Transparency Talk

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From the President: Transparency 2.0
February 13, 2013

Jim Canales is the President and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation. This post first appeared February, 13 on the foundation's Web site.

Canales-100Within the past few weeks, I have read with interest the observations of a number of active bloggers in the arts field whom I have come to respect and admire: Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, Clay Lord and Barry Hessenius. Each of them has blogged on aspects of the Irvine Foundation’s new arts strategy and, in doing so, has contributed to a robust dialogue that has played out on their respective blogs as well as on Twitter.

And that’s what prompts my contribution to this discussion: I will comment only lightly on the substantive issues they have raised related to our Arts strategy as my colleague, Josephine Ramirez, who directs our Arts program, plans to post a more substantive comment on those issues in the next week or so. There is another aspect of this discussion that I do want to comment upon and invite others to engage on with me and my colleagues in philanthropy.

Whether people agree or disagree with the choices we have made, we are now discussing it, publicly, intelligently and forthrightly.

From my early days as Irvine’s CEO, and with great support from our Board of Directors, I have placed a premium on transparency, both with regard to our work at Irvine and for the broader field of philanthropy. I have certainly not been alone in this quest (Brad Smith at the Foundation Center is probably our field’s leading champion), and I think it’s a fair observation to say that the field has come a long way in the past decade.

At the same time, I would characterize much of the progress under the headline of “Transparency 1.0”: creating useful and information-rich websites; describing in detail the strategic priorities of the foundation; sharing results of evaluations and learning; posting results of surveys that offer feedback, such as the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report. All of these have been positive developments, aimed toward shedding more light on what is often an opaque and impenetrable field. At the same time, these efforts at transparency are primarily one-way, aimed at information transmission. In “Transparency 1.0,” we decide what to be transparent about and then put it out there for you to digest.

Today, the advent of social media, to which philanthropy is still a bit of a newcomer, combined with the recognition that foundations certainly do not have all of the answers, offers opportunities for the field to embrace and practice what I will call “Transparency 2.0,” oriented toward dialogue, debate and shared learning.

And that’s what has struck me about this recent dialogue related to Irvine’s Arts strategy. Whether people agree or disagree with the choices we have made, we are now discussing it, publicly, intelligently and forthrightly. I admire those who have stepped forward to criticize aspects of our strategy, whether they believe it is wrong on its merits or they view it as yet another example of “strategic philanthropy” gone awry, where we are dictating and imposing our solutions upon the field.

That is certainly not our intention. What is different for us in our new Arts strategy is that rather than continuing with a broad-based approach that funded projects across multiple objectives, we made the strategic decision to direct our finite resources in a way that, in our view, will best position the arts field for future viability and success. In doing so, we are openly expressing a point of view about how we think the field must evolve to ensure its dynamism and relevance. Yet, we are very clear about our willingness to learn with our partners in this effort, to refine our approach accordingly, and to help to advance the field’s understanding of the many ways to engage a broader cross-section of Californians (in our case) in the arts.

To draw from Diane Ragsdale’s very thoughtful analysis, I suppose one person’s coaxing might be another person’s coercion, but I hope what we will be able to do via this work is to co-create. In the end, we care about impact. And we believe that to maximize our ability to have impact requires a clear, focused and coherent strategic direction. That’s what we are aiming for in the Arts, similar to what we have already been committed to in our other core program areas of Youth and California Democracy.

Just as we lament the fact that the arts are too often (and wrongly) viewed by funders as discretionary or recreational, so must we demand that arts grantmaking be guided by the same level of rigor and strategic direction as other program areas. That’s what we are striving for at Irvine, and we know that we have much to learn along this journey. And that’s why I have been inspired and pleased by the active engagement from others, demonstrative of the evolution of transparency in philanthropy. So, please keep the ideas, observations and critiques coming. It’s the best way to ensure we can achieve the end we all agree upon: a vibrant, relevant and successful arts field. And in doing so, we might just model new ways for foundations and their partners to engage, debate, discuss and learn together.

-Jim Canales

Comments

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Thanks for the shout out Jim. Irvine has been a leader for quite some time when it comes to foundation transparency. In 2006 Irvine published a report on its CORAL Initiative http://tinyurl.com/azodzgo, which quickly gained attention in the field for its frank admission of "shortcomings" that led to significant mid-course corrections. Perhaps as an indication of how uncommon this kind of transparency seems to be, that report is still cited as a rare and unique admission by a foundation of "failure" (though I don't think that word was actually used in the report).

The CORAL report reminds me of just how far we can still go, and how much good could be done, if we (the sector) did a better job of sharing our knowledge. Foundations are more than a source of money; they are an important source of experience and ideas. Yet only a small number of foundations share their own reports and publications online and even fewer make available the reports produced by their grantees. Wallace Foundation, for example http://tinyurl.com/78rel9s, does a great job in this regard. This kind of effort may still fall into Jim's transparency 1.0 bucket as a "push" strategy, but there is real hunger out there to learn what foundations know about education, the arts, environment, human rights and the many other issue areas. We know: IssueLab.org, a service of the Foundation Center that serves as an online hub of social sector research and reports, is already getting more than 30,000 page views per month despite having been launched only recently.

Foundations like Irvine, having walked the talk on Transparency 1.0 long before most, are now venturing into an interactive 2.0 world. When a foundation reveals its strategy and bloggers begin to opine, an open-ended dialogue is born. Where that can lead depends above all, on shared values, but also the openness, maturity and willingness to make course corrections, perhaps, even before the funding journey begins. Bloggers and grantees need to feel it is safe to disagree, and foundation staff need to know that leadership sees such interaction as an important part of their jobs. Such territory is largely uncharted and I look forward to reading more about how it goes.

Finally, beyond the requirements of I.R.S. reporting, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to transparency. Foundations large and small have to feel their away according to their resources, values, and missions. And they need to be transparent in sharing what they are learning about their transparency journey. So kudos to Irvine--not just for the 2.0 experiment--but for blogging and tweeting up a storm about it!

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