Transparency Talk

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April 2012 (6 posts)

Glasspockets Find: Transparency = Understanding?
April 27, 2012

Does transparency equal understanding?  It depends.

One of the presumed benefits of foundation transparency is that it can help build trust with grantees, policymakers, and the general public.  It does not necessarily follow, however, that transparency leads to understanding.  As in most situations, context is key. 

In his April 16 post to his weekly CSR Now! blog, Tim McClimon pulls some fascinating quotes—some recent and some not so recent—from the writings of William Gibson on this topic.  He concludes with this insight from the perspective of a corporate practitioner:

 “…it seems to me that the challenge for those of who manage CSR programs is to be transparent and understandable (and hopefully persuasive) at the same time. One without the other is just adding to the information stream with no real purpose or impact.”

-- Mark Foley

Glasspockets Find: Documenting a Transparent End to The Atlantic Philanthropies
April 23, 2012

When the board of The Atlantic Philanthropies voted in 2001 to end the foundation’s active grantmaking in 2016 and then close its doors by 2020, it became the largest endowed institution ever to do so.  Atlantic-logo-200The decision meshed well with the philosophy of the foundation’s founder.  To spend down the multi-billion-dollar endowment of The Atlantic Philanthropies within a fixed period of time concurred with Charles F. Feeney’s personal commitment to what he called Giving While Living.  (Mr. Feeney will be nearly 90 years old at the end of 2020.)

Referring to the better-known Giving Pledge in correspondence to Bill Gates in early 2011, Mr. Feeney wrote:

“I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living—to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition.  More importantly, today’s needs are so great and varied that intelligent philanthropic support and positive interventions can have greater value and impact today than if they are delayed.”

Mr. Feeney’s foundation has provided Duke University with a grant to fund Winding Down The Atlantic Philanthropies.  The second in this planned series of reports was released in February.  Its subtitle, 2009-2010: Beginning the Endgame, implies that a shift in focus has arrived, nearly a decade after the board’s historic decision.  The report follows the staff’s attempts to begin “an orderly process to ‘imagine the end of Atlantic’.”  As a tool of transparency, the report provides an inside look into the thinking underway.  It also chronicles the challenges and opportunities presented within this context for two of Atlantic’s major programs—Children & Youth in the United States and Population Health in Viet Nam.

Atlantic Philanthropies has an excellent What We’re Learning section that offers many valuable insights into its work that can be used by others in the field.  In addition to the new report, its predecessor in the Winding Down series, The First Eight Years: 2001-2009, is available for free download or to view.

-- Mark Foley

Glasspockets Goes to Grad School: Using Glasspockets to Teach about Grantmaking Foundations
April 16, 2012

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(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.

Glasspockets Find: Transparency, Public Pressure and Nonprofit Governance
April 12, 2012

Lucy Bernholz has just posted an excellent, thought-provoking piece on her Philanthropy 2173 blog.  She refers to two recent examples of public pressure—with the Komen Foundation and the Gates Foundation as the separate focal points—that led to a change of direction.  She argues that the increasing ease with which public opinion may be expressed quickly demands that all types of nonprofit organizations, including foundations, be prepared to respond.

As more information becomes more accessible to more people, organizations should expect to engage in a civil conversation—with supporters and critics.  The old-school broadcast model is fading fast.  Transparency is a tool that foundations can embrace to anticipate and react to the public response to their decisions, and in the process build trust.

-- Mark Foley

Anonymous Isn't Just for Donors: Encouraging Honest Grantee Feedback
April 9, 2012

(An interview with Jon Clark, President of the James S. Bower Foundation.)

Jon ClarkTransparency Talk (TT): Glasspockets is always in search of good examples of online transparency and accountability practices. One of the tenets of accountability is tracking complaint and response mechanisms. Large, independent foundations can budget for consultants to help them develop stakeholder surveys, so we were particularly interested in the anonymous feedback form you developed, since it can serve as a model for other foundations with limited budgets to bring in outside help. Tell us why you prioritized creating such a mechanism.

Jon Clark (JC): When the James S. Bower Foundation started in earnest in 2006 it was our hope to be able to have honest conversations with nonprofits and others in the community. I knew from my experience in the nonprofit sector and as part of other foundations that the deference that comes from having the question of "can I get money" constantly on the table, or at least in the corner of the room, keeps people from saying what they need to say. Whether that prevents the warts and all program assessments that we really want, or keeps people from calling any of us out when we are arrogant, misguided or just plain stupid, it hinders our ability to be our best in service to our community. I would say that this was one of the key values we started with as an organization.

The deference that comes from having the question of "can I get money" constantly on the table... keeps people from saying what they need to say.

