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January 2012 (3 posts)

A Trip to Transparency
January 24, 2012

Marie Deatherage

(Marie Deatherage has directed communications at Meyer Memorial Trust since 1996. She has also worked as a program officer, college professor, researcher, disability rights advocate, journalist, editor and publisher. She has degrees from the University of Chicago and University of Oregon and has never met a disruptive technology she didn't like.)

Meyer Memorial Trust's (MMT) path to transparency began slowly and modestly, first by openly examining the effects of clusters of grants we had made as feature stories in our annual report. Then in the 20th anniversary edition, Charles Rooks – our first and only CEO to that point – gave very candid answers to a series of questions about what had gone on at MMT over the first 20 years, which took us a considerable distance in revealing what went on inside our doors. But our annual report essentially only reached people who already knew us, so its effect was severely limited.

Enter Web 2.0

We got in the habit of expecting to post anything and everything unless someone could provide very compelling reasons not to.The first real progress on our road to transparency and accountability, however, was made possible by the Internet, especially through the interactivity of Web 2.0.

We were relatively early to realize that technology had enormous potential to make foundations better known and understood. In 1996, we were the first foundation in Oregon to launch a website, albeit very simple and crude by today's standards. (No wonder, I created it by reading a book and making mistakes until it worked.) Since then, our site has been through three major iterations, each attempting to raise the bar of our own expectations, but we largely made up what foundation transparency and accountability looked like as we went along.

The first breakthrough in our journey came as we planned remaking our website in 2003, when I came across The Cluetrain Manifesto, which grew out of a conversation posted on the web in 1999 and published as a book in 2000. First big insight: You can't be transparent if you can't admit you're human.

The manifesto begins:

  • "People of the earth...

  • "A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter–and getting smarter than most companies.

  • "These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked.

  • "Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal..."

You could effortlessly substitute the word foundation for companies or corporations in this text in 2000.

In my last post, I explained that MMT's biggest communication challenge in the 1980s and early 90s – as the largest foundation in the Pacific Northwest until technology fortunes created philanthropists with much bigger pockets – was to be perceived as approachable and accessible and trustworthy. 

On our website we addressed that in a number of ways, including:

  • For example, rather than list the academic degrees, awards and other resume builders to show how impressive and distinguished our staff members are and how qualified they are to judge nonprofits, we asked our staff to answer personal questions that revealed something about them as people. Currently we are taking everybody back to high school! Yes, some staff were extremely reluctant to participate, for reasons ranging from fear of stalkers and identity theft (neither happened!) to just feeling exposed and vulnerable. Since "exposed" and "vulnerable" are words I've heard nonprofits use to describe how due diligence and site visits can make them feel, I figured we were getting somewhere!

  • From the beginning in 1996, we included email addresses of individual staff members on our website. (Yes, it meant we all got more spam in our inboxes, which had an associated cost), but it also meant we really and truly were easily reached. Especially when compared with other foundations, whose websites in those days sometimes didn't even list staff members' names. (Later we hired a system administrator who, among many awesome things, reduces our spam to a trickle.)

  • We added to our website "What We Look For" documents that program officers use to evaluate grant proposals for each of our grant programs. Yes, some staff members objected, arguing that "if we do that, nonprofits will just write what we want to see." Well, that might be true, but of course many were already trying to do that, only they were guessing what we were looking for. If we told them, might it be likely that they would actually begin to do those things?

Basically, we got in the habit of expecting to post anything and everything unless someone could provide very compelling reasons not to. Compelling reasons did not include "We've never done that before" or "No other foundation in our area is doing that."

But even more important than what we did was how we did it. Our communications became conversations. We began talking in a human voice. And we found that being authentic (human) goes a long way in creating trust and transparency. How do we know if we are succeeding? Partly from an anonymous survey we did of our news alert email list. Although we certainly have detractors, we generally got very high marks from our community. Some of the comments in the question about voice and tone of communications let us know we were hitting the mark. Note in the sample quotes below how readers positively link an authentic voice with trust and transparency. 

  • "Refreshingly personable, informative & non-bureaucratic - MMT's email is peerless - always written from the heart rather than as if by advertising agency staff writer"

  • "The tone of the MMT e-messages is colorful, sunny, full of character, and positive energy. If I'm feeling down, it's lovely to receive a cheery e-mail from the representative of a major funding entity such as MMT. Such friendly communications counter the energy of the typical 'gods on olympus' voice woven into foundation/trust website/e-correspondence dialogue"

  • Relaxed at times, which is okay since you have tried to become more 'transparent' to the nonprofit community.

The Glasspockets Era

Fortunately, our current website was developed at the same time Glasspockets  launched, which finally gave us a yardstick of 23 practices by which to measure ourselves and identify places in our pockets that still needed cleaning.

