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April 2014 (8 posts)

Read All About It: “Foundation Plans to Stay In Business Forever!”
April 30, 2014

(Bruce Trachtenberg was executive director of the Communications Network  from 2006-2013. He currently serves as an advisor to the Network. This post originally appeared on the Communications Network blog.)

6a00e54efc2f808833014e8887ecc4970d-800wiI recently sat in on a Philanthropy New York panel discussion that asked a very simple question, “Why do foundations choose to go on forever?”

That question, which was prompted by attention being paid to the recent uptick in the number of foundations that intend to spend themselves out of business, got me thinking.

When a foundation makes the decision to close down, that’s considered news. But what about foundations that plan to keep going forever, don’t they have some obligation to publicly explain why?

Again, take the case of foundations spending down, and the considerable effort expended to make sure others know the thinking behind the decision.

When a foundation makes the decision to close down, that’s considered news. But what about foundations that plan to keep going forever, don’t they have some obligation to publicly explain why?

For example, the Atlantic Philanthropies, a “limited life foundation” planning to distribute its entire endowment and close its doors by 2020, states on its website:

In keeping with the founder’s Giving While Living philosophy, we believe in making large investments to capitalise on significant opportunities to solve urgent problems now, so they are less likely to become larger, more entrenched and more expensive challenges later.

Another example is the Quixote Foundation, which also plans to go out of business in the next few years, by “spending up”–an event which, they also describe as something to celebrate:

Current events point to a landmark chance to make the most of our assets, and we can’t wait. Between now and 2017, Quixote Foundation will spend all of its money into progressive work, using the entire endowment.

But what about foundations that plan to keep going and going and going? How much time or attention, if any, do they devote to publicly discussing their reasons for doing so?

In the Philanthropy New York session, the rationale panelists gave for their foundations choosing perpetuity over limited life seemed to rest on a belief that they can do more good over the long haul than in the immediate. Or as Jane O’Connell, president,Altman Foundation, said, “Spending down provides quick fix, but we’ve decided to stay at the table for hopefully the next 100 years.”

Regardless of the reason foundations opt for perpetuity, by sharing their reasons publicly they can also further understanding of the role of philanthropy in society and the good it aims to do, whether now or later.

Also, if staying in business forever is a question that gets revisited every so often–one expert suggests it’s a conversation trustees have at least once a decade–again, the fact the conversation took place seems like something to disclose.

What do you think? Do foundations need to explain why they plan to be around forever?

-- Bruce Trachtenberg

Glasspockets Find: The Ford Foundation’s Un-Survey Invites Inquiring Minds
April 28, 2014

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the Center's Glasspockets effort.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511634173970c-800wiEveryone who has ever raised funds from foundations quickly learns that grantmaking professionals excel at asking questions—lots of them.  From the submission of the letter of inquiry to the completion of an online grants application form, to the face-to-face meeting with a funder, a grantseeker can face a seemingly endless series of questions.  In a refreshing change of pace, the Ford Foundation’s new Un-Survey puts its users in the interviewer’s chair, and invites its community to publicly ask the questions they wish the foundation would use its web site to answer.  In addition to posing a query, one can also view all of the questions that have already been asked, and then vote on the submitted questions to let the foundation know which ones are of most interest to its audience.

BrandmarkThe goal of the Un-Survey is to help inform the Ford Foundation’s web redesign process, and hopefully to unearth suggestions through this process that a traditional survey might have missed.  The thinking behind this is that in a traditional survey model, the questions asked have built-in assumptions and are shaped by the thinking of the survey writers themselves, and that the Un-Survey will serve to eliminate those assumptions and avoid leading its audience in a particular direction framed by the foundation.  It will be interesting to see if the Un-Survey lives up to this expectation, but at this early stage it seems a great example of an effort to expand participation, transparency, and accountability since anyone can ask a question, vote on those questions already asked, and help inform the direction of not just the web design, but ultimately of answers and knowledge to be shared.

In preparation for the Un-Survey Launch, Ford invited some well-known inquiring minds to get the inquiry started, and as a result some questions have already been submitted from Lucy Bernholz, Ben Hecht and Jillian York and others.  But in my view, the really important thing about the Un-Survey is that it is not only for thought leaders or a select few.  We are all being invited to be thought partners of the Ford Foundation.  What kind of transparency do you want to see on the Ford Foundation’s redesigned site?  Go ahead and ask. Maybe we will discover the path to an Un-Grant Application in the process!

-- Janet Camarena

Leadership and the Lessons of Change
April 21, 2014

(Grant Coates is President and CEO of The Miles Foundation, a Fort Worth-based foundation seeking to foster a thriving local community through innovative investments in education, economic opportunity, and leadership development. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's GrantCraft blog.)

