Transparency Talk

Category: "Accountability" (72 posts)

Transparency Talk Welcomes Arcus Foundation to Glasspockets
March 29, 2017

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.) 

Arcus foundation logoWe are pleased to welcome Arcus Foundation to our community of foundations that have publicly commited to working transparently. By taking and sharing the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” (WHGP) self-assessment, Arcus is contributing to a growing collection of profiles that serve as a knowledge bank and transparency benchmarking mechanism.

Arcus, with its offices in New York and Cambridge, United Kingdom, advocates for global human rights and conservation movements: “Together, we learn from each other and take bold risks on groundbreaking ideas that drive progress toward a future of respect and dignity for all.”

“We strive to apply a high level of transparency in our operations and in our relationships with grantees, partners and other stakeholders.’”

This month, Arcus became the 87th foundation to join WHGP.  As a way of welcoming Arcus to the Glasspockets community, we’d like to highlight some of the ways in which this foundation openly shares its environmental and social justice work.

First, Arcus has pledged a rare commitment to openness in its transparency statement that is part of the website’s introduction to Arcus’ work.

The foundation uses its website to explain its grantmaking process,  shares expectations for grantees, and offers a searchable grantee map and database.  A short video invites and informs prospective grant applicants.

Other ways that Arcus lives up to its transparency statement is by opening up its knowledge via  grantee impact stories, reports, and a foundation blog.  Additionally, the foundation discloses more than a decade of its financial information

Enjoy exploring the work that Arcus is doing for social justice and the environment.  Perhaps it will inspire your foundation to become #88!  Does your foundation have glass pockets?  Find out

 --Melissa Moy

Warren Buffett Has Some Excellent Advice for Foundations That They Probably Won't Take
March 16, 2017

(Marc Gunther writes about nonprofits, foundations, business and sustainability. He also writes for NonprofitChronicles.com. 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 GuntherWith a collective $800 billion in assets under management, America’s big foundations spend vast sums of money to buy investment advice. They’re getting little, if anything, of value in return.

Their own investment offices, and the Wall Street banks, hedge funds, private equity firms and consultants they hire, when taken together, deliver investment returns that lag behind market indexes, all evidence indicates.

These foundations would do better to call an 800 number at Vanguard or Schwab and buy a diversified set of low-cost index funds.

So, at least, argues Warren Buffett, one of the great investors of our time. In his latest letter to investors in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett writes:

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.

The limited data available about foundation endowments bears him out.

It’s not possible to prove that Buffett’s advice would enable foundations to improve their returns–and thus have more money to devote to their grant-making. Most foundations don’t disclose the financial performance of their endowments.

Of the 10 largest grant-making foundations in the US, only two — the MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — publish investment returns on their websites. MacArthur’s disclosure is exemplary. (So is its performance, perhaps not coincidentally.) I emailed all ten and got nowhere with the rest.

The best evidence about how foundations are managing their endowments comes from an annual study published by the Council on Foundations and Commonfund, a nonprofit asset management fund that serves foundations, colleges and nonprofits. Their most recent survey, which covers the 10-year period from 2006 through 2015, found that returns averaged 5.5 percent per year for 130 private foundations and 5.2 percent per year for 98 community foundations.

Further insight can be gleaned from Cambridge Associates, an investment firm whose clients include foundations, universities and wealthy families. Cambridge tracked the performance of 445 of its endowment and foundation clients and found they generated average annualized returns of 4.97 percent for the 10-year period ending June 30, 2016. (These returns should not be considered Cambridge’s performance track record, a spokesman told me.)

High pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns for foundations.

By contrast, Vanguard’s model portfolio for institutional investors, a mix of passively invested index funds, with 70 percent invested in stocks and the rest in fixed income securities, delivered 5.81 percent over the 10-year-period through 2015, and 6.1 percent for the 10-year period ending on June 30, 2016, according to Chris Philips, head of institutional advisory services at Vanguard. (All figures for investment returns are net of fees, meaning fees are taken into account.)

That may appear to be a small edge for Vanguard. But when institutions are investing hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars, small gains compounded over time add up to big money. Money, again, that could be better spent on programs.

Actually, it’s worse, because the figures reported by the Council on Foundations and CommonFund do not include the salaries that foundations pay to their in-house investment offices. The chief investment officers are often the highest-paid executives at foundations, and their deputies do well, too.

Why, then, do foundations continue to pay high salaries and high fees in the pursuit of market-beating returns, when so many fail?

They should know better. It’s no secret that passive approaches to investing outperform most active money managers, once fees and trading costs are taking into account. In 2005, Buffett wrote that “active investment management by professionals – in aggregate – would over a period of years underperform the returns achieved by rank amateurs who simply sat still.”

Taking aim at hedge funds, with their high expenses, Buffett then offered to bet $500,000 that no investment professional “could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees.”

Only one — one! — investment pro took the bet. Not surprisingly, Buffett will win the bet, by a very comfortable margin. And yet foundations and those who advise them are pouring more, not less, money into hedge funds.

Everyone Wants to Be Special

Buffett has a theory about why those in charge of foundations entrust their endowments to active money managers and hedge funds:

The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.

In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars.

Vanguard’s Chris Philips has a similar theory:

There is this perception that by going index you are ceding that you do not have any skill and you are going to be average in the marketplace. That doesn’t feel good. As humans, we want to be good. We don’t want to be average.

Foundation executives may be especially prone to believe that they deserve better than “average” investment advice. By dint of their position, they are often told that they are wiser, funnier and better-looking than average.

Jeffrey Hooke, a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and a former investment banker, says the trustees of foundations who serve on their investment committees are likely to favor active asset management.

The people on the boards tend to be in the business. They’re private equity executives, they’re stockbrokers or they’re in hedge funds. They’re totally biased in favor of active managing because that’s how they’ve made their living.

Hooke has researched public pension funds and found that they, too, underperform the markets by choosing active managers. Investment officers don’t want to talk themselves out of a job, he says:

They are never going to walk into the boardroom and say, ‘Hey, it just isn’t working.’ They’ve got wives, they’ve got mortgages they’ve got kids.

These investment officers aspire to be the rare bird who can consistently outperform the market, like David Swensen, the storied portfolio manager at Yale. (I profiled Swensen in 2005 for the Yale Alumni Magazine.) But Swensen, like Buffett, says that identifying the best asset managers is exceedingly difficult. In a 2009 interview, Swensen told me that investors who rely on “low-cost, passively managed index funds” and rebalance regularly will “end up beating the overwhelming majority of participants in the financial markets.” Buffett has said that in the course of his lifetime he has identified only about 10 investment professionals who can beat the markets over time; there are about 87,000 foundations in the US.

