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Through a Glass a Little Less Darkly: 2015 Philanthropic Transparency Highlights
January 7, 2016

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at the Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena PhotoAs we begin 2016, it’s important to reflect on the progress and highlights from the previous year.  And here at Glasspockets, we are always looking for examples of how the field is opening its windows and giving us all a better glimpse of what is going on inside. So, here you will find a listing of the top ten moments, efforts, and singular examples in 2015 that stood out to me as serving to bring the great kaleidoscope of philanthropy into sharper focus. 

The Thought Leaders:

#10 - Fund for Shared Insight (FSI) shares baseline report, Feedback Loops and Openness: A Snapshot of the Field, in March.  One of the report’s most interesting findings was that the key barrier to foundation openness is organizational culture.  This could be seen as a lowlight rather than a highlight since culture is tough to overcome.  But this was an important finding and report to be commissioned and shared because FSI is not just another industry group out to improve philanthropy; it is actually made up of philanthropy professionals now representing more than a dozen leading foundations, so the opportunity for peer learning, influence, and momentum building is high. 

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen#9 - Philanthropist and Silicon Valley Thought Leader, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, advocates that philanthropy should adopt a "glass skulls" approach, encouraging donors to open up about the processes and strategies foundations use to think through grantmaking decisions.  In an August Transparency Talk blog, she explained that true transparency "provides a window into the brain of the foundation," and also elaborated on the link between greater transparency and greater impact.  The tech community has not exactly been lauded for openness around its giving. Since Arrillaga-Andreessen is particularly influential among Silicon Valley’s tech philanthropists, this is a hopeful sign that her peers may eventually recognize openness - as a better strategy than stealth - to attain social impact. 

Darren Walker photo#8 - Leading foundations opened up their processes and strategies via the blogosphere and other online engagement.  Some foundations have been blogging for a long time, but last year I noticed a couple of online missives in particular that I hope signals a new trend of foundations, including their own CEOs, more regularly engaging online with audiences-and more importantly, signaling that they are listening, informing strategies based on what they are hearing, and responding to feedback and questions.  A notable example is Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker and his online letter in June, "What’s Next for the Ford Foundation?" Much has been written, and deservedly so, about Walker’s eloquent case for continuing to focus the foundation’s resources on inequality.  What stood out to me happened earlier in that letter, where Walker wrote about the responses he received when he asked stakeholders to assess his first year on the job: "Tell me the truth. That simple request drew more than 2,000 e-mails to my inbox. Some of them were profound and insightful. Others, lighthearted. But all of them were truthful. And I couldn’t be more grateful. In reading and reflecting on each and every response, I have become more aware of the ways in which we can improve our institution, and serve our mission."

In a field in which many grantees never receive a response to a completed grant report, hearing about a CEO who reads his emails is hard to believe were it not for how Walker proceeded to then openly share the kind of institutional self-awareness that is only possible from taking such an exercise seriously.

Larry Kramer PhotoAnother notable mention in this vein is the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's "Work in Progress" blog, which counts CEO Larry Kramer as a regular contributor, and offers insights into foundation operation, strategy, and direction.  The blog, which just completed its second year, quickly gained attention when Kramer made it a key part of his foundation leadership to create a culture of transparency at Hewlett, and has consistently offered a window on a variety of leaders at Hewlett.  At a foundation with term limits, in which the cast is consistently changing, having this kind of frequent access to the humans behind the philanthropy machinery is important.  This was underscored in a blog Kramer wrote in September called Question Time in which he re-caps good questions that came up in "open forum" calls the foundation hosted in the summer to offer grantees a platform to ask the foundation about "anything and everything."  The questions and answers included everything from the foundation’s strategy to combatting climate change to preparing grantees for program staff transitions given the term limits, as well as future directions for funding. But the key message from the post and the Open Forum is that the foundation is listening and responding.

