86,000 foundations in the US with total assets of close to 800 billion dollars and 55 billion in giving. This is about equal to US Official Development Assistance. Philanthropic dollars matter not only in their volume but also in their flexibility. Brad also noted that this is one of the last sources of money that isn’t earmarked. However, if foundations are not forthcoming with their data, we will not be able to analyze the impact of the sector as a whole or on issues such as gender equality, education or any other. Foundations have to be more transparent if global progress is to be made.

To try to address the fact that we don’t have anywhere near an accurate picture of development progress, a data revolution has been called for. The Secretary General of the UN has assembled a group of people who will advise him on the coordination of the data revolution, on better use and analysis of data and the difficulties faced by under- resourced national statistics offices. Several in the room noted that the strengthening of local knowledge systems is incredibly important. If more research can come from the local context, it will be more useful and fewer people will get left behind in an aggregation process.

RooseveltsHelena Monteiro presented the Global Philanthropy Data Charter as a way to address the issues of trust and standards when working with data. As an example of a project that used the Data charter to guide them is the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG). Working together with Foundation Center, they came up with a standard definition of human rights grants, collected the data from foundations around the world, coded the grants and launched the website. Voila! Eleanor would be proud.

Finally, Danny Sriskandarajah of CIVICUS reminded us that storytelling, citizen voice and accountability will be key for post-2015 success. It was also noted that data is “development capital”. If development data is available to citizens, they will be able to make their own informed decisions better.

At Foundation Center we are working hard on a project with UNDP, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, The Conrad Hilton Foundation, Ford Foundation and Master Card Foundation to collect foundation data and knowledge on Post-2015 goals for a publically available web portal, which will launch in June of 2015. If you are interested in channeling your inner Eleanor Roosevelt and being a part of it, please contact me at int@foundationcenter.org.

--Angela Hariche

Can We Expect Transparency from Grantmaking Foundations?
October 6, 2014

(Kandyce Fernandez is an assistant professor of public administration in the College of Public Policy at The University of Texas at San Antonio, and Mark Hager is associate professor of philanthropic studies in the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University.)

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Kandyce Fernandez

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Mark Hager

The proposition that grantmaking foundations should be more transparent carries with it the underlying assumption that grantmaking foundations are not as transparent as we might like them to be.  In a recent paper published in Public Administration Quarterly, we argue that many of us do not expect transparency from foundations since we think of them as private institutions, like a private company.  We also argue that our transparency expectations and the behavior of foundations themselves might change if this prevailing presumption of private-ness were to change.

The Dominant View of Foundations

So, are grantmaking foundations private or public?  This is a complicated question, and it’s the one we spend most of the paper discussing.  An important point is that there’s a dominant, prevailing, what we call a ‘hegemonic’ view that since grantmaking foundations are not agents of government (and therefore ‘public agencies’), they are private and therefore can act in a way that that is shielded from public scrutiny and participation.  This holds for both independent and corporate foundations, and even community foundations are not expected to act in a fully public way.

As a consequence, the general public has little expectation for any level of engagement with foundations in their community.  Grantees are grudgingly content with a one-way flow of information and strategic decision-making about how philanthropic resources are distributed in communities.  The media asks few questions about what role foundations might play in regional development.  And, perhaps most importantly, foundations themselves use the hegemonic view of privacy to justify closing themselves off from the communities where they reside.

What would change if we all understood foundations to be public rather than private institutions?  Turns out that there’s ample reason to think of them as public.

Competing Perspectives: A Political, Economic, and Social Context

We argue that many of us do not expect transparency from foundations since we think of them as private institutions, like a private company.

For example, consider what we call the political context of grantmaking foundations.  The political context distinguishes between efforts that serve the collective interest rather than the interests of individual or narrower groups in society.  To the extent that grantmaking foundations assert multiple perspectives of the public interest, or provide resources to other nonprofits that do so, they serve in a largely public role as they utilize private resources for various public benefits.  Their public role is further underlined when grantmaking foundations address those things government may not be able to do and where market actors choose not to engage.  In these cases, foundations reflect a public role as they focus on other groups, interests, and issues.