Pay for Performance?

In fairness, the foundation trustees and investment officers labor under a peculiar burden. They are obligated by law to give away five percent of their assets every year. So if they want to exist in perpetuity, they must earn in excess of five percent on their investments, which is a tall order. Of course, no foundation is entitled to live forever. If some spend down their assets, well, new foundations come along all the time.

Most foundations, though, aim to survive in perpetuity, and chase superior returns, at a cost. Consider, for example, the Ford Foundation, which, with assets of $12.2 billion (as of 12-31-2015), is the second-biggest foundation in the US, behind the behemoth Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2015, the Ford Foundation’s highest-paid employee was vice president and chief investment officer Eric Doppstadt, who was paid $2.1 million. He was followed by  director of public investment Michael Walden at $1,017,061, director of private equity Sherif Nahas at $972,362 and director of hedge funds William Artemenko at $955,479. All were paid more than Darren Walker, Ford’s president, whose compensation was $788,542, according to Ford’s Form 990-PF filing,

Then there were Ford’s outside asset managers. In 2015, they included Silchester International Equity Management which was paid $2.2 million, Wellington Energy Investment Advisor, which collected just under $2 million and Eagle Capital Management, which got $1 million.

How did they perform? “Sharing the investment returns is outside of our policy,” says Joshua Cinelli, Ford’s chief of media relations, by e-mail.

In this, Ford is typical. At the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, chief investment officer John Moehling was paid $2.3 million, and three other investment professionals earned more than $1 million. All were better paid than Packard’s chief executive, Carol Larson. Packard, too, will not disclose its returns.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and MacArthur Foundation all pay their chief investment officer more than their top executives. The argument for doing so, presumably, is that these investment professionals could make as much money or more in the private sector.

But, again, with the exception of MacArthur and Kellogg, the foundations won’t say whether their investment officers and their outside asset managers are delivering market-beating performance.

What we do know is that high pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns. Interestingly, when pension-fund critic Jeff Hooke analyzed data from 33 state pension systems, he found that the 10 states with the highest fee ratios achieved lower return rates than those that spent the least.

Transparency and Accountability

Foundation endowment returns could probably be calculated by going through years of IRS filings. Unfortunately, the Form 990-PF tax form for foundations is “seriously flawed,” “unwieldy” and “unintelligible to the many lay readers, including trustees and journalists,” according to longtime foundation executive John Craig.

In a 2011 blog post for the Foundation Center, Craig lamented the fact that investment performance is not solicited on the Form 990:

Since their endowments are the only source of income for most foundations and effective endowment management is a challenge for many foundations, this is an egregious omission—equivalent to not requiring for-profit corporations to report their earnings on tax returns and financial statements.

I asked Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, which promotes transparency through its laudable Glasspockets initiative, why foundations won’t disclose their investment returns. “They don’t report it because it’s not required,” he said, “to state the obvious.”

Smith went on to say that foundations may be “worried about perverse incentives that could be created by a ranking.” If foundations compete to generate the best investment returns, he explained, they could feel pressured to take on risky investments. During the Great Recession, some foundations that pursued aggressive investment strategies had to sell highly-leveraged, illiquid investments at a loss. 

Still, I wonder if there’s a simpler explanation for the lack of disclosure: Foundation staff and trustees don’t want to be held accountable for mediocre results.

If MacArthur and Kellogg are exemplary in their disclosure — Kellogg kindly arranged a phone interview with Joel Wittenberg, its chief investment officer —  the Gates and Bloomberg foundations are unusually opaque. Gates Foundation money is housed in a separate trust and is reportedly managed by Cascade Investments, which also manages Gates’ personal fortune. (Buffett is a trustee of the Gates Foundation, and presumably keeps an eye on the endowment.) Bloomberg’s philanthropic and personal wealth are reported to be managed by Willett Advisors. Cascade and Willett have access to some of the world’s top money managers, and may have a shot at outperforming the averages.

This isn’t a new issue. Testifying before Congress in 1952, Russell Leffingwell, the chairman of the board of the Carnegie Foundation, famously said:

We publish our investments. We have to be very careful about our investments because we know that others, some others, take investment advice from our list of investments. Well, that is all right. We think the foundation should have glass pockets.

The bottom line: America’s foundations, as a group, are taking money that could be devoted to their programs – to alleviate global poverty, to improve education, to support medical research or promote the arts — and transferring it to wealthy asset managers. They should know better, and they do.

--Marc Gunther

Glasspockets Find: “Dear Warren” Accounts for Impact of His $30 Billion Gift to the Gates Foundation
March 3, 2017

Buffet Bill MelindaBill & Melinda Gates recently posted their foundation’s annual letter, sharing progress from their work.  This year's letter had a personal twist, revealing how the world's largest private foundation accounts for its progress to a key stakeholder.  The letter, a great example of donor stewardship at the highest levels, details the impact of Warren Buffett’s historic gift to the Gates Foundation. 

In 2006, Buffett’s $30 billion gift to the Gates Foundation was the largest single gift ever made, and it was intended to fight disease and reduce inequity.  Buffett’s gift doubled the foundation’s resources, and helped expand its work in U.S. education, support smallholder farmers and create financial services for the poor.

In “Dear Warren,” Bill and Melinda Gates personally let the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Chairman know how the Gates Foundation was using his money. 

“To make sure your investment keeps paying higher returns, the world has to save more lives in the future than we’ve saved in the past.”

The couple jokingly reminded Buffett of his penchant for wise spending, such as the time Buffett treated Bill Gates to a Hong Kong McDonald’s meal and used coupons.  With handwritten notes, photos and infographics, the couple showed Buffett that they too were wisely investing Buffet’s money to make an impact on global health and improve childhood mortality rates, which contributes to healthy families and stronger economies.  

The letter shows how data and metrics can be used to tell a powerful narrative.  The Gates are careful to say that they are not doing this work alone, and that most of the numbers reflect how many global organizations, including the Gates Foundation, are contributing to saving and improving lives.

“If we could show you only one number that proves how life has changed for the poorest, it would be 122 million—the number of children’s lives saved since 1990,” Bill Gates said in his letter.

