Transparency Talk

Category: "Accountability" (83 posts)

Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking
April 26, 2018

Clare Nolan, MPP, co-founder of Engage R+D, is a nationally recognized evaluation and strategy consultant for the foundation, nonprofit and public sectors. Her expertise helps foundations to document and learn from their investments in systems and policy change, networks, scaling, and innovation. This post also appears on the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ (GEO) Perspectives blog.

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.

Clare Nolan PhotoKnowledge has the power to spark change, but only if it is shared. Many grantmakers instinctively like the idea of sharing the knowledge they generate with others. But in the face of competing priorities, a stronger case must be made for foundations to devote time and resources to sharing knowledge. The truth is that when foundations share knowledge generated through evaluation, strategy development and thought leadership, they benefit not only others but also themselves. Sharing knowledge can deepen internal reflection and learning, lead to new connections and ideas, and promote institutional credibility and influence.

Foundations can strengthen their knowledge sharing practices by enhancing organizational capacity and culture, and by understanding how to overcome common hurdles to sharing knowledge. The forthcoming GrantCraft guide Open for Good: Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking provides tips and resources for how foundations can do just that. My organization, Engage R+D, partnered with Foundation Center to produce this guide as part of #OpenForGood, a call to action for foundations to openly share their knowledge.

Knowledge Sharing GraphTo produce the guide, we conducted interviews with the staff of foundations, varying by origin, content focus, size, and geography. The participants shared their insights about the benefits of sharing knowledge not only for others, but also for their own organizations. They also described strategies they use for sharing knowledge, which we then converted into concrete and actionable tips for grantmakers. Some of the tips and resources available in the guide include:

  • A quiz to determine what type of knowledge sharer you are. Based upon responses to questions about your organization’s capacity and culture, you can determine where you fall within a quadrant of knowledge sharing (see visual). The guide offers tips for how to integrate knowledge sharing into your practice in ways that would be a good fit for you and your organization.
  • Nuts and bolts guidance on how to go about sharing knowledge. To take the mystery out of the knowledge sharing process, the guide breaks down the different elements that are needed to actually put knowledge sharing into practice. It provides answers to common questions grantmakers have on this topic, such as: What kinds of knowledge should I be sharing exactly? Where can I disseminate this knowledge? Who at my foundation should be responsible for doing the sharing?
  • Ideas on how to evolve your foundation’s knowledge-sharing practice. Even foundation staff engaged in sophisticated knowledge-sharing practices noted the importance of evolving their practice to meet the demands of a rapidly changing external context. The guide includes tips on how foundations can adapt their practice in this way. For example, it offers guidance on how to optimize the use of technology for knowledge sharing, while still finding ways to engage audiences with less technological capacity.

The tips and resources in the guide are interspersed with quotes, audio clips, and case examples from the foundation staff members we interviewed. These interviews provide voices from the field sharing tangible examples of how to put the strategies in the guide into practice.

Want to know how your foundation measures up when it comes to knowledge sharing? We are pleased to provide readers of this blog with an advance copy of Chapter 2 from the forthcoming Guide which includes the quiz referenced above. Want to learn more? Sign up for the Foundation Center’s GrantCraft newsletter and receive a copy of the Guide upon its release. And, for those who are attending the GEO conference next week in San Francisco, visit us at our #OpenForGood pop-up quiz station where you can learn more about what kind of knowledge sharer you are.

--Clare Nolan

Robert K. Ross, MD, President and CEO, The California Endowment: Parkland Students Inspire Foundation to Screen Out Investments in Firearms Manufacturing
March 14, 2018

Dr. Robert Ross photoOne month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people, students across the country are continuing to press for stricter gun control legislation with protests and school walk-outs. According to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 2,837 gun related deaths have occurred so far this year, and both the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association have recommended addressing gun violence as a public health issue.

The week following the shooting, The California Endowment (TCE), California’s largest healthcare foundation, announced it would begin screening out firearms manufacturing from its investment holdings. TCE’s mission is to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. TCE’s mission statement also outlines that the foundation doesn’t focus on prescriptions, but rather “we focus on fixing broken systems and outdated policies, ensuring the balance of power is with the people. We don’t focus on the individual, we focus on the larger community as an ecosystem of health. We work with citizens and elected leaders to find lasting solutions to impact the most people we possibly can.”

