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January 2015 (6 posts)

Glasspockets Find: 2015 Gates Annual Letter Makes a “Big Bet”
January 29, 2015

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a3fd038242970b-800wiEvery year around this time our attention here at Glasspockets shifts to a super-scale analysis of goals, touchdowns, wagers, and keeping the ball moving down the field.  That’s right—it’s time for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Annual Letter!  The Super Bowl metaphor is an apt one, as this letter makes transparent the thinking and strategies behind the world’s largest philanthropy, so the stakes are high as the letter, in a very visible way, outlines the foundation’s playbook, what it’s tackling, and progress toward its ultimate goals. And the letter comes from the donors themselves, which contributes to breaking down barriers between its global stakeholders and the people behind the philanthropic institution.  

In past letters, one of the things I have particularly appreciated was the Gates’ reflections on lessons learned, which often included both successes and missteps. In many ways, this letter is a departure from that model as instead of using the letter as an opportunity to make the recent past transparent, the letter instead uses the experience and lessons the foundation has been learning to open our eyes to the possible future of the developing world.  

Icon_small_bill_melinda_gates_foundation_logoIt’s a risk to try and see into the future, so it’s fitting that the letter is titled Our Big Bet for the Future, and outlines how they are “doubling down” on the wager that they took when they started the foundation 15 years ago and, based on the progress made so far, making ambitious goals for what is possible 15 years from now. The “Big Bet” specifically is that “the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else's.” And the specific outcomes they predict will result are:

  • Child deaths will go down, and more diseases will be wiped out.
  • Africa will be able to feed itself.
  • Mobile banking will help the poor transform their lives.
  • Better software will revolutionize learning.
This is a reminder that when donors are transparent it helps them influence others and serves to create a movement for change.

The letter also departs from previous ones by acting as a call to action for others to get involved.  This is a reminder that when donors are transparent it helps them influence others and serves to create a movement for change. In fact, the Gates’ letter concludes with directing readers to join the Global Citizen initiative, which offers people the chance to take action to end injustice and inequality in the world.  

“Becoming a global citizen doesn’t mean you have to dedicate your life to helping the poor. It does mean you follow an issue of global importance…You take a few minutes once in a while to learn about the lives of people who are worse off than you are…You’re willing to act on your compassion, whether it’s raising awareness, volunteering your time, or giving a little money.”

Philanthropy is a team sport, and this year’s letter make it clear that the problems and solutions they are working toward are larger than any foundation alone can tackle.  But by making transparent a future in which the end to extreme poverty is within our reach, they are contributing to building a team and a final score for which we all can root.

--Janet Camarena

Losing the Social Anxiety
January 26, 2015

(Sally Crowley is the communications director for The John R. Oishei Foundation.)

Sally Crowley When I first suggested to our organization that we enter the social media scene a few years ago, my colleagues and I shared anxiety about it.

Would it be worth our time to tweet? Will we open ourselves up to criticism or attack? How could we use the social outlets effectively?

I reminded myself and my team of two of our strategic goals: "to better communicate our work and role to the community" and "to serve as a leader, convener and network builder."

I did not want us to be thinking at the "tactical level," which can be easy to do when it comes to communications. After serving on nonprofit boards and spending many years as a communications consultant, I was used to pulling folks out of the "tactical basement." My peers and I have a name for the often-requested tactic-without-objective. We call it a "COULDN'TCHA JUST."

"COULDN'TCHA JUST write a press release? COULDN'TCHA JUST do a flyer? Or a billboard?"

Social media allows us to inexpensively promote not just our own events, activities, and programs, but also those of our grantees and community partners.

The answer is NO. Wildly created tactical communications can actually be effective, but it is RARE and based upon, pretty much, pure luck.

I am a firm believer that effective marketing communications stem from clearly defined goals and a well-thought-out communications plan. One of the first steps in developing a yearly communications plan is writing a situation analysis that includes an environmental scan, or a review of the "market," in which one looks for best practices, benchmarks, and the newest trends.

