Transparency Talk

Category: "Credibility" (32 posts)

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

What's Your Story?: Q&A with Kenneth Rainin Foundation's Amanda Flores-Witte
July 21, 2016

(The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which recently joined the Glasspockets transparency movement, shares how innovation, technology and creativity played a role in telling its story in its annual report. Janet Camerena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center. Amanda Flores-Witte is senior communications officer at Kenneth Rainin Foundation.)

Janet Camarena: Increasingly, foundations are wondering whether there is still a need for the time and expense of issuing an Annual Report. The thinking goes that with the advent of informative foundation websites, that perhaps the annual report is an antiquated ritual. The Kenneth Rainin Foundation recently updated this ritual by issuing its Turning Points 2015 Year in Review as an entirely online resource, creatively using video and the Medium platform to tell the story of the road you traveled last year. Can you begin by telling us why your foundation determined the annual report exercise, whatever the format, was still a worthwhile one?

Amanda Flores-WitteAmanda Flores-Witte: When we set out to work on any project, our aim is never to do something solely because it is expected or because we did it that way last time. We get curious and ask questions, while revisiting our goals and keeping transparency in mind. This is exactly the approach we took when thinking about our year in review. We challenged ourselves to think creatively about how we could best share our story while highlighting the work of our grantees and partners.

Fortunately, technology has breathed new life into annual reports by offering a variety of tools, platforms, and formats, and more innovative ways to share information and engage readers. We felt that a summary that highlighted the year's activities-or captured the turning points in each program area-would be a valuable tool for people to get to know the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and learn about our progress. We thought an online report would allow us the flexibility to present our story in an interactive format using text, photos, audio and video, and make the report more interactive. We know that people engage with content in different ways and use a variety of devices to access it, so it was important for us to also have the ability to leverage our assets and promote the report on social media, our website and our newsletter.

JC: The Kenneth Rainin Foundation emphasizes innovation, and the word "cutting edge" comes up a lot throughout the organization, including in the mission. I imagine this must set the bar pretty high - that your own communications be cutting edge? Beyond the Annual Report, are there other ways that you try to live up to that "cutting edge" aspiration when it comes to telling the story of the foundation?

AFW: We strive to be authentic and shine a bright light on the terrific work our grantees are doing, as well as build our presence online, which is where people tend to spend a great deal of time. Being innovative means that we are continually revisiting how we communicate our work-is there a better, more effective or more inspiring way to accomplish our goals? We are always curious about what other organizations are doing and enjoy exploring. In addition, our board of directors and staff are not shy about sharing their ideas and challenging us to think bigger or look at projects through a different lens. There is nothing more exciting to us than brainstorming an idea and then diving in to research how to best execute it. Kenneth Rainin FoundationWe value flexibility and being open minded as our projects evolve. We also realize there are risks involved when we embrace new or unconventional ideas. In our organization, staff members have the freedom to experiment. This way of thinking is at the heart of all our programs. We realize that some things might be less successful than we wanted, and there will be successes we didn't anticipate. Either way, we always learn valuable lessons that we can apply to the next big idea.

JC: Next, let's talk about the formats, beginning with the Medium platform. What is Medium, and why did you decide this was the right platform for the Rainin Foundation to tell its story? And what kinds of criteria should foundations use to determine whether Medium might be right for them?

AFW: We worked with a consultant who understood our requirements and helped us explore different avenues and tools that could help us accomplish our goals. Ultimately, we decided that Medium would be the ideal platform for creating a media-rich presentation while also giving us the opportunity to amplify our voice and access an expanded audience.

Medium is an online publishing platform that was founded in 2012 and has evolved into a community of 30 million monthly users, according to a January 2016 CNN story. It has become such a popular publishing platform that even the White House, Bono and the Gates Foundation use it.

Criteria for whether to use Medium will vary depending on what an organization wants to accomplish. For us, it was important to have a platform that was easy to use and incorporated performance metrics. We didn't want to get bogged down trying to master a new technology. Medium is user-friendly and intuitive, and the visual design closely aligns with the Foundation's desired aesthetics-a clean presentation with plenty of white space. Medium also exposes us to a broader audience, which is hard to get elsewhere, and the platform makes the post shareable. The trade-off is that Medium's standard features, which make it very simple to use, can feel limiting. If you are looking for more customization or want flexibility with typefaces, color and layout, Medium may not be the best choice.

