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August 2017 (3 posts)

How To Keep Me Scrolling Through What You Are Sharing
August 10, 2017

Tom Kelly is Vice President of Knowledge, Evaluation & Learning at the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. He has been learning and evaluating in philanthropy since the beginning of the century. @TomEval  TomEval.com

This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new research and 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.

Tom Kelly Hi ResHello, my name is Tom and I am a Subscriber. And a Tweeter, Follower, Forwarder (FYI!), Google Searcher, and DropBox Hoarder. I subscribe to blogs, feeds, e-newsletters, and email updates. My professional title includes the word “Knowledge,” so I feel compelled to make sure I am keeping track of the high volume of data, information, reports, and ideas flowing throughout the nonprofit and foundation worlds (yes, it is a bit of a compulsion…and I am not even including my favorite travel, shopping and coupon alerts).

It is a lot and I confess I do not read all of it. It is a form of meditation for me to scroll through emails and Twitter feeds while waiting in line at Aloha Salads. I skim, I save, I forward, I retweet – I copy and save for later reading (later when?). In fact, no one can be expected to keep up, so how does anyone make sense of it all, or even find what we need when we need it? Everyone being #OpenForGood and sharing everything is great, but who is reading it all? And how do we make what we are opening for good actually good?

Making Knowledge Usable

We have all experienced at some point Drowning in Information-Starving for Knowledge (John Naisbitt’s Megatrends…I prefer E.O. Wilson’s “starving for wisdom” theory). The information may be out there but rarely in a form that is easily found, read, understood, and most importantly used. Foundation Center and IssueLab have made it easier for people in the sector to know what is being funded, where new ideas are being tested, and what evidence and lessons are available. But nonprofits and foundations still have to upload and share many more of their documents than they do now. And we need to make sure that the information we share is readable, usable, and ready to be applied.

Hawaii Community Foundation Graphic

DataViz guru Stephanie Evergreen recently taught me a new hashtag: #TLDR – “Too Long, Didn’t Read.”

She now proposes that every published report be available in three formats – a one-page handout with key messages, a 3-page executive summary, and a 25-page report (plus appendices). In this way the “scanners,” “skimmers” and “deep divers” can access the information in the form they prefer and in the time they have. It also requires writing (and formatting) differently for each of these sets of eyes. (By the way, do you know which one you are?)

From Information to Influence

But it is not enough to make your reports accessible, searchable, and also easily readable in short and long forms; you also need to include the information people need to make decisions and act. It means deciding in advance who you want to inform and influence and what you want people to do with the information. You need to be clear about your purpose for sharing information, and you need to give people the right kinds of information if you expect them to read it, learn from it, and apply it.

“Give people the right kinds of information if you expect them to read it, learn from it, and apply it.”

Too many times I have read reports with promising findings or interesting lessons, and then I race through all the footnotes and the appendices at the back of the report looking for resources that could point me to the details of evidence and data or implementation guidance. I usually wind up trying to track down the authors by email or phone to follow up.

A 2005 study of more than 1,000 evaluations published in human services found only 22 well-designed and well-documented reports that shared any analysis of implementation factors – what lessons people learned about how best to put the program or services in place. We cannot expect other people and organizations to share knowledge and learn if they cannot access information from others that helps them use the knowledge and apply it in their own programs and organizations. YES, I want to hear about your lessons and “a-ha’s,” but I also want to see data and analysis of the common challenges that all nonprofits and foundations face:

  • How to apply and adapt program and practice models in different contexts
  • How to sustain effective practices
  • How to scale successful efforts to more people and communities

This means making sure that your evaluations and your reports include opening up the challenges of implementation – the same challenges others are likely to face. It also means placing your findings in the context of existing learning while also using similar definitions so that we can build on each other’s knowledge. For example, in our recent middle school connectedness initiative, our evaluator Learning for Action reviewed the literature first to determine specific components and best practices of youth mentoring so that we could build the evaluation on what had come before, and then report clearly about what we learned about in-school mentoring and open up  useful and comparable knowledge to the field. 

So please plan ahead and define your knowledge sharing and influence agenda up front and consider the following guidelines:

  • Who needs to read your report?
  • What information does your report need to share to be useful and used?
  • Read and review similar studies and reports and determine in advance what additional knowledge is needed and what you will document and evaluate.
  • Use common definitions and program model frameworks so we are able to continually build on field knowledge and not create anew each time.
  • Pay attention to and evaluate implementation, replication and the management challenges (staffing, training, communication, adaptation) that others will face.
  • And disseminate widely and share at conferences, in journals, in your sector networks, and in IssueLab’s open repository.

And I will be very happy to read through your implementation lessons in your report’s footnotes and appendices next time I am in line for a salad.

