Transparency Talk

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December 2014 (7 posts)

Transparency, Yes, with Governance and Excellence
December 29, 2014

(Ronald van der Giessen is the CEO of Oranje FondsThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

RVDGiessenJo Andrews argues that increased transparency may not always be a good thing, and gives two examples where she sees dangers. With her examples she inadvertently highlights the importance of continued attention towards increasing transparency.

Her first argument is that handing out data and information also gives ammunition to ‘those passionately opposed to our ideals’. That is exactly the way democracies work: if we cannot find better arguments against the crossfire of ‘those passionately opposed’, you might conclude that our actions were not best in class.

Second, she points out the risks that recipients of our grants in a potentially hostile political climate (she gives the examples of Hungary and Uganda) might run when opponents get wind of our openly advertised, well-meant gifts. The problem is that they run potentially even more risks when receiving our monies secretly because open relations with parties abroad provide better shelter than nothing.

In 2004, when we founded Oranje Fonds (the national foundation for social development in the Netherlands), we took transparency as one of three values for our foundation, the others being governance and excellence. And, as is the way with values, they have no limits.

If we cannot find better arguments against the crossfire of ‘those passionately opposed’, you might conclude that our actions were not best in class.

No matter how well you run your foundation, it can always be run better. However good your governance standards, society forces you to continuously review your governance principles and assumptions and to adapt and improve accordingly.

Transparency has proved to be the most accessible value for everybody inside and outside our foundation; governance and excellence are part of the professional domain, but transparency rings a bell for everyone, regardless of education and intellectual capacities.

For our colleagues it means that they have access to all the information in our system (apart from the personal files, which fall under the Law on Privacy). Every week we invest half an hour of everybody’s time in an information session in which we evaluate and present our plans, decisions and actions.

For our applicants it means that they have full access to decisions concerning their grant application, and that they may contest grant decisions. For all others outside the foundation, it means they can inform themselves about our policies and our grants.

It has made us at Oranje Fonds aware of the need for consistent argumentation, a reliably fast application procedure, and in-depth analysis of every possible consequence of our grants – for us as grantmakers, not wishing to create unwanted precedents; for our grantees, not wanting to burden them with unrealistic expectations or unachievable aims.

Over the last ten years we have seen that transparency is time and again the key to improving governance and excellence. The three together provide us with a most sound foundation for our foundation!

-- Ronald van der Giessen

When Is Transparency a Really Good Idea?
December 23, 2014

(Brad Smith is the president of Foundation CenterThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

Brad SmithWhen it comes to philanthropy, the answer to this question is a simple one: almost always. This may seem to put me at odds with Jo Andrews’ well-reasoned argument against transparency in all circumstances, but it doesn’t.

Jo is not really talking about philanthropy writ large, but rather a small group of funders with which she has had the privilege to work directly or collaboratively through her leadership of Ariadne (European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights). In her sphere she has indeed been a data warrior. But her sphere is specific and modestly sized: the funders she works with number in the low hundreds, whereas there are over 200,000 public benefit foundations in the US and Europe alone.

Jo rightly points to foundations’ unique independence as precisely what makes them so appropriate for supporting high-risk activities dealing with human rights. But the reality is that the vast majority of funders do not get anywhere near these issues.

The reality is that the vast majority of work done by funders, be it through grants or operating programmes, is in areas that are rarely controversial. In the US, where Foundation Center has access to comprehensive and detailed data on the grants of all foundations – thanks to regulatory oversight that requires baseline transparency – we know that more than 60 per cent of all foundation philanthropy goes to health and education. Survey data from other parts of the world shows similar priorities. Jo rightly points to foundations’ unique independence as precisely what makes them so appropriate for supporting high-risk activities dealing with human rights. But the reality is that the vast majority of funders do not get anywhere near these issues.

I couldn’t agree more that funders who do take risks have a responsibility to minimize potential danger for their grantee partners. This principle is embodied in the Global Philanthropy Data Charter, developed by the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), which states: ‘Data should be public in principle, but clear policies and procedures should be implemented to ensure an adequate balance between openness and privacy and security.’ This can be easily accomplished by making the recipient of a grant, or even the donor if necessary, appear as ‘anonymous’. But even among funders who do work on human rights issues, many of their grants are not particularly controversial. The Sigrid Rausing Trust sees no need to make its £9.6 million support for Human Rights Watch anonymous. Why should it?

So while I agree with Jo on many of her core points, I am worried that, much like the Hungarian government that she criticizes for using ‘left-leaning’ NGOs as an excuse for a blanket crackdown on foreign funding, foundations will too easily use the exception to justify the rule. Too many times I have heard funders talk about their work being so sensitive that data about it cannot be shared, when in fact the vast majority of their work is not sensitive at all.