Recently, Glasspockets spoke with TCE president and chief executive officer Dr. Robert Ross, about the foundation’s decision to ban firearms investments, and how this aligns with both TCE’s stated health mission, and its core values around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Glasspockets: The California Endowment recently announced that it will be scrubbing its investments of any holdings in firearms manufacturing, and this is actually not a new practice, but the third “negative screen” you are adding, since you already had screening in place for tobacco and for-profit prisons. Data shows that this practice is actually fairly uncommon in foundation philanthropy, so it’s clear it’s a challenge for the field. When did you begin the practice, and what led to you going down this path initially when you first implemented negative screening?

Dr. Ross: Since we are a health foundation, the founding board actually started with the tobacco screen in the late 90’s.  We added for-profit prisons more recently, after hearing from community leaders that they considered hyper-incarceration as an unhealthy practice affecting communities of color. This is consistent with our core values statement, which also helps guide our board. The very first item in our values states: “We believe that diversity, equity and inclusion are essential to our effectiveness and the long-term health of all Californians and commit to the integration of diversity, equity and inclusion in all our policies, practices, processes, relationships, internal working culture and systems.” By filtering out tobacco, for-profit prisons, and now gun manufacturing we are being consistent with these values.

“We really have to ask ourselves the question of whether the management of our investments portfolio reflects the values we hold dear.”

Glasspockets: There have sadly been many shootings prior to Parkland. What was it about this one that motivated your foundation to act?  

Dr. Ross: We were motivated by the youth and high school student activism – I think we were “shamed” to act by their leadership. The California Endowment “values the energy, agility and fearlessness of youth leadership and youth organizing in its many forms including local, statewide and online community-building.”

Glasspockets: And are you aware of other foundations being similarly motivated to act, either now or that already had such prohibitions in place? 

Dr. Ross: We have followed the leadership efforts of The California Wellness Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Joyce Foundation, all of which, to the best of my knowledge, already have a screen on firearms in place. I’m not certain how many other funders currently have a firearms manufacturing screen.

Glasspockets: The California Endowment was an early adopter of our Glasspockets approach to a more transparent philanthropy. So clearly transparency, openness, and accountability are priorities. Is your commitment to these values part of what motivated the decision and the public stand you are now taking? 

Dr. Ross: Yes, and it was the reason I published the OpEd in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  Even though these boardroom conversations can get a little “messy,” it strengthens philanthropic practice if we can demonstrate vulnerability and transparency on tough issues. Without actions, our values just become words on a page.

Glasspockets: Glasspockets is currently advising foundations to become more familiar with what holdings they do have, since these are publicly listed on the 990-PF that foundations annually file with the IRS. And that data is now being released as machine-readable, open data—making it more open and accessible than ever before. Is this something TCE is tracking or do you have any internal practices about monitoring what’s in your 990-PF that may be helpful for others? 

“Without actions, our values just become words on a page.”

Dr. Ross: We have begun utilizing ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) practice approaches, as have many others, as a “values and principles” overlay to our investments portfolio. [ESG screening is an array of ethical exclusion metrics designed to govern certain investment decisions. Excluded companies can include those in the tobacco, firearms, and for-profit prison industries. The alerts look for mentions of portfolio companies (those not currently excluded) and rate them as positive, negative or neutral in terms of these screens.]

Glasspockets: The things you are screening out make a lot of sense for a healthcare foundation. Why do you think so few do it? And what advice would you have for them as far as overcoming those challenges?

Dr. Ross: The answer to this is values-values-values.  Most foundations have both a statement of mission and a statement of values, and we really have to ask ourselves the question of whether the management of our investments portfolio reflects the values we hold dear.  You can’t make a blanket values exception for the investments portfolio.  

Glasspockets: In terms of the screening that had already been in place, what has been the impact on endowment growth?

Dr. Ross: I’m not sure, but I do know that a concern some raise when discussing this is the belief that growth may be negatively impacted by the lack of tobacco and private prisons holdings.  But if you’re acting on your values, then I’m not sure the question is material.  Slavery is profitable, but we’d never invest in that….

Glasspockets: And how about the qualitative impact—things that bottom lines don’t measure? 

Dr. Ross: It’s good for boardroom cohesion, and messaging to staff and community that we intend to live up to our values, even if it is discomforting.  It’s hard to put a price tag on reputation and accountability.