JC: The videos that you produced as part of the Turning Points 2015 progress report were particularly effective in humanizing the foundation. More often we see grantee videos on a foundation site, but you deliberately chose to put your own team on camera. However, being in front of a camera can be intimidating. Can you share with us how you prepared your team for it, and whether you have any advice for foundations around who tells the story, and how to prepare them? And please share any other general advice you have for foundations about how to prepare and use video to share the progress of their work.

AFW: We think it's important to share experiences and stories authentically, and video can be an effective tool to accomplish this objective.

Before we embark on a new project, we develop a creative brief to think about our audience and what we want them to feel or take away from an experience. This brief ensures that stakeholders are all on the same page, which gives the project a strong start and basis for ongoing evaluation.

For our CEO and staff videos, we hired a talented video team who helped everyone feel at ease and made the process fun-this was really important to us. A few days before the shoot, we provided our staff with a couple of questions to answer about a stand-out moment they had in 2015, and then checked in with them before filming to ensure they had an idea of what they wanted to get across. We didn't rehearse with them, nor did we do a lot of takes during filming.

We loved capturing the personalities of our program staff in a more informal way and allowing viewers to hear the story directly from the staff person who experienced it. By being willing to improvise a bit, we were able to capture memorable moments. Of course, our approach to video production changes according to our project goals. Some projects are impromptu, while others may require much more planning.

JC: Are there other foundations or nonprofit organizations that inspire you when it comes to opening up their work in interesting or new ways? Share some examples.

AFW: We're fortunate to work in a field where so many people do fantastic work, take risks and share it with the world. There are numerous resources, and we count the Communications Network as one of the best places to access tools and expertise. We are continually inspired by the work of other foundations and organizations. Some of our favorite sources for inspiration include the James Irvine Foundation; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; The San Francisco Foundation; the Robin Hood Foundation; and many, many others. We often reach out to foundations for referrals and learn about their approach to a project, the challenges they encountered, and their overall experience. We want to especially thank Daniel Silverman at the James Irvine Foundation. He's been so gracious with his time and advice, no matter how many times we contact him.

JC: You spoke about performance metrics earlier. What has your audience response been like for both the video and Medium? And how are you measuring their impact?

AFW: The response has been positive. We have surpassed 5,000 video views, which is a strong showing relative to our target audience. Last year for the Medium post, our goal was to engage 12% of our email list. We surpassed this number, quadrupling our goal. This year, we're hitting our targets for views and interaction, and anticipate that the numbers will continue to increase throughout the year, as they did in 2015. It's interesting to note, however, that the videos are garnering more attention than the Medium post, which is something we'll take into account in our planning for the next end-of-year report.

We're always looking to strengthen how we measure impact. For this project, we analyze how people engage with the information on our website, third party websites (Vimeo and Medium) and social media. We look at responses and comments, viewing and reading times, and shares. One big takeaway for us has been the need to continually promote the report and videos in the foundation's communications, staff email signatures, and by leveraging and repurposing the content in creative ways.

JC: Will this be the framework you use for your 2016 Year in Review, or do you have something new and "cutting edge" you're considering?

AFW: We're not locked into a specific framework. Like all of our projects, we will reflect and ask ourselves, "Is this still working? What can we do better? What did we learn?"...so stay tuned.

IRS Releases 990 Forms as Machine-Readable Data
June 16, 2016

Editor's Note: Last month, Transparency Talk featured a blog post by Foundation Center president, Brad Smith on the coming of open 990 data and its implications for philanthropy. Read here for additional perspective on the news story below that the IRS has now formally started its release of 990 Forms, including 990-PFs, as machine-readable, open data.

Irs-logo-250 Amazon Web Services has announced that the Internal Revenue Service has made more than a million electronic 990 tax forms available as machine-readable data through its Amazon Simple Storage Service.