Economist1
Source: The Economist via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Over a 20 year-period since 1990, the rate of childhood mortality has been cut in half, Melinda Gates said.  The Gates Foundation has helped contribute to improved global health through its investment of increasing access to vaccines in poor and developing countries. 

“For every dollar spent on childhood immunizations, you get $44 in economic benefits. That includes saving the money that families lose when a child is sick and a parent can’t work,” Bill Gates said.  

The foundation’s other global health initiatives include reducing newborn mortality, ending malnutrition, family planning and ending poverty.

Bill and Melinda Gates shared how they felt both inspired and compelled by Buffet to wisely and strategically make a philanthropic impact of Buffett’s life earnings.  They affectionately called him the most generous person they know, as well as one of the most competitive people.

Melinda Gates said the Gates are not using Buffet's money for “a grant here and a grant there.”  Rather, the Gates are using Buffett’s gift to build “an ecosystem of partners that shares its genius to improve lives and end disease."

"[You are] counting on us to make good decisions.  That responsibility weighs on us,” Melinda Gates said.  “To make sure your investment keeps paying higher returns, the world has to save more lives in the future than we’ve saved in the past.”

--Melissa Moy

How Philanthropic Is the Trump Cabinet?
January 11, 2017

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center.)

Here are the facts, decide for yourself. That may sound like a radical proposition in what some–after a bitter election season dominated by spin, lies and fake news–are calling a "post-truth world," but it is what we do at Foundation Center. In releasing "Eye on the Trump Cabinet" as the newest feature of Foundation Center's Glasspockets website, our goal is track the charitable giving related to Cabinet nominees and their nonprofit Board service.

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

Eye on the Trump Cabinet shows that, taken as a whole, the Cabinet nominees are by no means strangers to philanthropy.

There has been a lot of speculation among philanthropic foundations about what the new Administration might mean for the sector. Will lower tax rates reduce charitable giving? If government retreats from social programs will foundations be expected to take up the slack? Will new regulations be introduced to somehow influence the kinds of priorities foundations support? At the extremes I have heard people assert: "these people (the new Administration) don't know anything about philanthropy," and fielded a question from a Danish reporter who wanted to know if the controversy over the Clinton and Trump foundations would lead to the end of transparency in the sector. But what do the data tell us?

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

"Eye on the Trump Cabinet" shows that, taken as a whole, the Cabinet nominees are by no means strangers to philanthropy. Between them, they are related to 25 different foundations. By "related" we mean foundations run by cabinet nominees or family members, in addition to ones in which they might have been affiliated or served as Board members. To learn more about those foundations, click on the links to their profiles in Foundation Directory Online and their 990 tax returns to learn about their operating expenses, specific grants and investments. Similarly, the data show that Cabinet nominees have served on the boards of nearly 50 nonprofit organizations focusing on education, veterans' affairs, health, and children, to mention a few.

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

Through this lens, perhaps most notable among the Cabinet nominees is Betsy DeVos, someone who comes from a strong family tradition of philanthropy and has a significant foundation (the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation) together with her husband. Moreover, until recently, she served as Board Chair for the Philanthropy Roundtable, a membership organization of foundations and donors that is a critical part of the infrastructure that upholds institutional philanthropy. Among the core beliefs of the Roundtable are that philanthropic freedom is essential to a free society and that voluntary private action offers solutions for many of society's most pressing challenges.

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

Foundations and nonprofits cannot (and should not) take the place of government primarily because their resources, while significant, are dwarfed by federal and state budgets in addition to those of the business sector. On the contrary, their limited resources are valuable precisely because it is their non-profit, independent status that gives them the freedom to innovate, take risks, support controversial causes, stick with tough challenges for the long term, and provide core support to critical societal institutions.

Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet

The relationship between government and the philanthropic sector can be one of collaboration, disagreement, or both, but it has been part of the fabric of American democracy for more than 100 years. Foundation Center, itself a nonprofit, was born in 1956 out of McCarthy-era hearings accusing foundations of supporting un-American activities. The sector's response was to create Foundation Center as a trusted public information service that could prove it had nothing to hide. We believe that transparency will, in the long run, always prove its value. How philanthropic is the new Administration? Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet, come to your own conclusions, wait, watch, and, above all, participate.

-- Brad Smith

The Case for Opening Up Foundations Meetings to the Public
December 6, 2016

(Caroline Fiennes is Director of Giving Evidence, and author of It Ain't What You Give. She co-authored a recent report investigating the role open meetings play in increasing transparency. A version of this post was originally published on Giving Evidence, and has been reposted here with permission.)

Caroline FiennesAll charities and charitable foundations exist to serve the public good. Most of them are subsidized by the public through various tax breaks. Any publicly-listed company must have a meeting at least annually at which the directors are held accountable to the people whose capital they deploy. In over 15 years in this "industry," we’ve only encountered two charities/foundations in the UK which have meetings at which the public – or the intended beneficiaries – can know what goes on. The 800-year-old fund, City Bridge Trust in London, lets anybody observe its decision-making meetings, and Global Giving UK has an annual general meeting (AGM) at which anybody can ask anything. Why don’t more?

It’s hard to be accountable to people, or to hear from people, if they’re not in the room. So we wondered how many charities and foundations have public meetings.

Giving Evidence simply telephoned the 20 largest charities and foundations in each of the UK and the US and asked whether they ever have any meetings which are open to the public, and whether the public can ask questions. Of the 82 organizations we asked, only two have any meetings in public. None allows the public to ask questions.

Open-meetings-coverThis is about accountability and transparency to the people who provide subsidy and to the people the charities and foundations exist to serve.

Suppose that a nonprofit is treated poorly by a grantmaking organization. How can you tell the management of that funder of your experience? Or suppose that the foundation’s strategy could be strengthened by knowledge that you have about a particular population group or region? How can you offer your expertise? Or suppose that the grantees that a foundation is supporting are not providing the services they are supposed to be providing? How can you provide the foundation with your beneficiary feedback? For most foundations, you can’t. This seems to us not good enough.

Hence it’s not the norm elsewhere. For instance, all UK local authorities have their decision-making meetings in public, as does the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence which decides what treatments can be funded from public money.

What’s to hide? One foundation representative perhaps gave the game away by saying outright: “We are accountable to ourselves, not [to] the public. They do not fund us.” Given the tax subsidy, that just isn’t true.