--Janet Camarena

IRS Warns Donor-Advised Funds May Face New Restrictions
February 28, 2018

Lauren Haverlock, CPA, has practiced public accounting since 2004. As a senior manager at Moss Adams LLP, she provides compliance and consulting services to all types of exempt organizations, including public charities and private foundations.

Lauren Haverlock - 150

In recent years, donor-advised funds (DAFs) have gained popularity as a philanthropic tool. The National Philanthropic Trust reports that in 2016, charitable assets under management in DAFs exceeded $85 billion—representing a record amount.

DAFs offer donors a flexible giving option when they want a charitable deduction with administrative simplicity, a long-term distribution of funds, and less transparency than is common with private foundation grants.

But the IRS has indicated that organizations and individuals may be taking advantage of DAFs. Because of this, the IRS has provided a notice warning of tightening its restrictions on the funds.

Background

A DAF is a separately-identified and managed account that’s operated by a section 501(c)(3) public charity—a sponsoring organization—on the original donor’s behalf.

Once a donor contributes to a DAF, the sponsoring organization has legal control over the use and reporting of the funds. The organization then invests the funds until the donor advises they be distributed. Donors often need to follow specific guidelines when advising about fund distribution, but a sponsoring organization has ultimate control.

DAFs and Private Foundations

Private foundations also use DAFs in a variety of ways. Many uses clearly relate to charitable planning, but some are less transparent—including the following:

  • Using a DAF that exists within a community foundation to support the foundation’s initiatives
  • Granting DAFs to another community foundation that offers grant support services for which the foundation doesn’t have its own internal structure
  • Using DAFs to obscure charitable giving. Since the Form 990-PF is public, a grant to a DAF would show up as such on the 990-PF while obscuring the DAF’s recipient
  • Giving funds to a nonqualified recipient. A foundation can bypass giving restrictions—and the additional steps necessary for validating using their grants—by providing a donor-advised fund instead
  • Employing DAFs to help meet minimum distribution requirements—or avoid complex set-aside rules—when it might otherwise fall short

Next Steps from the IRS

In Notice 2017-73, issued in December 2017, the IRS and Treasury Department are considering regulations addressing perceived abuses of DAFs, including some of the above issues. The notice limits the following areas:

Prohibiting Donor Sponsorship or Membership Benefits. The notice prohibits distribution from DAFs that subsidize the donor’s participation in a charity-sponsored event or membership in a charity. This is because the benefit is more than incidental. DAF donors or advisors can only receive an incidental benefit from DAF distributions.

If the prohibited distribution occurs, the donor would be taxed 125%. The fund manager who permitted the transaction would be taxed 10%.

Giving Relief when Distributions Apply to DAF Donors’ Pledges. A charity may use DAF distribution funds to relieve a pledge obligation from the DAF’s donor because the DAF doesn’t provide the donor with a benefit that’s more than incidental.

The guidance provides an example of a benefit that’s incidental and permissible. This rule stems from the difficulty of assessing if the outstanding pledge existed before the donor granted the DAF. To be permissible, a benefit must meet the following criteria:

  • The recipient didn’t reference the pledge when making the DAF distribution
  • The donor didn’t receive additional benefits from the distribution
  • The donor didn’t take charitable contribution deduction, even if the grantee sent them an acknowledgement 

Circumventing Public Support. Donors may no longer be able to use a DAF to anonymize their contribution to a public charity. The notice indicates that the IRS may treat a distribution from a DAF as an indirect contribution from the donor—or donors—that funded the DAF.

If a public charity funds another public charity, the income is considered unlimited public support. If the IRS then treats the DAF as a donation from the original donor, public support could be limited—which could reclassify the charity as a private foundation.

The charity would also face additional donation tracking requirements based on the original DAF donor, and may need to disclose the donor on the Form 990’s Schedule B.

Provide Your Input

The IRS has requested comments on how foundations use DAFs. Comments and data pulled from Form 990-PF reporting could determine the IRS’s future actions in the area.

Specifically, the IRS wants to know:

  • How private foundations use DAFs in support of their charitable purpose
  • Whether a private foundation’s transfer of funds to a DAF should only be treated as a qualifying distribution if the DAF-sponsoring organization agrees to distribute the funds for charitable purposes—or to transfer the funds to its general fund—within a certain timeframe.