An economic context also gives some credence to the view that foundations are public actors.  The economic context considers whether benefits are distributed to the broader citizenry or to a narrower, specific group with special interests.  While governmental benefits are said to serve the median interests within society, grantmaking foundations serve groups outside the median.  In fact, this is one source of frequent praise: foundations can serve narrower, contested, or controversial groups, whereas government may lack the inclination to do so.  Whereas independent foundations might tend to focus attention on narrower causes identified by a single donor, community foundations are increasingly more public because they are established to purposely seek out diverse donors and diverse causes.   

As foundations work both strategically and intentionally to impact lasting change, they cultivate a more public role in society.

Thirdly, we argue that social context provides a basis for viewing foundations as public actors.  This context focuses on whether or not the work has consequences beyond those involved.  Where decisions and activities will or are intended to impact a specific policy or issues, the work is said to be instrumental.  On the other hand, where decisions and activities are meant to be supportive rather than impacting change, the work is considered expressive.  To the extent that foundation activities strive for greater, longer-lasting instrumental impact on an issue or cause, we argue that they are more public than those that address issues with more immediate, short-term objectives. In other words, With the right marketing, the public, grantees, media, and foundations themselves might be led to recognize a greater degree of public-ness among grantmaking foundations.

Private Institutions with Public Expectations

Political, economic, and social contexts provide independent reasons why we might consider grantmaking foundations to be public institutions rather than private, challenging the dominant view.  The nature of their accountability, the type of work, the extent of their reach, and their interest in impacting change or supporting issues renders them more public than private in some cases, and at minimum quasi-public institutions with a substantive public role.  With the right marketing, the public, grantees, media, and foundations themselves might be led to recognize a greater degree of public-ness among grantmaking foundations.

The consequence, we believe, would be that people both inside and outside foundations would act differently.  The public and grantees would see foundations as partners rather than private edifaces.  The media would both expect and receive the kind of transparency from foundations that they need to make sense of the role that foundations play and the value they bring to communities.  And, most tellingly, foundations would embrace a more open, participatory, and engaged role in social change efforts.

-- Kandyce Fernandez and Mark Hager

“Plugging In” to the Power of Philanthropy’s Big Data: Building a path for foundations to join the Reporting Commitment
September 30, 2014

(Suki O'Kane is the director of administration at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.)

Okane-150The Walter & Elise Haas Fund (W&EHF)  clocks in as the 19th member of Foundation Center’s Reporting Commitment. The journey there was filled with creativity, innovation, collaboration, and some clever lines of code. Along the way, we reaffirmed our commitment to philanthropic transparency, began reporting  real-time grants data, raised the profile of our grantmaking with communication to big data initiatives, and — now — want to make the same possible for  our peers: the technology we developed to accomplish these good things has been published as a free, open source plug-in for WordPress called Open hGrant. This source code provides a way for foundations to share their grantmaking activity with the world, in real time, while also allowing the funder to publish it in searchable form on its own web site.  That’s right, you can have a searchable database of your grants activity, and a reporting mechanism all in one.

What motivated our foundation to do these things?

We reaffirmed our commitment to philanthropic transparency, began reporting real-time grants data, raised the profile of our grantmaking with communication to big data initiatives, and — now — want to make the same possible for our peers.

To a large degree, sharing what we do and know while learning from others is simply a habit of mind at W&EHF. Our executive director Pam David champions cross-sector work and community cooperation. Our grantmaking leverages public-private partnerships and collaborations to produce results that no single actor could accomplish alone.

Initiatives like the Reporting Commitment attract us for their ability to help us make sense of the philanthropic landscape. They help us answer perennial questions about who is doing what, where. We coupled this habit with our intent to increase the transparency of our work — among our teams and trustees, with the communities we serve, and with our peers.

Hearts and minds we had. All we were missing were bits and bytes. Oh, that.

How did we get it done?

