Transparency Talk

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May 2017 (2 posts)

Practicing Transparency for Discovery and Learning
May 22, 2017

Richard Russell Resize Photo

At The Russell Family Foundation, we appreciate tools that help make the invisible more visible. This pursuit of transparency is a family trait that stems from our experience in the financial services industry, where we invented stock indexes that more truly reflect the market. The Frank Russell Company earned a reputation for quality research, long-term thinking and general excellence. We do our best to carry on in that tradition at the foundation.

In particular, we seek to communicate and practice our core values, such as lifelong learning and the importance of relationships. During the past 20 years, these touchstones have served us well.

Richard Woo Photo

Today, we’re relying on them even more as we prepare for a period of significant transition, which involves new roles for family members, changes to leadership and staff positions, and evolving our core programs. What’s different now, however, is that we are employing new tools to guide us.

Legacy Communications Toolkit

For us, transparency is as much about discovery as disclosure. That’s because the discovery process is how we determine: (1) what we know, (2) what we don’t know, (3) where we stand, and (4) what boundaries, if any, exist for a specific topic. Discovery can be a humbling and inspiring experience. Sometimes it exposes our blind spots; other times it reveals important new opportunities. Nevertheless, learning is the payoff for investing in transparency and discovery.

In 2016, we took steps to re-affirm our founding principles, in order to set the stage for the next 20 years of operations. We identified the need for additional frameworks to help guide us through important issues such as leadership succession and grant strategy. From those efforts, we’ve bundled together all the useful pieces, which we call our Legacy Communications Toolkit (it's a work in progress).

Over the past couple of years, we have developed some new components. One centerpiece is our three-dimensional chessboard, which we introduced in our last blog post. It is a useful tool for initiating and clarifying conversation about important issues that might otherwise be difficult to surface. The chessboard can be used to visualize and understand the complex layers of communications and expectations associated with foundation life – like how transparent we need to be when revising our grant strategy, or how we understand a family member who doesn’t want to participate.

Case in point: In a family foundation, tensions can arise when trustees hold competing or conflicting opinions and worldviews. If not handled sensitively, principled conversations among peers can become deeply personal, causing individuals to briefly lose sight of the organizational mission and the goal of serving the public trust. One such discussion arose among our trustees in 2016; at issue was the scope of themes that should be eligible for funding. The intentional and purposeful conversation among family trustees about this matter was facilitated by a skilled and trusted organizational consultant outside the foundation. With that assistance, the trustees clarified the boundaries between personal, familial, organizational and public goals – and eventually settled on a decision that balanced the greatest number of interests especially that of serving the foundation’s public mission. This exercise in more transparent communication among trustees and consensus decision-making was essentially the laboratory that gave rise to the three-dimensional chessboard.

Can you imagine applying the three-dimensional chessboard to a crucial conversation waiting to happen at a foundation near you?

Another dynamic tool we rely on is a graphic timeline of the foundation’s history. It is a 20-foot mural, on display in our office that highlights important moments from our beginnings in 1999 to the present day. The timeline is filled with photos, charts, and quotations, with more being added as time passes. This visual history does more than remind us of the past; it helps us appreciate the context of defining moments. Those moments (as well as the details of our history) constitute our collective narrative. We are continually exploring and discovering the appropriate balance between transparency, family privacy and a public trust.

TRFF visual-timeline

The Russell Family Foundation uses its timeline as a teaching tool.  Source: The Russell Family Foundation

To date, the timeline has proven to be an invaluable teaching tool, especially for younger family members who wish to take active roles in the foundation, or newcomers to our enterprise who want to know how we got here. It stimulates conversation and questions, and it has helped us onboard new community board members and staff by giving them a vivid sense of our history and mission. Grantees and community visitors are often intrigued by the informal imagery captured on the story wall, which invites their curiosity, discussion and ultimately a deeper relationship with our work.

Imagining the Future Together

The elements of our Legacy Communications Toolkit emphasize storytelling in its many forms: visual, narrative, historical, data-driven, and more. Storytelling activates our imaginations so we can see the changes we’ve accomplished or wish to make going forward. This process also helps us envision what level of transparency is required.

A good example of this approach is how we are currently updating one of our longest standing environmental programs, which focuses on the waters of Puget Sound.

After a decade of investment and hundreds of grants employing a wide variety of tactics, we took stock of our impact on Puget Sound protection and restoration. We reviewed our grant history, studied the most recent literature, interviewed regional thought leaders, and drew upon the relationships with our longtime grantees. The effort was illuminating – making the invisible more visible. Despite all that had been accomplished over the years, we recognized that our efforts were a mile wide and an inch deep.