Comments may be submitted by March 5, 2018, to notice.comments@irscounsel.treas.gov, or to the following address:

Internal Revenue Service

CC:PA:LPD:PR (Notice 2017-73) Room 5203

P.O. Box 7604, Ben Franklin Station

Washington, DC 20044

Please include “Notice 2017-73” in the subject line. Comments will be available for public inspection and copying.

The Future of DAFs

We expect the popularity of DAFs will continue to grow—especially as the tax landscape evolves. DAFs continue to be a great philanthropic tool for individuals and foundations, so restricting their use could have a wide impact. If you have strong opinions on the matter, now’s the time to let the IRS know.

--Lauren Haverlock, CPA

Upcoming Webinar - Going Public: Overcoming the Foundation Transparency Challenge
February 7, 2018

Learn how greater transparency practices can improve foundation effectiveness. Foundation Center is teaming up with United Philanthropy Forum to offer a webinar on February 22nd that will share strategies and tools for creating greater openness at your foundation.

Foundation Center’s Janet Camarena, Director of Transparency Initiatives, will explain how greater transparency sets the stage for more effective foundation practices and grantmaking. She will highlight powerful and free tools that grantmakers can use to assess and improve transparency practices. Attendees will also explore how to design a foundation website with transparency and openness in mind. Learn from helpful peer examples that illuminate best practices on the road to greater transparency and accountability in philanthropy.

Don't miss out on this helpful webinar! February 22, 2-3pm EST

Register Now

No Moat Philanthropy Part 5: The Downsides & Why It’s Worth It
October 6, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we have devoted this blog space all week to the series. This is the final post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedEverything we do is a trade-off. Spending time and money on the activities described in this No Moat Philanthropy series means time and money not invested in something else. Here are some of the downsides of the trade-offs we have made:

It takes some operating expense.  It requires real staff time for us to do office hours in western North Dakota and to reformat grant reports to be shared online and to do every other activity described in these posts. We believe there is lots of opportunity to advance our mission in the “how” of grantmaking and weigh that as an investment alongside others. In our case, we did not have an increase in staff costs or operating expenses as we made this shift. We just reprioritized.

It can be bureaucratic.  Having open programs and having community members involved in processes requires some structure and rules and standardization in a way that can feel stifling. Philanthropy feels more artful and inspired when you can be creative and move quickly. To be equitably accessible and to improve the chance we are funding the best idea, we are committed to making this trade-off. (While, of course, being as artful and creative as possible within the structures we set!)

“We believe our effectiveness is fundamentally tied to our ability to influence and be influenced by others.”

Lots of applications means lots of turndowns.  Conventional wisdom in philanthropy is to try to limit unsuccessful applications – reducing the amount of effort nonprofits invest with no return. This is an important consideration and it is why many foundations have very narrow guidelines and/or don’t accept unsolicited proposals. The flip side, however, is that the more we all narrow our funding apertures, the harder it is for organizations to get great ideas funded. We’ve decided to run counter to conventional wisdom and give lots of organizations a shot at funding. Of course, we don’t want to waste their time. We have three strategies to try to mitigate this waste: (1) through our hotlines we try to coach unlikely grantees out of the process. (In our experience, nonprofits will often apply anyway – which suggests to us that they value having a shot – even if the odds are long.); (2) we try to make the process worth it. Our surveys suggest that applicants who do the programs with the biggest pools get something out of the process – (and we learn from the applicants even if they are not funded.); and (3) we try to make the first stage of our processes as simple as possible so folks are not wasting too much effort.

Relationships are hard!  Thinking of ourselves as being in relationship with people in the region is not simple. There are lots of them! And it can be super frustrating if a Bush staff member gives advice on a hotline that seems to be contradicted by the feedback when an application is declined. We’ve had to invest money and time in developing our CRM capacity and habits. We have a lot more work to do on this front. We will never not have a lot more work to do on our intercultural competence and our efforts to practice inclusion. Truly including people with different perspectives can make decisions harder as it makes decisions better.  The early returns on our efforts have been encouraging and we are committed to continuing the work to be more fully in relationship with more people in the communities we serve.

Conclusion

Overall, we believe a No Moat Philanthropy approach has made us more effective. When we are intentional about having impact through how we do our work — building relationships, inspiring action, spreading optimism — then we increase the positive impact we have in the region.

