In Pursuit of Better Outcomes Through Transparency-Fueled Adaptability
March 9, 2015
(Don S. Doering is the executive director of the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, a $45M private foundation in Seattle, WA that supports open access to biodiversity data and knowledge.)
If you’re a small foundation aiming to greater philanthropic impact, how can transparency be a tool? At JRS, we’re using transparency as a lynchpin to greater philanthropic impact through better project management and grantee relationships: transparency for adaptability rather than accountability. Open access to biodiversity information to benefit nature and society is our foundation mission. The principle that data access enables change applies to philanthropy as well as conservation and aligns well with our foundation strategy and culture. Transparency underlies practices we employ such as customized progress and financial reports, detailed report reviews, amending grant agreements and plans, and maintaining grant web pages.
From the first steps in grant applications through final grant reports, we try to model and achieve openness and accessibility. An important moment for new grantee relationships is an orientation video-conference that introduces our approach for managing the funded project. We use the call and future communications to promote the continued refinement of thoughtful, qualitative and quantitative indicators that can lighten grantees’ reporting burden and to let us collaboratively identify areas where plans need to change. During the project, we regularly remind project directors that the plan made months or years earlier to win our funds was merely the starting point; they need to execute the best plan today to meet their stated goals, which requires flexibility on their part and on ours. When grantees are transparent about what is going wrong, we’ll help them revise budgets and plans to do what makes sense based on the current context. Rose-colored reporting and rigid grant agreements don’t help anybody and candor keeps the small challenges from becoming big problems. We try to keep a promise to our partners that we’ll match our attention to milestones and metrics with our enthusiasm to adapt to emergent challenges and opportunities.
To help generate a fruitful dialogue with grantees, we adjust reporting formats to grantees’ needs with the belief that this creates greater creativity, transparency and trust. Grantees are invited to transform approved grant budgets into their own institution’s accounting codes instead of shoehorning numbers into our template. The forward-looking questions in reports about the upcoming six months carry as much weight as the backward look at the recent six months and are equally informative. We adopted a grantee’s suggestion that they merely insert any updates right into the relevant sections of their last report. Thus, over time, each report document becomes a running log of learning, adaptation and progress.
The first rule to making this work: read the grantees’ reports. Follow-up questions are an opportunity to show we care both about the project and about its people. With many partners, it takes a report or two to prove that we’ll let them re-allocate funds, refine objectives and activities and adjust the timeline. Administrators and fundraisers often must be reassured that we are flexible in our rules, but steadfast in our overall commitment. Of 25 grants totaling $3.6M awarded in 2012, all but 3 have been amended or extended. Our grantees tell us that detailed questions, feedback, and flexibility are a blast of fresh air and motivate good project management.
A component of our approach is that we’ve taken on the challenge of offering a full page of web real-estate to every funded project. The grantees’ web pages feature essential project information as well as goals, updates on key outputs and outcomes, and reflections from JRS. It can be a tricky balance to describe projects in a way that promotes their work while including enough transparency to raise the stakes for success. Early indications are promising; we’re at the top of search engine results for funding in our niche and, for many JRS grantees, the first search hit and the direct path to discover their work is through the JRS website. We know that other donors are visiting our project pages.
In our open calls for proposals in 2012 and 2014, we only funded 5% of applicants. That means a lot of our community wasted effort and walked away from us disappointed. The next frontier of transparency for JRS will be to be clear enough about our funding priorities and decision-making to increase our approval rates to 25% - 33% for open and targeted funding solicitations. Maintaining an adaptive approach as described here takes a ton of effort and doesn’t always go smoothly. While transparency as an organizational value is animating our grantee relationships and improving project performance, the transparency and adaptation that we still owe our stakeholders is simply to answer “will your foundation fund me?”
--Don S. Doering