Visualizing our impact in this way gave us the motivation to develop a new approach. We knew from past projects that there was an appetite for alignment among nonprofits. We also realized that our broad network of individual grantees gave us credibility to encourage greater collaboration within the field. We put these pieces together to create the Puget Sound Collective, an informal group of nonprofits and funders who desire a more coordinated regional vision and strategy for Puget Sound recovery.

Our partners joined the Puget Sound Collective for the possibility of making greater impact and doing more together. But, naturally, they want to know where their peers are coming from, how specific goals will be set, and how decisions will be made. In other words, they expect transparency. We knew going in that openness and candor would be the table stakes for this new forum. However, bringing people together to work across differences (organizations, missions, geographies, genders, race, class, etc.) requires transparency in all directions. That takes time; it takes deep, trusting relationships.

The experience has reinforced how important it is for the foundation to practice transparent behavior. We are building the road alongside our partners as we walk it. We need to be honest when we can only see as far down the road as they can. We need to be clear in our intention for grantees to set the agenda – to offer support without control – because relationships like this move at the speed of trust.

At a time when the country is experiencing deep divides and uncertainty, family foundations can reassure their constituents by demonstrating a commitment to transparency about their story and the essentials behind the work they do. However, they should also bear in mind the Goldilocks Principle – “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.” They need to find the best fit for their organization because the benefits of transparency are measured in degrees.

We hope our methods, experiments, and discoveries serve as useful references. Mahalo to those who commented on the first blog post. To everyone reading this installment, please share your thoughts, counterpoints or questions.

--Richard Russell and Richard Woo

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age
May 10, 2017

(Daniel Matz is manager and content developer for Foundation Center’s Glasspockets.org portal. This review was first published in Philanthropy News Digest.)

Daniel X MatzThe mega-wealthy have long been celebrated in American culture. Even in the first Gilded Age, when the likes of Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and Sage were scorned as robber barons, their wealth — and power — were much admired. In their time, these titans of America's burgeoning industrial might determined the economic destiny of millions and set the course of the nation. And their philanthropy — more than a century on — continues to echo with all the force that money can buy.

Today, as we celebrate the dynamos of a new gilded age — their fortunes, in many cases, made younger, growing faster, moving at the speed of light — we're witnessing a second philanthropic boom. And that seemingly inexhaustible river of "private wealth for public good" brings with it the ideas and voices of those who, having made vast fortunes, are now determined to put that money to use. How society responds to and channels that torrent of money while making sure the ideas it funds best serve the interests of the American people is of broad concern.

“Giving by the mega-wealthy is going to be bigger, more sophisticated, and more focused on influencing public policy debates.”

In The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, David Callahan gives us a grand tour of the philanthropic landscape in the opening decades of the twenty-first century while opening a window on how today's economic winners — having proved themselves in business — are eyeing philanthropy as the ultimate opportunity to convert wealth into power. But where a Matthew Josephson might have distrusted such a development, in Callahan's telling, these masters of the universe are thoughtful, broad-minded, and, yes, even likable. He's not interested in taking them down, criticizing their often rapacious business practices, or pointing out the role played by fiscal and tax policy in cementing their status as the .01 percent. Instead, his is a book about the giving away, not the getting, of great wealth.

Founding editor of the Inside Philanthropy website, a founder of public policy think tank Demos, and a former fellow at the Century Foundation, Callahan has a reputation as a keen observer of philanthropy and civil society and it serves him well here. Not only does he know his subject, he's also interviewed many of the people in his book — Priscilla Chan, Eli Broad, Melinda Gates, and John Arnold, to name a few — and is able to support his own judgments with their words. And what both he and they see is a future in which giving by the mega-wealthy is going to be bigger, more sophisticated, and more focused on influencing public policy debates.

David CallahanDavid Callahan

Of course, many of today's mega-wealthy, people like Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg, have indicated they have little interest in leaving much of their wealth behind. (In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Bloomberg joked with correspondent Steve Croft about "a guy on his death bed in a hospital with the rails around and his family looking down like vultures. And he looks up and says, 'I know I can't take it with me, but I can take the access code'.") Indeed, in the next decade alone, some $740 billion is likely to be distributed in the form of private philanthropy. And if the Giving Pledge — the Buffett and Gates effort to encourage the uber-rich to commit the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes — is any gauge, we could see another trillion dollars in private wealth making its way to nonprofit organizations and causes over the lifetimes of the 158 current "pledgers" who have signed on. (Learn more about that campaign and its signatories at the Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge feature.) How all that money will be used over the coming decades is what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might call a known unknown, but it undoubtedly will have important and lasting effects, and that — as well as who will decide what its impact might be — is at the center of Callahan's inquiry.

