Transparency Talk

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April 2018 (4 posts)

Increasing Attention to Transparency: The MacArthur Foundation Is #OpenForGood
April 17, 2018

Chantell Johnson is managing director of evaluation at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series 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.

Chantell Johnson photoAt MacArthur, the desire to be transparent is not new. We believe philanthropy has a responsibility to be explicit about its values, choices, and decisions with regard to its use of resources. Toward that end, we have long had an information sharing policy that guides what and when we share information about the work of the Foundation or our grantees. Over time, we have continued to challenge ourselves to do better and to share more. The latest refinement of our approach to transparency is an effort toward increasingly sharing more knowledge about what we are learning. We expect to continue to push ourselves in this regard, and participating in Foundation Center’s Glasspockets  and #OpenForGood movements are just a couple of examples of how this has manifested.

In recent years, we have made a more concerted effort to revisit and strengthen our information sharing policy by:

  • Expanding our thinking about what we can and should be transparent about (e.g., our principles of transparency guided our public communications around our 100&Change competition, which included an ongoing blog);
  • Making our guidance more contemporary by moving beyond statements about information sharing to publishing more and different kinds of information (e.g., Grantee Perception Reports and evaluation findings);
  • Making our practices related to transparency more explicit; and
  • Ensuring that our evaluation work is front and center in our efforts related to transparency.

Among the steps we have taken to increase our transparency are the following:

Sharing more information about our strategy development process.
The Foundation's website has a page dedicated to How We Work, which provides detailed information about our approach to strategy development. We share an inside look into the lifecycle of our programmatic efforts, beginning with conceptualizing a grantmaking strategy through the implementation and ending phases, under an approach we refer to as Design/Build. Design/Build recognizes that social problems and conditions are not static, and thus our response to these problems needs to be iterative and evolve with the context to be most impactful. Moreover, we aim to be transparent as we design and build strategies over time. 

“We have continued to challenge ourselves to do better and to share more.”

Using evaluation to document what we are measuring and learning about our work.
Core to Design/Build is evaluation. Evaluation has become an increasingly important priority among our program staff. It serves as a tool to document what we are doing, how well we are doing it, how work is progressing, what is being achieved, and who benefits. We value evaluation not only for the critical information it provides to our Board, leadership, and program teams, but for the insights it can provide for grantees, partners, and beneficiaries in the fields in which we aim to make a difference. Moreover, it provides the critical content that we believe is at the heart of many philanthropic efforts related to transparency.

Expanding the delivery mechanisms for sharing our work.
While our final evaluation reports have generally been made public on our website, we aim to make more of our evaluation activities and products available (e.g., landscape reviews and baseline and interim reports). Further, in an effort to make our evaluation work more accessible, we are among the first foundations to make all of our evaluation reports publicly available as part of Foundation Center's #OpenForGood campaign.

Further evidence of the Foundation's commitment to increased transparency includes continuing to improve our “Glass Pockets” by sharing:

  • Our searchable database of grants, including award amount, program, year, and purpose;
  • Funding statistics including total grants, impact investments, final budgeted amounts by program, and administrative expenses (all updated annually);
  • Perspectives of our program directors and staff;
  • Links to grantee products including grant-supported research studies consistent with the Foundation's intellectual property policies;
  • Stories highlighting the work and impact of our grantees and recipients of impact investments; and
  • Center for Effective Philanthropy Grantee Perception report results

Going forward, we will look for additional ways to be transparent. And, we will challenge ourselves to make findings and learnings more accessible even more quickly.

--Chantell Johnson 

Are You Over or Under-Protecting Your Grants Data? 5 Ways to Balance Transparency and Data Protection in Sensitive Contexts
April 12, 2018

Laia Griñó is director of data discovery at Foundation Center. This post also appears in the Human Rights Funders Network's blog.

Laia Grino photoOver the last few months, this blog has presented insights gained from the Advancing Human Rights initiative’s five-year trend analysis. Getting to these insights would not have been possible had not a growing number of funders decided to consistently share more detailed data about their grantmaking, such as through Foundation Center’s eReporting program. In a field where data can pose real risks, some might feel that this openness is ill-advised. Yet transparency and data protection need not be at odds. By operating from a framework of responsible data, funders can simultaneously protect the privacy and security of grantees and contribute to making the human rights field more transparent, accountable, and effective.