--Tom Kelly

Crafting A Better Tap of Knowledge
August 9, 2017

Gabriela Fitz is director of knowledge management initiatives at Foundation Center. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new research and 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.

Gabi Fitz photoThis past weekend, I went to visit an old meat packing plant in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The plant, renamed “Plant Chicago,” serves as a workshop and food production space, playing host to a number of micro-enterprises including a brewery and bakery. But it wasn’t the beer or even the pies that drew me there. It was their tagline, “Closed Loop, Open Source.”

If you know me (or the work of IssueLab at all), you know why I couldn’t resist. The closed loop approach is all about a circular economy, where we take “waste from one process and re-purpose it as inputs for another, creating a circular, closed-loop model of material reuse.” It’s a simple principle and one that I imagine most of us would get behind.

But what’s not so simple is building and maintaining those closed loop systems so that people begin to see (and taste) the benefits. Standing in the lobby of Plant Chicago it was painfully clear to me that circular economies, whether they are in food production or in knowledge production, require more than just good intentions.

Plant Chicago
Plant Chicago, a workshop and food production space, hosts micro-enterprises, including a brewery and bakery. Credit: Gabriela Fitz

Just as I started to feel the familiar weight of trying to execute systems change, I spotted a small sketch of a pyramid amongst a number of technical diagrams and development plans covering a large wall. This simple sketch was similar to a model many of you are probably familiar with but  is still worth describing. In the sketch, the base of the pyramid was labeled “beliefs and values.” The next level up was “practices and actions.” The top of the pyramid was “results.”

When it comes to the closed loop we care so much about at IssueLab, we keep seeing organizations try to skip from beliefs to results. The social sector wants shared learning without sharing; collective impact without collectivized intelligence. But open knowledge - like any sector-wide or organizational change - has to include a change in practices, not just beliefs. If we don’t adopt open knowledge practices, we can’t expect to see the results we hope for: improved program design and delivery at the community level or less duplication of avoidable mistakes. If we truly want to live up to the #OpenForGood ideal, our beliefs and values are simply not sufficient. (Note that the definition of closed loop I quote above is not about beliefs, it’s about actions, relying on verbs like “take,” “re-purpose,” and “create.”)

The good news is that we have the infrastructure to make a circular knowledge economy possible. We’ve built the plant. Tools like open licenses and open repositories were designed to facilitate and support change in knowledge sharing practices, making it easier for foundations to move up the levels of the pyramid.

Now, we just need to start taking a couple simple actions that reflect our beliefs and move us towards the results we want to see. If you believe in the #OpenForGood principle that social sector knowledge is a public good from which nonprofits and foundations can benefit, your foundation can: 1) use open licensing for your knowledge products, and 2) earn an #OpenForGood badge by sharing your knowledge products, like evaluations, through IssueLab’s open repository. Once those practices are as much part of the normal way of doing foundation business as cutting checks and producing summary reports are, we can all sit back and enjoy that beer, together.

--Gabriela Fitz

Foundations and Endowments: Smart People, Dumb Choices
August 3, 2017

(Marc Gunther writes about nonprofits, foundations, business and sustainability. He also writes for NonprofitChronicles.com. A version of this post also appears in Nonprofit Chronicles.)

This post is part of a new Transparency Talk series devoted to putting the spotlight on the importance of the 990PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file.  The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool. 

Marc Gunther photoAmerica’s foundations spend many millions of dollars every year on investment advice. In return, they get sub-par performance.

You read that right: Money that could be spent on charitable programs — to alleviate global poverty, help cure disease, improve education, support research or promote the arts — instead flows into the pockets of well-to-do investment advisors and asset managers who, as a group, generate returns on their endowment investments that are below average.

This is redistribution in the wrong direction, on a grand scale: Foundation endowments hold about $800 billion in investments. It hasn’t attracted a lot of attention, but that could change as foundations make their IRS tax filings open, digital and searchable. That should create competitive pressures on foundation investment officers to do better, and for foundation executives and trustees to rethink business as usual investing.

The latest evidence that they aren’t doing very well arrived recently with the news that two energy funds managed by a Houston-based private equity firm called EnerVest are on the verge of going bust. Once worth $2 billion, the funds will leave investors “with, at most, pennies for every dollar they invested,” the Wall Street Journal reports. To add insult to injury, the funds in question were invested in oil and natural gas during 2012 and 2013, just as Bill McKibben, 350.org and a handful of their allies were urging institutional investors to divest from fossil fuels.

Foundations that invested in the failing Enervest funds include the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the California-based Fletcher Jones Foundation, according to their most recent IRS filings. Stranded assets, anyone?

“Endowed private foundations are unaccountable to anyone other than their own trustees.”

Of course, no investment strategy can prevent losses. But the collapse of the Enervest funds points to a broader and deeper problem–the fact that most foundations trust their endowment to investment offices and/or outside portfolio managers who pursue active and expensive investment strategies that, as a group, have underperformed the broader markets.