Released Wednesday, the public data set includes certain Forms 990 filed by nonprofit organizations with the IRS since 2011, Forms 990-EZ filed by smaller nonprofits, and Forms 990-PF filed by private foundations. The data from each 990 is provided in an XML file that includes the main 990 form, other filed forms and schedules, and any information detailing how the document was filed; some non-disclosable information is excluded.

The release of 990 filings as machine-readable data by the IRS, which plans to add new 990 data on a monthly basis, will make it easier for anyone to search the forms digitally for information about an organization's finances, trustees, lobbying activities, and salaries. Even when nonprofits or foundations filed them electronically, the IRS previously had stripped the forms of confidential information, converted them to TIFF (image) files, and released them as PDF documents. But in response to a lawsuit filed by open-records activist Carl Malamud in 2015, a federal judge ordered the IRS to release machine-readable Forms 990 from nine nonprofits. The IRS's Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities subsequently called for the agency to require nonprofits to file their financial data electronically, and the agency announced that it would begin releasing electronic versions of the forms this year.

This post originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.

Foundation Transparency: Game Over?
May 23, 2016

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center).

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.

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

The Next Generation of Nonprofit Data Standards
May 2, 2016

(Jacob Harold is president and CEO of GuideStar and Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. Join Harold and Smith for their webinar, How Data Standards Can Help Save the World, on May 12 at 2:00 pm EDT. In the webinar, Harold and Smith will discuss the ways data standards are already improving the grantmaking process for both funders and grantees. They'll also address how foundations can participate in these initiatives and promote a better information system for the sector. See you there! This post first ran in PhilanTopic.)

Our current moment in the human story is often called the age of information. And indeed, we are too-often overwhelmed by the torrent of data coursing through our lives. As a society, we have developed many tools to organize the information we rely on every day. The Dewey Decimal System helps libraries organize books. UPC codes help stores organize their products. Nutrition labels help to present information about food ingredients and nutritional value (or lack thereof) in a way that's consistent and predictable.

Data Standards Image-600wi
The nonprofit sector has also relied on data standards: we use the government's Employer Identification Number (EIN) to identify individual organizations. The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) is used by many — including GuideStar, Foundation Center, and others — to help reveal the diversity of the nonprofit community, guide funding decisions, and foster collaboration.

But just as other information systems have continued to evolve so must ours. When the Dewey Decimal System was developed in 1876, Melvil Dewey could not have imagined Amazon.com, e-readers, or Goodreads.com. Similarly, the EIN/NTEE framework is simply not enough to explain, organize, and share the complex story of nonprofits.

So we are glad to share the news that a new generation of social sector data standards is emerging. These can help us all do our work better, making smarter decisions while saving time to focus on that work.

There a several standards that are important, but we'd like to direct your attention to four:

Standard

Description

History

BRIDGE

A unique identifier for every nonprofit organization in the world.

A joint project among GlobalGiving, Foundation Center, GuideStar, and TechSoup Global.

Philanthropy Classification System

A taxonomy that describes the work of foundations, recipient organizations, and the philanthropic transactions between them.

Led by Foundation Center, with significant input from hundreds of stakeholders.

GuideStar Profile Standard

A standardized framework for nonprofits to tell their own stories. Used by more than 100,000 nonprofits.

Includes the five Charting Impact questions (developed in partnership with Independent Sector and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance). GSPS feeds the GuideStar for Grants system that was developed as part of the Simplify Initiative in partnership with the Technology Affinity Group.

eGrant/hGrant

An easy way for foundations to share the grants they make in near-real time.

Over 1,200 foundations use eGrant to report their grants data to Foundation Center and 19 foundations publish their data in open format through the Reporting Commitment.

This list is by no means comprehensive — other standards are also important, including but not limited to IATI and PerformWell. Others, such as XBRL or LEI, could become important for the field. But for now, we urge the nonprofit sector to understand these four standards and, where possible, to adopt them for your own use.

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It is worth noting that we in the nonprofit sector use the word "standards" in two distinct ways. First, there are "practice standards" that work to define excellence. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance Standards for Charity Accountability or Independent Sector's Principles for Good Governance and Effective Practice fit this definition. Practice standards are a powerful way to help define and promote good practices.

But here we're pointing to "data standards" that are simply a way of organizing information in a consistent format to make it more useful. Both practice standards and data standards exist to help us do our work better. Neither guarantee excellence, but in different ways they help us drive toward excellence.