In the book, Callahan examines the collision of two fundamental American values — freedom and equality — and how the wealthiest Americans have been able to leverage their money (for better or worse) to gain advantage in the marketplace of ideas. Sure, money in politics is as American as apple pie: for proof, look no further than the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, the flood of cash swirling around political campaigns, and K Street lobbyists and super PACs. But much less is heard about the ways in which the mega-wealthy are using their philanthropy to influence public policy and (intentionally or not) drown out the voices of average Americans. We're not talking about eight-figure gifts for museums and the like; we're talking about philanthropy that shapes national agendas and priorities and promotes policies that affect Americans where they live — from promoting school vouchers, to hobbling the Johnson Amendment, to pushing for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

It's one thing, for instance, for the average American to make a $100 donation to a cause she believes in, and it's certainly noteworthy when a wealthy donor trumps that with a gift a hundred thousand times larger; it's something else entirely when a donor puts up the money for a think tank to develop a public policy recommendation, hire researchers to provide intellectual cover for the policy, and disseminate the results through a report and a media campaign. The Brookings Institute has been around since the 1910s, the American Enterprise Institute since the 1930s, the Heritage Foundation since the 1970s. All are tax exempt, and all have been the beneficiaries of substantial philanthropic largesse over the years. What's different in 2017 is the full-throttled way in which such bounty has become another weapon in the ideological clash that defines our time: Left vs. Right, liberal vs. conservative, cosmopolitan vs. populist. What we are seeing, Callahan notes, is the mega-wealthy using their philanthropic dollars to define the terms of the debate and dominate the public square in areas and on issues that a generation ago were the purview of academics, technocrats, and policy makers.

The Givers - Book JacketSome might argue that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Callahan is quick to note that the mega-wealthy have no agreed-to set of interests and, as a group, are as ideologically and politically pluralistic as the country itself. If at times they can seem like gods throwing thunderbolts at one another, the diversity of ideas and approaches they represent seems to balance out: for every wealthy advocate of school vouchers and charter schools, there's an equally wealthy and committed advocate eager to double down on public education.

In a perfect world where government is more or less trusted to do the right thing, that might be okay, argues Callahan. But in an era of widening inequality and growing political polarization (exacerbated by our addiction to social media), government and traditional institutions are losing their ability to absorb those thunderbolts and forge compromises that satisfy the majority of Americans. It's not that the public square is empty; it's that the platforms from which the plural voices of American democracy typically are heard have been roped off and posted with "Do Not Enter" signs. For Callahan, it's no coincidence that the outsized influence on public policy of the mega-wealthy comes just at the moment when both institutional and government effectiveness appear to be in terminal decline.

With a nod to French economist Thomas Piketty, Callahan sees this decline as a by-product of mounting economic anxiety, driving broad disaffection with both major political parties and a loss of faith in the ability of government to materially affect the lives of those who have lost their livelihoods to globalization, automation, and de-industrialization. Into that vacuum has stepped the wealthy, with states and local governments increasingly looking to foundations and nonprofits to join forces in public/private partnership, and fund everything from education initiatives to homeless services to public parks. Every time a philanthropist gives $100 million to bankroll a new reform effort in a struggling school district, or convinces a city to spend a portion of its parks budget on a whimsical project, or provides millions for a campaign to convince the public to support/oppose an international climate agreement, writes Callahan, we are seeing a new kind of philanthropy in action. And there's no reason to believe the trend won't continue, or that it won't happen in ways largely beyond the ability of the public to control.

As much as The Givers pulls back the curtain on this reality, it's also a call to change how philanthropy in America is regulated. Readers of Callahan's posts on Inside Philanthropy will not be surprised by his prescriptions — chief among them a call for greater transparency and accountability in the sector (principles Foundation Center has long championed through our Glasspockets initiative). Here, though, Callahan has something more specific in mind: changing the rules to require wealthy individual donors, donor-advised funds, private foundations, and nonprofits to disclose more information about their giving, more quickly. He also calls for the creation of an independent Federal Reserve-style commission to oversee the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors; the establishment of formal metrics to assess charities' effectiveness; and for the IRS to be given more resources — and greater latitude — to audit more than the tiny fraction of nonprofits and foundations it currently reviews. Callahan also favors limiting the tax-deductibility of contributions to nonprofits that are not working to alleviate poverty or address other urgent social problems, and he wants to see foundation boards be more independent and representative of the communities they are charged with serving.

For Callahan, these are small changes — a somewhat Pollyannaish take that seems to ignore our current political climate and the treasured prerogatives of many large, important foundations and nonprofits. Yes, philanthropy needs more transparency and accountability, it probably needs new rules, and the public needs more and better information about how foundations and individual donors are spending their tax-advantaged resources.

But we also need to find the will, and a way, to restore the public square to something like its imagined heyday so that the voices of the rich and powerful are not the only ones heard in statehouses and the halls of Congress. As Callahan puts it, Alexis de Tocqueville didn't esteem America for its robust nonprofit sector; he admired it for its egalitarian ideals. Nurturing and sustaining those ideas over the coming decades should be something we can all agree on.

-- Daniel Matz

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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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