This topic – balancing transparency and data protection – was the focus of a session facilitated by Foundation Center at the PEAK Grantmaking annual conference last month. Our goal was not to debate the merits of one principle over the other, but to help provide a framework that funders can use in determining how to share grants data, even in challenging circumstances. What follows are some of the ideas and tips discussed at that session (a caveat here: these tips focus on data shared voluntarily by funders on their website, with external partners like Foundation Center, etc.; we recognize that funders may also face legal reporting requirements that could raise additional issues).

HRFN Graphic

  • Think of transparency as a spectrum: Conversations regarding data sharing often seem to end up at extremes: we must share everything or we can’t share anything. Instead, funders should identify what level of transparency makes sense for them by asking themselves two questions: (1) What portion of our grants portfolio contains sensitive data that could put grantees at risk if shared? and (2) For the portion of grants deemed sensitive, which grant details – if any – are possible to share? Based on our experience with Advancing Human Rights, in most cases funders will find that it is possible to share some, if not most, of their grants information.
  • Assess the risks of sharing data: Answering these questions requires careful consideration of the consequences if information about certain grants is made public, particularly for grantees’ security. As noted at the PEAK session, in assessing risks funders should not only consider possible negative actions by government actors, but also by actors like militant groups or even a grantee’s community or family. It is also important to recognize that risks can change over time, which is why it is so critical that funders understand what will happen with the data they share; if circumstances change, they need to know who should be notified so that newly sensitive data can be removed.
  • Get grantees’ input: Minimizing harm to grantees is of utmost importance to funders. And yet grantees usually have little or no input on decisions about what information is shared about them. Some funders do explicitly ask for grantees’ consent to share information, sometimes at multiple points along the grant process. This could take the form of an opt-in box included as part of the grant agreement process, for example. At a minimum, grantees should understand where and how data about the grant will be used.
  • Calibrate what is shared based on the level of risk: Depending on the outcomes of their risk assessment (and grantees’ input), a funder may determine that it’s inadvisable to share any details about certain grants. In these cases, funders may opt not to include those grants in their reporting at all, or to only report on them at an aggregate level (e.g., $2 million in grants to region or country X). In situations where it is possible to acknowledge a grant, funders can take steps to protect a grantee, such as: anonymizing the name of the grantee; providing limited information on the grantee’s location (e.g., country only); and/or redacting or eliminating a grant description (note: from our experience processing data, it is easy to overlook sensitive information in grant descriptions!).
  • Build data protection into grants management systems: Technology has an important role to play in making data protection systematic and, importantly, manageable. For example, some funders have “flags” to indicate which grants can be shared publicly or, conversely, which are sensitive. In one example shared at PEAK, a grants management system has been set up so that if a grant has been marked as sensitive, the grantee’s name will automatically appear as “Confidential” in any reports generated. These steps can minimize the risk of data being shared due to human error.

Transparency is at the core of Foundation Center’s mission. We believe deeply that transparency can not only help build public trust but also advance more inclusive and effective philanthropy. For that reason, we are committed to being responsible stewards of the data that is shared with us (see the security plan for Advancing Human Rights, for example). A single conference session or blog post cannot do justice to such a complex and longdebated topic. We are therefore thankful that our colleagues at Ariadne360Giving and The Engine Room have just started a project to provide funders with greater guidance around this issue (learn more in these two thoughtful blog posts from The Engine Room, here and here). We look forward to seeing and acting on their findings! 

--Laia Griñó

“OpenNotes” for Funders: A Radical Idea for More Transparency and Better Relationships
April 11, 2018

Kevin Bolduc is vice president, assessment and advisory services, at Center for Effective Philanthropy. This post also appears in CEP.

Kevin-350x350Transparency — being open, honest, and clear — is a key driver of strong relationships between funders and grantees. It’s valued by foundation and grantee CEOs alike, and grantees think foundations are doing a decent job of being transparent (though more so in sharing about their processes than their learning).

Still, are there more radical ways to improve openness in ways that would benefit both funders and grantees? As I’ve thought about this question, I’ve been drawn to a transparency movement called OpenNotes, which is changing the relationship between doctors and patients.

(To be clear up front, I admit the doctor-patient/funder-grantee analogy is imperfect. Yes, both involve relationship dynamics with significant levels of information and power asymmetry, punctuated by intermittent high-stakes visits and conversations. But, unlike a patient, an individual grantee doesn’t depend on a foundation for its mortal life. Still, I think the analogy can be instructive. Even the savviest patients I know — like my physician husband — talk about not wanting to bother or anger their doctors.)

In the OpenNotes movement, doctors have taken the radical step of directly sharing their medical notes, lab results, and plans — the entire medical record — with patients. They’ve created systems to make those notes easy to access and discuss. It’s a rapidly growing movement, and now more than 20 million patients have access to their doctors’ perspectives about their health, treatments, and plans.