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As a field, we need to absolutely minimize the amount of time we spend managing data — and maximize the time we spend solving problems. Think of these standards as enablers to help us do just that, and do it at scale.

--Jacob Harold and Brad Smith

Size Doesn't Matter
March 28, 2016

(Molly Talbot-Metz is vice president of programs at the Mary Black Foundation.)

Molly Talbot-MetzWhat does the Mary Black Foundation, a small private foundation in Spartanburg, SC, have in common with some of the country's biggest and most well-known foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation?

The Mary Black Foundation is pleased to announce that we have joined 19 other U.S. foundations that have each joined the "Reporting Commitment," an initiative managed by Foundation Center. The Reporting Commitment is intended to shed light on the flow of philanthropic dollars. Housed at Foundation Center's Glasspockets, the Reporting Commitment calls for foundations to make grant information available to each other and the public at least quarterly in a common reporting format that shares the kinds of grants we fund, including the amount, duration, and purpose.

Mary Black FoundationOur decision to participate in the Reporting Commitment is a reflection of our desire to be a transparent community partner. According to Merriam-Webster, to be transparent is to be "easy to notice or understand; honest and open; and not secretive." Having been in philanthropy for almost 15 years, I know that transparency is not a word many use to describe foundations. For most people, the work of philanthropy is a mystery. There is often confusion and uncertainty about how foundations work and what they fund. They are often disconnected and isolated from the communities they serve. Slowly, this may be changing.

The Mary Black Foundation strives to be transparent in all that we do, and our participation in the Reporting Commitment was a logical addition to our existing efforts to be open and transparent with our community partners, the nonprofit sector, other foundations, and the general public. Since its inception, the Mary Black Foundation has published its grants in an annual report in print or on our website. In 2014, we redesigned our website to more clearly communicate our grantmaking process and guidelines.

"Openness requires a culture of transparency."

Now, in addition to our annual report and listing of funded organizations, you will also find on the Foundation's website its bylaws, code of ethics, financial statements for the past five years, listing of staff and board members, strategic plan, and funding logic model. It is important to the Foundation's board and staff that we go above and beyond the required IRS disclosure of funded grants. This kind of openness is not difficult for foundations of any size, but it does require a culture of transparency. 

Our commitment to transparency goes beyond openly reporting our policies and procedures and the grants we fund. The Foundation strives to be actively involved in the community and to be equal partners in community initiatives. Our public commitment to partnership is one of the reasons we were selected to lead Spartanburg's involvement in a national competition to improve health outcomes in our community. We will ensure that lessons learned and changes in health outcomes are tracked and reported. In that way, our successes and challenges both can help others as they embark on similar efforts.

We hope other foundations - big and small - will see the importance of being more transparent and engaged in the communities they serve and make the Reporting Commitment pledge. By collectively being transparent about our work, we strengthen our credibility and increase public trust, improve grantee and community relationships, facilitate collaboration among each other and reduce duplication of efforts, and build a shared community of learning.

-- Molly Talbot-Metz

Who Has Glass Pockets Now? New Transparency Indicators Added
March 9, 2016

Who Has Glass Pockets?As of today, the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency and accountability self-assessment form has been expanded to a total of 25 indicators, which includes the addition of three new indicators: diversity data, open licensing, and strategic plans.

When Glasspockets launched in 2010, there were a total of 23 indicators that were developed based on an inventory of current foundation practice and on a framework designed to identify how foundations were using their websites to demonstrate transparency and accountability.

Those 23 elements were never meant to be the same indicators forever, and in fact, our hope was that they would evolve over time to reflect greater transparency at work in the field. Well that time has come, as foundation websites (for those that have them) have continued improving and some foundations are using them as a place to build awareness about their evolving strategies, or to build for scale through open licensing efforts by stating what can be done with the knowledge the foundation funds or produces, or to demonstrate their own commitment to diversity by providing demographic data about the foundation's staff and leadership.

The three new indicators were selected based on a survey of Glasspockets users, from our own inventory of emerging transparency practices in the field, and on which have the greatest potential to address critical transparency gaps. As was the case when we launched, every indicator has examples of foundations that are already using their websites as a way to share this information.