It might not be a surprise to hear that the technological solutions for publishing grant data to the web are, to put it mildly, diverse. Even when we find a searchable grants index on the web, we can be fairly sure it’s not presented in an easily accessed format. Our taxonomies differ from those of our peers. Our websites are developed on different platforms. We focus on different data outcomes. These factors made a common, off-the-shelf solution seem out of reach.

When we sat down with our long-term partners at Mission Minded to brainstorm how to grapple with this, one thing became clear: whatever we found to crack the techno-nut of real-time grants data reporting should be simple and shareable.  We were well aware of the tendency in our field to develop solutions to common challenges in isolation, with proprietary tools. Brad Smith’s post to the PhilanTopic blog takes this on directly, a “data dilemma” by his reckoning, with some bold recommendations for philanthropy.

Foundation Center also had a critical resource to share with us: the hGrant microformat. One of the critical engines of Foundation Center’s data initiatives, this way of marking up grants data on the web is open to any individual or institution seeking to collect, catalog, map, and analyze giving. We welcomed Foundation Center to the project team and set about creating a technology tool that allowed any other grantmaker of any size to openly publish giving data to the web in a searchable, standardized way.  

The result is Open hGrant for WordPress, a simple plug-in for philanthropy’s Big Data that is spurring a new community of funders to participate in transparency and open data initiatives. We encourage our peers to investigate this free tool or to watch a recent demo from the Grants Managers Network.

To learn how your organization can help build a richer data set that drives effective collaboration, strategic decision making, and a more engaged philanthropy sector, contact Foundation Center for more information about the Reporting Commitment or reach out to the growing community of hGrant users for support.

-- Suki O'Kane

Lessons in Foundation Transparency from Philamplify
September 22, 2014

(Caitlin Duffy is the project assistant for Philamplify at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @DuffyInDC on Twitter and join the #Philamplify conversation. This post was originally published on the GrantCraft blog.)

Duffy2_180_180_s_c1If a foundation sees itself as accountable to the communities it serves, how can it be as transparent as possible about key decisions that affect those communities? While voluntary disclosure of financial information online is commendable and sorely needed in philanthropy, funders must expand their mindset of openness. There is a need for a comprehensive approach to transparency that goes beyond figures on a website; foundation leadership, from board members to staff, need to think critically about how to communicate their approaches and solicit feedback.

At the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), the complex relationship between transparency and accountability is at the center of Philamplify. Philamplify is a new initiative that brings honest feedback to grantmakers by conducting rigorous assessments of some of the country’s top foundations. To prepare these reviews, our team combs through publications, searches online databases, reviews publicly available foundation documents, surveys hundreds of grantees, and interviews a wide array of stakeholders. In evaluating whether a foundation operates transparently, we look for disclosure of key information on the funder’s website and through other avenues, such as Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative. We publish the final assessments on philamplify.org, where readers can engage in a discussion about the findings and recommendations, thus opening the conversation beyond the confines of a typical foundation assessment to everyone whose lives are touched by grantmakers.


LogoDuring the first round of assessments, many surveyed grantees spoke of how much they appreciate transparent communication with funders. Grant recipients consistently requested “three C’s” relevant to transparency: convene, collaborate, and communicate. Such calls for increased contact with foundation staff are evidence of grantee interest in a partnership that goes beyond financial support. Transparency plays an important role in such a relationship. As shown by the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent report, Foundation Transparency: What Nonprofits Want, nonprofits want more transparent communication about learning, assessment, and impact.

When a funder engages in meaningful transparency, grantees and other philanthropic stakeholders benefit by better understanding the foundation’s mission, operations, strategies, activities, and performance.

For example, grantees of the Philamplify-assessed Daniels Fund often spoke of the actual and potential value of site visits, e-mails, and phone calls with program officers and opportunities to speak with executive leadership. In regards to positive aspects of the partnership, one grantee wrote, “The Daniels Fund is one of the few funders that make an effort to visit with us, communicate with us on a regular basis, and maintain a relationship based on mutual concern for the populations we serve.” However, some grantees conveyed concern about the apparent disconnect between program officers and executive leadership, particularly regarding the grant renewal process.