“Transparency — being open, honest, and clear — is a key driver of strong relationships between funders and grantees.”

So how does this relate to foundations? I’d argue that virtually every foundation I’m aware of has similar “notes” in the form of the grant write-ups and recommendations created by program officers for boards and/or senior leadership.

Why not open up those notes to the grantees they’re about? 

If we want to improve funder-grantee relationships — not to mention capacity building and shared learning — what better ways to share than these summaries about why a grant should be funded and what the risks are in doing so? Even when grant recommendations contain worries about a particular risk — organizational capacity challenges or major external risks, for example — a direct, if difficult, conversation between a grantee and her program officer, prompted by an open note, could yield new ideas, clarifications, or opportunities for assistance.

I’ve seen quite a few examples of funder write-up formats, and most contain explanations about a funder’s perspective on the fit between its program’s strategy and the grantee’s work, assessments of why the organization has the capacity to succeed (and sometimes where that capacity can be strengthened), risks the project faces, and observations about potential impact. This is exactly the kind of substance that program officers and grantees should be discussing as much as possible!

I can imagine the reasons why some of you might think this is some combination of silly, impossible, or harmful. Maybe a foundation OpenNotes-style movement would create extra work because grantees would reach out to correct the record or debate the program officers’ assessment of their work. Maybe it would require a different writing style or more editing — or make funders feel pressured to be less honest in their write-ups. Maybe it would create hard feelings.

Well, a lot of that is exactly what doctors once thought, too. I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Tom Delbanco, John F. Keane & Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, who was one of the founders of the OpenNotes movement. He told me about how the first doctors to pilot this crazy idea were viewed as “mavericks.” He also described how the early and long-term funding from foundations, including Commonwealth Fund, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, made the movement possible when health systems were skeptical.

Doctors initially felt that the notes would not be easy to share. Of course, they contain the good news of their judgments about what’s going well (e.g., “The patient has had a remarkable response to treatment and is thriving”). But they also contain the unvarnished assessment of what’s not going well (e.g., “Treatment has failed and the patient continues to have unrealistic expectations about the likelihood of cure”).

Funders who share their internal notes with grantees can build “a stronger sense of alignment, approachability, and trust.”

Doctors worried that patients couldn’t handle the more sensitive information, Dr. Delbanco said. The notes felt like expert doctor-to-doctor talk. And doctors worried they’d be inundated with patient requests and extra work. For a few, “closed” notes reinforced a comfortable hierarchical relationship between doctors and patients.

However, research on doctors’ experiences with OpenNotes has been almost universally positive. Writing OpenNotes hasn’t added time to doctors’ work, nor have doctors been besieged by emails from patients. Some participating doctors do feel they need to change their writing (e.g., less jargon, better documentation). But, overall, doctors seem to think opening up their notes provides benefits. In studies of OpenNotes pilots, virtually all doctors chose to continue with OpenNotes even after the pilots ended.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t about the effect on doctors (or funders, in my analogy), right? What we care most about is the effect on patients (or grantees).

This is a question that Dr. Delbanco and others in the OpenNotes movement have studied since the very beginning. It turns out that OpenNotes seems to strengthen both the quality of care and the patient-doctor relationship — and the specifics of those improvements pretty closely match some of the most important components of the grantee-funder relationship.

As a starting point, research suggests that 99 percent of patients feel the same or better about their doctors after having access to their notes. Research by Dr. Delbanco suggests OpenNotes is associated with patients having a greater sense of control, greater adherence to treatment plans, and greater understanding of their medical situation. The results of a qualitative study of patients’ experiences highlights the ways patients say OpenNotes creates better mutual understanding, a greater sense of trust and partnership with their doctors, greater confidence and comfort in their relationships, and better and clearer communication. Another study describes how patients feel that OpenNotes ensures “that we are on the same page,” “helps me come to my appointments better prepared,” and “provides another opportunity for two-way communication.”

Some of these benefits translate fairly directly to the grantee-funder relationship.  I can picture the grantee who, in reading her grant recommendation note, gains a deeper understanding about a funder’s analysis of the context in which she works, greater clarity about how her organization’s work contributes to the outcomes a funder is seeking, and a stronger sense of alignment, approachability, and trust.

When I’m working with funders on responding to results of a Grantee Perception Report, it’s often efforts to improve relationships that feel particularly challenging — especially in an environment where program staff don’t feel they have enough time for more interaction with grantees. So why not try opening up your notes and improving the quality of the conversations you do have? If the experience of patients and doctors is any indication, I bet that simple act of transparency — sharing both the enthusiasm and worries that grant recommendations contain — would help. I’d love to hear your experience if you try.