As part of the evolution of the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" assessment framework, we also determined it was time to remove the indicator that focused on how economic conditions affect the foundation's grantmaking since that had greater relevance during the recession, and we can bring that back in the future, when appropriate.

"By opening up strategic plans, grantmakers can strengthen relationships with their grantees."

Open Licensing Policies

Among the new indicators, there seems to be greatest momentum around sharing information about open licensing policies in which foundations specify what can and cannot be done with intellectual property that the foundation produces and/or funds. Generally, an open license is one which grants permission to access, re-use, and redistribute a work with few or no restrictions.

For a field that focuses on investing in new solutions to complex issues, this seems a natural and necessary next step to spreading the knowledge produced from those investments, and ultimately creating a learning culture in philanthropy. In our latest review of foundations which have used the Glasspockets assessment, 13% of them now have such policy statements on their websites, and most have recently added this to their websites, so there is reason to believe that this will continue to grow.

Strategic Plans

Though nearly all of the foundations that have used the Glasspockets assessment use their websites to share information about their grantmaking priorities, only 12% share information about the strategy that led to those priorities. By opening up strategic plans, grantmakers can strengthen relationships with their grantees as well as understanding about how a particular grant fits into the overall foundation's strategy.

Diversity Data

We are continuing to track which foundations have values statements related to diversity and inclusion, which has been an indicator since the beginning of Glasspockets, and have now added a new transparency element indicating which foundations openly share diversity data about their staff and, in some cases, also their board. Currently, relatively few foundations provide diversity head counts, with only 6 out of 77 profiled foundations sharing that data publicly.

A good example of why it's important to share this information can be found in the tech industry, where public pressure pointing to the lack of diversity led many companies to issue such reports. Though the diversity gaps were known before, the act of aggregating and publicly sharing the information has led to increased and formalized efforts to diversify the industry with many leading companies now offering fellowships and other diversity pipelines. Pinterest's Inclusion Labs, Intel's Diversity in Technology Initiative, Google's NextWave program, and Toptal's Global Mentor program are just a few examples of the power transparency has to make inclusion a priority.

You can learn more about the importance of sharing diversity data from this blog series featuring California Endowment's efforts in this area.

Next Steps

The "Who Has Glass Pockets?" self-assessment form has now been updated to reflect the new indicators and framework. So, if you are currently working on your submission, please download the new form. And for those foundations that have already participated, this may be good timing to revisit the transparency indicators and discuss whether your foundation's approach to transparency would benefit from providing these added dimensions. 

Our team reviewed the websites for all 77 foundations who have publicly participated in the transparency self-assessment process, and added links to the new indicators on each profile, as appropriate. Of course, in our review, it's possible we may have missed a relevant link, so let us know if you have any links that we should add. 

So, how about it - Who has Glass Pockets now? We can't wait to find out.

-- Janet Camarena

Big Philanthropy’s Social Impact Depends on Its Social License
January 14, 2016

(Krystian Seibert is the Policy & Research Manager at Philanthropy Australia and tweets at @KSeibertAu.)

KSeibert2Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s recent pledge to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) quickly became the subject of criticism from some quarters of the not-for-profit sector.

Some of this criticism focused on how Zuckerberg and Chan decided to establish the CZI as a “Limited Liability Company” (LLC), rather than as a traditional foundation.

There are some advantages to doing this – a LLC has much more flexibility to contribute to the common good by investing in for-profit companies as well as by donating to not-for-profits.

But because a LLC isn’t subject to the same regulatory requirements as a traditional foundation, in theory it could fund things which don’t necessarily further charitable purposes.

“Legitimacy is critical to philanthropy.”

Criticism has also focused on how such a massive pledge, combined with the use of a “less accountable” LLC, could lead to a further concentration of power in the hands of wealthy people such as Zuckerberg and Chan.

This debate has opened up an opportunity to have an important discussion about how philanthropy, particularly “big philanthropy,” relates to the broader community – and what kinds of actions can enhance this relationship in order to maximize both philanthropy’s social impact and the community’s support for its work.