While I agree with Jo on many of her core points, I am worried that... foundations will too easily use the exception to justify the rule. Too many times I have heard funders talk about their work being so sensitive that data about it cannot be shared, when in fact the vast majority of their work is not sensitive at all.

As president of Foundation Center – an organization created by foundations that saw transparency as the best way to respond to McCarthy-era hearings accusing them of supporting communism – I believe in the concept very deeply. Transparency is entirely appropriate for organizations that receive some kind of tax benefit in exchange for providing public benefit. It is a valuable means of informing the public while also supporting foundation collaboration and sharing the kind of knowledge and lessons learned that alone can make funding more effective in the future.

As I write, I am also plagued by the nagging feeling that we may be caught up in yesterday’s debate. In an era of Big Data, in which governments either abuse or struggle to protect citizens’ information while those same citizens open up their lives on mobile phones and through Facebook, secrets of any kind are getting harder to hold. The idea that a foundation could fund something that no one would know about seems increasingly unrealistic in our digital world – and perhaps a bit dangerous.

Transparency is inevitable. Being wise and proactive about how philanthropy uses its information is imperative; believing that we can continue to fly beneath the radar is impractical.

-- Brad Smith

When Is Transparency a Really Bad Idea?
December 22, 2014

(Jo Andrews is director of Ariadne European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights. Email jo.andrews@ariadne-network.eu This article was originally featured in Alliance Magazine.)

Jo AndrewsFashions in philanthropy can be every bit as startling as the catwalk: evaluation methods and grantmaking approaches change as fast as hemlines. But one fashion that is probably here to stay (a bit like men’s suits) is transparency, which makes it worth taking a longer look at.

Transparency for funders is a helpful idea, but it’s not a panacea. If private foundations and grantmakers think it is, then their attempts to bring a measure of sunlight to a sector shrouded in mist are likely to fail or, much worse, do damage. We need to recognize that glass-pocket principles need to be more nuanced than they have been so far and that there are circumstances in which transparency can be a really bad idea. This is not saying funders should not share data – they should, as there are significant benefits – but we need to think harder about what we share publicly.

We need to recognize that glass-pocket principles need to be more nuanced than they have been so far and that there are circumstances in which transparency can be a really bad idea... we need to think harder about what we share publicly.

This won’t be an entirely welcome message. But it comes from someone who has put in time as a data warrior, persuading foundations to contribute details of their grantmaking to the part private, part public Advancing Human Rights: Knowledge Tools for Funders project created by the Foundation Center, the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG), Ariadne and the International Network of Women’s Funds (INWF). The project has now processed nearly 75,000 grants and the publicly available analysis is transformative. And the project will become more powerful over time as we track trends.

The private part of the project drills down much further and shows which grantmaker made what grant to which organization for what purpose and at what date. It makes a host of previously expensive and time-consuming activities cheap and simple. This is available only to Ariadne, IHRFG and INWF participants, because this is the level at which transparency becomes more difficult.

Effectively the Knowledge Tools project and others like it allow us as grantmakers to take off our blindfolds and pin the tail on the donkey with some clarity. The trouble is that we aren’t the only ones interested in where the tail goes. When we publish detailed data we hand information to the media, governments, corporations, bloggers and those passionately opposed to our ideals. At a time when the space for civil society is closing and cross-border funding is becoming contested, this is potentially dangerous – especially, but not only, in the fields of human rights and social change.

Once this data is public, it remains public permanently... We simply can’t tell how things will play out, so caution is vital and the safety of those on the ground needs to be paramount.

Here’s an example: at the request of the European Union, Norway Grants has funded a number of civil society groups, including human rights groups in the EU and neighbouring countries. In Hungary, the government accused the Norwegians and the local grantmakers who administer the funds of political meddling. It carried out what appear to be unauthorized early morning ‘audits’, removing and publishing a list of grantrecipients, calling some of them ‘problematic’ and ‘left-leaning’. This is extremely worrying coming from an EU member, and 20 Ariadne members have condemned it. In this atmosphere is it sensible to be transparent about grantmaking to Hungarian organizations, now or in future? How much danger do we put grant recipients in?

Once this data is public, it remains public permanently, so 2010 data on grants to LGBT organizations in Uganda had the power to endanger lives when the Ugandan government passed laws against ‘aggravated homosexuality’. We simply can’t tell how things will play out, so caution is vital and the safety of those on the ground needs to be paramount. This doesn’t apply just to human rights funders; those funding in the fields of the environment, women and girls, reproductive rights, labour rights and supply chains also need to be cautious.