In our assessment of the William Penn Foundation, grantees and stakeholders expressed confusion over recent changes in leadership and strategic direction about which the foundation communicated ineffectively. Sample feedback included comments such as, “The status of the Foundation's recent strategic planning process could have been better communicated” and “The recent leadership transitions have raised question for the future of funding in this sector.” In July, Nonprofit Quarterly reported that the foundation’s managing director resigned, marking another major leadership change in less than six months. In such instances, the lack of transparency about what drove these major decisions unsettled grantees and influenced the perceptions of other important stakeholders, including peers.

In philanthropy, robust, authentic discussion and constructive debate challenge us all to improve and help ensure that we hold each other accountable to the public good. Grantees are vested in the success of their funders, and as evidenced by Philamplify’s findings, they offer valuable lessons for the sector. When a funder engages in meaningful transparency, grantees and other philanthropic stakeholders benefit by better understanding the foundation’s mission, operations, strategies, activities, and performance.

How does your foundation maintain transparent, two-way communication with grantees and the communities they serve?

-- Caitlin Duffy

Rethinking Transparency – It’s Not a Dirty Word
September 15, 2014

(Krystian Seibert is the policy and research manager with Philanthropy Australia. This post was originally featured on the ProBono Australia news website.)

Seibert-150At Philanthropy Australia’s 2014 National Conference last week, one of the most favourably received presentations was that of Brad Smith, President of the Foundation Center.

The Foundation Center is an US organisation whose mission involves advancing knowledge about philanthropy in the US and around the world.

Much of its work focuses on consolidating and analysing data, and it maintains a very comprehensive database on US and, increasingly, global grantmakers and their granting activity.

One of its key initiatives is ‘Glasspockets’ – which champions philanthropic transparency, and provides the data and resources which foundations need to understand the value of transparency, be more open in their own communications, and help shed more light on how private wealth is serving the public good.

Having met with Brad prior to his presentation, we knew in general terms what he would be speaking about. What we didn’t know was how the audience would respond. Would they be captivated by his message about the benefits of an open philanthropic sector which proactively shares information about what it does? Or would they be concerned by his challenge to some of the norms under which philanthropy has traditionally operated in Australia?

Brad’s message was that transparency is a good thing and should be facilitated and encouraged. But often the philanthropic sector doesn’t respond that well to the word ‘transparency’ – you could say that it’s a bit of a dirty word. To be honest, since I started with Philanthropy Australia, I have been a bit hesitant to use the word for fear of being misunderstood.

One reason for this is that for too long we have let transparency be defined for us, by others.

Transparency has been viewed through the paradigm of regulation and compliance, and associated with unwanted intrusion on the privacy of donors... But this is only one paradigm through which to view transparency, and it’s not the paradigm we should be focusing on. Put bluntly – it’s time to take back transparency.

Transparency has been viewed through the paradigm of regulation and compliance, and associated with unwanted intrusion on the privacy of donors. Applying this paradigm, transparency is viewed as necessary because it may improve ‘integrity’, prevent wrong doing and therefore maintain public confidence. It has a very negative connotation.

But this is only one paradigm through which to view transparency, and it’s not the paradigm we should be focusing on. Put bluntly – it’s time to take back transparency.

One key message which I took out from Brad’s presentation was that improving transparency in Australian philanthropy is an opportunity and not a threat.

In my view, there are three particularly important benefits from improving transparency.

Firstly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy makes it much harder to plan and coordinate giving – it stands in the way of the effective allocation of limited philanthropic resources, so they tackle the issues and areas of real need.

Imagine if there was detailed information available that mapped granting across different cause areas and locations, over time? This would be a valuable tool which philanthropic organisations could use to inform their granting strategy.

Better information will enable a more strategic approach to philanthropy, helping ensure that there is less duplication and more coordination and collaboration between philanthropic organisations.

This will increase philanthropy’s impact.