In this context, the concept of a “Social License to Operate” is very relevant. This concept has received more attention within the private sector, particularly within the mining industry, but has received little attention within the not-for-profit sector.

It reflects an increasingly common view that private companies can’t just do what they want and ignore the needs of communities. 

Rather, they need to acquire and maintain a Social License to Operate – which is the level of acceptance or approval continually granted to an organization’s operations or projects by the community and other stakeholders.

Defining the Social License to Operate

It’s not a license in a formal sense – you don’t apply for it and if you tick the right boxes you get it. It’s something a company earns through its actions – it’s an intangible asset which a company builds up and must work to maintain, in a similar way to a company’s reputation (although it’s different to a company’s reputation).

Therefore, Social License is a type of “informal” or “soft” regulation, as opposed to “formal” or “hard” regulation which is determined and enforced by governments and regulators.

It essentially revolves around a question of legitimacy – whether a company’s actions are viewed as “right” – not just by their shareholders, but by stakeholders more broadly. It has various levels, as shown in the diagram below.[1]

 

Krystian Graphic

It’s therefore equally relevant to philanthropy. That’s because legitimacy is critical to philanthropy – if philanthropy is not seen to be contributing to the common good, or acts in a manner which is inconsistent with community expectations and norms, then it will lose its legitimacy. Ultimately that means that philanthropy will stop being philanthropy.

Philanthropy’s Social License to Operate

That’s why it’s important for there to be conscious attention to what philanthropic organizations need to do in order to acquire and maintain a Social License.

Arguably, Social License is easier to acquire and maintain for smaller foundations – for them it could simply come down to adopting a conscientious approach to grantmaking which involves supportive engagement with grant recipients, and being responsive to the needs of the community as they change over time.

It’s particularly important in the case of “big” or “mega” philanthropy such as the CZI – and for these philanthropic organizations the bar will be set higher.

That’s because “big philanthropy” does vest a large amount of power in philanthropists to direct what outcomes are funded. Despite widespread apathy about government, government does still derive legitimacy from the ballot box – but “big philanthropy” isn’t subject to elections or term limits.

Because of its size, the actions of “big philanthropy” will be scrutinized by other organizations within the philanthropic sector, not-for-profits, the media, as well as the communities in which it operates. Therefore, if “big philanthropy” lacks a conscious focus on its Social License, its actions could result in a loss of legitimacy.

So what does acquiring and maintaining a Social License actually require of “big philanthropy”? There are no hard and fast rules, and each philanthropic organization which recognizes the importance of its Social License should examine for itself what it needs to do in its own particular situation.

Transparency

However, operating in a manner which is transparent and shares power would be particularly important in the case of the CZI and other large philanthropic organizations.

“The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will need to both be open about its work and also share power.”

Transparency means being open about how a philanthropic organization such as the CZI is governed, what it funds, how it funds and what the outcomes are.

If the community doesn’t know what the CZI is doing, how will they be able to make an assessment of that work and its merits in terms of furthering the common good? If the community is unable to do that, then it’s impossible to establish and maintain legitimacy.

A culture of secrecy tends to breed skepticism. On the other hand, by being and transparent and open, a philanthropic organization such as the CZI can actively demonstrate its commitment to the common good, and establish a relationship with the community based on mutual trust and respect.

A good first step would be for the CZI to commit to meeting the full range of transparency measures which are set out as part of the Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative.

Sharing Power

The next step would be to think about ways to share power, which means directly engaging with the communities in which a philanthropic organization such as the CZI will be active. Engaging doesn’t mean just listening – it means working in genuine partnership with stakeholders.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules – but at one end of the spectrum, such engagement would involve consulting stakeholders and using their feedback to inform a foundation’s strategy and key decisions. At the other end of the spectrum it could involve more directly including stakeholders in the decision making process, which is what one small foundation in Indiana has done.

I would expect that the CZI will be trying to address some really complex and multi-faceted problems – to do this effectively, it will need to both be open about its work and also share power with subject matter experts, community leaders, not-for-profits and other philanthropic organizations.

Sharing power is an opportunity to leverage expertise, secure stakeholder buy-in and also share responsibility for outcomes.