The second and more domestic problem centres on accountability and trustworthiness. Transparency is not the same as either and shouldn’t be mistaken for them. It might contribute to them; there again it could detract from them. One of the greatest and most important freedoms private foundations have is that they are not accountable in the same way as public bodies or politicians. The Daily Mail or other tabloid newspapers may huff and puff all they wish, but a funder can do what they think is right as long as it’s lawful. My concern is not in handing over the information but in how it will be used, the impact on the sector’s reasonable reputation for trustworthiness, and the impact on a sector that already finds it difficult to take risks.

Increased transparency means these attacks will grow; it will undoubtedly make how we give away funds more contested in the UK and Europe, as it already is in the US. How do we develop the resilience and the skills to deal with that?

-- Jo Andrews

Transparency Chat: Why Transparency Matters, and What It Takes
December 18, 2014

PhilbPhil Buchanan is the president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy, which recently received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Phil Buchanan about the work this grant will fund.

Janet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Phil Buchanan: We see in our surveys of grantees that one of the most important dimensions in their views of foundations is the perception that foundations are clear about their goals and strategies. They are looking for specificity about what foundations are trying to do, how they are trying to do it, and how they fit in. They’re not especially concerned about 990-PFs, annual reports, or charter documents – but they care about the specifics of the work, and what foundations are learning about what is and isn’t working. All of that affects grantees’ abilities to be effective in pursuit of shared goals. So I think openness and effectiveness often go hand in hand.

CEP LogoJC: Your specific funded project is a research project and publication entitled, “Foundation Transparency: Why It Matters and What It Takes”.  Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be. Also, when do you expect the report to be available?

PB: We’ll be analyzing our data set of grantee perceptions of foundations on several questions about transparency that we added to our grantee survey in recent years. This will allow us to profile the exemplars. What do they do? Why do they do it? We’ll also look at foundations’ attitudes and practices with respect to transparency and we’ll connect those to the grantee experience. We can also examine the relationship between grantees’ perceptions of transparency and their perceptions of foundations’ impact – what is the connection? Our report on results will be available in early 2016.

JC: One of the assumptions about any data related to philanthropy and perceptions is that there is a positivity-bias among those grantees who have received funds and a negativity-bias among those how have been declined support.  How does CEP overcome that challenge in its work?

I think almost all powerful institutions can be resistant to change. But what we have seen is that foundations can – and often do – change in response to relevant data about how they are doing. Colleagues influencing colleagues – that is a powerful part of the change equation.

PB: As critical as nonprofits can be of funders in general – and they can be – they of course tend to rate the specific foundations that fund them toward the high end of an absolute scale on most dimensions. That’s not surprising – they’re getting crucial funding from these institutions. But there is meaningful variation within the range of average ratings that foundations receive. That’s why comparative data is so crucial. We are able to compare results across hundreds of foundations whose tens of thousands of grantees we have surveyed. That way a foundation can understand what are really strengths and what are weaknesses – or, in the euphemistic jargon of today, “opportunities for improvement.”

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?​

PB: I think almost all powerful institutions can be resistant to change. But what we have seen is that foundations can – and often do – change in response to relevant data about how they are doing. That’s been the inspiring part of our work at CEP for the past 13 years. We have seen, and evaluations have confirmed, that foundations change practice in response to our research reports and assessment tools – and that those changes are experienced as positive by grantees. Not all the time, and not every foundation. But a meaningful number. There are some ways to make it easier for foundations, including sharing exemplars of various types from which they can learn. Colleagues influencing colleagues – that is a powerful part of the change equation.

-- Phil Buchanan

Declining a Grant: How Funders Can Help Turn a Negative into a Positive
December 11, 2014

(Steven Green is the director of grants management and administration at the Jim Joseph Foundation.This post was originally featured on the GrantCraft blog.)
 
StevenGreenJJFdnWhen I am asked what I do for a living, I often explain my role as a program professional at the Jim Joseph Foundation, working to support compelling and effective Jewish learning opportunities. Or, sometimes, I discuss my particular role in the Foundation’s grants management process. What I often gloss over entirely is the seemingly less glamorous responsibility of managing the Foundation’s declination process—basically carrying out the Foundation’s collective decision to sometimes say “No” to a potential grantee. Even with a policy of accepting grant inquiries by invitation only, this is an important and necessary part of the grantmaking process.

Examining this declination responsibility raises questions and offers important lessons both for funders and for organizations. On a fundamental level, are we abrogating our responsibility of;Tzedakah(charitable giving) whenever we say no to a meaningful cause? When an organization’s grant request is declined—admittedly, not the answer it was seeking—are there any positives it can take away from the process?