Our purpose here is not to moan or cast blame, but to raise the issue and suggest some ways that charities and foundations can be more accountable and transparent to those who fund them. We are not suggesting that every single charitable entity be required to hold them; most of the 180,000 registered charities in the UK and a million in the US have zero staff. Rather, we suggest requiring organizations with budgets over a certain threshold to hold such events – that threshold might be £1m or $1m, and it might rise over time.

--Caroline Fiennes

Glasspockets Find: Philanthropic Leaders Join Ban the Box Movement to Address Inequality
October 26, 2016

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

A growing number of foundations are becoming more comfortable taking public stands on issues, rather than just offering behind the scenes support. One recent example is the Ban the Box movement, whereby public and nonprofit employers, and more recently foundation leaders are taking a public stand designed to draw attention to the employment discrimination of people with arrest and conviction records.

2016-10-26Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker is one such foundation leader, who recently highlighted Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, and his video promoting the Ban the Box movement.  The video is part of Ford Foundation’s #InequalityIs campaign, which engages the public to share its thoughts around inequality, from a motel housekeeper’s perspective about immigration to writer/activist Gloria Steinman’s on gender inequality and reproductive rights.   

Foundations are generally known for their role and leadership in funding and supporting nonprofits and organizations that address societal and socioeconomic issues, and not known to be on the front lines of movements themselves.  Perhaps the success of the Civil Marriage Collaborative is creating a change in awareness - that when foundations are visible partners, they can actually accelerate change.

“When foundations are visible partners, they can actually accelerate change.”

Through the Ban the Box Philanthropy Challenge, 42 foundations are using their influence and communications expertise to spur movement and action to eliminate barriers to employment for people with arrest and conviction records.

Organizers note that a prior history of convictions or arrests is a form of employment discrimination that has a “disproportionate impact on men of color, who are more likely to be incarcerated as a result of rampant over-criminalization,” according to the Ban the Box website.

In 2015, foundation leaders affiliated with the Executives’ Alliance for Boys & Men of Color submitted a letter to President Obama urging him to issue an executive order to “Ban the Box” in federal government and federal contractor hiring, which would open employment opportunities in the private sector.

Ban the Box Logo

Foundation leaders also recognized that a wide spectrum of stakeholders needed to be involved to address this employment barriers, including employers in the philanthropic sector.

The collaborative is challenging foundations to adopt fair hiring policies so that foundations will play their part as employers “to remove the stigma associated with a record, and (set) an example for other foundations and their grantees to follow.” Such actions will help advance opportunities to assist formerly incarcerated individuals and reduce recidivism.

The Ban the Box movement has attracted a bevy of prominent foundations across health, economic and social welfare focus areas, including The California Endowment, Ford Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kresge Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The group is calling grantmakers and other organizations to action.  The current social media campaign is asking supporters to #BanTheBox and promote #FairChanceHiring.

Since transparency is still a challenge for the field of philanthropy, seeing foundation leaders step forward on the pressing social issues of the day could be an encouraging signal that some are growing more comfortable with more public facing and influencing roles.  Transparency Talk looks forward to tracking the impact this movement will have on the philanthropic sector’s hiring practices, as well as its influence on encouraging other foundations to take more visible roles on the issues and causes they care about.

--Melissa Moy

Why the Olympics and Other Major Sporting Events Usually Increase Inequality in the Host City
August 16, 2016

(Stefan Norgaard is Stanford University Tom Ford Fellow in Philanthropy at Ford Foundation. This post first ran in Ford Foundation’s Equals Change blog.)

Stefannorgaard_linkedinAll eyes are on Rio de Janeiro as it hosts the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. While everyone watches and roots for the athletes from their countries to win gold, few will realize that the ones really losing out are residents of Rio from low-income and working class communities.

This is because the development model for major international sporting events—like the Olympics and the World Cup as well as countless national sporting leagues like the NFL—rarely benefits all residents of the cities where the games are held. For example, even though the city of Rio promoted the Olympics to residents by arguing that hosting the games would increase tourism and lead to major urban infrastructure improvements, the likely result will be billons in losses.

In fact, thousands of low-income Brazilians have already been displaced in order to build infrastructure for the games that will largely only benefit wealthy communities. In addition, several contracting companies for the Olympics now face corruption allegations. What was seen as an opportunity to democratize development in Rio has instead become an opportunity for city officials to justify actions that would otherwise never be tolerated—like human rights abuses, forced evictions, and hiding poor people and neighborhoods away from view.

Olympic Rio Police Salary Protest

Sporting Events and Inequality

These challenges are not unique to Rio or the Olympics. During the preparations for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA—the governing body for international soccer—discouraged local authorities from upgrading an existing soccer stadium in a working-class neighborhood of Cape Town. The local government had wanted to modernize this stadium and invest in infrastructure in its surrounding neighborhood because it would help reduce inequality in the city. Instead, FIFA forcibly urged and got local authorities to agree to build a new World Cup stadium in a wealthier section of the city.

“The Olympics in Rio...human rights abuses, forced evictions, and hiding poor people and neighborhoods away from view.”

In Cleveland, owners of the Quicken Loans Arena—home of the NBA’s Cavaliers—requested a 50/50 public-private funding split for the arena’s construction amid critical financing concerns for the healthcare system, justice system, and other government agencies in the country surrounding Cleveland.

And across the United States, the Federal Communications Commission’s “Nixon Rule” allows NFL franchise owners to black out games from being locally televised if high-priced tickets do not sell out even though the stadiums where these football games are played are often built with taxpayer money. As a result, it can sometimes be nearly impossible for city residents to watch their home teams play in person or on TV.

Public spending for large sporting events is often justified through an economic development model that says investing in the infrastructure, marketing, and preparations for these events will benefit everyone. But time and time again, we see that with large sporting events, only a select few—usually wealthier and more privileged members of the community—benefit at the expense of everyone else.

An Equitable Development Model for Sporting Events

Cities and communities do not have to displace their working class residents to build sports stadiums and venues. They don’t have to funnel public funding away from public goods or only build infrastructure in wealthy areas in the name of economic development. Instead, cities can adopt an equitable development model for urban planning, which ensures that all city residents have a chance to benefit from major sporting events.

Olympic Rio ProtestWhat would such an approach look like? For starters, there should be a push for the Olympics and other major sporting event bids to more centrally take into consideration the impact of these events on low-income communities and the general public. These international bodies should allow and empower civil society groups to comment on Olympic development plans at an early stage.