Ultimately these are just two examples of how philanthropy can go about establishing and/or maintaining its Social License – however every philanthropic organization’s legitimacy will depend on a variety of factors. It’s something “big philanthropy” certainly needs to focus on, but also something which all philanthropic organizations should turn their minds to.

What do you think philanthropic organizations need to do to establish and maintain their Social License?

--Krystian Seibert

 [1] Adapted from: Ian Thomson, Robert G. Boutilier, Modelling and Measuring The Social License To Operate: Fruits Of A Dialogue Between Theory And Practice, 2011. This paper, along with other resources on the topic of Social License, is available at this website.

Grantmaker Transparency: The Dawn of a New Age in Philanthropy
November 16, 2015

(Aaron Lester is demand generation manager at Fluxx.  This blog post first ran in PhilanTopic.)

Aaron_lester_for_PhilanTopic"People tend to be private about love and money, and in philanthropy, it's both," says Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

It's only natural that, traditionally, philanthropy has unfolded behind closed doors. On the one hand, the freedom to make personal funding choices gives grantmakers the ability to stay above the fray, uninfluenced by both market and political pressures. On the other hand, it doesn't allow the public to understand, learn from, or think critically about philanthropy.

"Giving and charitable acts are such private, emotional transactions," says Suki O'Kane, director of administration at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. "How do you come from such strong traditions of privacy and intimacy, and bring that out into the open?"

Where do things stand?

Indeed ­– how do we as a sector make the switch from a traditionally opaque business model to an enterprise that embraces more transparency? It all comes down to the following questions: What am I funding? Why am I funding what I'm funding? Is my funding making an impact? And perhaps most importantly, how do we improve?

How do we as a (philanthropic) sector make the switch from a traditionally opaque business model to an enterprise that embraces more transparency?

There is good news: transparency in philanthropy is happening, there's no denying it. In fact, it's well under way, with large foundations like Gates, Ford, and Getty, sharing their endeavors with the public, surveying their grantees (and sharing the results), and creating searchable grants databases. Still, transparency can be difficult.

As a grantmaker, you know that sometimes your investments fail, sometimes grantees don't perform the way you expected, and sometimes, despite your best intentions, you can't pull off a new initiative or program. "Philanthropy isn't venture capital," says Christine Maulhardt, director of communications and public affairs at the Blue Shield of California Foundation. "Big losses aren't typical in our sector. We want everything to work out perfectly."

Regardless of the perceived risks, transparency in philanthropy is here to stay. And yes, it can be scary and hard to figure out how to get started. But the rewards for embracing transparency far outweigh the risk of turning your back on it.

Time for Transparency ImageWhere are we headed?

 

As we look to the (not so distant) future, we're particularly excited about the potential for grantmakers and grantees alike to have the ability to track incoming evaluation data, to understand in real time their organization's short- and long-term impact, and to be able to respond to that data and take action to ensure continued progress.

In the past, there was no common language used to talk about impact evaluation. Now, for the first time, technology can help create that common language. It is possible for foundations to not only track their own progress toward a goal, but also to compare results with other groups working toward the same end. The intelligence learned creates a greater potential for real needle-moving impact.

Becoming Transparent: Best Practices

If your foundation is just beginning the journey toward greater transparency, Camarena has suggestions for working in league with your peers. First, there's no need to be revolutionary. "Rather than creating something custom for your foundation, really look across the field to some standard practices," she says. "When it comes to creating the application process, look at grants management systems that exist already, and look at taxonomy so that you're not inventing a language that won't make sense field-wide." Her key takeaways:

  • Look to other foundations for standard practices on transparency; don't reinvent the wheel
  • Take advantage of modern grants management systems to help guide your application process and to create a common taxonomy.
  • Join a regional association of grantmakers so you can network with your peers and share ideas, successes, failures, and best practices. If you're using a grantmaking solution, join the community of users.
  • Participate in field-wide movements like the Who Has Glasspockets initiative and Foundation Center's Get on the Map campaign.

As daunting as it may be to open your foundation's doors to the public, transparency has far more benefits than drawbacks. Not only will you be moving in step with a growing movement, you'll also be in great company. It's time we started to share the why and how of our giving. All of us stand to benefit.