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” - W. Edwards Deming

Grant_Coates_headshotI love this quote, because it reflects the necessity of change to stay relevant, but also our inherent reluctance to take that step forward. At The Miles Foundation this past year, we’ve certainly pushed ourselves to implement changes we believe will help propel us forward and build stronger partnerships – even when it has felt a little uncomfortable.

The great part of change, though, is what you learn through the process of transformation. With our first-ever Annual Report, a fresh website and new grantee stories published (along with an inaugural social media presence), our intentional focus on transparency and connectivity has been an exciting and informative journey.

One of the areas in which we have concentrated much of our efforts and gained significant insight is our grantee selection process – a key focus area noted in the GrantCraft and Glasspockets guide “Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency.”

What we received through the exercise of revising our grantee selection process – in addition to a more efficient, effective, and transparent approach – was a welcome revelation about the important role of leadership in our grantee partnerships.

This discovery began as we examined each of our grantee selection phases, so that we could clearly delineate (for our grantee candidates and ourselves) the specific evaluative criteria for each. Our three distinct phases included:

  • An on-site evaluation, which allows us to see, feel, and touch the grantee organization – observing how it functions on a daily basis, experiencing what the environment is like, and interacting one-on-one with its staff members;
  • A letter of interest, which enables us to efficiently sort through initial grant inquiries based on a set number of criteria, and select those that fit with our mission and funding profiles; and
  • A full application evaluation, which prompts us to ask detailed questions about the organization, its proposed program, and how it will measure success, to determine whether the grantee is an ideal partnership candidate.

For each of these selection phases, we identified qualification criteria, and ensured that certain evaluative factors carried more weight than others. Heavily weighted criteria, such as a nonprofit’s track record of achievement, an innovative program idea, or a well-designed plan could influence our likelihood of funding a particular program.

But we quickly began to see that one critical factor continued to rise above the rest. We found that effective leadership was the one element that was consistently present in successful programs, and thus, we concluded, would be one of the most significant indicators of a program’s potential for success and therefore our likelihood of funding.

It is easy to assume that every successful organization has it, but leadership often is what separates the “good” from the “great.”

Leadership is somewhat of an obvious success metric, but it’s hard to quantify, outside of past performance and experience. It is easy to assume that every successful organization has it, but leadership often is what separates the “good” from the “great.” The presence of powerful leadership is almost tangible – it’s a spirit that employees exude, a confidence that the organization embodies, and an impact that’s measurable – true leadership is, in short, a game-changer in the grantee selection process.

What can leadership do? It can drive a program agenda, inspire better results, and maintain accountability to a standard of excellence. Surely, we have seen that without strong leadership at the executive or management levels, even the best-laid plans can be thwarted. And so, leadership is now one of the key criteria we use when evaluating our potential partners.

Perhaps this discovery should not have been as much of a surprise. At The Miles Foundation, we believe in the power of leadership, as it’s one of our three core funding profiles. And as we move forward, our emphasis on leadership, both in our funding and our grantee selection process, will undoubtedly continue to grow.

Regardless, this past year has taught us that change is a good thing. For The Miles Foundation, we’ll embrace our continued path of transformation and discovery, with the hope that each revelation along the way will help guide us, and make us stronger, for the future.

-- Grant Coates

Gripes and Grievances: How An Applicant and Grantee “Complaint” Policy Improves Relationships
April 14, 2014

(Rebecca H. Donham is senior program officer at the MetroWest Health Foundation, an independent health philanthropy addressing the unmet health needs of the 25-town MetroWest region of Massachusetts.)

Rebecca Donham headshotThe MetroWest Health Foundation was created from the sale of a community asset – a two-campus suburban hospital.  As such, we feel a tremendous responsibility to the residents of the 25 towns we serve.  We’ve been entrusted with funds and seek to invest them wisely, both in terms of revenue generation as well as the grant distribution side.

We also embrace best practices. As a health funder, we understand there are programs and interventions that are evidence based, and therefore known to work. Since our founding 15 years ago, we’ve worked to encourage applicants to embrace best practices.

We welcome potential applicants and community members to meet with staff at any time, either before or after grant decisions. Our board meetings are even open to the public, including free dinner!

There are best practices for funders in terms of transparency and we have incorporated those into our work. We have a searchable grant database that allows anyone to see all the grants we’ve made and for what purposes. We post our financials, board and committee members, performance dashboards, strategic plans and other information on our website. We welcome potential applicants and community members to meet with staff at any time, either before or after grant decisions. Our board meetings are even open to the public, including free dinner!

Given the organization’s historical commitment to transparency, it makes sense that in 2007 the foundation’s board of trustees adopted a policy for handling complaints by applicants and grantees. The trustees viewed it as a way of walking the walk and fostering good community relations. The policy makes clear that grant and scholarship decisions are final and not subject to appeal, but that if there are complaints about the foundation’s grant process or work, we have a formal procedure to address them.