JJFdnTo properly address both questions, we should first acknowledge a simple truth - saying “No” can be challenging. The Jim Joseph Foundation is privileged to work with passionate and determined grantees—and always searches for the next successful initiative. Still, while the Foundation has affected tens of thousands of Jewish youth and young adults (Jim Joseph Foundation Portfolio Analysis), all pools of funds are finite; all grants have their limitations in terms of scope and reach. This fact only makes saying “No” more difficult. It goes against our desire to help support more Jewish learning opportunities.

We want to be positive but not patronizing, direct without being disrespectful, and still find a way to be helpful.

So how does the Foundation both approach and implement its declination process? One of the foremost, authoritative documents in Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, states: “One able to motivate others to contribute receives greater reward than the giver (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 249:5).” We believe this holds true in our philanthropic world. Many of the potential grantees who reach out to the Jim Joseph Foundation represent organizations or institutions with which we would hope to maintain ongoing relationships, regardless of whether the Foundation awards a grant. These include summer camps, day schools, social service organizations, study abroad programs, universities, Federations, and many other worthwhile institutions with pressing capital needs. We want to be positive but not patronizing, direct without being disrespectful, and still find a way to be helpful.

A foundation can, in fact, turn the moment of declination into positive outcomes for the grantseeker by being transparent about funding priorities, delivering the message with clarity and with sensitivity, and by assisting, as appropriate, in other ways. This includes:

  1. Helping the organization better understand the strategic priorities of the funder, leaving open the possibility for future funder-organization alignment
  2. Identifying other potential funders that are a better fit for the organization or specific initiative

For the applicant itself, the organization can act intentionally after the grant process and improve efficiency and effectiveness by:

  1. Expending less of the organization’s fiscal resources on pursuing grants that do not align with its mission
  2. Reassessing the proposed grant to learn what about it could be more compelling or perhaps adapted to align with a specific potential funder
  3. Further targeting the list of potential funders based on funding priorities and subsequently reducing staff-time invested to solicit funds
  4. Asking for outside advice on how to improve the organizational model or find avenues for future funding
But when a potential grantee and potential funder are not a match, saying “No” reflects the Foundation’s best judgment that the proposed grant initiative does not align with the Foundation’s strategic grant making priorities. It is not a comment on the quality or premise of the grant idea.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, funding can be awarded to an organization for a grant proposal and its renewal. Typically, funding that is awarded to an organization for several grant cycles eventually comes to an end. It is not prudent for either the funder or the grantee to assume that a grant will continue to be renewed in perpetuity. Even if a grant had previously been made to an organization, it is imperative for the Foundation to clarify, with as much advanced notice as possible, whether there will be an opportunity for renewal. This will allow the organization to leverage the remainder of the grant as a runway to find new funding. It is similarly necessary for a grantee organization to make it clear if its mission has changed, which would affect its eligibility for foundation grants.

A majority of the organizations funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation have experienced at least one declination for an initiative that was not a fit. But when a potential grantee and potential funder are not a match, saying “No” reflects the Foundation’s best judgment that the proposed grant initiative does not align with the Foundation’s strategic grant making priorities. It is not a comment on the quality or premise of the grant idea. Beyond this, Saying “Yes” to everything or even saying “Maybe” to everything is both unrealistic and counterproductive for a funder trying to efficiently work towards—and achieve—its goal. And even when a grant is declined, a grantseeking organization can turn a “No” into a positive by charting its next steps to secure necessary funding and further working towards its mission.

-- Steven Green

Is Big Data Like Teenage Sex?
December 3, 2014

(Sara Davis, is the director of grants management at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She can be followed on Twitter @SaraLeeeDeee or reached via email at sdavis@hewlett.org.)

Sara_DavisThere’s a great quote about “big data” from Dan Ariely of Duke University that’s been circulating for the last couple years and is still spot on: Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.

This seems particularly true of the philanthropic sector—we’ve all been talking about it, but we’ve yet to find the right way to apply the rhetoric of big data to our work. In part, this is because we don’t actually have many examples that follow the original definition of BIG data. The oft-cited example of Target using big data to determine when a customer is pregnant in order to focus their marketing is an interesting story, but it’s challenging to figure out what the corollary would be in philanthropy. In reality, most of our data is pretty small or—at most—medium in nature. And even with that, we’re still learning to effectively define, collect, use, and share data within our organizations and across the sector.

Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.