The Watchdogs:

David Callahan photo#7 - Inside Philanthropy becomes a must read.  The world needs watchdogs, and in 2015, Inside Philanthropy became a must read for many insiders looking to see if they had been written about.  David Callahan used his journalistic chops and considerable knowledge about philanthropy to write compelling content about high profile givers and didn’t hold back on his assessments.  More than 30 of Inside Philanthropy’s blogs in 2015 either mention or focus on transparency, and in fact, he closed the year with a particularly detailed piece, Darkness Grows: Time for a New Conversation About Philanthropy and Transparency that shows why for those who find transparency a burden, it is definitely better to give than to receive.

 

Aaron Dorfman photo#6 - NCRP’s executive director, Aaron Dorfman releases video footage of how difficult it can be to get an appointment with foundation executives. Philamplify, which is a project of NCRP, produced a report criticizing the opacity of the Hess Foundation and challenging it to evolve beyond "transaction philanthropy."  The only problem is they had no way to actually make sure the foundation ever saw the written report.  You can watch the video to see the lengths to which Dorfman went to try and deliver the unsolicited advice.  But the reason this is a highlight and not a lowlight is that the video and Philamplify have a sphere of influence beyond just the foundation in question, and it served as a cautionary tale here to others about why the "don’t call us, we’ll call you" approach in philanthropy is part of the problem and not a solution.

 

Philanthropy-Not Business as Usual:

DonSDoering Photo#5 - While some foundations are still debating the merits of sharing grants data publicly on websites or external databases, one foundation executive director devoted significant real estate on the JRS Biodiversity Foundation website to showcasing the full story of each funded project. In a March Transparency Talk blog post, Don Doering outlined the JRS Biodiversity Foundation’s commitment to transparency in service to greater philanthropic impact.  The online "Grant Portfolio" section of its website reads like one might expect an internal board docket would look.  Visitors to this area of the website can quickly get up to speed on: the background of each grant; key objectives and activities of the grant; planned outcomes and outputs; progress reports; lessons learned; and notes from JRS staff about the project in question.  When colleagues ask me what my hopes are for the future of transparency in philanthropy, it often looks a lot like what the JRS Biodiversity Foundation website already has to offer. 

James Canales#4 - In late November our CEO Brad Smith wrote a blog post that appeared in PhilanTopic and Transparency Talk on the growing and troubling trend of foundations accepting applications by invitation only. In fact, he cited that only 28 percent of foundations in our database appear to have a responsive grantmaking process, and asserted that isolating a foundation from the outside world is not a best practice and concluded with some practical suggestions for how the field can open the door, "even if it’s just a crack."  Well, we heard back very swiftly from one foundation CEO, Jim Canales of the Barr Foundation, who immediately took the advice to heart and took the time to add language to the foundation’s website explaining the various ways in which one can get invited to apply.  The page outlines the often mysterious process of things like trustee-directed grants, staff initiated grants, and how to introduce foundation staff to a new idea or organization. Since taking the helm of the Barr Foundation, similar to what I stated earlier about Kramer at Hewlett and Walker at Ford, Canales has made improved transparency a priority at Barr and a signature of his leadership strategy. I hope this signals a trend of foundation leadership transitions that actually do lead to, well, leadership.   It may seem a small thing to add language to a website, but to those on the outside looking in, explaining the process of securing an invitation shows sensitivity toward inclusion, as opposed to the growing tendency toward exclusion.

Ross-150#3 - Throughout 2015, a number of high-profile foundation CEOs wrote about the importance of tracking and sharing diversity data.  Business as usual in philanthropy often can mean a double standard applies, with high expectations for transparency with grantee organizations, and a completely different yardstick for foundations.  So it was refreshing to see the foundation executives who were stepping forward to make these declarations do so with their own data in hand.  Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment (TCE), wrote about why diversity is important enough for philanthropy to measure in a Transparency Talk blog post last month, and he reflected on the impact the TCE Diversity Audit has had.  Ross states, "The Diversity Audit has helped us strengthen the culture and authorizing environment to express our values through our policies, practices, processes." In case you’re wondering, TCE is one of a very few foundations that conduct and publicly share transparency data.  According to our "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency assessment tally: of the 77 foundations that have taken and shared their assessments, only six publicly share head counts of this kind publicly, so TCE’s example here will perhaps serve as a framework for others. 