We post this policy on our website (http://www.mwhealth.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Public/Key_Policies/Complaints.pdf), along with ones addressing conflicts of interest, compensation, whistle blowing, site visits and sustainability. The last two go even further than what Glasspockets recommends and they speak to our strong commitment to transparency. Foundations can be seen as secretive and arbitrary, and we frequently are praised for being so up-front about how we do our work.

The foundation recently completed its third iteration of the Grantee Perception Report, the results of which (not surprisingly) are published on our web site. I think it is no coincidence that the foundation was rated higher than 90% of foundations in terms of our relationship with grantees. The results were similar in terms of how fairly grantees felt we treated them (>92%) and how comfortable they felt approaching us if a problem arose (>97%).

I would argue that there is zero downside to having a complaint policy. We’ve never had a complaint filed and having the policy publicly available on our website sends a message to the community that we care about fairness and transparency. Some might think this means grantee complaint and response mechanisms are not worth the investment, but quite to the contrary we find it supports and complements our organizational culture that prizes treating everyone respectfully and professionally. Maybe it’s because we’re a health funder, but we think it holds true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

-- Rebecca H. Donham

Vote for Glasspockets to Win a Webby Award!
April 10, 2014

We are delighted to announce that Glasspockets.org, the Foundation Center’s web site and initiative to champion greater philanthropic transparency, has been nominated for a Webby Award!  Glasspockets, originally launched in 2010, underwent a complete site redesign last year to improve usability and interactivity.  Webby, the online awards group "honoring excellence on the Internet" nominated Glasspockets in its Charitable Organizations/Nonprofit category as one of the five best web sites in the world in its category.

This means we are competing for the Internet industry's two most coveted awards: The Webby Award and The Webby People's Voice Award.  Since the People’s Voice Award is entirely based on audience selection, we ask you to please vote for Glasspockets.org today!  And please help us spread the word to your communities and vote by April 24th. Winners will be announced April 29th.

 -- Eliza Smith

Webinar Available On Demystifiying Funder Transparency
April 9, 2014

Opening Up CoverOn March 20, Glasspockets and GrantCraft held a “free coffee and conversation” webinar discussing the demystification of funder transparency featuring Mary Gregory of Pacific Foundation Services discussing transparency challenges and opportunities for family foundations. If you were unable to attend and would like to view the recording, it is available here. Co-sponsored by Northern California Grantmakers, GrantCraft  and Glasspockets provided an overview of the new guide, Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency, which delves into the innumerable benefits of funder transparency, including increased public trust and greater credibility. Mary Gregory then discussed how transparency strengthens grantee relationships. This webinar series on transparency will continue exploring further chapters in the resource guide with other guest funders. Stay tuned to Transparency Talk for more updates.

-- Eliza Smith

A Gender Data Revolution
April 7, 2014

(Yinebon Iniya is manager, International Data Relations at the Foundation Center.)

Iniya-150With today’s technology, the public’s appetite for transparency and tracking outcomes has only increased. There is a growing demand for philanthropic players with specific interests in health, education, art, and human rights to provide metrics that show progress, especially in a world that is looking beyond the Millennium Development Goals, to the post-2015 Development Agenda. The Foundation Center, which continues to increase its data on global organizations, understands that the key to progress is to cultivate partnerships that help us do more than just acquire grantmaker data. Partnerships help us understand and frame key issues, providing us with unique opportunities to collaborate effectively and create ideas together.

In some cases, these collaborations become a web site, such as WASHfunders, which the Foundation Center created with seeding funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation as a one-stop shop for funding and needs-related data and information for donors, policymakers, and stakeholders interested in water, sanitation, and hygiene. Another example is BMAfunders, a project of the Open Society Foundations and the Foundation Center that facilitates engagement, collaboration, and strategic decision making in the field of black male achievement.

But what about gender-related issues? Data 2X, announced in 2012 as a partnership between the UN Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the U.S. Government, and the office of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has the following goals:

To advance gender equality and women’s empowerment and further global economic and social gains through improved data collection and analysis that can guide policy, better leverage investments and inform global development agendas.

Data 2X created a report that identifies five key gender-related areas that need to be addressed: health, education, economic opportunity, political participation, and human security. The report suggests improving data collection by compiling information from various sources, including micro-level surveys, administrative records, and census data. The report also mentions that big data and mobile technology can fill many of the gaps in collecting information such as access to financial services, distance traveled for work, remittances, and connections with others while working away from home.

Earlier this month in New York City, Data 2X helped organize a roundtable discussion, New Strategies for a Gender Data Revolution, which consisted of two panels from statistical organizations that delved into these issues. The first panel featured Mayra Buvinic of the UN Foundation Data 2X team, Marcia Quintslr of Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, Ola Awad of Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and Lina Castro of the Philippine Statistical Authority.

