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June 2014 (5 posts)

Shaking Up Our Assumptions with an Un-Survey
June 30, 2014

(Bob Pullin is the chief of digital engagement at the Ford Foundation. In his position, he is focused on using technology to help build relationships with key audiences mostly through the web site and social media.)

BobPullin_DixonFordPort112513-309We’re all inundated with information in a super-saturated media environment, so as we begin the redesign of the Ford Foundation website we have to ask ourselves: “Why would the social change makers we want to reach spend time on our site to begin with?” 

To answer that question, we decided to turn the traditional online survey model on its head and let our audiences ask us questions instead of the other way around. We called it the Un-Survey.

The Un-Survey is an experiment, one that we hoped could help us:

  • Unearth the kinds of information our audiences would find valuable
  • Deliver on our commitment to transparency in a way that’s genuinely useful to others (Transparency can’t be limited to only what we want to share—we have to share what our audiences want to know)
  • Foster a creative environment that helps break down the boundaries between those inside and outside the foundation
Since we launched the Un-Survey six weeks ago, visitors have submitted over 120 questions. These questions have changed the way we think about our audiences’ interests and needs, inspiring us to pursue new ideas about content and functionality.

Since we launched the Un-Survey six weeks ago, visitors have submitted over 120 questions. These questions have changed the way we think about our audiences’ interests and needs, inspiring us to pursue new ideas about content and functionality. What’s been great about the engagement is the questions are astute and ask very specific details about Ford’s approach to social change and the practice of philanthropy. (They were also remarkably on topic, which is not always the case when you open up to a wide community.) What’s more, many of the questions go beyond how and what we communicate on the website and focus instead on our institutional and programmatic strategy. We’ve shared those higher-level questions with our leadership team, and they’ve found them illuminating as well. 

Blogging about the launch of the Un-Survey, Janet Camarena summed up our intention well: “We are all being invited to be thought partners of the Ford Foundation.” We knew we were crowdsourcing to a very smart audience, but the quality of that thought partnership exceeded our expectations, with some questions building on earlier ones and making the sum greater than the parts. And because the questions are available for any other interested foundations to read, we can all tap into the creative and diverse thinking of the social change makers who participated. 

What We’ve Learned

The Un-Survey helped us deepen our empathy for our audience. We can now put ourselves more fully into our visitors’ shoes and—even more exciting—we now have a clearer sense of their aspirations for us: 

  • They would like to see greater collaboration within the funder and grantee communities around shared goals, with Ford helping to facilitate
  • Our community is asking us to more fully explain how we conceive of and execute our role as a philanthropic institution
  • They are eager for us to share more about our progress—not only about our successes but also about what is not working

We hope our social change audiences see the Un-Survey as an opportunity to have a meaningful influence on the next version of the website. Of course we know what the real measure of this experiment is: whether we deliver on what our audiences asked for. That’s our next big challenge—and it’s one we’re excited to take on.

-- Bob Pullin

Tracking Outcomes: The Message is “Keep it Simple”
June 25, 2014

(Eliza Smith is the Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiEarlier this month, I attended a meeting the SF Bay Area Chapter of the Technology Affinity Group (TAG), focused on how technology tools can improve grant performance measurement, particularly if grantmakers are careful to not overcomplicate the process. Several representatives from foundations across the Bay Area convened to discuss outcomes tracking, and new technology platforms and methods that foundations are using to provide more accurate and concise data on grant activities and impact. Three speakers gave presentations on the subject: Kevin Rafter, Manager of Impact Assessment and Learning at the James Irvine Foundation; Anna Lindgren, Assistant to the President at the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment; and Rem Hoffman, Chief Executive Officer at Exponent Partners.

The Foundation has managed to scale down its entire tracking system, mixing quantitative and qualitative data examine where their grantees are in the implementation process: the end result is a clean and accessible data model.