In our scan, we found that social media has many benefits for foundations. The reach is amazing, and the promotional costs are minimal when compared to traditional paid media. The numbers we found were astounding...

  • 72% of all internet users are active on social media
  • 18-29 year olds average 89% usage with 30-49 year olds at 72%
  • 60% of 50-60 year olds and 43% of age 65+ plus are active
  • Facebook has over 1.15 billion users, with 23% logging in at least 5 times per day
  • Twitter has over 550 million registered users, 215 million of which are active
  • Pinterest has 20 million active monthly users
  • Instagram counts 150 million active monthly users
  • LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr, Vine, Slideshare and others also continue to grow in popularity

In addition, most social media is easy to track, so we can see what topics our audiences are most interested in, and what types of content and media are most effective.

Social media allows us to inexpensively promote not just our own events, activities, and programs, but also those of our grantees and community partners.

We're reaching out to our audiences rather than simply building a website where we hope "they will come."

Plus, we've created a two-way dialogue, one where anyone interested in our work and/or our community can comment and share a photo, video, or link. We're reaching out to our audiences rather than simply building a website where we hope "they will come." We're using social media to drive folks to our website, maximizing our substantial investment in a content-management-driven, open source, cutting-edge website.

However, the use of social media, and any communications tactic, is most effective when used as part of a strategic, integrated, thoughtful communications plan.

If you haven't taken the "social" plunge, and it's a tactic that comes out of your long-term plan in support of your mission, then it's time to take the leap!

-- Sally Crowley

Transparency Chat: Exponent Philanthropy Shares Foundation Successes and Failures
January 21, 2015

Jeanne Metzger headshot September 2014Jeanne Metzger is the chief development and marketing officer at Exponent 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 Jeanne Metzger 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?

Jeanne Metzger: We are the largest philanthropic support membership organization representing approximately 2,300 foundations and other funders who operate with few or no staff. Our mission is to empower philanthropists to leverage their resources and amplify their impact. We achieve this mission through a strategic framework that defines our activities into three areas/goals: Guide, Connect, and Champion. 

In philanthropy, going public refers to intentionally engaging publicly with the communities, causes, and conversations that matter to you and your mission. Going public for a philanthropist is also about raising and leveraging capital – philanthropic capital – or the connections, expertise, influence, and dollars that allow funders to achieve their charitable missions.

By creating a safe place for grantmakers to share information and learn from one another, they report back to us that they are more effective and fulfilled by their philanthropy. We are hoping that by getting some of our member stories on video through the Fund for Shared Insight grant we will be able to improve the effectiveness of more grantmakers.

Throughout our 18 year history (originally as the Association of Small Foundations and now as Exponent Philanthropy) we have found that our members learn a tremendous amount from one another. By creating a safe place for them to share information and learn from one another, they report back to us that they are more effective and fulfilled by their philanthropy. We are hoping that by getting some of our member stories on video through the Fund for Shared Insight grant we will be able to improve the effectiveness of more grantmakers.

JC: Since your specific funded project is to produce videos tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

JM: In 2015, we will be producing a series of videos that capture stories from Exponent Philanthropy members about lessons learned from their grantmaking. We will be encouraging our participants to share lessons learned through successes and failures.  The videos will all be posted to our website and we welcome other organizations to link to them and help spread the word so that the largest community of funders possible can benefit from them. We hope these videos will help to inspire dialogue on platforms such as Transparency Talks. This dialogue will lead to shared learning.

Exponent-logoJC: Greater openness in philanthropy can encompass a lot of elements--why did you choose to tackle lessons learned from both successes and failures? And also why are you choosing video as a way to tell this story over other forms of media (as opposed to podcast, webstory, blog, etc.)?

JM: People can learn a lot from their failures. And, let’s face it, not every grant and/or investment results in the outcomes that it was intended to have. Embracing failure is a unique attribute of the American culture and one that fuels our entrepreneurial spirit. Video is a powerful medium and one that is growing in use and popularity. We already tell our members’ stories through social media, our blog, our website, our publications, and in our programs. A natural progression is to leverage the power of video and it’s something we have wanted to do for several years but have not had the financial resources to do so. The grant from the Fund for Shared Insight is providing us the opportunity and we are really excited about the potential of this project.

