(Mark Hager is associate professor of nonprofit studies in the School of Community Resources & Development at Arizona State University. His research with the Foundation Center and Urban Institute has shed light on how grantmaking foundations spend their money. He is always looking for ways to get his graduate students to think critically about the relationship between grantmaking foundations and their communities.)
Nonprofit management education has grown and taken shape over the last couple decades, and the current number of colleges and universities offering some kind of course in nonprofits runs over 300. Almost 200 of these offer a graduate degree with at least a concentration in nonprofit management. The program at Arizona State University (ASU) is particularly well-developed, with a specific nonprofit studies faculty, and undergraduate and graduate degrees in nonprofit studies.
Around the country, these programs usually focus on service delivery and general administration in the nonprofit sector. They don’t typically concentrate on the grantmaking side, but courses in this area aren’t totally unusual either. Grand Valley State University has a professional school dedicated to grantmaking, and an assortment of other schools feature courses where students review grant applications, deliberate, and give away real money. ASU has one graduate-level course that gives at least some attention to the grantmaking side, and I’m one of the people who gets to teach it. The class is called Theory and Practice of Philanthropy, and it is one of the required (core) classes in the Master of Nonprofit Studies curriculum.
I threw away the old syllabus and re-designed the course from scratch when I arrived at ASU in the fall of 2008. I then fleshed out a dozen or so issues that I felt were important to cover, and we spent a week or so on each one. This semester (spring 2012), I threw out the syllabus again and went back to scratch. Well, almost scratch… I kept some of the best content from the old approach. What is new is that we now spend more time on fewer topics so that students can dig deeper on essential content. Over the course of the semester, we’ll cover three broad arenas: the charitable deduction, high net worth individual and institutional giving, and public expectations of how nonprofits spend their money. This lets us come at the topic of “philanthropy” from three different directions… from the point of view of the individual, the grantmaking foundation, and the nonprofit organization.
Students, even graduate students with experience in the nonprofit sector, usually have little experience with or understanding of grantmaking foundations. We creep up to it slowly, first talking about giving by wealthy donors, then about donor intent, and then about the creation of private foundations. This semester, the culminating exercise for “evaluating” private foundations involved pouring through a private foundation’s website and evaluating the foundation’s standing on the Glass Pockets indicators. You can see a copy of my assignment sheet here. I thought this assignment worked well, for several different reasons.
For one, students had a concrete reason and a plan for digging around in the public face of grantmaking foundations. Armed with the list of indicators, they scavenged for governance policies, human resource policies, financial information, grantmaking information, performance measurement reporting, and the range of ways that private foundations communicate with their constituencies. When they could not find such things, students reflected on why grantmaking foundations might choose to mute or control certain aspects of their operations.
A second advantage of using the Glass Pockets indicators is that students feel connected to a larger effort. College course assignments are always better when they have real touchpoints with the world of work. Students selected a foundation not currently profiled in “Who Has Glass Pockets?” for this assignment, but many compared their subjects with others in the Glasspockets fold, or made use of the Glasspockets heat map to get a sense of how typical their subjects were in terms of transparency. I cautioned students that the foundations that have thus-far opted into the Glasspockets effort may not be representative of grantmaking foundations generally – they’re likely a good deal more transparent. However, students found new cases that were both more and less transparent than those already in the portfolio of Glasspockets cases.
Thirdly, students had the opportunity to reflect critically on the value of transparency, and how well the Glass Pockets assessment captures the concept. Case studies are good, but I was particularly interested in how the students came to frame the issues more generally. This is a part of the assignment that I will tweak next time. This first time, I felt that too many students accepted the measures and the value of transparency without much question or depth. Next semester, I will encourage them to dig in a bit harder. One idea might be to present the students with a set of arguments about why foundations have no particular reason to be transparent, and then invite students to take a position on Glasspockets’ justifications of the value of transparency. Somehow, I need to get students off the dime, to think more critically on this.
The semester is still unfolding, but one of the nice features of the assignment is that it broaches the topic of transparency and accountability. In the latter part of the course, we’ll take up similar themes, substituting public charities for grantmaking foundations. In this latter segment, students will consider how annual reports, Form 990, and watchdog reports affect how nonprofits act, and how their public sees them. Do we value transparency in private foundations for different reasons than why we value transparency in our public charities? No doubt that’s a question I’ll want to put before these students.
Since those just learning the ropes of a field can often offer a fresh perspective to those with years of experience, the Glasspockets team offered to feature a selected student’s thoughts on foundations and transparency in a future blog post. After reviewing the submitted work from the students, I was asked to select the student who had presented the most interesting observations about foundations, transparency, and the “Who Has Glass Pockets” indicators. Check back here on Transparency Talk later this month for that post.