We believe our effectiveness is fundamentally tied to our ability to influence and be influenced by others, which demands trust, reciprocity and a genuine openness to the ideas of others. It requires understanding perspectives other than our own. It requires permeability.

While we arrived at this approach largely because of our place-based sensibility and strategic orientation toward people (see learning paper: “The Bush Approach”), the same principles can apply to a national or international foundation focused on particular issues. The definition of community is different, but the potential value of permeability within that community is the same.

--Jen Ford Reedy

No Moat Philanthropy Part 3: Building Your Network
October 4, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we are devoting our blog space all week to the series. This is the third post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedIn yesterday’s post I shared how we have tried to bring different perspectives into the Foundation.  Today’s post is mostly about getting out of the Foundation, to meet new people.  This is the third principle of No Moat Philanthropy.

Principle #3: Continuously and intentionally connect with new people

Five years ago we had close working relationships with people in each of our initiative areas. While we valued those relationships, we kept a pretty tight circle. We knew people wanted money from us, and we also knew their chances of receiving it were slim. This can be awkward and who wants that? While avoiding awkwardness can make life more pleasant, we now believe embracing that awkwardness actually makes us smarter. While we can only fund a limited number of people and organizations, interacting with lots and lots of people and organizations helps us better understand our region and make better, more informed strategic choices and funding decisions.

We believe in the power of networks. We believe that a community’s strength and diversity of connections help define its capacity for resilience and innovation. We work to ensure we are continuously connecting with new and different people. Each year, we set outreach priorities for geographic areas, cultural communities and/or sectors based on our analysis of where our network is weakest. Then we strive to make new connections in a way that creates connections between others, too. Specifically we:

“We believe that a community’s strength and diversity of connections help define its capacity for resilience and innovation.”

Hold office hours to meet with people all around the region. We hold “office hours” in communities around the region for anyone interested in with our Foundation staff. These are sometimes coupled with a listening session, co-hosted with a local partner, that allow us to understand what issues are most important to the community.

Sponsor and attend other people’s events. We introduced an open process to request Bush Foundation sponsorship of events. We had been sponsoring some events, but we never considered it a program strategy. One of the primary criteria for event sponsorship is whether it will help us connect with people who might benefit from learning about our work. This might include having a Bush Foundation booth manned by staff members who are there to meet and field questions from attendees.

Host events designed for connection. We were already hosting a number of events to build relationships with and among our Fellows and grantees. In the past five years, however, we have taken our events strategy to a higher level by focusing on connecting people across our programs with people beyond our existing grantee and Fellowship networks. The best example of this is bushCONNECT, our flagship event which brings together 1,100 leaders from the region. To ensure we are attracting individuals beyond our community network, we engage “recruitment partners” from around the region who receive grant support to recruit a cohort from within their network to bring to the event, thereby ensuring bushCONNECT attendees more fully represent the geography — and diversity — of our region.

Take cohorts of people to national events. We also offer scholarships for cohorts of people from our region to attend national conferences together. During the event, we create opportunities to build connections with and among the attendees from the region. This allows us to meet and support more people in the region, build attendees’ individual networks, and ensure leaders in our region are both contributing to and benefitting from national conversations.

We are not throwing parties for fun.  We see relationship building as core to our strategy.  We see every interaction as an opportunity to influence and be influenced.  More on that tomorrow.

--Jen Ford Reedy

Championing Transparency: The Rockefeller Foundation Is First to Share All Evaluations As Part of #OpenForGood
September 26, 2017

The Rockefeller Foundation staff who authored this post are Veronica Olazabal, Director of Measurement, Evaluation, and Organizational Performance; Shawna Hoffman, Measurement, Evaluation, and Organizational Performance Specialist; and Nadia Asgaraly, Measurement and Evaluation Intern.

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

Veronica Olazabal
Veronica Olazabal
Shawna Hoffman
Shawna Hoffman
Nadia Asgaraly
Nadia Asgaraly

TRF Color LogoToday, aligned with The Rockefeller Foundation's commitments to sharing and accountability, we are proud to be the first foundation to accept the challenge and proactively make all of our evaluation reports publicly available as part of Foundation Center's #OpenForGood campaign.