It is important to note that major sporting event planning and the Olympic bidding process often start years before construction even occurs. So in theory there should be plenty of opportunities to engage with civil society and broader communities on proposed development plans. However, the Olympics has a compressed and frenzied bidding process that prevents broad citizen involvement and long-term planning. And once a bid is awarded to a host city, planners rarely want any input that would derail their already-approved plans.

While the Olympic host cities have generally not had a strong track record of creating long-term social and economic benefits for everyone, there are some instances where host cities have intended to do good for the broader community. For example, the 2012 London Olympic Games included a proposal to turn the Olympic Village into 6,000 units of affordable housing. Unfortunately, development for the games also led to widespread evictions. Urban regeneration schemes for Canary Wharf and elsewhere in East London—where the games were mostly centered—have led to intense gentrification post-Olympics. And while the London Olympic Planning Committee had good intentions, the results have been quite uneven.

In hosting the 1992 Olympic Games, the city of Barcelona leveraged the opportunity to develop a comprehensive urban renewal plan that helped create new jobs and transform the city’s deteriorating infrastructure by building a new airport and telecommunications network and improving the sewage system.

Philanthropy’s Role in Promoting Equitable Development

What can philanthropy do to ensure to equitable development models for major large sporting events and arenas benefit everyone? Here are some possible courses of action:

  • Lift up untold stories of injustice. For example, Ford’s investigative journalism grantees, such as Agencia Publica, are working to find cases of injustice related to the Rio Olympics and tell them to a broader public. They recently launched a project on the recent militarization of the Rio police in advance of the games.
  • Convene organizations and make civil society connections. What is happening in Brazil is far from unique and philanthropy can connect grassroots and civil society organizations in Rio with organizations in Cape Town, Athens, Qatar, the United States, and elsewhere. Groups can share common stories, brainstorm potential solutions, and consider new global development models for the Olympics, World Cup, other major sporting events, and domestic sporting leagues. 
  • Build community capacity to engage in urban development policies and debates. Community organizations such as the Observatório de Favelas in Brazil and the Sports Fan Coalition in the United States need critical capacity to build local power and to counter prevailing assertions that major sporting events always leave lasting social and economic benefits for everyone. The Ford Foundation’s commitment to building institutions and networks seeks to support and grow social justice institutions—which often outlive any one battle or campaign—to do just this.

Major sporting events can ignite a city’s spirit and civic capacity, can lead to a sense of citywide pride, and can certainly help to increase tourism and economic stimulus. But major sporting events and projects only benefit everyone when they are deliberately designed to do so. If we change the approach to development, large sporting events like the Olympics can reduce, rather than drive, inequality.

--Stefan Norgaard

2016 Olympic Games: What Rio Doesn’t Want the World to See
August 9, 2016

(Leticia Osorio is a program officer at Ford Foundation. This post first ran in Ford Foundation’s Equals Change blog.)

Leticia_osorio_0142cWith the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro under way, it is clear the Olympic legacy already falls short of its initial promises to the city.

 Rio is still dealing with inadequate and unfinished infrastructure projects and overinflated costs, on top of the economic and political instability facing Brazil. These unfilled promises mimic the disorganization and corruption from the 2014 World Cup in Rio.

Both games brought promises of meaningful transformations for Rio’s citizens, but instead ended up violating human rights, increasing public debt, and concentrating expensive infrastructure mostly in developed neighborhoods.

Six million people live in the city of Rio de Janeiro, and one in four of them are poor residents living in slums called favelas. In preparing for the World Cup and Olympics, the city government announced a comprehensive development plan that they called the social legacy plan. The favelas have long been starved of investment in public infrastructure, so the prospect of new developments and upgrades was exciting. Instead, the plan only further segregated poor residents.

In Providencia, Rio’s oldest slum, the main project was the construction of a $20 million cable car. While developers promised the cable car would connect residents to jobs, in reality 30 percent of residents were threatened with forced evictions to make way for the project. Not only was the community unaware of the project beforehand, but it also had no input in the draft planning or approval processes.

OLYMPIC PROTEST PHOTO

 The damaging effects of the Olympics on Rio’s poor residents

Widespread threats of forced removals of citizens from their neighborhoods for development projects related to major sporting events in Rio have been controversial. The Popular Committee on the World Cup and the Olympics— a civil society network comprising social movements, NGOs, research centers and universities— estimates that from 2009 to 2015, 22,059 families were forcibly uprooted from their homes for development projects related to these events.

 Agencia Publica, an investigative journalism outlet and a Ford Foundation grantee, told the stories of 100 evicted families, providing them a voice through one of the largest multimedia investigations related to the Olympics. According to Agencia Publica's co-director Natalia Viana, these firsthand stories provide “concrete evidence of serious human rights violations, of the right to housing, to freedom of movement, to information and even freedom of expression.”

Fifty days before the opening of the Olympics, the governor of Rio declared a state of financial emergency and asked for federal support to avoid a collapse in public security, health, education, transportation, and environmental management.

The cost of the Rio Olympics is estimated to be more than $10 billion and that does not include all of the tax exemptions, public loans, and fiscal incentives that have not been disclosed. The government gave special legal exemptions to developers, allowing them to circumvent planning and urban laws, restrict civil liberties, waive mandatory environmental analyses, ban local and informal businesses, and criminalize public protests.

“ More than 90 percent of the 900 families in the low-income community of Vila Autodromo were forcibly relocated to make way for the Olympic Park.”

The NGO Justiça Global, another Ford partner, produced a video series of four episodes telling how such measures are felt disproportionately by those who are already not well protected, such as those with insecure housing, informal jobs, or already suffering from marginalization and discrimination.

For example, more than 90 percent of the 900 families living in the low-income community of Vila Autodromo were forcibly relocated to make way for the Olympic Park, even though most of them held land concessions titles granted by the state. Although compensation and nearby alternative housing was offered, many families resisted leaving, prompting violent clashes with police. The residents felt they were excluded and disturbed by the games for the capital interests of wealthy developers.

In reaction to the negative impacts related to these infrastructure projects, Rio’s government has responded by blocking access to information and reducing transparency. The organization Article 19, another Ford grantee, put in 39 Freedom of Information requests on the impact of the construction of the Transolimpica bus rapid transit system on the lives of the families whose homes are in the way of the new bus system. But only one was fully answered. It was impossible to find out information on the final route of the bus system, although hundreds of families had already been forcibly displaced.