The "Who Has Glass Pockets?" criteria helped us identify items we were lacking entirely (e.g., a formal whistleblower policy) so we could develop them, and post those we had but hadn't thought to include (e.g., bylaws). Probably the most helpful service Glasspockets provided was to advise us about how a general purpose responsive foundation like ours can begin to confront the challenge of evaluating its effectiveness. We've conducted user surveys and outside evaluations and added them to our web site and through the Glasspockets web site we have been able to identify other private foundations with a similar all-encompassing approach within a defined region. We continue to challenge ourselves to find more and better ways to judge and report on our effectiveness and share them with Glasspockets so our profile is up-to-date.

Glasspockets also helped us figure out how to report on our past programs and share not only what we learn from our work, but reveal where we fail as well as succeed.

It took several months for us to accomplish every item on the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" list, it was a lot of work and wasn't always a top priority in the day-to-day pressure of deadlines. But can you imagine how happy and proud we were when Janet Camarena, director of the San Francisco office of the Foundation Center and head of the Glasspockets initiative wrote in a July 2010 email, "Congratulations, your pockets are the clearest we've uncovered thus far…"?!

Honestly, I don't understand why any foundation wouldn't want to achieve some of the most basic Glasspockets measures. Can anyone seriously give me reasons for any foundation not to have a web site in 2012? Even small family foundations without staff ought to be able to take the Foundation Center up on its offer to design and host free websites.

Because I think this trip to transparency is just beginning. 

Next month I'll share why I think we are in the earliest stages of opening up and how I look forward to a future where Glasspockets will have a longer list to itemize, giving us all much more shared knowledge we can use to move our field forward and create a better world.

-- Marie Deatherage

Glasspockets Find: Beyond the Grant Dollars, Hewlett Foundation Explains Tools Available to Support Grantees
January 17, 2012

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

As we continue to showcase examples of foundations' transparency, Paul Brest, retiring president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, provides a nice window into the thinking behind the foundation's work. Grants aren't the only way the foundation seeks to solve social and environmental problems. In Beyond the Grant Dollars, his opening essay of the recently released 2010 Annual Report, Brest pulls back the curtain to explain the added value of the program staff in magnifying and maximizing impact.

He writes, "The Beyond the Grant Dollars project has two primary objectives:

  • To improve the Foundation staff's and Board's decisions about the mix of strategies and the allocation of financial and human resources that can best achieve our goals.
  • To determine the skills, experience, and other qualities we should look for in new staff members and ways to improve the development of Foundation program staff."

Brest does a fine job detailing a number of ways that funders like the Hewlett Foundation employ staff to get the biggest bang for the buck, all the while trying to keep their eyes on the prize. With solid examples from the foundation's own experience as a highly engaged philanthropist, he thoughtfully presents the rationale for the various tactics mobilized for mission achievement. And, as in the best instances of lessons learned, he does not only discuss successes. In his own words, "potentially high returns also involves a significant risk of failure."

Finally, Brest mentions the desire to capture the substantive knowledge that program staff acquire in their fields and in their various activities and disseminate it for internal use as well as externally "when it has the potential to inform nonprofit organizations, foundations, and others."

View the President's Statement and the full Annual Report, or see past Annual Reports dating back to 1966.

-- Mark Foley

Becoming a "Web 2.0 Philanthropy" at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
January 10, 2012

(Steve Downs is Chief Technology and Information Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Steve Downs Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), like many philanthropies today, has embraced social media. We have a Facebook page, YouTube channels, blogs and multiple official Twitter feeds. Our staff also participate directly: more than 40 of my colleagues are regular Twitter users and many have contributed blog posts to popular sites within their fields. Our CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (@risalavizzo), sets the tone with her regular activity on Twitter.

Like many philanthropies, we're still finding our way and doing our best to learn from our collective experiences and from the experiences of others. For RWJF, engagement in social media is rooted in a context – a context about who we are as an organization and what we seek to become.

The first part of that context comes from our history with transparency. Since RWJF's beginnings, we have emphasized independent evaluation of our programs. As David Colby (@DavidCColby) and his colleagues have detailed, RWJF chose to make public the results of those evaluations so others could learn whether the interventions had (or had not) been effective. In addition, since 2007, we have made public an annual assessment that examines a number of dimensions of our organizational performance. (You can download these reports on our website.)

The second part starts in 2008, when RWJF underwent a strategic planning exercise where we began by looking at the world around us. We saw innovations in philanthropy coming from newer, smaller foundations -- like the Steve and Jean Case Foundation and the Omidyar Network -- that were leveraging new technologies to cast a wider net as an effort to stimulate conversation and engage people more widely. We saw new models for the sector like Kiva and DonorsChoose -- platforms that enabled more direct connections between donors and their impact. And we also saw the amazing, disruptive accomplishments of services like Wikipedia and Craigslist that were run by organizations employing only a few dozen staff by but drawing their power from vast networks of engaged users. We came away from this effort with a sense -- still very impressionistic -- that we should explore what it would mean for us to become a "Web 2.0 Philanthropy."