JC: Exponent Philanthropy brings a lot of expertise in terms of working with smaller foundations, who often decide that the effectiveness and transparency conversations are better left to the larger foundations that have more staff capacity. What are your thoughts around how to best engage smaller foundations in these kinds of initiatives?

People can learn a lot from their failures. And, let’s face it, not every grant and/or investment results in the outcomes that it was intended to have. Embracing failure is a unique attribute of the American culture and one that fuels our entrepreneurial spirit.

JM: We find that our members are very much interested in effectiveness and how to amplify their impact. That is why they seek out our resources, attend our programs and are part of our community. It is true that many small foundations are private about their philanthropy but a growing number of our members see the benefit of being more open about their activities, collaborating with other funds, and convening key stakeholders around key issues. We hope that these videos will inspire more small foundations to be more open in the future.

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 a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented.

JM: One of the key findings of our recent strategic planning process was that our members unite around a unique style of philanthropy that is agile, responsive, grounded in their communities and in their key issues. Philanthropists who work with few or no staff are different in many ways from larger foundations and I think because of their agility and size tend to be more open to change than larger institutions. There is also a generational change happening in philanthropy and we are finding that the next generation of philanthropists think about their philanthropy differently than the previous generations. All that said, there is still a lot of work to be done to move more small funders to be change oriented.  Highlighting examples of how change and new approaches have resulted in increased impact will help push the needle further.

--Jeanne Metzger

Transparency and accountability: two sides of the same coin
January 14, 2015

(Dharmendra Kanani is a fellow and policy director at the European Foundation Centre. This post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

DKananiTransparency is often in the eye of the beholder. Grantees and applicants want to know the criteria for funding; NGOs want to understand the sources of funding; interested members of the public want to know why something got funded or not. Transparency is the flip side of accountability, of the same coin of trust, the guiding force as well as the central emotional force that affects so much public and private activity.

What does this mean for funders? Like any public or private body, foundations are subject to the demand to demonstrate trustworthiness. Being open about why you fund something, and the basis on which you fund it, is important. The systems and processes you set out to achieve this should be a core matter for the foundation, rather than a formula based on standards set by others. The approach a foundation takes to being transparent and accountable communicates a lot about how it sees itself and its relationship with the communities it serves.

Making a lot of data public may assuage the desire to be transparent, but does it actually amount to anything in terms of improving trust, or a better understanding of how decisions are made, or the strategic intent of a foundation, or even how people and communities might engage with a funder?

There will be occasions when there are legitimate reasons for not sharing publicly the nature of a foundation’s income and its investment practices. Similarly, publicizing the activity being funded by foundations – funding in certain countries or certain causes that might be deemed controversial by governments – might at times do more harm than good. Therein lies the dilemma for some foundations.

The notion of glass pockets is important but it has to be balanced with authenticity of purpose. Making a lot of data public may assuage the desire to be transparent, but does it actually amount to anything in terms of improving trust, or a better understanding of how decisions are made, or the strategic intent of a foundation, or even how people and communities might engage with a funder?

Sometimes, we go full tilt into responding to a trend without taking time to be clear about the why and how. It pays to be thoughtful on this issue as it will improve trust. Most people can sniff out gesture from authentic engagement.

A development that puts transparency on to a different level is the digital revolution. Everything is public in the 21st century. Digital communities will know or find a way of knowing. Foundations and independent funders should embrace this challenge. In the next ten years, the foundation world will become as transparent as any other aspect of life. It’s best not to sleepwalk into this emerging reality.

-- Dharmendra Kanani

Big Ideas That Matter for 2015: Are Philanthropic Organizations Ready?
January 12, 2015

(Sara Davis is the Director of Grants Management at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California. She can be followed on Twitter @SaraLeeeDeee or reached via e-mail at sdavis@hewlett.org. This post was originally featured on the Grant Craft blog.)

