Transparency Talk

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A New Reporting Commitment
October 9, 2012

Darin McKeever is a deputy director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leading the foundation’s Charitable Sector work as a member of the Global Policy & Advocacy division. He serves as an ambassador and primary point of contact within the philanthropic community, monitoring and helping develop foundation positions on policy and regulatory issues affecting the nonprofit sector, and managing relationships and grants with major nonprofit/philanthropic trade associations and research institutions.

Darin-McKeever-100At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we firmly believe transparency is a key ingredient in maximizing impact because it inspires new innovations and leads to opportunities for collaboration.

That's why we are pleased to join 14 other U.S. foundations today in announcing a new "Reporting Commitment" to better share information about our grants in an open format on the Foundation Center's Glasspockets.org web site.

We are going through exciting times - when “Big Data,” “Open Data,” and social media are revealing a path to new ways of working together in the social sector.

For many years, private foundations in the U.S. have been required to include lists of grants made in their annual filings to the Internal Revenue Service. However, because of filing deadlines as well as return preparation and digitization timelines, the lag between when a grant is approved and when the general public finds out about it can sometimes stretch to 18 months or more. In the annual filings, descriptions are also brief, often without key information like the location where funded activities take place. As a result, the purpose behind the grants can be opaque and making comparisons across foundations and over the course of years is challenging.

Over the last two years, the 15 participating foundations -- together with the Foundation Center -- have worked together to tackle these problems. Each organization has needed to reexamine policies, business processes, coding procedures, technical capabilities, and even culture. This is only a first step; we hope this effort lays the groundwork for further improvements in the precision and availability of information about grantmaking in the U.S.

Of course, widening the availability of grant data doesn't supplant the value of robust web sites, blogs, or the use of social media. The pressures to collect, organize, and publish information also bring additional costs and burdens -- for foundations, but also our grantees and partners. These are important considerations. The relative absence of standard ways of reporting grants or the results of activities makes all this especially challenging.

That's why last week we were also excited to announce our new "Markets for Good" effort , with our partners at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and the progressive financial firm LiquidNet. In many ways, the new Reporting Commitment is a great illustration of what the Markets for Good initiative seeks to accelerate: easier and better ways for social sector organizations to get, share, and use information that contributes to improving lives and communities. Check out the video and join the conversation.

We are going through exciting times - when “Big Data,” “Open Data,” and social media are revealing a path to new ways of working together in the social sector. With the Reporting Commitment announced today, we are taking one more step down that path.

--Darin McKeever

Comments

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All the big foundations are required to efile their Form 990 to the IRS, but the IRS only makes bitmap images of the returns available. (Basically, they print your data onto a form then take a photograph of the form.)

It would be wonderful if the big foundations would make the electronic version of their Form 990s available. That would allow developers to work the data much more effectively and would also set a great example that others might follow. Perhaps the IRS could even be convinced to release all e-file data if you help lead the way.

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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, the Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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