Transparency Talk

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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

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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

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