(Gabi Fitz is the director of knowledge management initiatives at the Foundation Center and helps to oversee the recently redesigned and relaunched open archive of social sector research called IssueLab.)
Anyone who's spent time in the social sector knows that the "t" word has a lot of different definitions, dimensions, and interpretations. Posts to this blog alone reveal how deeply and broadly the discussion of transparency extends. Fundamentally all these discussions and efforts circle around two basic ideas: improving accountability and grappling with power. In the case of foundations we often focus on their financial power, asking that they remain accountable to their stakeholders by sharing information about their grantmaking, their financials, their compensation, and the outcomes of their "investments". The idea being that the more we know about what they fund the better able we are to build on these initiatives and hold foundations, and their grantees, accountable to their commitments. (This is one of the reasons why projects like the recently launched Reporting Commitment are so valuable.)
But equally important is the power that foundations get from what they know. Sure, this is true for any of us, but the fact is that knowledge isn't distributed equally; some individuals and organizations are simply in positions to know more, to have the "10,000 foot perspective", or the insider's view on a particular strategy or initiative. That's why the Glasspockets index doesn't just include online communications efforts but also criteria such as whether a foundation has a Knowledge Center or centralized section of their website that provides access to program evaluations and lessons learned reports. In a knowledge-intensive sector like ours, it matters that foundations not only share information about what they fund but also information about what they find.
In a recent blog post about the importance of the grantee/program officer relationship, the Center for Effective Philanthropy quotes a survey respondent as saying "[The Foundation's] program officers and program staff are extremely knowledgeable and approachable . We have actually been able to use their depth of knowledge on topic areas complementary to ours in order to develop stronger more valuable products and outcomes." Any of you who have had this kind of relationship are probably nodding your heads right about now. But what about the individuals and organizations who don't have this kind of relationship with their program officer, who haven't been funded yet, or who aren't even looking for funding but are instead looking for information?
Knowledge sharing is often talked about as the "right" thing to do or the most efficient thing to do. It's even sometimes used as a kind of friendly substitute for brand building. But if we acknowledge the power that comes with knowing something, then we can also recognize that knowledge sharing is really about information justice, the equitable distribution of knowledge, and central to improving transparency in the social sector.
Last week the Foundation Center launched its new IssueLab platform, providing open access to more than 11,000 white papers, evaluations, and toolkits from nonprofits and foundations alike. This collection is a big step forward in the effort to gather, index, and share the collective intelligence of the sector. Any foundation or nonprofit can add knowledge to this collection for free and any individual or organization can in turn access those resources for free. So whether your organization has its own knowledge center or not, IssueLab provides an easy-to-use platform for sharing that knowledge with an even broader audience and for sharing the power that comes with knowing what we know.
Next time I will blog about knowledge sharing and transparency in medical grantmaking.
-- Gabi Fitz