Sara davisOne way I mark the passage of another year is the welcome arrival of the latest Blueprint — the annual industry forecast report written by Lucy Bernholz and published by GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center. This year’s report, Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2015, provides us once again with a rich opportunity to look back at the past year and to ponder what’s to come in the year ahead. The Blueprint is a great marker of time and creates a moment to pause for reflection. As I read this year’s report, I found much to digest, understand, and learn. Like the five previous editions, Blueprint 2015 is provocative, and — as I settled in to read — I was humbled to discover that it brought up many more questions than answers. The report piqued my curiosity about the state of the social economy and more explicitly about organized philanthropy and how we do our work. Specifically:

Are we agile and flexible enough? Are our philanthropic organizations ready?

The words “dynamic” and “dynamism” show up throughout the Blueprint 2015, and the pervasive thought I had while reading was that this is an exciting, creative, and expansive time for the social economy. Given this, I couldn’t help but wonder if philanthropic organizations are ready — will we be able to flex, bend, and adapt at the same pace as the change around us? Our ecosystem is evolving, moving, and reorganizing. In this time of globalization, disruptive technology, digital activism, new organizational forms, and even new language, are philanthropic organizations keeping pace? Do we have a picture of what “keeping pace” would really mean?

In this time of globalization, disruptive technology, digital activism, new organizational forms, and even new language, are philanthropic organizations keeping pace? Do we have a picture of what “keeping pace” would really mean?

My experience is that folks doing the work of philanthropy take their role very seriously. It’s a tremendous responsibility to be entrusted with private resources in order to create public benefit. That we take that trust seriously is a good thing. In practice, this means that we tend to be careful, we analyze everything thoroughly, and we remain deliberate, trying hard not to make mistakes. This subtle — or not so subtle — perfectionism creates a tension against our desire to also be nimble, innovative, creative, and dynamic. I wonder: how can we talk about and manage that tension? Are there times we should be using philanthropy as true risk capital, maybe leaping more and looking less? Can we be nimble enough to fail, learn, and course-correct quickly, and have that process be okay, even celebrated? It’s clear that many of the newer entrants in the social economy are working from this spirit of moment-to-moment dynamism. How can we collaborate with openness, adaptability, and readiness for change? Are we learning how to be more agile and flexible along the way?

Are the right people/skills at the table?

The other thing that struck me as I read the report is the variety of new skills and voices needed to work well within the changing social economy. We know, for example, that new technologies and digital data are emerging as important sources and byproducts for learning, innovation, and achieving results. It follows, then, that we need to make sure technology and data capacity are being fostered, used, and advanced within philanthropic organizations and across the sector. Together, we need to gain expertise as we take on challenging topics like intellectual property, open licensing, transparency, and privacy. Further, working in a digital world during this time of rapid change requires operational savvy. We need to build and maintain necessary infrastructure to execute well today, while also forging the space so we can adapt and shift easily in the future. Collectively, this is a tall order. Are we listening to the right experts to make this happen? Are we building the necessary capacity and knowledge?

We need to make sure technology and data capacity are being fostered, used, and advanced within philanthropic organizations and across the sector. Together, we need to gain expertise as we take on challenging topics like intellectual property, open licensing, transparency, and privacy.

As “pervasive digitization” has become the new normal, have we changed the way we think about technology and data expertise in our grantmaking? It doesn’t seem reasonable that all program officers now also need to be technology experts (though some are.) How do we make sure the technologists are being included at the right times? How can our daily work be informed by data expertise and digital best practices, and how do we successfully integrate these into our grantmaking? Bernholz notes that “technologists are becoming part of the sectors that they serve” and imagines a future where “data analysis and sensemaking skills” are integrated into strategy and grantmaking. What new understandings do we need in order to know how we will do this? And, who do we need to include in the conversation to live this out fully?