--Kevin Bolduc

From Dark Ages to Enlightenment: A Magical Tale of Mapping Human Rights Grantmaking
April 4, 2018

Mona Chun is Executive Director of Human Rights Funders Network, a global network of grantmakers committed to effective human rights philanthropy.

Mona HeadshotOnce upon a time, back in the old days of 2010, human rights funders were sitting alone in their castles, with no knowledge of what their peers in other towers and castles were doing – just the certainty that their issue area, above all others, was underfunded. Each castle also spoke its own language, making it difficult for castle communities to learn from one another. This lack of transparency and shared language about common work and goals meant everyone was working in the dark.

Then a gender-neutral knight, clad in human rights armor (ethically produced of course), arrived in the form of our Advancing Human Rights research. With this research in hand, funders can now:

  • Peer out from their towers across the beautiful funding landscape;
  • Use a telescope to look at what their peers are doing, from overall funding trends to grants-level detail;
  • Use a common language to compare notes on funding priorities and approaches;
  • Find peers with whom to collaborate and new grantee partners to support; and
  • Refine and strengthen their funding strategies.

Armed with this knowledge, human rights funders can leave their towers and visit others, even government towers, to advocate and leverage additional resources in their area of interest.

Advancing Human Rights MapMapping Unchartered Territory

The Advancing Human Rights initiative, a partnership between Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN) and Foundation Center, has mapped more than $12 billion in human rights funding from foundations since 2010. Because of the great potential such data has to inform and improve our collective work, many years of work went into this. Ten years ago, HRFN recognized that in order to help human rights funders become more effective in their work, we needed to get a better understanding of where the money was going, what was being funded and how much was being spent. After our initial planning, we partnered with Foundation Center, brought in Ariadne and Prospera as funder network collaborators, formed a global Advisory Committee and hashed out the taxonomy to develop a shared language. Then, we began the process of wrangling funders to share their detailed grantmaking data.

It was no easy feat, but we published the first benchmark report on human rights grantmaking for 2010, and since then, we have worked to improve the research scope and process and trained funders to use the tools we’ve developed. In January, we released our first ever trends analysis. Over the five years of data collection featured on the Advancing Human Rights research hub, we’ve compiled almost 100,000 human rights grants from funders in 114 countries.

Adopting A Can-Do Attitude

In 2010, major funders in our network didn’t believe this could be done.

First, could we get the grantmaking data from members? For the first few years, we campaigned hard to get members to share their detailed grants information. We created a musical “Map It” parody (set to the tune of Devo’s “Whip It”) and launched a Rosie the Riveter campaign (“You Can Do It: Submit Your Data!”). We deployed pocket-size fold-outs and enormous posters thanking foundations for their participation. Several years later, we have seen our gimmicks bear fruit: 780 funders contributed data in our most recent year. When we began, no human rights data was being gathered from funders outside North America. In our first year, we incorporated data from 49 foundations outside North America and in the most recent year, that number more than doubled to 109. The value of participation is now clear. Repeated nudging is still necessary, but not gimmicks.

Rosie Collage
The Human Rights Funder Network celebrates its Rosie the Riveter “You Can Do It: Submit Your Data!” campaign. Photo Credit: Human Rights Funders Network

Data Makes A Difference

Once we had the research, could we get busy funders to use the data? With all the hard work being done in the field and so much to learn from it, we were committed to creating research that would be used. Focusing as much energy on sharing the research as we had compiling it, we aimed to minimize unused reports sitting on shelves. Global tours, presentations, workshops and tutorials have resulted in funders sharing story after story of how they are putting the findings to use:

  • Funders sift through the data to inform their strategic plans and understand where they sit vis-à-vis their peers;
  • Use the tools to break out of their silos and build collaborative initiatives;
  • Use the research to advocate to their boards, their governments, their constituencies; and
  • Enter into new areas of work or geographies knowing the existing landscape of organizations on the ground, search for donors doing complementary work, and discover the issues most and least funded.

Overall, their decisions can be informed by funding data that did not exist before, beyond the wishful daydreams of funders in their towers.

I wish I could say that we’ll live happily ever after with this data. But the pursuit of human rights is a long-term struggle. Those committed to social change know that progress is often accompanied by backlash. As we face the current challenging times together, sometimes we just need to recognize how far we’ve come and how much more we know, holding on to the magic of possibility (and the occasional fairy tale) to inspire us for the still long and winding, but newly illuminated, road ahead.

--Mona Chun

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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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