Secondly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy makes it much harder to understand, measure and improve performance. Whilst not yet widespread, philanthropic organisations can and do undertake evaluations of the programs and initiatives they support, with a view to seeing how things have worked or haven’t worked, and to learn from experiences.

In another presentation at our National Conference, Dr Diana Leat focused on some recent research undertaken with colleagues at the Queensland University of Technology, commenting that many of the evaluations which are done are just sitting in foundation offices around Australia – they aren’t disseminated and so nobody else is getting the opportunity to learn from them. This made me think of Brad referring to US foundations as ‘islands of information’ in his presentation the day before – a very good analogy.

Imagine if we built bridges between these islands of information? This would involve making evaluations more accessible, with philanthropic organisations sharing their evaluations more widely so that others can learn from their experiences, both good and bad. That kind of knowledge exchange could help philanthropic organisations build on the work of others. Again, this will increase philanthropy’s impact.

Thirdly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy means that we aren’t sharing stories of philanthropy that show how private wealth is serving the public good as much as we could be. Therefore, the broader public but also government and media don’t fully understand the transformative work philanthropy does every day in our communities.

It’s not simply a question of ensuring appropriate recognition for philanthropy. Rather, if we want to increase giving in Australia, we need to ensure there is broader awareness about why giving is important and how it can and does lead to positive change.

Imagine if you could visit a website, and zoom in on a map showing the grants made in your local area? That would be an amazing way of demonstrating the impact of philanthropy.

When I look at the benefits from improving transparency, I think that it’s an opportunity that’s not to be missed. It’s not about regulation and compliance. It’s not about losing privacy for donors – some donors will understandably want to be discreet about their giving, and should be allowed to do so.

Rather it’s about Australian philanthropy making a decision to be more open about sharing data and information, to learn from one another and achieve better collective outcomes, and to develop the systems and frameworks to facilitate and enable this voluntary knowledge exchange.

It’s certainly an area Philanthropy Australia is actively exploring – because it’s critical to growing philanthropy’s impact across our communities. Watch this space.

-- Krystian Seibert

Foundation Transparency: Are Foundations and Nonprofits Seeing Eye to Eye?
September 4, 2014

(Ellie Buteau is the Vice President of Research, and Ramya Gopal is the Associate Manager of Research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. This post shares CEP's latest research from "Transparency, Performance Assessment, and Awareness of Nonprofit Challenges: Are Foundations and Nonprofits Seeing Eye to Eye?")

Ellie Buteau

Ramya Gopal

Nonprofit CEOs value foundation transparency and believe it contributes to their effectiveness. "Openness, which [foundations] require of us, would be very helpful in creating a good working relationship,"

Nonprofit and foundation leaders have starkly different views about the importance of foundations being transparent. That's what we learned when we surveyed nonprofit and foundation CEOs about their attitudes on this issue. Nonprofit CEOs value foundation transparency and believe it contributes to their effectiveness. "Openness, which [foundations] require of us, would be very helpful in creating a good working relationship," says one nonprofit CEO. But the majority of foundation CEOs don't see transparency as crucial to impact.

We found that 91 percent of nonprofits agree that "Foundations that are more transparent are more helpful to my organization's ability to work effectively" but only 47 percent of foundation CEOs agree that "Foundations would be able to create more impact if they were more transparent with the nonprofits they fund."

47% of foundation CEOs believe increased foundation transparency has positive consequences for nonprofits.

Why might nonprofit and foundation CEOs have such different attitudes toward foundation transparency?

First, foundations may not share nonprofits' understanding of transparency. To nonprofit CEOs, foundations are transparent when they are "clear, open, and honest about the processes and decisions that are relevant to nonprofits' work." Transparency is not only about what information foundations share - which Glasspockets helps to track through its transparency indicators - but how effectively foundations have communicated that information to nonprofits.

Foundations may also think they are transparent enough. But nonprofit leaders' assessment of foundations' transparency suggests they could do better: on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 indicates "not at all transparent" and 7 indicates "extremely transparent," nonprofit CEO respondents on average rate the overall transparency of their foundation funders a 4.7. One nonprofit CEO says, "I don't think there is intent to be less transparent, but often times Foundations may assume we know things about their programs, opportunities and goals we don't really know."

