Transparency Talk

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A Case for Better (Self-Imposed) Transparency Standards for Foundations
December 29, 2015

(Rick Cohen is the National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and the editor of NPQ's Cohen Report. Prior to joining NPQ, Rick was executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and vice president of the Enterprise Foundation. A version of this blog appeared in NPQ.)

Editor's Note: As the year draws to a close, it is natural to remember and reflect on those whom we have lost.  Last month, philanthropy lost one of its strongest voices for change with the passing of Rick Cohen. A prolific writer, Cohen was known for encouraging philanthropy to extend its reach to marginalized and underserved communities. Seeing the weaknesses of a closed door culture, Cohen also frequently wrote and spoke about the need for greater foundation transparency and the potential for improving philanthropic practice by increasing stakeholder participation and influence. In honor of Cohen, Transparency Talk is closing out 2015 by revisiting a two-part post Cohen authored for Transparency Talk in 2012 on the case for enhanced foundation transparency, and his recommendations for improved transparency standards.

Photo_74078_landscape_650x433Rather than simply arguing for more or less transparency, a better strategy is to consider the public purposes that might be served by better, proactive standards of disclosure. I suggest the following: 

  1. A better story: Spruill’s charge to the sector is still the ultimate reason, to explain what organized philanthropy is and does, but it is so much more credible when it emerges from the analysis of independent analysts and the public. The glossy annual reports whose cost of writing, design, and printing exceeds many nonprofits’ budgets are not persuasive. They look more and more like corporate advertisements. If philanthropy has a strong story to tell, it should be one that can be told by independent observers examining the data.
  2. Civic engagement: Foundations themselves are relatively unified, regardless of their political leanings, in favor of increased civic engagement, not just in the public arena of government, but in the engagement with communities, in the overall pursuit of community and societal betterment. If foundations are part of a sectoral commitment for advancing the public good, one means is to make more foundation information available, to make citizens and policy makers better “consumers” of foundation products, just as foundations want to help citizens be better consumers and participants in the processes of government and business. 
  3. Foundations in public policy: Increasingly, foundations have been moving into the public policy arena, not simply through their grantmaking, but their direct participation. Foundations partner with government at various levels, notably a recent spate of foundation engagements with the federal government in programs such as the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service and the “Race to the Top” in the Department of Education. In some cities, notably Detroit, where local government has taken a turn toward the dysfunctional, foundations are developing and running programs that in some ways are taking the place of the public sector. As foundations become direct players in the public arena, not simply supporting nonprofits to do so, foundations should be increasing the transparency the public needs about their operations.
  4. Increased accountability: At this time, there is a parallel debate going on about increasing the transparency of government data. Virginia Senator Mark Warner has introduced the DATA Act which would create standardized formats for reporting and publication of government spending data. The Act, as the Sunlight Foundation commented, “could help eliminate much government waste, fraud, and abuse, and make spending oversight much easier.” Better, expanded, standardized data makes oversight easier, it’s that logical.  But so much of the data reported in 990s is not particularly standardized and, when it comes to data on foundation investments, virtually uninterpretable.  That isn’t a reason to drop the data requirement.  It is to improve the reporting and formatting of data so that the public—and oversight agencies—can figure out what it contains. 
  5. Abuse of 501(c) confidentiality:  The nation faces an explosion of organizations—and money—seeking the 501(c) confidentiality for the only purpose of keeping the identities of the players pulling the levers of the political system secret.  Television commentator Dylan Ratigan suggests that “our political system has become an auction in which the highest bidder wins,” but the identities of the bidders are increasingly under wraps.  In other arenas, public agencies such as municipal governments and state universities are creating affiliated nonprofits and foundations with a purpose of reducing or removing a slice of their operations from public scrutiny and oversight.  If this nation is going to pursue greater freedom of information, we will, as Senator Warner suggests, need to have better mechanisms with which to “follow the money.” ( We have to better follow foundation moneys, too. 

Let’s face it that there is no discernible Congressional appetite for playing with the laws and regulations facing foundations right now.  Since foundations are overseen by the Internal Revenue Service—and in some measure by a number of states that have provided at least a semblance of staffing and support for charity oversight functions usually in their AG offices, though state attention only sporadically ever nears private foundations—not much is going to happen. 

If there is more money for the Internal Revenue Service, it is logically going to go to expanding its capacity for dealing with its new responsibilities under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, not for oversight and enforcement activities regarding charities.  In general, there’s no money to be made by the IRS for chasing nonprofits and foundations, and like a sports agent looking for a contract, the IRS wants to be shown the money that it can generate through stepped up enforcement. 

Moreover, the IRS is not generally among the more popular of federal agencies.  The outcry against Maine Governor Paul LePage’s denunciation of the IRS as new Gestapo caused him to apologize to Jews, but not to IRS agents who might have been offended, and few in Congress stepped to the plate to defend the IRS.  Ways and Means Committee hearings into IRS operations have been held,  prompted in part by the complaints of Tea Party groups believing that their applications for 501(c)(4) social welfare status were being subjected to politically motivated IRS reviews. 

--Rick Cohen

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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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