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I Thought I Knew You: Grants Data & the 990PF
August 23, 2017

(Martha S. Richards is the Executive Director of the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation in Portland, Oregon.)

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, 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 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

Join us at a session about the Open 990PF in partnership with Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Learn more or register here.

Martha Richards photoI have a confession to make. Up until a few years ago when this story begins, I used to take the 990PF for granted. I thought of it as something that ensured we were following federal regulations and that if we filed it on time and followed the reporting practices we had always used, that this would be sufficient for all concerned. I was also pretty certain no one but a few insiders within the government and perhaps a handful of philanthropy groups would ever bother to read it.

Well, you might have heard the expression: "You don't know what you don't know," and that's a good segue to what I have to share.

In Spring 2010, the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC) released a study -- Communities of Color in Multnomah County: an Unsettling Profile -- which defined the disparities facing communities of color in Oregon's largest urban area, Portland. Inspired by this analysis, that December, Foundation Center (FC) and Grantmakers of Oregon and SW Washington (GOSW) co-presented Grantmaking to Communities of Color in Oregon -- a groundbreaking report that acknowledged that philanthropy was part of the problem. The report estimated only 9.6% of grants awarded in 2008 by Oregon private and community funders actually reached communities of color.

While the data told a moving story, the source of the data also became a parallel conversation because the philanthropic community here in Oregon learned about the limitations of using tax returns to tell such important stories. The grant descriptions in our 990s rarely disclose details about the intended beneficiaries of the grants—even if we know them.

The result: We embarked on a long journey to address both issues. While GOSW and CCC hosted a forum to raise awareness of the reports and their attendant policy recommendations, foundations committed to look more closely at their giving practices as well as their data collection efforts, especially emphasizing collecting better beneficiary data, and reporting relationship with Foundation Center.

This prompted us at the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation to examine our own giving and how we could describe its reach. We fund in the areas of arts and K-12 education. We have a small staff. Our application process did not require a detailed analysis of demographic data from arts applicants or schools, nor an understanding of the diverse nature of nonprofit leadership among our grantees. We realized that we did not know if the grants we made were reaching the populations we hoped to serve.

As part of this effort, I chaired a GOSW-led Data Work Group to explore how to obtain more meaningful data sets without adding to the length and complexity of our application processes. We invited nonprofit partners to the table. We studied Foundation's Center's processes and invited their staff to meet with and advise us. We tried, tested, and began to encourage nonprofits to help us learn more about how and who we were reaching with our philanthropic dollars. Eventually, we encouraged many of our Oregon foundations to become eReporters to Foundation Center, providing more detailed descriptions of what the grant was for, and who was reached with the funding. Our reports to the Foundation Center and to the IRS have improved, and we make an effort to report detailed demographic information.

Before and After Chart

However, we discovered that it can be difficult for some types of organizations to capture specific demographic data. In the arts, for instance, outside of audience surveys, one generally does not complete a demographic survey to buy a ticket. At the Miller Foundation, we chose to partner with DataArts to collect financial and audience data on our arts grantees. Arts organizations annually complete the profile and it can be used for several arts funders in the state. Their demographic profile is still being developed, but it will encourage better data information and capture in the future. Unfortunately, this platform does not exist for other nonprofits.

Get on the Map

Get on the Map encourages foundations to share current and complete details about their grantmaking with Foundation Center. The interactive map, databases and reports allow foundations to have a better understanding of grantee funding and demographics.

We didn't know it then, but as a result of our committee's efforts, a new data improvement movement was born, called Get on the Map (GOTM). GOTM encourages foundations to share current and complete details about their grantmaking with Foundation Center, so the Maps, databases, and reports it issues are as accurate as possible. The grants we share also populate an interactive map that members of GOSW have access to, which means that we have a better idea of the ecosystem in which we work. It has since scaled nationally with other regions also committing to improve the data they collect and share about their grantmaking so we can all be less in the dark about what efforts are underway and who is working on them.

As a result, today our foundation has a better understanding of who our grantees are serving and reaching today, than we did seven years ago, and I think we are also doing a better job of sharing that story with the IRS, Foundation Center, and the many sets of eyes I now know view those platforms.

We are still learning what we do not know. But at least, now we know what we do not know.

-- Martha Richards


Coming to Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington: To learn more about what story your 990PF tells about your foundation, register to attend Once Upon a 990PF. Visit the GOSW website for more information and to register.

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