Each speaker addressed the need for a simplification of outcomes tracking. Rafter used the phrase “simplify and smallify,” which the Irvine Foundation has used as a sort of mantra for revising their grantee performance tracking system. The Foundation has managed to scale down its entire tracking system, mixing quantitative and qualitative data examine where their grantees are in the implementation process: the end result is a clean and accessible data model. Moreover, the Foundation is doing its best to alleviate the stress that surrounds evaluation by shifting the focus from stringent observation and measurement analysis to develop a culture of learning. With this shift in focus, Rafter explained that the stigma of evaluation and the threat it presents to programs should evaporate; the Foundation will examine outcomes of various grants holistically with an emphasis on learning, betterment, and experimentation.

Lindgren relayed the Campbell Foundation’s experience developing and more recently, completely overhauling, their custom outcomes tracking model. The Foundation initially worked to create a complex taxonomy for analyzing the products of grant use. Lindgren and her colleagues quickly found that their system was clunky and unwieldy: while they had classifications for various outcomes, there were so many categories that the taxonomy ultimately proved unhelpful. Similar to Rafter and his staff at the Irvine Foundation, Lindgren and her team found that a shift to a much simpler, pared-down system provided far more usable data. Currently, the Campbell Foundation’s team is working on developing data visualizations to accompany their “smallified” outcomes tracking system.

Finally, Hoffman presented on his company, Exponent Partners. Hoffman and his team provide nonprofits with customizable databases that track outcomes and generate analyses of program impact. Much like Rafter and Lindgren, Hoffman emphasized the importance of standardization and simplification of outcomes tracking.

Following the presentations, the entire group discussed the merits of standardization for not only outcomes tracking, but the philanthropic sector at large. Jeannine Corey’s blog post about the Foundation Center’s effort to develop a new taxonomy came up: the call for standardization is increasing exponentially. As we seek out new ways to develop a common language sector-wide, we promote openness, understanding, and transparency between foundations, organizations, and the benefitting public.

How has your foundation or organization benefitted from implementing simplified, “smallified,” or standardized practices?

-- Eliza Smith

IssueLab’s Collection Offers Important Example for the Field of Philanthropy
June 17, 2014

(Ned Schaub is principal at Ned Schaub Consulting – Social Change Strategy, and has collaborated with palliative care organizations and leaders around the country for a decade. He helps organizations, including foundations and their grantees, articulate the social change they will achieve, and related sustainability, business, and strategic plans.)

1390262883Almost a decade ago I had the good fortune to be asked by a foundation to look into potential grantmaking in the fields of hospice and palliative care, which led to a master’s thesis about palliative care grantmaking and the advancement of the field. I was struck then by the relatively limited ways that foundations working in the field collaborated, and the degree to which many foundations had no idea what palliative care was.

Certainly a lot has changed in the last ten years, but after seeing IssueLab’s newly launched collection, Improving Access to Palliative Care, I had to wonder what might have happened if this collection of documents had existed then? How much faster might the foundation I worked for have investigated the possibilities, and how much more compelling might the opportunities for social change and return on grantmaking investment have been?

Many in the field of palliative care are working hard to foster greater transparency between healthcare professionals and patients, making choices more obvious and decision-making easier for patients and their families. This represents a real shift from the traditional model where doctors held most, if not all, the decision-making authority.

Many in the field of palliative care are working hard to foster greater transparency between healthcare professionals and patients, making choices more obvious and decision-making easier for patients and their families. This represents a real shift from the traditional model where doctors held most, if not all, the decision-making authority. Fittingly, this new collection of palliative care documents from IssueLab also does the same for philanthropy, encouraging greater transparency about what we have learned from years of work in the field of palliative care, potentially helping to make funding choices more obvious and decision-making easier for grantmakers.

The collection includes more than eighty documents that bring together “evidence and insights about the millions of people who are denied access to palliative care and what organizations worldwide are doing to help them.” It was made possible by support from Atlantic Philanthropies, which has invested $58.5 million in palliative care over the last decade and is now considering the best ways to extend its legacy as it prepares to close its doors in 2020.