Additionally, more than 2,500 people killed by the police in Rio since 2009, as reported by Ford grantee Amnesty International. In the month of May alone, 40 people were killed by police officers on duty in the city and 84 across the state. The communities most affected by this violence are those living in slums located around the main access routes to and from the international airport and competition arenas.

Involving communities to ensure shared benefits

While cities agree to host major sporting events based on the premise that the resulting development and legacy will benefit everyone, wealthy developers are usually the ones that get all of the gains at the expense of residents, especially those who are poor and marginalized. So what is happening in Rio is not a new story.

What is new is that communities in Rio are starting to push back. A robust civil society network came together to monitor and collect information on development processes, expenditures, and rights violations. It helped residents speak out against harmful development plans and get compensation for those being displaced. The network submitted reports to international organizations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and various United Nations mechanisms. Communities became the defenders of their own rights, and they sought the assistance of powerful institutions like the Public Defender’s Office and the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, leveraging alternative planning and national and international advocacy.

The alliances established between communities and relevant stakeholders were unfortunately not enough to reconfigure the existing power relationship between the city government and the residents. The laws that were passed to relax tender regulations and urbanistic controls did not ban forced evictions or set procedural safeguards, and there was no broad public debate over the nature of improvements needed.

Governments and public managers still need to learn how a city can stage world events successfully while also respecting the rights of the communities living in the path of infrastructure projects. Participatory development and stricter international regulation is a good place to start. Just like how government and business elites organize and lobby to host these games, we must help communities organize and defend their rights to ensure that they are truly benefitting from the development and investment associated with these games.

-- Leticia Osorio

Flooding the Locks: Philanthropy’s Knowledge Conduits
August 3, 2016

 Panama Canal Authority Photo 3

(Adriana Jimenez is grants manager at the Surdna Foundation and also serves on the board of directors of the Grants Managers Network.  She is a regular Transparency Talk contributor and discusses issues pertaining to transparency, data, and grants management.)

Adriana ImageThe Panama Canal expansion project opened last June following several delays and controversies. It was a risky bet with promising outcomes.

While the expansion aimed to improve global trade by doubling the canal’s capacity, it now runs the risk of failure from faulty design. The project was wrought with conflicts of interest, imprecise data, and dubious processes; its stakeholders consider critiques of the canal “unpatriotic,” reluctant to learn from mistakes.

Uniquely positioned to embrace risk, foundations should tread outside their comfort zone to achieve large-scale, systemic change; but they should also learn from the Panama Canal’s massive gamble. When making big bets, transparency, data-informed decisions, accountability, and clarity of process lead to better outcomes. “Success” means having honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not, rather than aiming for perfection.

As foundations move to take on more risk — including increased knowledge-sharing and openness, advocacy funding, financial risk, and impact investing — they will need to operate with greater transparency and accountability. Their staffing functions will evolve to support them in this process. The field of grants management is already shifting in this direction. At many organizations, grants managers are pushing for increased innovation, transparency, collaboration, and improved systems that will lead to more impact.

“Uniquely positioned to embrace risk, foundations should tread outside their comfort zone to achieve large-scale, systemic change.”

From Data Processing to Knowledge Management

Grants management is changing from a process and compliance role to one that focuses on data analysis, information sharing, and knowledge management. According to the 2016 Grants Managers Network Salary & Jobs Survey, grants managers now spend approximately 25% of their time on functions of information/knowledge, evaluation, and strategy (with an additional 14% on data management), and only 10% on compliance and 11% on administrative support.

This evolution has occurred naturally as grants managers work with larger amounts of data, fueled by increasingly powerful technological platforms and processing power. Within this change, we are moving up the ladder on the Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom Pyramid from merely processing data, to helping foundations analyze it and convert it into valuable, meaningful information and knowledge. As grants managers, we now play a key role in strategy by facilitating smarter, data-informed grantmaking.

GMNsalarysurveycover-768x994Like the locks of a canal, grants managers ensure that the right data flows out of our organizations at the right time. We are on the frontlines of providing data and information for external surveys; 990 tax returns; mapping tools; annual reports; foundation websites and searchable public databases; etc. We may also participate in collaborative efforts such as the Foundation Center’s e-Reporting and hGrant, or help implement the principles of IssueLab’s Open Knowlege (for example, by appropriately coding and tagging data, and linking our grants management systems with open repositories for knowledge-sharing, analysis and learning; or by adding open-licensing requirements to our grant contracts). The data and information we deliver allows foundations to deepen impact through collaboration with the field.

Supporting Instinct: Data-Driven Grantmaking Policies

Grants managers can also help foundations set internal policies and procedures that are driven by data, not just habit or inertia. For example, statistics showing a low percentage of grants to new organizations might trigger a change in a funder’s letter of inquiry process to promote more openness through Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Other data might be used to assuage fear of change or generate internal buy-in at the board and/or staff levels. In many cases such data supports — not contradicts — staff and boards’ instinct for change, and leads to increased openness and trust by demonstrating that policy decisions are not arbitrary.

“‘Success’ means having honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not, rather than aiming for perfection.”

At the Surdna Foundation, three years of grantmaking data were used to show that transitioning a portion of the grants approval process from quarterly board approvals to monthly delegated grant approvals would streamline operations, liberate time for “bigger-picture” learning, and benefit grantees by eliminating five weeks from the proposal review process.

In 2014, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation internally reviewed ten years of grantmaking data and discovered a drop in the average duration of its overall grants. To offset this trend, the Foundation’s grants management team used this data point to advocate with their board for the creation of a “Duration Fund” that would renew Hewlett’s commitment to multi-year support, reduce grantee uncertainty, and lessen administrative burdens. Likewise, statistics showing a lower-than-expected percentage of general operating support grants triggered a conversation around increasing unrestricted support --- when used appropriately to advance strategy --- in accordance with the Foundation’s values. Since embarking on its initial ten-year review, Hewlett’s grants management team has been spearheading the assessment of its grantmaking data each year to identify areas for foundation-wide policy improvements.

Tracking Diversity Data

Grants managers are playing a key role in the movement to increase transparency around diversity in philanthropy. By collecting demographic data (including race, ethnicity and gender) about the staff and board composition of their grantees, foundations can hold themselves accountable to values of diversity, equity and inclusion in their grantmaking portfolios, and make progress towards mission and goals.

Trends tweetC 1024x512Many grants managers are leading the process of collecting, structuring, and sharing this aggregate data (often based on D5 Coalition principles) with organizations such as GuideStar and Foundation Center, bringing greater transparency and understanding of diversity in foundation giving. Diversity data can also help funders track how organizations and fields evolve over time, and contribute to the broader body of public information about trends among nonprofits.   

