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June 2011 (3 posts)

The Glass Filing Cabinet: What the Packard Foundation is Learning about Learning in Public
June 28, 2011

(Paul Connolly is Senior Vice President of TCC Group, a management consulting firm that serves nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporate community involvement programs.) 

Paul ConnollyTypically, when a foundation hires an evaluator to assess a program, that evaluator collects lots of information from a range of stakeholders, analyzes the data, writes a report, and discusses it with the funder. Then, an abridged final report is maybe shared with the field. The Packard Foundation has pursued a much more transparent and interactive approach for the current review of its Organizational Effectiveness program—an approach which the foundation staff likens to having "a glass filing cabinet."

The Packard Foundation is facilitating a learning in public process through which [they] are sharing early research findings widely and encouraging input. For over two decades, Packard has been making grants to support such efforts as strategic planning, board development, succession planning, and web site upgrades to strengthen the organizational capacity of its nonprofit grantees. Packard retained TCC Group several months ago to help retrospectively assess 1,300 of these grants made during the past ten years and ascertain what constitutes a successful organizational effectiveness project. Packard is grappling with questions like: What is the sustained impact of the grants we make? How and to what extent can we quantify impact, its staff, and their outcomes? What contributes to the consultant relationship success? What are the factors that contribute to a successful project?

Packard began by compiling a huge data set based on grantee records and survey research and then asked TCC to help with the analysis. Rather than scrutinizing Packard's data on our own behind closed office doors, we are facilitating a "learning in public" process through which we are sharing early research findings widely and encouraging input. Leveraging Packard's organizational effectiveness wiki site, the project has set up a section of the wiki for grantees, consultants, funders, and other interested parties to review preliminary findings and provide feedback (we invite yours, too!). And conversations have been emerging on Twitter, blogs, and other social media venues.

What have we discovered so far about this networked approach to collective learning?

  • The Packard Foundation has been praised at several recent philanthropy conferences (such as the June 6-7 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations learning conference) for its open approach, so there seems to be some support in the field for this type of inclusive evaluation process.
  • There has been some engagement on the wiki, but not very much. We recognized that the wiki was not as technologically accessible as we had wished and are working on improving that. We are also realizing that asking a broad array of people to sift through and comment on a lot of "semi-baked" data is, well, asking a lot. (A few consultants even went so far as to say, justifiably, that they would only do so if they were paid for their time.)
  • We have learned to cull the findings and extract a few noteworthy nuggets that we then highlight and ask for feedback on—so it is more like drinking water from a cup rather than a fire hose.
  • We are also creating more opportunities for select constituents to participate in "old-fashioned" in-person discussion groups and teleconference webinars, during which we can "think out loud" with them. We have found that this live interaction engages people and make them more motivated to contribute their ideas online, too, as part of an ongoing conversation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that "there are many things of which a wise man may wish to be ignorant." And New York University new media professor Clay Shirky points out that our society does not have a problem with information overload, but filter failure.

What are other foundations finding out about seeking broad input through two-way social media exchanges? How can philanthropies create better filters for seeking commentary when most people actually might not be that interested in poring through all of the information in those glass filing cabinets? At what point can a funder "over share" and ask constituents to review and comment on "too much information?" When is the best time to seek feedback from various types of stakeholders on slightly baked, half-baked, or fully baked findings? When soliciting experts' opinions, where exactly is that fine line between a foundation being open and receptive—and being presumptuous and insensitive? What is the best ways to blend online and offline input to maximize collective intelligence?

These are questions we are mulling over. We would like to hear what you think. And we would be glad to share more of our experience and insights as this public learning process evolves.

— Paul Connolly

Communications Network Survey Provides Some Transparency Benchmarks
June 21, 2011

Michael Remaley is the director of Public Policy Communicators NYC and president of HAMILL REMALEY breakthrough communications.

Michael Remaley

Back in January, I wrote a commentary for Transparency Talk titled "Foundations Fail at Failing," which produced a robust conversation among colleagues both online and off. The post restated the case made by many philanthropy experts about the importance of transparency, talking openly about foundation initiatives that don’t produce expected results, and allowing others to learn from one’s failures. It also reported on my investigation into the transparency and frankness of 21 major foundations, the web sites of which I had explored and assessed in terms of their openness and self-evaluation.

45% of foundations view themselves as fully transparent or more transparent than most, while only 30% of foundations acknowledge program failure and publicly discuss it in those terms.

At the time I was conducting research for that piece, I was also working with the Communications Network on the design of its 2011 Survey of Foundation Communications Professionals, the report for which is aptly titled "Foundation Communications Today" and was released just last week. We surveyed a national sample of Communications Network members and a larger list of philanthropic communicators who were not members, yielding 155 responses for a 40% response rate (see full methodology section in the report). The survey included a set of questions meant to help the field better understand communications practices among foundations. We also thought it would be helpful to probe for information related to topics that Transparency Talk readers would find useful. Overall, the report includes some very interesting revelations about foundation communicators’ attitudes toward transparency and willingness of their foundations to talk about failure.