"Web 2.0" is becoming an increasingly archaic term as it is regularly supplanted by the term "social media," but for us, the distinction has meaning. Where "social media" is often associated with services like Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr, we see "Web 2.0" as running deeper. It is the collection of tools that harness the collective creativity and knowledge of and promote interaction among the Web's many users. It is based on an "architecture of participation," which enables the users of a service to add value to that service. Beyond social media, it can be expressed in many other ways, ranging from the user who improves on a cooking magazine's recipe by adding an unexpected spice to the protester during the Arab Spring posting a cell phone video of a beating on YouTube for the world to see. It is the seller rating system of eBay, in which the experiences of hundreds of other buyers give a potential buyer confidence in the seller. It is about the blurring of the lines between producer and consumer, the blurring of the lines between expert and non-expert and the aggregation of many small contributions into something of great value.

We knew that as a relatively large and relatively middle-aged foundation (we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year) with our traditions, habits and engrained practices – we would have to consciously push ourselves to evolve in this direction. We needed first to flesh out the vision, which we did through a combination of research (i.e. small "r" research like reading case studies and talking with folks at other organizations) and experiential learning. Those of us tasked with working on the vision felt we couldn't do so unless we were actively engaging in Web 2.0 experiences, so we started experimenting with Twitter and Facebook -- and experiencing their cultures and experiencing their value to our day-to-day work. It wasn't long before we concluded that becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy was not so much about adopting new social media than it was about embracing the underlying values of Web 2.0 and weaving them in to our work. We honed in on three principal values:

  • Openness, at one level, implies transparency–letting others see into the organization and how it works. But in Web 2.0, openness goes beyond organizational transparency and represents humility and a willingness to learn, to be surprised, and to hear and accept criticism.

  • Participation refers to a style of engagement in the professional communities of which we are a part. It requires asking questions, listening, responding and contributing where we can add value–whether expertise, research and other materials, or connections.

  • Decentralization is a natural consequence of distributed participation and inherently requires a ceding of some control. So much information is now created and shared collaboratively, and the path and shape that such information takes cannot be controlled by any one entity or group. However, a tremendous upside of the emergence of Web 2.0 is the potential for countless unseen contributors to augment and amplify one's own contributions.

Building on these values, the research and our early experiences, we sketched out a vision of how RWJF could embrace Web 2.0. The vision included a number of elements, ranging from using social media to be better informed about our fields and the work of our grantees, to cultivating our networks of people and organizations who care about our issues, to crowdsourcing expertise, to seeking feedback and criticism and ultimately, to using using Web 2.0 principles to design programs that work at very large scales. The vision, along with a strategy to evolve toward it, gave the organization a context and a rationale for our embrace of social media, which was beginning to play out.

One might be tempted to think that with all of this Web 2.0 strategy development going on, we approached social media with a deliberate, carefully planned strategy, but in fact, we took a much more organic approach. Previous to the Web 2.0 work, we had done some limited blogging and had gotten over the usual jitters about all the things that could go wrong. Later, as a few intrepid staff began testing the waters at Twitter and Facebook, we consciously took a supportive stance. We came up with social media guidelines that, while putting up some guardrails to limit the likelihood of unfortunate events, actually encouraged staff to experiment and to develop their own, individual personalities online. We wanted them to explore how it could provide value and we wanted to learn from their experiences. The context of our overall push to become a Web 2.0 philanthropy informed the development of our social media guidelines, provided a strong incentive for staff to participate and, by connecting it to a set of values, also influences how staff participate in social media.

We're a couple of years into our journey and we reap the benefits of being more open and engaged every day.  Many staff feel as if they're better engaged in their fields, they're learning more and they're expanding their networks.  This being a journey, though, it hasn't always been easy and we've hit our share of potholes.  Staff do wrestle with where to find the time to engage meaningfully in social media and being open and engaged often means having to expose what you don't know -- which can be uncomfortable.  We're also finding that there's a long way between having a vision of how to leverage Web 2.0 to change the world and having the world reliably work like a Wikipedia or a Craigslist.  Just because you ask people's opinions doesn't mean you'll get them -- sometimes the crowd keeps its wisdom to itself.  My colleague Erin Kelly will speak to some of these challenges in a future post on our social media experience.  As we continue this journey, we have lots to learn -- and I'd love to hear how others are finding success or overcoming obstacles to becoming more open, more participatory and more decentralized.

Have you ventured down a similar path? Tell us if/how your organization has embraced these tools to work in a different fashion. Did you to so to become better informed? Build networks? Service a traditional organizational or "consumer" need in a new manner? Let others hear what you have struggled with (or celebrated) to help shape the trajectory of a project you are working on with the contributions of others.

-- Steve Downs

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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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