Glasspockets includes Diversity Policies and Diversity Data indicators in its Transparency Trends tool. According to these indicators, 46% of participating foundations make their diversity policies publically available, and 7% share information on the demographics of their own staff and boards (The James Irvine Foundation, for instance, includes this information as an infographic on its annual report).

Legal and Financial Compliance: Pushing the Boundaries of Risk

Transitioning to a more strategic, knowledge management-based role has helped grants managers keep sight of the end goal of their compliance functions, i.e., to create greater impact. Contrary to the perception of compliance as a “risk-averse” function, many grants managers are using the due diligence process to maximize their foundations’ boldest efforts, pushing for greater risk-taking and transparency. In this context, our role is to assess, communicate, and document risk --- not avoid it --- to help foundations make informed decisions about potential rewards and trade-offs.  This shift has occurred as grants managers are increasingly included in strategic conversations “upstream” with program staff and senior leadership.

Advocacy funding is one example. Due to common fears and misconceptions around 501(c)3 lobbying limitations (and certain funders’ hesitation to support these expenses), grantseekers sometimes conceal activities linked to the dreaded “L” word in their proposals.  Foundations should encourage the opposite. With a nuanced understanding of the rules of nonprofit lobbying and advocacy funding, grants managers can foster honesty and openness with applicants about their proposed activities, clarify legal limitations, and encourage lobbying where appropriate as a critical tool towards achieving positive systemic change.

Throughout the due diligence process, grants managers can also advise grantees and program staff on financial issues, and lead constructive discussions with grantseekers to build trust and set expectations from the onset.

Rather than reducing organizations to a set of ratios or denying funding based on numbers, we can advise on alternate ways to structure a grant to provide greater impact (such as providing a capacity-building grant or using a fiscal sponsor). Many of these scenarios require creativity and flexibility to make the grant viable despite all obstacles; some funding may also be riskier in nature (such as exercising expenditure responsibility in countries opposed to civil society, or supporting new entities with no financial track record), but nonetheless more effective.

CEP-Investing-and-Social-ImpactImpact Investments: The Riskiest Bet

The move toward impact investments has arguably been one of philanthropy’s biggest bets as foundations struggle to maintain the balance between purpose and perpetuity (or timely spend-down). According to the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2015 Investing and Social Impact report, 41% of foundations now engage in impact investing (including Mission-Related Investments and Program-Related Investments), and another 6% plan to do so in the future. This shift has substantial implications for the staffing of foundations, and some are tapping into the skills of grants management to fill the gaps.

In particular, grants managers are playing a key role in the due diligence process for Program-Related Investments (PRIs), transferring our knowledge and skills from the financial compliance processes. We are also building out systems to track and monitor loan repayments and reporting. Through these functions we act as a bridge between finance and programs, contributing towards organizational learning and mission.

As a leader in the impact investment space, the Kresge Foundation was the first to develop a PRI module in Fluxx (now available to all Fluxx users) to better capture the nuances and complexities of PRIs.  The build out was led by the Foundation’s Program Operations and Information Management department (formerly known as its grants management department, but recently renamed to reflect the totality of its strategic functions).

Transferring PRIs into Kresge’s grants management system has made the Foundation’s processes more transparent, says Marcus McGrew, Director of Program Operations and Information Management: “All of the Foundation’s work that lived in people’s heads has now been consolidated into one data management platform.”

Transparency of PRIs and other impact investments will become increasingly critical as 990 tax returns are now available as machine-readable, open data, and as the line between endowment and program strategies continues to blur.

Like the philanthropic sector, success of the Panama Canal will depend on leaders’ humility and willingness to learn from failure. This will require implementing best practices to ensure the locks flow as intended. If transparency and accountability matter for the world’s greatest engineering feat, they matter for philanthropy.

--Adriana Jimenez

Foundation Transparency: Game Over?
May 23, 2016

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center).

BradfordKSmithThe tranquil world of America's foundations is about to be shaken, but if you read the Center for Effective Philanthropy's (CEP) new study -- Sharing What Matters, Foundation Transparency -- you would never know it.

Don't get me wrong. That study, like everything CEP produces, is carefully researched, insightful and thoroughly professional. But it misses the single biggest change in foundation transparency in decades: the imminent release by the Internal Revenue Service of foundation 990-PF (and 990) tax returns as machine-readable open data.

Clara Miller, President of the Heron Foundation, writes eloquently in her manifesto, Building a Foundation for the 21St Century: "…the private foundation model was designed to be protective and separate, much like a terrarium."

Terrarium photo 2Terrariums, of course, are highly "curated" environments over which their creators have complete control. The CEP study, proves that point, to the extent that much of the study consists of interviews with foundation leaders and reviews of their websites as if transparency were a kind of optional endeavor in which foundations may choose to participate, if at all, and to what degree.

To be fair, CEP also interviewed the grantees of various foundations (sometimes referred to as "partners"), which helps convey the reality that foundations have stakeholders beyond their four walls. However, the terrarium metaphor is about to become far more relevant as the release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within.

What Is Open Data?

It is safe to say that most foundation leaders and a fair majority of their staff do not understand what open data really is. Open data is free, yes, but more importantly it is digital and machine-readable. This means it can be consumed in enormous volumes at lightning speed, directly by computers.

"The release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within."

Once consumed, open data can be tagged, sorted, indexed and searched using statistical methods to make obvious comparisons while discovering previously undetected correlations. Anyone with a computer, some coding skills and a hard drive or cloud storage can access open data. In today's world, a lot of people meet those requirements, and they are free to do whatever they please with your information once it is, as open data enthusiasts like to say, "in the wild."

Today, much government data is completely open. Go to data.gov or its equivalent in many countries around the world and see for yourself.

The theory behind open data, increasingly born out in practice, is that making information available leads to significant innovation for the public good while the demand for and use of such data also improves its accuracy and quality over time. And some open data is just fun: one of my personal favorites is the White House visitors list!

What is the Internal Revenue Service Releasing?

Irs-logo-250Thanks to the Aspen Institute's leadership of a joint effort - funded by foundations and including Foundation Center, GuideStar, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, and others - the IRS has started to make some 1,000,000 Form 990s and 40,000 Form 990PF available as machine-readable open data.