Nonprofit CEOs also tend to think foundations are not transparent enough about what has not worked in foundations' experiences - but fewer foundation CEOs see it that way. We found that 88 percent of nonprofit CEOs believe foundations should be more transparent about this, but only 61 percent of foundation CEOs disagree that, "Foundations do a good job of publicly sharing what has not been successful in their experiences." Perhaps nonprofits see this issue differently because they clearly understand how they could use such knowledge. "One of the best learning tools is to see what has not worked. Learning from foundations and their other grantees would be very instructive," says one nonprofit CEO.

61% of foundation CEOs believe foundations could be more transparent about what has not worked in their experiences.

While there are some examples of foundations actively working to be more open - notably The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation with its "Work in Progress" blog and Darren Walker's efforts to build a culture at the Ford Foundation where "openness is held in as high regard as our intellectual curiosity, our rigor and our commitment to the values we share" - too few foundation leaders seem to recognize the need, from nonprofits' perspective, for greater transparency.

-- Ellie Buteau and Ramya Gopal

Transparency Chat: An Interview on Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability
August 27, 2014

(Chris Gates is executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, and Brad Rourke is a program officer at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Transparency Talk conducted an online interview with them based on their organizations’ new report “Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: a Relationship of Respect and Clarity,” which was released this summer.)

””

Chris Gates

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Brad Rourke

Glasspockets: Thanks to the Kettering Foundation and PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) for hosting and sharing this timely discussion on the needs and pressures of greater foundation transparency and accountability.  The report does a very thorough job of detailing the debate around transparency and accountability and the pain points foundations face around these issues.  But I noticed the report stops short of taking a position.  Does PACE itself have a position on whether increased transparency and accountability are good for philanthropy, or does it plan to issue one at a later date?  Why or why not?

Chris Gates: Our goal was to catalyze a conversation about a complex, textured, and potentially controversial, topic, and we think the paper does that. There is no clean answer here about what the field ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do, but we feel that the time has come for a fresh conversation. Technology has created fundamentally new society-wide expectations about transparency and accountability and philanthropy will have no choice but to think through what this means for our field, how ‘public’ are we?, and how ‘private’ are we?

The fact is that we manifestly live in a world with increased calls for accountability and transparency. Philanthropy needs to respond to this (in the same way any sector needs to respond). It can do so by denying or ignoring it is happening, or it can address the phenomenon directly.

Brad Rourke: Agreed, and I would argue that whether increased transparency and accountability are good for philanthropy sidesteps the point. The fact is that we manifestly live in a world with increased calls for accountability and transparency. Philanthropy needs to respond to this (in the same way any sector needs to respond). It can do so by denying or ignoring it is happening, or it can address the phenomenon directly. The purpose of holding these conversations, and of developing the report, was to try to stimulate the field to address the issue.


PACE-Cover-231x300Glasspockets
: The paper refers to accountability throughout.  Can you explain how you are defining accountability and how is responsibility different from accountability, and what role does transparency have in facilitating either?

Brad Rourke: I think the fundamental point that the paper makes about this is that what people mean by "accountability" varies widely. There's a big gap between an institutional response to the term and what the public means. Organizational leaders typically see "accountability" as a requirement to prove effectiveness: here are the numbers. The point the paper makes is that this is not the only thing that people are asking for when they ask their institutions to be accountable. People want to know that an institution is responsive to them: is there someone there who will answer my questions, or pick up the phone when I call? In a Public Agenda report referred to in the paper, the frustration that the public expresses toward voice mail systems is emblematic. There is literally no one there to answer, and it is infuriating. The gap between an institutional view of accountability (what are the numbers?) and a public one (do they care about me?) is important because the harder an institutional approach works to be accountable, the more it is likely to frustrate a public sensibility. In this respect, transparency can become a complicating factor. Yes transparency is important but in itself it does not add up to accountability – and in fact may work counter to it.