The documents included in the collection represent knowledge gained by Atlantic, other foundations, practitioners, and nonprofits – as opposed to strictly clinical or academic research entities. The documents offer a vivid demonstration of just how much hard work has gone into advancing palliative care and make obvious the different ways that foundations have contributed to creating change in this field. It is a rich collection, which groups the documents into categories indicated by three key questions about palliative care: Who is affected? What are common barriers? What are some recommended solutions?

While the collection is an asset to the field of palliative care advancement generally speaking, it also has special significance for palliative care philanthropy going forward. Because of the way it has been set up it serves as rich repository for those seeking to initiate palliative care grantmaking, as well as for foundations already working in the field that want to make deeper impact and work in more strategic and sustainable ways. By focusing on what has already been realized by philanthropy – which is represented so vividly in this collection – there is a real opportunity to beat the learning curve and ensure greater return on investment with foundation dollars.  

Just as importantly, the collection is a model for how foundations could better support the gathering of key information, related to their work. It seems that foundations are more likely to reflect, and to invest time and resources, when they are leaving a particular field or closing their doors altogether. While such reflection is valuable, foundations could be learning more from one another and advancing more highly strategic grantmaking with greater collective impact if they built such thoughtfully organized repositories well before they ended their efforts. So much information-gathering and decision-making carried out by foundations is recorded in internal documents that are never shared beyond staff, consultant, and board teams. What if more of these documents were made public through outlets like IssueLab?

-- Ned Schaub

Transparency in Family Foundations: The Strength of Glasspockets
June 9, 2014

(Jean Whitney is former executive director of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation and a current board member of Associated Grant Makers.  She has decades of experience in working with family foundations. A version of this post appeared earlier on Family Giving News.)

Jean-whitney-150x150Family foundations, by their very nature, are complex. With significant involvement of family members on the board and sometimes in operations as well, there can be layers of generations, widely divergent views, and the need to preserve positive family relationships.  This complexity is a challenge but not an excuse for avoiding transparency or openness about how family foundations do their work.

At the recent National Forum on Family Philanthropy in Cambridge, MA sponsored by the National Center for Family Philanthropy, a session on Transparency in the Family Philanthropy Context did much to illuminate the continuum of viewpoints on the issue as well as to provide valuable resources to improve practice.

With advances in technology and social media, the question today is not whether or not to be transparent, but how to be transparent – and how far to take your efforts to be fully transparent.

Why worry about transparency?  On one end of the spectrum of views is the argument that many families prefer to do their philanthropic work quietly, with some degree of privacy for their choice of interest and funding decisions.  Humility is, after all, part of the tradition of American philanthropy and too much transparency can bring interest from parties ranging from friends and business colleagues to government regulators.  On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that all foundations have an obligation to be accountable to the public and that being accountable requires some degree of openness.  The conversation about foundation accountability also includes the question of foundation impact.  Can a foundation establish trust, create partnerships, and achieve the outcomes it desires without being transparent? With advances in technology and social media, the question today is not whether or not to be transparent, but how to be transparent – and how far to take your efforts to be fully transparent. “The data is out there…,” they say, and the most effective families invest in managing how information about their giving and practice is shared.

Best practices for foundations aiming for greater transparency include basics like having a web site, posting guidelines and listing grants. As someone who has worked in the field of family philanthropy for many years, I think my colleagues in the field will find the Foundation Center and its Glasspockets web site to be a great resource.  Glasspockets resources include a helpfullist of 23 indicators of transparency and accountability for foundations and also a wealth of practical resources to assist any foundation in becoming more transparent.  The site even includes a “Foundation Web Builder” service to help foundations get started if they lack a web presence.  The name of the web site comes from a quote by Russell Leffingwell, a banker and Carnegie Foundation board member, testifying in 1952 before a Congressional Committee investigating foundations for the support of un-American activities.  He said, “So far as there is a justification -- and I am sure there is -- for the existence of these institutions, it is that they serve the public good. If they are not willing to tell what they do to serve the public good, then as far as I am concerned they ought to be closed down.” And one of his most quoted statements is that "We think that the foundation should have glass pockets."  