Another initiative, Green 2.0, has been pushing for similar transparency among environmental organizations, including environmental funders.  According to its latest chart, 12 of the top 40 environmental funders are sharing diversity data, and eight have made public statements about its importance. So the net positive here is not just the individual sharing of the data, but the movement building among peers that has the potential to influence how foundations approach inclusivity and diversity in the future, and perhaps more importantly, expand the spectrum of individuals who might consider philanthropy as a viable career path.

Rainbow Flag#2 - One of the great philanthropic strategy success stories happened in 2015 with Marriage Equality officially becoming the law of the land.  Through the work of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, philanthropy learned that when it works collectively and engages in storytelling about its beneficiaries, it can accelerate the pace of change.  Changing public opinion on gay marriage was key to the decision. In a break from business as usual in philanthropy, a collective of funders came together to support advocacy efforts, and stuck together over 11 years, investing $153 million to change hearts and minds.  Key to this was a willingness to invest in media campaigns, as well as to think broadly about the beneficiaries who would benefit from this investment, and then to humanize the case by showcasing stories featuring the voices of parents and grandparents of gay children as part of the effort.  The Civil Marriage Collaborative also gets extra kudos for sharing the lessons learned over those 11 years, the successes as well as the failures, with a case study and video titled appropriately, Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of How Philanthropy and the Civil Marriage Collaborative helped America Embrace Marriage Equality.

Zuckerberg & Chan#1 - Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in December, and in so doing, also launched a global debate that put philanthropic transparency in the spotlight like never before.  Some may be surprised to see me list the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as a transparency highlight, but what gave me hope is not the Initiative on its own, but the attention and visibility it gave to the importance of philanthropic transparency.  Suddenly topics usually reserved for the geekiest of foundation geeks--tax code, philanthropic vehicles, and the difference between traditional philanthropy and the LLC approach -- were being covered by everyone from The New York Times to San Jose Mercury News.  Committing Facebook shares currently valued at $45 billion to "advancing human potential and promoting equality" was bound to make a splash, but the ripples of the splash had more to do with the structure the couple chose for its largesse, rather than their eloquently written letter and the couple’s desire to make a positive difference. 

Unlike private foundations, LLCs are not required to provide details on giving, are able to fund both for profit and nonprofit entities, and there is no transfer of funds to an entity that is regulated to serve the public good.  However, on the positive side, with the launch of the Initiative,  Chan and Zuckerberg didn’t just write a moving letter; as one might expect, they developed an extensive and actually very informative Facebook page that includes a detailed timeline going back to the Initiative’s inception in 2009 through to the present, outlining key milestones and investments.  There are many foundations that don’t go to this extent.  However, at least with a private foundation, eventually all grants must be disclosed on the 990pf form, and there is no telling whether whatever information the Initiative provides is comprehensive.  So, is a Facebook status update really enough for an Initiative of this scale? It is a fair question to ask whether the public is really going to be served if there are no public disclosures actually required. And the win here is that perhaps enough people globally raised this question that it will inspire greater affinity for more transparent vehicles. 

So, what am I missing?  The drawback of a list like this is that inevitably something that should be included gets left off.  And we want to continue to use this space to highlight excellent examples of transparency at work in philanthropy, so please share any thoughts, self-promotion, or suggestions below.  We have a whole year of blog content ahead of us to fill and welcome audience input.  Happy New Year!

--Janet Camarena

Comments

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this is great work that all is doing, transparency is really important, when working on a large scale projects.

What a powerful collection of insights! Thank you for putting this together.

Great roundup of the year, Janet! And thanks for the generous mention of IP.

What I would add to this list is Good Ventures, the Silicon Valley foundation created by Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna which has really become a leader on transparency among newer funders and hopefully a model for others in the tech world. Its work in developing the Open Philanthropy Project is notable, as is how it communicates about its grantmaking -- explaining its decisions on where to put money.

I would also add that the focus on the Clinton Foundation's issues in 2015 helped bring the transparency conversation into the broader media mainstream. I'm betting that this issue will be back in 2016, offering a good learning moment.

Again, great piece!

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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.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
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