A History of Transparency and Sharing

Since its founding more than 100 years ago, The Rockefeller Foundation's mission has remained unchanged: to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world. To this end, the Foundation seeks to catalyze and scale transformative innovation across sectors and geographies, and take risks where others cannot, or will not. While working in innovative spaces, the Foundation has always recognized that the full impact of its programs and investments can only be realized if it measures - and shares - what it is learning. Knowledge and evidence sharing is core to the organization's DNA dating back to its founder John D. Rockefeller Sr., who espoused the virtues of learning from and with others—positing that this was the key to "enlarging the boundaries of human knowledge."

“To ensure that we hold ourselves to this high bar, The Rockefeller Foundation pre-commits itself to sharing the results of its evaluations - well before the results are even known.”

Evaluation for the Public Good

Building the evidence base for the areas in which we work is the cornerstone of The Rockefeller Foundation's approach to measurement and evaluation. By systematically tracking progress toward implementation and outcomes of our programs, and by testing, validating, and assessing our assumptions and hypotheses, we believe that we can manage and optimize our impact. Through the documentation of what works, for who, and how/under what conditions, there is potential to amplify our impact, by crowding-in other funders to promising solutions, and diverting resources from being wasted on approaches that prove ineffectual.

But living out transparency as a core value is not without its challenges. A commitment to the principle of transparency alone is insufficient; organizations, especially foundations, must walk the talk. Sharing evidence requires the political will and human resources to do so, and more importantly, getting comfortable communicating not only one's successes, but also one's challenges and failures. For this reason, to ensure that we hold ourselves to this high bar, The Rockefeller Foundation pre-commits itself to sharing the results of its evaluations - well before the results are even known. Then, once evaluation reports are finalized, they are posted to the Foundation website, available to the public free of charge.

#OpenForGood Project

The Foundation Center's #OpenForGood project, and IssueLab's related Results platform, help take the Foundation's commitment to sharing and strengthening the evidence base to the next level. By building a repository where everyone can identify others working on similar topics, search for answers to specific questions, and quickly identify where knowledge gaps exists, they are leading the charge on knowledge sharing.

The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to support this significant effort by being the first to contribute its evaluation evidence base to IssueLab: Results as part of the #OpenForGood movement, with the hope of encouraging others to do the same.

-- Veronica Olazabal, Shawna Hoffman, and Nadia Asgaraly

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

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

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These differences add up in a hurry.

Warnings, Ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Marc Gunther

What Will You #OpenForGood?
July 13, 2017

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

Janet Camarena Photo

This week, Foundation Center is launching our new #OpenForGood campaign, designed to encourage better knowledge sharing practices among foundations.  Three Foundation Center services—Glasspockets, IssueLab, and GrantCraft are leveraging their platforms to advance the idea that philanthropy can best live up to its promise of serving the public good by openly and consistently sharing what it’s learning from its work.  Glasspockets is featuring advice and insights from “knowledge sharing champions” in philanthropy on an ongoing #OpenForGood blog series; IssueLab has launched a special Results platform allowing users to learn from a collective knowledge base of foundation evaluations; and a forthcoming GrantCraft Guide on open knowledge practices is in development.

Although this campaign is focused on helping and inspiring foundations to use new and emerging technologies to better collectively learn, it is also in some ways rooted in the history that is Foundation Center’s origin story.

OFG-twitter

A Short History

Sixty years ago, Foundation Center was established to provide transparency for a field in jeopardy of losing its philanthropic freedom due to McCarthy Era accusations that gained traction in the absence of any openness whatsoever about foundation priorities, activities, or processes.  Not one, but two congressional commissions were formed to investigate foundations committing alleged “un-American activities.”  As a result of these congressional inquiries, which spanned several years during the 1950s, Foundation Center was established to provide transparency in a field that had nearly lost everything due to its opacity. 

“The solution and call to action here is actually a simple one – if you learn something, share something.”

I know our Transparency Talk audience is most likely familiar with this story since the Glasspockets name stems from this history when Carnegie Corporation Chair Russell Leffingwell said, “The foundation should have glass pockets…” during his congressional testimony, describing a vision for a field that would be so open as to allow anyone to have a look inside the workings and activities of philanthropy.  But it seems important to repeat that story now in the context of new technologies that can facilitate greater openness.