A key distinction discussed by the session participants was  between transparency about the “product” of a foundation’s work (e.g., grants, results against strategies, etc) and the “process” it uses (meeting deliberations, criteria for funding, internal planning documents, board selection and terms). Many family foundations would agree that sharing much of the process publicly can be difficult.  And that it’s unnecessary.  While younger family members who are used to sharing everything in their lives on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram may disagree, more experienced family members say that intentional dialogues and training can help tap the best of both perspectives and encourage a practice that lies somewhere in between.

Whether or not a foundation makes an effort to share information publicly about its work, there is already plenty of information out there. The 990s have been accessible to the public for some time, but the next few years will bring the advent of mandatory online tax filing.  In addition, new web sites have sprung up that invite public ratings of foundations and invite feedback from stakeholders to assess foundations

Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, advises that the best way for the field of philanthropy to be responsible and to protect itself is to be proactive and to frame its work. For a family foundation, this starts with developing a web site where it can tell its story, talk about its interests and share its aspirations.  The unique stories of families are often both compelling and inspirational. Why leave information about the family’s history, passions and work for others to interpret when you can communicate this most clearly yourselves?  This takes some work, but so many resources exist and a lot can be accomplished in short order.

Many foundations may find that the path to being more open leads to thoughtful discussions on present efforts and future directions.  This can only translate into becoming more effective and spur greater collaboration.  Who knew that having glass pockets could add such strength?

-- Jean Whitney

Mission: Critical Transparency in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
June 4, 2014

(G. Albert Ruesga is the president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.)

Ruesga-150Next year we mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I can’t say it will be a defining moment for our city or for our foundation—so many of these occurred shortly after the storm. But it will be an important time to reflect on what’s changed and what hasn’t changed over the past decade.

Katrina’s landfall in August of 2005 was a wake-up call for the city’s leadership. Clearly, whatever the Foundation had done to serve New Orleans and the region before Katrina needed to be re-imagined.

Early in the aftermath of the storm, the Greater New Orleans Foundation worked in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to help lead a planning process for the city called the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). This planning process, which sought input from as many residents and neighborhoods as possible, identified affordable housing as a top priority. This was not surprising in light of the colossal destruction of the storm.

This was a big step for the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an opening up, the beginning of a commitment to draw our knowledge and strength from outside our walls.

The Foundation got to work. Not long after the UNOP plan, the Foundation designed and implemented a $25 million initiative to support the creation of mixed-income, mixed-used affordable housing and also, initially, to help city government, community development corporations, and other agencies get back on their feet. Twenty-one local and national foundations contributed to the fund and worked together to share data, knowledge, and expertise. The initiative was enormously successful, helping over 9,000 residents find affordable homes and strengthening key housing organizations in the city.

Since that time, the Foundation has remained committed to ever-greater community engagement in its work. We’ve done this in small steps.

We began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines.

Early on, for example, we began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines. We used a design team composed of grantees to determine the form and content of our emerging work in organizational effectiveness (a.k.a. “capacity building”). Now in its fourth year, our organizational effectiveness work often uses “communities of practice,” cohorts of grantees who act as co-designers and co-leaders of these learning communities. We were one of the first foundations to open key pages of our website to comments and criticism from community members, committing to respond to these in no less than 48 hours.

Our commitment to increased community engagement extended to our donors as well. For several years we hosted a program called “Circle Talks” in which members of our donor community were invited to learn about our work and to push back, suggesting new approaches for rebuilding the region and holding us accountable to our mission.

We’ve also done something I believe few other foundations have: in our discretionary grantmaking guidelines we describe not only what we fund, but why; we provide a rationale for what we include in our guidelines as well as what we exclude. This is an invitation for grantees and others to challenge and thereby improve our thinking.

We’re still learning how to make our organization more transparent, more porous, more open to the influence of our stakeholders. We aim for what we call “mission-appropriate” transparency, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because without it our work would clearly suffer.

 -- G. Albert Ruesga

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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.

    Questions and comments may be
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    Director, Transparency Initiatives
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