The vast majority of our effort to create an environment where honesty can happen is to do our best to be open and honest ourselves. We aspire to be careful with what we say and to do way more listening than speaking. That said, the transactional realities of foundation relationships are what they are and we probably aren't as great in this regard as we'd like to think, so we created an anonymous comment form on our website, which went live in 2007.

TT: Tell us how your feedback mechanism works.

JC: The form is prominently located on our website behind the tab "Feedback. Even though people are encouraged to email me directly with their comments, they also are given the option of reaching us anonymously. The link takes the person to another site where we have no access and we receive the comments in the form of an email from that site with the sender attributes removed.

TT: Was this expensive to create or maintain? Is this something that any small foundation with a limited budget can do? Are there ongoing maintenance costs?

JC: Not at all, the costs have been nominal.

TT: What has the response been like so far? Are grantees or grantee hopefuls using the form?

JC: Ironically, over the years we have not been inundated with feedback. We did receive some pointed criticism about an off-hand comment I made at a workshop about not waiting until the last minute to get your proposal in. Someone pointed out that when you are a busy development director, sometimes that's the best you can do. They said I was showing insensitivity to the way they had to work. They were right. For the most part though, this feedback form is mostly a spam catcher.

TT: Why do you think that is? And does its lack of use diminish its importance in your view?

JC: The question of why remains a bit of a mystery. While, as executive director, I would love to claim it is because we are doing our jobs so well that no one is complaining, I know there is another answer. The truth is that we are a smaller foundation in a smaller very tight knit community where most foundations and nonprofit leaders are on a first name basis. This form is not necessarily culturally appropriate to our environment since feedback tends to be more upfront. My staff often recount genuine conversations with members of the community where they receive feedback, both good and bad.

TT: With all that said, is it a failure?

JC: While it has not raised our game as much as we had hoped, we leave the form there in case there is ever a time when our culture is compromised and we do need to hear safe words from our community. I think every foundation should give such a voice to their potential and current grantees. In fact, the larger the foundation, the more I would encourage such a platform. Even if it is not used every day, or you have to sift through spam to hear what may need to be spoken softly, it is still an important pathway and one that may ensure no voices are left unheard.

-- Jon Clark

Creating a Video Annual Report: The Mitchell Kapor Foundation's Experience
April 2, 2012

(Cedric Brown is Chief Executive Officer of Mitchell Kapor Foundation)

Cedric BrownAs much as I hate to admit it, I rarely spend more than 30 seconds looking at annual reports. I'm usually attracted to the paper, design, or lead stories, but don't really delve into the sometimes-substantial reading required to make it through one of these tomes. And who has time? I'm not sure if there's a general trend toward simplification of such publications, but that's what I had in mind in late 2010 when starting to consider a format for the Kapor Foundation's first annual report

Given that we're a small family foundation interested in the intersection of social justice and tech, I wanted to use a tack that would reflect our values, style, and general approach to work. And I especially wanted it to be simple to digest. Daniel Olias Silverman, the Irvine Foundation's fantastic director of communications, advised me that the world is moving to video. And so move we did.

Mitchell Kapor FoundationWorking with the Kapor Center's in-house production team, we scripted brief highlights from the Foundation's areas of work. I wanted each of our staff members and the Kapors themselves to have a role, giving voice to our priorities and accomplishments. This vision was met with a little skepticism and camera shyness. But on the day of the shoot, everyone came through like pros - well, maybe not, but at least our natural selves shone through. We left the footage in the hands of the director, Trevor Parham, who added photos and animation to bring our words and work to life.

When we distributed the video through emailing it and posting it on our website's home page, I hadn't expected to get the kind of positive, "WOW!" reviews that came back to us.  Some of our community partners expressed appreciation for getting the pithy information in an entertaining format (and a little hip hop  beat in the background never hurts). Of course, we didn't win any awards or such, but we accomplished my ultimate goal of explaining what the Foundation does in a way that would be widely and clearly understood. The video format also allows us to be (a certain kind of) green by minimizing the use of paper, to save production money, and perhaps best of all, to have almost three times the distributive reach that we would've had strictly through our mailing list!

So this year, we've taken it a step further. No animation against a green screen this time, but we again aimed to deliver the highlights of our efforts in a concise way, using a knockoff of an increasingly popular format. Check it out.

Watch the video »

I'm now a believer that video is indeed the way to go. If you're thinking about doing the same, I'd advise a few practical things:

  1. Write a narrative that outlines your organization's mission and framework;
  2. Use video or photos of grant recipients and partners in action to help tell your story; and perhaps most importantly,
  3. Videos need not be overly fancy or polished. While we at the Kapor Foundation benefit from an incredibly talented in-house team, I've actually seen interesting work done with flip cam footage and freeware. Just be neat (aesthetically) and tell a good story!

Looking forward to seeing your work next year!

-- Cedric Brown

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:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, San Francisco Office
    The Foundation Center

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