Working Collectively Smarter

Now that we live in a time when most of us walk around with literal glass in our pockets, and use these devices to connect us to the outside world, it is surprising that only 10% of foundations have a website, which means 90% of the field is missing discovery from the outside world.  But having websites would really just bring foundations into the latter days of the 20th century--#OpenForGood aims to bring them into the present day by encouraging foundations to openly share their knowledge in the name of working collectively smarter.

What if you could know what others know, rather than constantly replicating experiments and pilots that have already been tried and tested elsewhere?  Sadly, the common practice of foundations keeping knowledge in large file cabinets or hard drives only a few can access means that there are no such shortcuts. The solution and call to action here is actually a simple one—if you learn something, share something

In foundations, learning typically takes the form of evaluation and monitoring, so we are specifically asking foundations to upload all of your published reports from 2015 and 2016 to the new IssueLab: Results platform, so that anyone can build on the lessons you’ve learned, whether inside or outside of your networks. Foundations that upload their published evaluations will receive an #OpenForGood badge to demonstrate their commitment to creating a community of shared learning.

Calls to Action

But #OpenForGood foundations don’t just share evaluations, they also:

  • Open themselves to ideas and lessons learned by others by searching shared repositories, like those at IssueLab as part of their own research process;
  • They use Glasspockets to compare their foundation's transparency practices to their peers, add their profile, and help encourage openness by sharing their experiences and experiments with transparency here on Transparency Talk;
  • They use GrantCraft to hear what their colleagues have to say, then add their voice to the conversation. If they have an insight, they share it!

Share Your Photos

“#OpenForGood foundations share their images with us so we can show the collective power of philanthropic openness, not just in words, but images. ”

And finally, #OpenForGood foundations share their images with us so we can show the collective power of philanthropic openness, not just in words, but images.  We would like to evolve the #OpenForGood campaign over time to become a powerful and meaningful way for foundations to open up your work and impact a broader audience than you could reach on your own. Any campaign about openness and transparency should, after all, use real images rather than staged or stock photography. 

So, we invite you to share any high resolution photographs that feature the various dimensions of your foundation's work.  Ideally, we would like to capture images of the good you are doing out in the world, outside of the four walls of your foundation, and of course, we would give appropriate credit to participating foundations and your photographers.  The kinds of images we are seeking include people collaborating in teams, open landscapes, and images that convey the story of your work and who benefits. Let us know if you have images to share that may now benefit from this extended reach and openness framing by contacting openforgood@foundationcenter.org.

What will you #OpenForGood?

--Janet Camarena

Practicing Transparency for Discovery and Learning
May 22, 2017

Richard Russell Resize Photo

At The Russell Family Foundation, we appreciate tools that help make the invisible more visible. This pursuit of transparency is a family trait that stems from our experience in the financial services industry, where we invented stock indexes that more truly reflect the market. The Frank Russell Company earned a reputation for quality research, long-term thinking and general excellence. We do our best to carry on in that tradition at the foundation.

In particular, we seek to communicate and practice our core values, such as lifelong learning and the importance of relationships. During the past 20 years, these touchstones have served us well.

Richard Woo Photo

Today, we’re relying on them even more as we prepare for a period of significant transition, which involves new roles for family members, changes to leadership and staff positions, and evolving our core programs. What’s different now, however, is that we are employing new tools to guide us.

Legacy Communications Toolkit

For us, transparency is as much about discovery as disclosure. That’s because the discovery process is how we determine: (1) what we know, (2) what we don’t know, (3) where we stand, and (4) what boundaries, if any, exist for a specific topic. Discovery can be a humbling and inspiring experience. Sometimes it exposes our blind spots; other times it reveals important new opportunities. Nevertheless, learning is the payoff for investing in transparency and discovery.

In 2016, we took steps to re-affirm our founding principles, in order to set the stage for the next 20 years of operations. We identified the need for additional frameworks to help guide us through important issues such as leadership succession and grant strategy. From those efforts, we’ve bundled together all the useful pieces, which we call our Legacy Communications Toolkit (it's a work in progress).

Over the past couple of years, we have developed some new components. One centerpiece is our three-dimensional chessboard, which we introduced in our last blog post. It is a useful tool for initiating and clarifying conversation about important issues that might otherwise be difficult to surface. The chessboard can be used to visualize and understand the complex layers of communications and expectations associated with foundation life – like how transparent we need to be when revising our grant strategy, or how we understand a family member who doesn’t want to participate.