With all this in mind, it was incredibly refreshing to attend a session at the recent TAG (Technology Affinity Group) conference in Miami that was an honest dialogue about big data and philanthropy. C. Davis Parchment, Manager of the Electronic Reporting Program at the Foundation Center and moderator of the session Managing Big Data Across Foundation Roles: Identifying New Tools for New Teams, set the stage with a much needed redefinition of big data. Rather than think of big data in its most literal definition as very high volume data sets, Davis described big data as a movement, one that focuses on analysis, rigor, metrics, and critical thinking. Big data as a movement calls on us to employ technology more effectively; to better collect, use, and share data to inform our work, make decisions, and ultimately, to create real and lasting impact through our grantmaking. If we do this well, it will change the way we work—transforming roles and processes within our organizations and redefining how we collaborate and share across the sector.

The first speaker, Kevin Rafter, gave us an example of this concept in action, focusing on creating new data about grantmaking. As Manager of Impact Assessment and Learning at the James Irvine Foundation, Rafter has designed a framework for collecting qualitative and quantitative data about grant results across Irvine’s diverse set of program areas. Irvine is implementing a new grant closing process through which staff will answer five straightforward questions about results before closing a grant. To make it easy, the user interface is elegantly built within their Foundation Connect grants management system. Collecting this information will create a new data set for analyzing their grantmaking impact and learning from grants. By collaborating together, an internal project team was also able to simplify and clarify the grant closure process overall. This is a great example of a foundation giving thoughtful attention to how they define and collect useful data. I’ll be eager to hear more from Rafter once staff has used the tool through several grant closure cycles and they’ve further developed their data set.

If we do this well, it will change the way we work—transforming roles and processes within our organizations and redefining how we collaborate and share across the sector.

We know that an important function for grantmaking data is creating transparency when it is made publicly available by foundations. Suki O’Kane, Director of Administration at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, brought this concern to the fore by sharing her organization’s experience as the 19th member to join the Reporting Commitment Initiative, which is managed by the Foundation Center as part of Glasspockets. Foundations who join the Reporting Commitment agree to make machine-readable grant information available to the public at least four times a year and to use a common geographic coding scheme for their grants thus making timely and accurate reporting on the flow of philanthropic dollars more broadly available. Upon joining the Reporting Commitment, the Haas Fund developed an open source tool that makes it easier for other foundations to participate in the initiative. The tool, called Open hGrant, is a WordPress plug-in and is a great example of how innovative technology design can ease the sharing and use of data. As O’Kane artfully described, the contribution also embodies the spirit of collaboration: it improves data sharing practices at the Haas Fund, then takes that learning even further by advancing data sharing within the whole sector. The Open hGrant tool brings us one step closer to eliminating the barriers to better use data in our grantmaking.

We know that an important function for grantmaking data is creating transparency when it is made publicly available by foundations.

According to Patrick Collins, Chief Information Officer at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, another way to ensure better data use is through automation—which makes data activities more efficient and will ultimately transform how we do our work. Specifically, Collins talked about the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to connect and share data across systems. By connecting with external systems via APIs, Hewlett has been able to automate many repetitive tasks and free-up staff time to focus on more substantive challenges. One example Collins shared is how Hewlett now automates simple tax status checking via an API with Guidestar’s Charity Check system, eliminating the need for data entry and administrative staff time. As the use of system interfaces is adopted more widely, it will allow real-time data sharing and will deliver data to users in the right way—and at the right time—for decision-making. This, in turn, will change how people do their jobs, share information, and collaborate.

We certainly don’t have big data completely figured out in the philanthropic sector, but this session at TAG was a nice step in the right direction. I was deeply heartened by the spirit of collaboration, pragmatism, and creativity throughout the presentations and discussion afterwards. There’s big potential on the horizon for data to be used more effectively and—through that—to improve our grantmaking practice and how we all achieve impact. I’m excited by this ongoing conversation and the transformative power possible if we all collect, use and share data well.

-- Sara Davis

Webinar TOMORROW: The PDF is the Enemy
December 1, 2014

Pdf-enemy-icon1Join us tomorrow—Tuesday, December 2, 1:00pm EST—for the Communication Network’s webinar, The PDF Is the Enemy. Speakers include Amy Ngai, partnership and training director at the Sunlight Foundation, and Foundation Center presenters,  Janet Camarena, director of  the Center's San Francisco regional office and leader of the Glasspockets initiative, and Gabi Fitz, director of the Center’s knowledge management initiatives and co-founder of IssueLab.

Presenters will weigh in on the shortcomings of this file format, which because it “locks” content, is not conducive to data sharing or usability. The program will also demonstrate how to make PDFs more usable and reasons why we should share, make open, and reuse data in the social sector.

This webinar is the second in the Communication Network’s Open Data for the Social Sector series. Please register here. The webinar will last an hour and is free. 

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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."

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