Transparency Talk

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On New Websites and Transparency
March 11, 2015

(James E. Canales is president and trustee of the Barr Foundation, based in Boston.)

Canales%2c Jim - Jan 2015 IWe recently launched a new website at the Barr Foundation. We view this as an important initial step in our efforts to be more transparent and accessible and to create more opportunities to engage with our various stakeholders.

Having initiated the project about four months ago, we opted to move swiftly, not permitting the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We’d like to share here some of the tenets that served us well during our redesign effort, anchored in a commitment to transparency:

A website redesign must be integrated with a communications strategy: For us, the decision to redesign the site is part of a broader digital communications strategy at Barr. It was important that the tactic—a website—did not become confused with the strategy. The website serves the broader strategy. The redesign was also the result of an explicit decision by Barr’s trustees to communicate with greater transparency and to utilize the many communications tools at our disposal to advance our programmatic goals. As a result, this project is not a one-off, one-time investment, but rather an initial step in a larger strategy to embrace communications at Barr.

We were sure to solicit input from outside our own four walls; after all, the website is a tool to share and engage with partners and the public.

It’s vital to engage colleagues across the organization: For a foundation website to be fully informative, engaging, and timely, it’s essential that it is co-developed with staff across the organization and not seen as just a communications team project. Vital to our success is our ability to engage colleagues as both producers of content and contributors to the redesign process. In addition, having the organization’s leadership engaged throughout signals the importance of the website. In the end, the site will succeed in remaining current and relevant only if we all own it.

There is much to learn from others: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Barr’s new website proves that maxim. We looked closely at peers whose sites we valued for their simplicity of design, ease of navigation, clarity of expression, and commitment to transparency. We hired a firm, Threespot, who had produced some of those sites we admired and whose approach to the project aligned with our aspirations. We also consulted Foundation Center’s Glasspockets website, which offered a helpful template in our aspiration to become more transparent and accountable. The various indicators used by Glasspockets explicitly informed our decisions about information and materials to share on the new site. Attentive readers will note that our Glasspockets profile is not complete—that is because we view transparency as part of an ongoing process that will and should evolve over time. Much as we tell our grantees about proposals, the Glasspockets profile marks a beginning rather than an end.

Barr Fdn Logo - Two-LineWe were also sure to solicit input from outside our own four walls; after all, the website is a tool to share and engage with partners and the public. Threespot conducted interviews with Barr stakeholders and area thought leaders to help us pinpoint the attributes we wanted visitors to experience. We also engaged external reviewers during development to make sure we were on the right track. All of this input proved invaluable.

Foundations are notoriously opaque. It was once considered a great sign of openness to publish an annual report that included a list of grants. Fortunately, in this era of digital communications, that has changed.

The redesign is a beginning, not an end: For all the effort that goes into a website redesign, the momentum cannot end at the launch. Indeed, consistent attention to refreshing and renewing content is key to the site’s success. How many of us have gone to a foundation website to discover welcome messages that are more than a year old or blog posts that haven’t been updated in months? That can convey a great deal about how relevant and fresh the site aims to be, so we have realized that the effort we are expending is not for a sprint, but rather for a marathon—a very apt metaphor given our home in Boston!

Foundations are notoriously opaque. It was once considered a great sign of openness to publish an annual report that included a list of grants. Fortunately, in this era of digital communications, that has changed. For one excellent example, I point you to this insightful 2014 blog post from our colleagues at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, entitled “What’s a Foundation Website For?”

As foundations draw on a range of tools to share more about what we are doing and what we are learning, we need to remember that we not only advance understanding of our own enterprises in doing so, but we also become part of a broader movement that helps the public to understand the role of philanthropy as investors in social change. That’s perhaps as important a contribution.

--James E. Canales 

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  • 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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