Case in point: In a family foundation, tensions can arise when trustees hold competing or conflicting opinions and worldviews. If not handled sensitively, principled conversations among peers can become deeply personal, causing individuals to briefly lose sight of the organizational mission and the goal of serving the public trust. One such discussion arose among our trustees in 2016; at issue was the scope of themes that should be eligible for funding. The intentional and purposeful conversation among family trustees about this matter was facilitated by a skilled and trusted organizational consultant outside the foundation. With that assistance, the trustees clarified the boundaries between personal, familial, organizational and public goals – and eventually settled on a decision that balanced the greatest number of interests especially that of serving the foundation’s public mission. This exercise in more transparent communication among trustees and consensus decision-making was essentially the laboratory that gave rise to the three-dimensional chessboard.

Can you imagine applying the three-dimensional chessboard to a crucial conversation waiting to happen at a foundation near you?

Another dynamic tool we rely on is a graphic timeline of the foundation’s history. It is a 20-foot mural, on display in our office that highlights important moments from our beginnings in 1999 to the present day. The timeline is filled with photos, charts, and quotations, with more being added as time passes. This visual history does more than remind us of the past; it helps us appreciate the context of defining moments. Those moments (as well as the details of our history) constitute our collective narrative. We are continually exploring and discovering the appropriate balance between transparency, family privacy and a public trust.

TRFF visual-timeline

The Russell Family Foundation uses its timeline as a teaching tool.  Source: The Russell Family Foundation

To date, the timeline has proven to be an invaluable teaching tool, especially for younger family members who wish to take active roles in the foundation, or newcomers to our enterprise who want to know how we got here. It stimulates conversation and questions, and it has helped us onboard new community board members and staff by giving them a vivid sense of our history and mission. Grantees and community visitors are often intrigued by the informal imagery captured on the story wall, which invites their curiosity, discussion and ultimately a deeper relationship with our work.

Imagining the Future Together

The elements of our Legacy Communications Toolkit emphasize storytelling in its many forms: visual, narrative, historical, data-driven, and more. Storytelling activates our imaginations so we can see the changes we’ve accomplished or wish to make going forward. This process also helps us envision what level of transparency is required.

A good example of this approach is how we are currently updating one of our longest standing environmental programs, which focuses on the waters of Puget Sound.

After a decade of investment and hundreds of grants employing a wide variety of tactics, we took stock of our impact on Puget Sound protection and restoration. We reviewed our grant history, studied the most recent literature, interviewed regional thought leaders, and drew upon the relationships with our longtime grantees. The effort was illuminating – making the invisible more visible. Despite all that had been accomplished over the years, we recognized that our efforts were a mile wide and an inch deep.

Visualizing our impact in this way gave us the motivation to develop a new approach. We knew from past projects that there was an appetite for alignment among nonprofits. We also realized that our broad network of individual grantees gave us credibility to encourage greater collaboration within the field. We put these pieces together to create the Puget Sound Collective, an informal group of nonprofits and funders who desire a more coordinated regional vision and strategy for Puget Sound recovery.

Our partners joined the Puget Sound Collective for the possibility of making greater impact and doing more together. But, naturally, they want to know where their peers are coming from, how specific goals will be set, and how decisions will be made. In other words, they expect transparency. We knew going in that openness and candor would be the table stakes for this new forum. However, bringing people together to work across differences (organizations, missions, geographies, genders, race, class, etc.) requires transparency in all directions. That takes time; it takes deep, trusting relationships.

The experience has reinforced how important it is for the foundation to practice transparent behavior. We are building the road alongside our partners as we walk it. We need to be honest when we can only see as far down the road as they can. We need to be clear in our intention for grantees to set the agenda – to offer support without control – because relationships like this move at the speed of trust.

At a time when the country is experiencing deep divides and uncertainty, family foundations can reassure their constituents by demonstrating a commitment to transparency about their story and the essentials behind the work they do. However, they should also bear in mind the Goldilocks Principle – “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.” They need to find the best fit for their organization because the benefits of transparency are measured in degrees.

We hope our methods, experiments, and discoveries serve as useful references. Mahalo to those who commented on the first blog post. To everyone reading this installment, please share your thoughts, counterpoints or questions.

--Richard Russell and Richard Woo

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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