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Walking the Talk on Foundation Openness: Behind the Scenes in the Making of an RFP
April 19, 2016

(Chris Cardona is program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation.)

Chris Cardona Photo

When the latest Star Wars movie came out on DVD, Disney made a big deal about its inclusion of deleted scenes. Director J.J. Abrams announced the deleted scenes on social media and mentioned them in magazine interviews.

While we haven’t just directed a billion-dollar-grossing movie, the Fund for Shared Insight (“Shared Insight”) is taking a page from Abrams’ playbook and offering the following commentary on our own deleted scenes. In our case, they’re from our recently published request for proposals for projects that advance foundation openness.

Come take a look behind the scenes of how a philanthropic initiative evolves….

"Compared to what nonprofits do on the front lines, foundations talking about failure is not particularly courageous."

Shared Insight is a funder collaborative working to improve philanthropy by increasing foundation openness – i.e. sharing our goals, strategies and failures; listening and engaging in dialogue with others; acting on what we hear; and, sharing what we have learned.  We made our first round of grants in 2014, and have been learning a lot alongside the grantees with whom we’re privileged to work. And as my colleague Melinda Tuan wrote about on the CEP blog, one of the things we’ve learned from our evaluation partners at ORS Impact, who are looking at the impact of our grants as well as that of our own collaboration, is that we’re not making as much progress as we’d hoped on foundation openness. (To download the full report, please see Fund for Shared Insight: Theory of Change Progress and Lessons.)

In an effort to do better, we sought the advice of our philanthropy infrastructure colleagues and had a number of productive conversations among members of the collaborative. Based on those discussions, we developed a draft request for proposals (RFP), and decided that we should model the behavior we hope other funders will adopt by publishing the draft online, and inviting anyone to comment.

If you compare the draft and the final version, they’re pretty different.

So what changed, and why did we take certain things out in response to feedback?

We were honored to receive 18 pages worth (!) of feedback on the draft request for proposals. Here’s what we took away from the comments:

  • Don’t impose a framework where it doesn’t belong. At the core of the draft RFP was a three-part model distinguishing among “closed organizations,” which don’t practice any openness; “fundamental openness,” in which foundations broadcast information in a one-way manner; and “courageous openness,” in which they engage in two-way dialogue with outside parties. This framework went through much iteration in our internal discussions. Somewhere there’s a PowerPoint slide with an image of a mountain, with “courageous” at the summit, “fundamental” at the basecamp near the foot of the mountain, and “closed” in a cave underneath the mountain. We talked about it as a spiral. We talked about multiple points of entry. Gosh, foundation folks sure do love our frameworks. But this one just didn’t work. No matter how we tried to frame it, people told us, it’s not a spectrum. All three levels are valid and have their benefits, and all three require changes in practices and/or culture. So, we dropped the idea of a spectrum with judgments about more or less desirable kinds of openness.
  • “Courageous” we’re not. That specific label was VERY unpopular. We were inspired by one of our colleagues who used that term to describe (we thought) things like foundations talking openly about failure. Yet that very person wrote to us to say that we’d gotten it wrong! Compared to what nonprofits do on the front lines, and what the people we seek to help face in their daily lives, foundations talking about failure is not particularly courageous. Whatever risk a funder might face in engaging in dialogue about what works and what doesn’t pales compared to the risks our partners and beneficiaries take all the time. So we dropped that label.
  • Listen to the sounds of silence. Our category of “closed foundation” didn’t take into account funders that deliberately remain anonymous for personal or ethical reasons. Anonymous giving is a tradition with deep cultural and faith-based roots, and is very different than the case we had in mind, of a foundation just neglecting to share information it has ready at hand. So we dropped “closed foundation” as a category or point of contrast, and focused instead on the positive or affirmative elements of openness that we seek to foster.
  • Don’t assume you have control over your message. This is the flip side of anonymity. One commenter pointed out that because of the increasingly public nature of foundation tax returns (known as 990-PFs), which are starting to become machine-readable, foundations do not have the luxury of remaining anonymous. As this commenter observed, soon, two kids in a garage in Ohio could be able to write a program that searches machine-readable 990-PFs and produces analyses of giving patterns. Another commenter made a related point; we shouldn’t assume that foundations have control over their communications and information, because in an increasingly social-media-saturated and surveilled world, they don’t. To assume that a base level of openness is a choice may not turn out to be true. This is another reason we dropped the “closed foundation” as a point of contrast.
  • What will it take to make this real? Finally, we heard from commenters who asked about the implications of foundation openness for decision-making. Under the kinds of practices we’re encouraging, will foundations retain control over decision-making about resources? In “courageous” openness, how much decision-making power are you giving stakeholders? While it only came from a couple of people, this was a particularly interesting piece of feedback, because it gets to a core issue in foundation openness: the desire for control, and the fear of giving it up. Foundation openness does usually mean real change in organizational practices and culture. That’s not something we took out in response to feedback; if anything, we’re doubling down on that notion. We are betting it will take real commitment by CEOs and boards to change their culture and become more open.

The upshot of this feedback is we’ve produced an RFP that we hope is more streamlined, more straightforward, and more direct. We added several more examples of the types of projects we’re interested in funding, and we made our definition of openness much simpler, without a framework. The process of gathering the feedback was tremendously informative, and we deeply appreciate all those who contributed their time and wisdom to this effort. We hope the result was worth it – and that in the end, we’re able to fund even better projects that advance foundation openness.

Apparently, a feature of the new Star Wars DVD is that if you already have a toy of the robot* BB-8, it can react to what’s playing on the screen. While we can’t promise anything as cute or compelling as that, we hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the scenes of how a philanthropic initiative evolves. We look forward to the projects that will result, and to the impact that they’ll generate.

*Yes, I know it’s technically a droid!

--Chris Cardona

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