Previously, all Form 990s had been released as image (TIFF) files, essentially a picture, making it both time-consuming and expensive to extract useful data from them. Credit where credit is due; a kick in the butt in the form of a lawsuit from open data crusader Carl Malamud helped speed the process along.

The current test phase includes only those tax returns that were digitally filed by nonprofits and community foundations (990s) and private foundations (990PFs). Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data. In other words, that which is born digital will be opened up to the public in digital form. Because of variations in the 990 forms, getting the information from them into a database will still require some technical expertise, but will be far more feasible and faster than ever before.

"Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data."

The Good

The work of organizations like Foundation Center-- who have built expensive infrastructure in order to turn years of 990 tax returns into information that can be used by nonprofits looking for funding, researchers trying to understand the role of foundations and foundations, themselves, seeking to benchmark themselves against peers—will be transformed.

Work will shift away from the mechanics of capturing and processing the data to higher level analysis and visualization to stimulate the generation and sharing of new insights and knowledge. This will fuel greater collaboration between peer organizations, innovation, the merging of previous disparate bodies of data, better philanthropy, and a stronger social sector.

The (Potentially) Bad

The world of foundations and nonprofits is highly segmented, idiosyncratic and difficult to understand and interpret. GuideStar and Foundation Center know this.

But many of the new entrants who are attracted by the advent of open 990 data will not. They will most likely come in two forms: start-ups claiming their new tools will revolutionize the business of giving, and established, private sector companies, seeking new market opportunities. Neither of these is intrinsically bad and could lead to some degree of positive disruption and true innovation.

The negative potential could be two-fold. Funders will inevitably be intrigued by the start-ups, their genius and their newness and divert funding towards them. Foundations are free to take risks and that is one of their virtues. But while needs grow, funding for the data and information infrastructure of philanthropy is limited, technology literacy among foundations relatively low, and many of these start-ups will prove to be shooting stars (anybody remember Jumo?).

"Once the 990 data is 'in the wild,' conclusions may be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair."

The second category of new entrants is far more complex and will come in the form of for-profit data analytics companies. Some of these have business models and immensely sophisticated black box technologies that rely heavily on government contracts for defense and national security. They will be lured by the promise of lucrative contracts from big foundations and mega-nonprofits and the opportunity to demonstrate social responsibility by doing good in the world.

But these for-profit analytics companies will quickly discover that there is only one Gates Foundation among the 87,000 private foundations and only a handful of richly-resourced nonprofits among the 1.3 million on the IRS registers. And those who choose to contract the services of "Big Analytics" will need to consider the potential reputational consequences of aligning their "brands" with the companies behind them.

Sound defensive? Not at all: Foundation Center welcomes the competition, has been building for it since 2010, and knows the challenge can only make us and the social sector better.

The Ugly

Once the 990 data is "in the wild," it is possible if not probable, conclusions will be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair. Those who are new to the field and relatively uninformed (or uninterested) in its complexity, may make claims about executive compensation based on comparisons of foundations of wildly disparate size and scope.

The same could be done with overhead rates, payout, or any other figure or calculation that can be made based on information found in the 990-PF. Some foundations already chafe when responsible sector advocates like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) use Foundation Center data to rank foundations according to their Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. Imagine claims coming over the transom from individuals and organizations whose core values do not include a belief in the practice of philanthropy and a normative vision for how it could be better.

"Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing."

Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing. This was the spirit in which Clara Miller introduced her terrarium analogy to highlight what she sees as the artificial disconnect between the controlled, strategic, and curated world constructed by the grants side of foundations and the sometimes contradictory forces at work in the larger economy in which their assets are invested.

Foundations like Heron are striving to put 100% of their assets toward mission, while others like Rockefeller Brothers Fund are divesting their investment portfolios from fossil fuels and re-investing those assets in ways that further the goals of their climate change grantmaking, rather than exacerbate the problem.

A recent (and as of yet unpublished) Foundation Center survey found that 60% of foundations were not engaged in impact investing and had no plans to do so. That is their choice, but open 990 data may well put them in a position of having to publicly explain it.

For example, using Foundation Center databases, I searched across several hundred thousand foundation 990-PF tax returns and found 37 foundations that held Corrections Corporation of America stock in their investment portfolios. These foundations may well believe, as the majority of foundations insist, that the purpose of the investment arm of the foundation is to generate the highest sustainable return possible in order to fund the mission through grants. But if a foundation holding that stock is striving to work on juvenile justice or improve the lives of black men and boys, an investigative reporter or activist might well ask why they are investing in a corporation that runs private, for-profit prisons

It's 10:00pm, Do You Know Where Your 990 Is?

With the game over for foundation transparency, the big takeaway is to know your 990-PF (or 990 for community foundations). Suddenly, it will be transformed from a bureaucratic compliance document into one of your foundation's key communications vehicles.

"Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable."

Right about now, you may be thinking: "What about the website re-design we spent all that money on, with our new logo, carefully crafted initiative names, and compelling photos??" It's still important, and you can follow the lead of those foundations guided by the online transparency criteria found on Foundation Center's Glasspockets website.

But for the sector as a whole, while fewer than 10% of all foundations have websites, they all file 990 tax returns. As the IRS open data release unfolds and mandatory digital filing kicks in, the 990-PF will become one of the primary sources of information by which your individual foundation will be known and compared to others.

I recently asked a group of foundation CEOs whether they ever had an in-depth discussion about their 990-PFs among their board members and was met with blank stares. In a world of digital transparency, this will have to change. As 990s become a data source and communications vehicle, the information on them will need to be clear, accurate and above all, a faithful representation of how each individual foundation makes use of the precious tax exemption it has been granted to serve the public good.

A few simple tips for starters:

  • Take advantage of Section 15 (block 2) to talk about your priorities, grant process, limitations, and restrictions.
  • In Section 15 (block 3) write the correct, legal name for each grantee organization and add its EIN or BRIDGE ID
  • In the same section, write clear and compelling descriptions for the purpose of each grant (more than you might think, people look at foundations by what they fund).
  • Make sure all numbers on the form add up correctly (you'd be surprised!).

Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable. Philanthropy is essential to American society and a positive source for good in a challenging world.

As the terrarium walls insulating individual foundations fall, we will surely face a few moments of anxiety and discomfort. But greater transparency, fueled by open IRS data, can only make us more conscientious stewards of our resources, more effective decision-makers, and better collaborators on our way to achieving greater and greater impact in the world.

Game over? It's just beginning!

-- Brad Smith

Share This Blog

  • Share This

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

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

Categories