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Because What You Know Shouldn’t Just Be About Who You Know
June 1, 2017

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center.  This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenforGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Janet Camarena PhotoKnowledge is obsolete.  As a librarian, my ears perked up at this TEDx talk and articles buzzing about this in the education field.  It seems plausible.  Why memorize facts, when anything one wants to know can be readily looked up, on the go, via a smart phone? As a mother, I envisioned my children preparing for rich, thought-provoking classroom discussions instead of endless multiple choice tests.  What an exciting moment to be alive—any information we want at our fingertips, leading experts a swipe away, the answer always literally close at hand, and released from the drudgery of memorization to be graduated to a life of active and informed debate!  What a breakthrough moment to work in philanthropy and be able to leverage all this knowledge for good, right?

Though the active debate part may sound familiar, sadly, for those of us working in philanthropy, the ubiquity of knowledge remains more sci-fi mirage than a TED Talk rendering of our present-day reality.  As Glasspockets reported in “The Foundation Transparency Challenge” infographic, released last November, still only 10% of foundations even have a website, so even a smart phone is not smart enough to help connect you to 90% of the field.

The Foundation Transparency Challenge reveals the toughest challenges for philanthropy — those elements that are shared by the fewest participating funders. And by far, the data we have collected so far, demonstrates philanthropy is weakest when it comes to creating a community of shared learning. Fewer than half of foundations participating on Glasspockets use their websites to share what they are learning, only 22% share how they assess their own foundation performance, and only 12% reveal details about their strategic plans. 

Additionally, Foundation Center data also tells us that each year foundations make an average of $5.4 billion in grants towards knowledge production. Yet only a small fraction actively share the knowledge assets that result from those grants. And far fewer share them under open licenses or through open repositories.  So, for a field that is focused on investing in ideas, and asking grantees to report on the progress of these ideas, there is much potential here to open up its recorded knowledge to peers and practitioners who are also in search of new ideas and new approaches to persistent, pressing problems.

“Sadly, for those of us working in philanthropy, the ubiquity of knowledge remains more sci-fi mirage than a TED Talk rendering of our present-day reality.”

And as for having a global universe of experts a swipe away to help inform philanthropic strategy, the reality is that the body of knowledge of philanthropic work is mostly scattered across the thousands of individual institutional websites that do exist.  Who has time for the Sisyphean task of filtering through it all? Perhaps due to this fragmentation, a main finding of a recent report commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation was that foundation professionals opt to confer with trusted foundation peers and colleagues as their preferred means of gaining and sharing knowledge. Interestingly, at the same time, the field is doing much soul searching about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how to improve it.  But if the field is only sourcing knowledge from peers in its own sphere, that means knowledge networks may be unintentionally insular and lacking in perspective and well,…diversity. Perhaps there is a way to connect the dots here between improving field-wide intelligence and inclusivity through expanding the canon of the way the field sources, finds, and shares lessons learned. 

In other words, for a field based on investing in new solutions to persistent problems, shouldn’t what you know not just be about who you know?                                                                         


The good news is that as more foundations professionalize staff and develop in-house expertise in learning, monitoring, and evaluation, as well as in grants information management and communication, there are promising practices developing that we can highlight.  And increasingly, technology platforms and tools are also emerging that are designed to improve the way we all seek and find the answers to complex questions.  So, here at Transparency Talk we are using this post to kick-off a new #OpenForGood series featuring the voices of “knowledge sharing champions” from across the field.  Some will share perspectives from moving the needle on opening up knowledge at their own foundations, while others will share tools or platforms designed to improve the way philanthropy learns from its own knowledge, as well as discovers new sources of knowledge. 

This series is timed to align with the launch of a new, Foundation Center open platform designed to help the field learn from its collective knowledge. IssueLab, whose collection already includes more than 22,000 reports from thousands of nonprofits and foundations, has now launched a new section of the service dedicated to the collection and sharing of evaluations in particular, called IssueLab Results.

IssueLab Topic Graphic

IssueLab Results supplies easy and open access to the lessons that foundations are learning about what is and isn’t working. It includes a growing curated collection of evaluations and a special collection containing guidance on the practice of evaluation. And you can easily share your knowledge through Results – just look for the orange “Upload” button. 

IssueLab is a natural next step for foundations that have used our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment tool to take stock of their foundation’s level of openness.  While the Glasspockets assessment looks at how comprehensively a foundation opens up its work on its own website, IssueLab takes this to the next level by asking foundations to also share knowledge in a more easily discoverable way—in IssueLab’s collective and open repository.  This means that a researcher need only visit one website rather than thousands to learn what is known about the issue at hand, such as the effectiveness of after-school programs or climate change or youth mentoring.  But this can only scale if foundations and nonprofits help us continue to grow the collection by adding your knowledge here. This also means that philanthropy will have a more methodical and hopefully inclusive way, to source intelligence that goes beyond the current “phone a friend” approach.

The bottom line is that today in philanthropy, knowledge is not obsolete—rather, it’s obscured—join us in helping to make it #OpenForGood.

If you have a case study of opening up knowledge for the field, let us know in the comments below or find us on Twitter @glasspockets.

--Janet Camarena


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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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