How costly has this underperformance been? That’s impossible to know because most foundations do not disclose their investment returns. This, by itself, is a troubling; it’s a reminder that endowed private foundations are unaccountable to anyone other than their own trustees.

On disclosure, there are signs of progress. The Ford Foundation says it intends to release its investment returns for the first time. A startup company called Foundation Financial Research is compiling data on endowments as well, which it intends to make available to foundation trustees and sell to asset managers.

What’s more, as the IRS Form 990s filed by foundations become machine readable, it will become easier for analysts, activists, journalists and other foundations to see exactly how billions of dollars of foundations assets are deployed, and how they are performing. Advocates for mission-based investment, or for hiring more women and people of color to manage foundation assets are likely to shine a light on foundations whose endowments that are underperforming.

Unhappily, all indications are that most foundations are underperforming because they pursue costly, active investment strategies. This month, what is believed to be the most comprehensive annual survey of foundation endowment performance once again delivered discouraging news for the sector.

The 2016 Council on Foundations–Commonfund Study of Investment of Endowments for Private and Community Foundations® reported on one-year, five-year and 10-year returns for private foundations, and they again trail passive benchmarks.

The 10-year annual average return for private foundations was 4.7 percent, the study found. The five-year return was 7.6 percent. Those returns are net of fees — meaning that outside investment fees are taken into account — but they do not take into account the considerable salaries of investment officers at staffed foundations.

By comparison, Vanguard, the pioneering giant of passive investing, says a simple mix of index funds with 70 percent in stocks and 30 percent in fixed-income assets delivered an annualized return of 5.4 percent over the past 10 years. The five-year return was 9.1 percent.

These differences add up in a hurry.

Warnings, Ignored

The underperformance of foundation endowments is not a surprise. In a Financial Times essay called The end of active investing? that should be read by every foundation trustee, Charles D. Ellis, who formerly chaired the investment committee at Yale, wrote:

“Over 10 years, 83 per cent of active funds in the US fail to match their chosen benchmarks; 40 per cent stumble so badly that they are terminated before the 10-year period is completed and 64 per cent of funds drift away from their originally declared style of investing. These seriously disappointing records would not be at all acceptable if produced by any other industry.”

The performance of hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture capital has trended downwards as institutional investors flocked into those markets, chasing returns. Notable investors including Warren Buffett, Jack Bogle (who as Vanguard’s founder has a vested interest in passive investing), David Swensen, Yale’s longtime chief investment officer, and Charles Ellis have all argued for years that most investors–even institutional investors–should simply diversity their portfolios, pursue passive strategies and keep their investing costs low.

In his most recent letter to investors in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett wrote:

“When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.”

For more from Buffett about why passive investing makes sense, see my March blogpost, Warren Buffett has some excellent advice for foundations that they probably won’t take. Recently, Freakonomics did an excellent podcast on the topic, titled The Stupidest Thing You Can Do With Your Money.

2016700activepassivesign-640x410-jpgThat said, the debate between active and passive asset managers remains unsettled. While index funds have outperformed actively-managed portfolios over the last decade, Cambridge Associates, a big investment firm that builds customized portfolios for institutional investors and private clients, published a study last spring saying that this past decade is an anomaly. Cambridge Associates found that since 1990, fully diversified (i.e., actively managed) portfolios have underperformed a simple 70/30 stock/bond portfolio in only two periods: 1995–99 and 2009–2016. To no one’s surprise, Cambridge says: “We continue to find investments in private equity and hedge funds that we believe have an ability to add value to portfolios over the long term.” Portfolio managers are also sure to argue that their expertise and connections enable them to beat market indices.

But where is the evidence? To the best of my knowledge, seven of the U.S.’s 10 biggest foundations decline to disclose their investment returns. I emailed or called the Getty, MacArthur and Fletcher Jones foundations to ask about their investments in Enervest and was told that they do not discuss individual investments. They declined comment.

To its credit, MacArthur does disclose its investment performance of its $6.3 billion endowment. On the other hand, MacArthur has an extensive grantmaking program supporting “conservation and sustainable development.” Why is it financing oil and gas assets?

Ultimately, foundation boards are responsible for overseeing the investment of their endowments. Why don’t they do a better job of it? Maybe it’s because many foundation trustees — particularly those who oversee the investment committees — come out of Wall Street, private equity funds, hedge funds and venture capital. They are the so-called experts, and they have built successful careers by managing other people’s people. It’s not easy for the other board members, who may be academics, activists, lawyers or politicians, to question their expertise. But that’s what they need to do.

And, at the very least, foundations ought to be open about how their endowments are performing so those who manage their billions of dollars can be held accountable.

--Marc Gunther

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