Glasspockets: Much of the debate you outline around transparency and accountability swirls around public vs. private money and foundation leaders expressing concerns about not wanting to be turned into mini-governments and why that isn’t appropriate.  But what about the notion of leading by example by putting a foundation through the same set of standards it expect of its grantees?  Did the idea of a transparency and accountability double standard come up during your discussion? 

Brad Rourke: There was a real concern expressed by almost all participants about this difficulty – that of an increasingly burdensome set of grantmaking standards. Nonprofit leaders were especially vocal about it, but I don't think there was any foundation leader who was blind to the issue. But to be honest, the level of self-awareness in the field really varies, some folks were quite aware that they regularly asked for things like clear goals and specific metrics from their grantees but didn’t hold themselves to the same standard, and others seemed comfortable living by what the field sometimes calls ‘the golden rule’.

Glasspockets: Glasspockets recently reported that only 7.5% of all U.S. foundations have a web site.  And the report begins with the very eloquent statement from an unnamed tech executive that “…inside every device and every piece of software is the DNA of both democracy and transparency.” Can you talk about the role of technology in creating the “accountability society” the report describes and whether there were any discussions around philanthropy needing to adapt to new technologies to fulfill increasing public expectations?

Brad Rourke: By "accountability society" I think what is meant is the growing public call for accountability that the paper discusses. In this respect, talking about "technology" sharply limits the scope of what are much more sweeping attitudinal changes that have taken hold in society. Technology (which is really just a vague way of saying "the Internet") has accelerated this but the roots of the shift go back at least to the 1970's. After the social revolution that enabled the Civil Rights movement, women's rights, and the antiwar movement, and on the heels of Watergate and other scandals, the long-stable authoritarian was upended. Trust in institutions (all institutions) has fallen steadily since then. So we defer less. Technology (the Internet) has enabled a quicker, more robust lack of deference, especially to "experts." And it has enabled ordinary people to organize more quickly and with less friction.  The conversations that formed the basis of this report did indeed touch on technology, but more by way of critique. It is hard to find an organization leader who would disagree with the idea that "philanthropy needs to adapt to new technologies" but I would argue that this can become a smokescreen as I alluded to in my response to your second questions above.

Glasspockets: In recent years, a number of high profile individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, whom you feature in the report, have taken the Giving Pledge, which publicly declares that they plan to give away more than half of their wealth during their lifetime.  Do you think those who have taken the Giving Pledge should be subject to some kind of transparency and accountability around this promise?

Brad Rourke: I'm not sure I would go so far as to say donors "should be subject." That implies that there's an overarching entity determining what is good and what is not good philanthropy. That said, I see nothing wrong with an individual donor (or any donor) "subjecting themselves to" some outside accountability regime. Indeed, taking such a pledge publicly serves as a kind of accountability device.  Here again we may be looking at a kind of gap between differing views of accountability. It comes back to how people view philanthropic dollars. Some people consider them fundamentally private assets that are being repurposed to provide public good, but they believe in the notion of private nonprofit activity. Others think that once a philanthropic dollar has been created, and a tax advantage realized, that dollar then becomes a quasi-public dollar that should be held to some of the same standards that we hold government spending.

Glasspockets: What are the next steps for PACE and Kettering around this work?

We are holding a webinar on this topic on Thursday, September 4th and funders can sign up for it by visiting the PACE website.

Chris Gates: We are encouraging philanthropic conferences and regional associations of grantmakers to do programming around this topic to promote a safe and civil conversation around a difficult topic. We don’t think that ‘demands’ from the outside will catalyze much change, the field first needs to have a conversation with itself about how we view our work and how we view our role in society. We are holding a webinar on this topic on Thursday, September 4th and funders can sign up for it by visiting the PACE website.

Brad Rourke: In a very real way, this interview is an important next step. The point of the report is to stimulate conversation and so far we have been pleased to see that beginning. I hope the webinar Chris mentions will also be a part of that conversation. 

-- Chris Gates and Brad Rourke

About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

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    The Foundation Center

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