One key challenge is to empower users—from women to governments, policymakers, foundations, NGOs, local organizations, universities, and other statistical organizations—to utilize the data in ways that benefit them.

The second panel included Pali Lehohla of Statistics South Africa, Imelda Musana of Uganda Bureau of Statistics, Félix Vélez Fernández Valera of the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics (INEGI), and Neil Jackson of the Department for International Development (UK).

While each member made their points about new data collection and compilation, there was an acknowledgement about the existing data that could help provide additional answers. Ms. Bulvinic stated that the emphasis was really on the data quality, availability, openness, efficiency, and usability.

Mr. Lahola was jovial yet frank as he recounted a story analyzing the unfairness of something as simple as the bathroom sizes between men and women, and he used that as a basis to make his point about unconscious biases that exist, possibly distorting the understanding of statistics.

The most resonating comment of the afternoon was made by Ms. Musana, who indicated that while Uganda collects gender-related data, it is important to know the eventual outcome of data collection and how it is being used. She cited that in some cases they run statistical reports just because they are asked to—although she noted considerable progress has been made in data compilation.

All the panelists agreed that many gaps remain; some of the speakers added that one key challenge is to empower users—from women to governments, policymakers, foundations, NGOs, local organizations, universities, and other statistical organizations—to utilize the data in ways that benefit them.

The discussion was chaired by Ruth Levine, director of the Global Development and Population Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who indicated that it was imperative to get input from the primary producers of economic and social statistics, and it is important for them to have the capacity to initiate and sustain their programs.

Will these ideas lead to a web site dedicated to gender-related issues—similar to the web sites for WASHfunders and BMAfunders? Judging from the conversation at this event, it is long overdue.

-- Bon Iniya

Inviting Grantees to the Table
April 1, 2014

(Austin Long is a manager at the Center for Effective Philanthropy and leads relationships with funders using CEP's assessment tools. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and to funder boards and staff on topics of grantee, donor, and foundation staff feedback. This post originally appeared on the CEP blog.)

Long CEP headshot 150x150In a recent blog post from my colleague at the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Kevin Bolduc, he shared inspiring examples of two funders trying something a bit different: sharing the results of their Grantee Perception Reports (GPR) in-person with their grantees. While we often see foundations sharing their GPR results publicly, it is all too rare that grantees are invited to join the conversation when CEP engages in discussions about the results with staff and boards.

This past October, I had the opportunity to discuss the results of one foundation’s GPR with both its staff and grantees, and I wanted to share more about the experience. My hope is that it may encourage other funders to consider these unconventional but incredibly valuable opportunities to connect with grantees.

The Whitman Institute (TWI) cites its mission as investing in “the power of relationships, constructive dialogue and the connections they generate to trigger problem solving and creative approaches.” As a result, an important part of surveying their grantees was communicating back to them about what the Institute learned.

It was an ideal opportunity to hear insightful and specific suggestions from grantees—both anonymously from the Grantee Perception Report results but also delivered there.

After receiving its Grantee Perception Report in August of 2013 and participating in a conversation between CEP, the board and staff shortly thereafter, TWI decided that its annual grantee convening in October would be the ideal time to facilitate a further dialogue about the feedback.

On a sunny weekend in Santa Cruz, about 100 grantees, other funders, and stakeholders from all over the country came together for TWI’s annual convening and to discuss the GPR findings. In keeping with TWI’s values, the goal of the day was not only for me to report back to grantees about TWI’s exceptionally positive feedback and ratings compared to other funders, but also to facilitate a dialogue about what to do next.

It was an ideal opportunity to hear insightful and specific suggestions from grantees—both anonymously from the GPR results but also delivered there—about how the Institute could strengthen their work together. Standing in front of the room, it was amazing to see some grantees actually defending TWI in some areas where it was rated relatively less positively; grantees also reinforced what they felt to be TWI’s strengths, and shared personal perspectives on the key opportunities to improve.

For the second half of the meeting, TWI asked groups of grantees to formulate ideas and discuss next steps about acting on the GPR recommendations. Grantees had very insightful suggestions to share, illustrating what I consider to be one of the most valuable aspects of this type of meeting—the opportunity for a funder to hear specific suggestions and ideas from the individuals and organizations that it has chosen to help them create impact. These group conversations allowed TWI to accelerate its ability to act on the guidance from the report.

Of course, it’s not possible for every funder to convene all of its grantees and stakeholders in one place. But for TWI, it was about much more than simply having the right people together in the same location; it was about using open dialogue and grantee feedback to build stronger relationships and meaningfully improve the ability of the Institute to achieve its vision.

Now isn’t that a conversation worth having?

-- Austin Long

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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, 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.

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