Failure PDFWhen your organization's work does not produce expected results, how do you address the failure publicly?

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Nearly a third (31%) of foundation communicators told us that neither evaluations nor anecdotal evidence had ever shown that their organization’s work had been anything less than successful. The larger group, however, was able to identify instances where their organization had, realistically, not made the impact it had planned. The majority of foundation communicators (69%) acknowledged that some of their organizations’ work had not produced successful outcomes.

Of those who admitted their organizations had experienced failures, the greatest number (44%) said that their organization had spoken publicly and forthrightly about those results. But most had not. Nearly a third (30%) of those who acknowledged foundation failure said that they had publicly discussed what they considered failures, but talked about them publicly in other terms. Another 15 percent said they had debated internally whether or not to publicly discuss failures but decided it might be harmful to others and therefore did not discuss them externally, and 12 percent said their foundation had never even considered talking publicly about failures.

In an open-ended question, we asked respondents to share any thoughts they had on foundations talking about failures. Respondents most commonly said it was the reluctance of trustees that held them back from being more open about unmet expectations. Said one, "Board members want to know, most of the time, about failures and encourage risk taking. But many don't see the wisdom in discussing it publicly." Another said, "There is a transparency issue and power dynamic issues with foundations. Many simply will not discuss their internal workings good or bad. Many are not embracing social media and new tech within the foundation themselves, but they expect their grantees to be using it. In general, one foundation will not comment on the work of another. In general, few will admit failure outside of affinity group meetings. It is also rare there."

But others said they thought concerns among foundations about talking publicly on failure are overblown. One said, "I think there is a fear of discussing failure, but that fear isn't warranted by our experience. When we publicly discussed our failure, we received nothing but praise. It enhanced our brand, rather than damaging it." And another said, "Once you share a failure it gets easier."

This last sentiment was, however, not shared by the respondent who said, "With two concrete examples, we can check the box saying we've publicly acknowledged our failures... But with many others, we have debated internally how/if to discuss these publicly and most often decide against doing so."

Transparency PDFIn terms of transparency, how would you describe your organization?

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Clearly, even those who have experimented with communicating about unmet expectations and failures continue to struggle with how and when to make the best use of valuable information that doesn’t necessarily shed the best light on people and organizations working with good intentions. Organizational ambivalence toward openness also came through in the responses to the survey questions about transparency.

The responses to the question on perceptions of transparency were fairly evenly distributed across the spectrum of choices offered to respondents. We provided respondents detailed descriptions of different levels of transparency based largely on the criteria used by Glasspockets. Given that our sample is drawn from foundations with communications staff, it is not surprising that only 2% said their organization was less transparent than most. Next along the spectrum of transparency, 16% said their organization is moderately transparent, 37% said it has an average degree of transparency, 35% said it is more transparent than most, and 10% said their foundation is fully transparent.

"Foundation Communications Today" contains many revelations and insights on topics such as philanthropic use of technology and social media, communications departments’ relationships with other parts of the foundation, and how creating a written communications plan relates to transparency. If you are curious about how your organization’s communications compare, check it out.

Ultimately, I find the responses of foundation communicators about failure and transparency to be very encouraging. While we do not have longitudinal data on these topics, the quantitative and qualitative responses seemed to indicate a trend toward greater openness and increasing awareness of the value of foundation self-evaluation. I'm hopeful that next time we survey foundations, we’ll see findings a great leap closer to 100% "Fully Transparent."

— Michael Remaley

Glasspockets Find: Transparency and Accountability on a Small Foundation Budget
June 10, 2011

This week's Glasspockets Find:

Association of Small FoundationsOur Glasspockets team is often asked whether items on our "Who Has Glass Pockets?" assessment are geared toward larger foundations that have budgets for things like performance evaluation, grantee feedback, and staff to develop new stakeholder engagement initiatives. While we believe that a culture of transparency can exist in a variety of foundation types and sizes, we also realize the challenges small foundations face in finding the time and resources to undertake such activities.GEO Fortunately, our Glasspockets partner, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), in partnership with the Association of Small Foundations (ASF), have recently made available free "tear sheets" geared toward smaller foundations on "Using Evaluation to Become an Effective Learning Organization," and on "Engaging Stakeholders for More Effective Grantmaking." These helpful guides include an overview of the key issues to consider in advance of implementing these kinds of initiatives, a guide to getting started, questions to raise with your board members, specific grantmakers who have implemented such activities, and a list of recommended reading on the subject.

-- Janet Camarena

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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.

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