The 2015 Blueprint marks a time that is vibrant, rich, and exciting for us to be working in this sector. It also invites us to adapt, flex, and change — more than ever before. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but sometimes I find myself thinking about the proverb of the shoemaker whose children have no shoes. Those of us who work in philanthropy understand that our grantees need to adapt within changing circumstances and must constantly evolve. We know that executing well is the challenging standard we place upon grantees as we give them resources. I’m not sure we always hold ourselves to the same standard, or that we take the time to know what executing well might mean within our own changing context. Just as we offer capacity building support and technical assistance to the organizations we fund, it’s also important that we do our own capacity building work, making the necessary changes within our organizations to be effective, real-time participants in the social economy. Are we checking ourselves to make sure we have the skills, roles, knowledge, and processes needed to do that?

Our changing ecosystem will certainly require that we become comfortable with the continued blurring of lines and re-imagining of everything around us. As we strive to achieve impact and social benefit, it may mean we need to bring new people to the table, while developing new skills and new ways of working ourselves. My hope is that all of our good intentions and hard work continue to fuel the adaptability, learning, and dynamism that Bernholz points to so brilliantly.

--Sara Davis

A Pragmatic Approach to Transparency
January 7, 2015

(Fran Perrin is the founder and director of The Indigo Trust, and a founding member of 360givingThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

FranPerrin‘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 welcome Jo Andrew’s article ‘When is transparency a really bad idea?’ as an important contribution to the debate on transparency, open data and philanthropy.

Jo lists some obvious cases: for example, transparency is a bad idea when it subverts your basic grantmaking purpose. We can all agree with that. In fact, we can add other examples from outside the human rights field. For example, it wouldn’t be appropriate to publish the details of a grant if it referred to the location of a vulnerable women’s shelter. In the vast majority of cases, though, transparency can offer many benefits to grantmakers and those whose lives we aim to improve. We should be careful not to generalize from exceptions.

In the vast majority of cases, though, transparency can offer many benefits to grantmakers and those whose lives we aim to improve. We should be careful not to generalize from exceptions.

Grantmaking in the UK remains astonishingly opaque – for funders and grantseekers alike. Not knowing who funds what creates huge inefficiencies that affect how well we can work to distribute funds; and how grantseekers apply for them. Lack of information makes it harder for those starting out as philanthropists or trying to fund in new areas.

Our own work on the 360giving open funding initiative (while in its very early stages) encourages a pragmatic, needs-led approach to transparency about grantmaking. We provide funders with an easy way to publish their grant data for others to re-use. We would never, ever suggest that people publish grant information that could reasonably be foreseen to undermine their grantmaking purpose. As grantmakers we know that funders need to make an informed choice about which of their grants they publish, and 360giving has deliberately not pursued a regulatory-led approach so as to enable these decisions to be taken with care by funders.

Opacity and secrecy make it hard for those doing the right thing to argue and defend their position. It was striking that, when the government made policy noises about changing the tax status of donations to charities, the sector could not easily point to a comprehensive body of evidence of its good work.

There are sometimes good reasons not to be wholly transparent, but if we generalize from exceptions we can miss the opportunity to help inform grantmaking and improve impact for the whole sector.

The Indigo Trust publish all their grants both on their blog and in an open data format. They have withheld information about a grant which concerned anti-corruption activists in a developing country where transparency could have jeopardized their lives. They handled this by publishing the fact that a grant of ‘x’ amount had been made, but detail wasn’t being published for security reasons. When the situation changed, with the permission of the grantee they published the full information, and were encouraged to blog about the project by the grantee.

There are sometimes good reasons not to be wholly transparent, but if we generalize from exceptions we can miss the opportunity to help inform grantmaking and improve impact for the whole sector. Is transparency a panacea for funders? Absolutely not – but it can improve our decision making. Could more information really make our decisions any worse?

Signed by:

Fran Perrin  Indigo Trust, founding member of 360giving

William Perrin  TalkaboutLocal, Indigo Trust

Alice Casey  NESTA

Ed Anderton  Nominet Trust

Tim Davies  Practical Participation

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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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