--Aaron Lester

Part 2: Top 10 Lessons Learned on the Path to Community Change
June 25, 2013

(Robert K. Ross, M.D. is President and CEO of The California Endowment. Yesterday he shared three aha moments from the Endowment’s first two years of work in its Building Healthy Communities plan.)

Ross-100Okay, at times I step back and look at the BHC initiative and wonder—could we have made it more complicated? 14 sites. Multiple grantees in each site. A core set of multiple health issues. Multiple state-level grantees. And the expectation that the parts will add up to something greater and catalyze a convergence that builds more power and leads to greater impact.

But then again, supporting an agenda for social and community change does require multiple strategies, operating in alignment: the use of data, message framing and story-telling; innovative models; a variety of influential messengers; convening and facilitating champions; “grassroots and treetops” and coordination; meaningful community engagement. Power-building requires multiple, aligned investments.

Our Top Ten Lessons for Philanthropy

Finally, I want to share some lessons with partners in philanthropy regarding planning and implementing a community-change initiative. As we engaged in the planning process of BHC, we tried in earnest to stick by a key aphorism, one I learned from colleague and mentor Ralph Smith at the Annie E. Casey Foundation: make new mistakes.

The track record of community change work by philanthropy is not a work of art. Tapping into the wisdom of institutions such as the Aspen Institute, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Skillman Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and the Northwest Area Foundation, we incorporated the lessons of success and struggle from our colleagues in the field. Learning from these and other colleagues, we were able to avoid hitting major rocks as our BHC ship sailed out of harbor. So, we learned the following:

Community engagement in planning processes will be simultaneously exhilarating and messy.

1. Take time to plan, and plan to take the time. We embarked on a 9 month community engagement process in the 14 BHC sites, and we ended up taking 12-15 months. Nobody died, and nobody got fired. Community engagement in planning processes will be simultaneously exhilarating and messy. If it is going too smoothly and too well, then something may be terribly wrong – like the possibility that a foundation is not receiving candid, meaningful input from local leaders. If it is bumpy and messy and getting to consensus, and clarity is taking much longer than originally planned, it may very well mean that you are gaining the trust of leaders to raise thorny, difficult issues. As a general rule, we just took the time that was needed for local leaders to develop their local BHC plans, and we did not pit BHC sites against one another to race by the foundation’s clock. Community leaders want a compass more than they want a clock.

2. Don’t lead with the money. The issue of whether to announce “how much” the dollar commitment is in a foundation initiative is a tricky path. On the one hand, a major dollar-commitment announcement by a foundation can provide excitement, anticipation, and mobilize civic and community support. On the other hand, “leading with the money” can instigate all manner of posturing, control issues, manipulation, and political grantsmanship among potential grantees. We decided to quietly announce the breadth and scope of our commitment -- $1 Billion over a ten-year period in local and statewide policy funding – but veered away from formally announcing precise budget commitments in each site. In other words, we wanted to send a message that our commitment was serious without leading the conversations with grant dollar puppetry.

3. Date logic models, but get married to learning. There is no doubt that engaging in the disciplined exercise of how you think – and how community leaders believe – positive change and results will happen is a sound practice. But it is also important to recognize that community change and positive results in the context of complex social and political systems often defy tidy, linear models. If you want to get married, it is wiser to commit to the process of active, dynamic, real-time learning. We provided logic model training for leaders in the 14 BHC sites, with varying levels of effectiveness across the sites; we have been clear, however that learning is not optional, either for grantees or our own program staff.  

4. Be transparent about desired results. There are written and unwritten axioms about the need for philanthropy to be completely community driven in community-change work. Our experience is that this thinking is a truism without being entirely true. For starters, our foundation is legally chartered as a health foundation, and although we employ a broad definition of the word “health”, there are limitations and constraints about what we can and cannot fund. This issue led to some considerable tensions within the foundation (at the board and staff level), as well as with grantees and stakeholders, about prioritized community needs that were outside the scope of our health mission. The most obvious and recurrent tension-generating themes, in the context of a pervasive economic recession, were issues of economic development, job creation, and mortgage foreclosure across the sites. The battles over if and how we should enter “the space” of economic development as a health foundation were intense and emotional. We ultimately landed on a framework (utilizing mission-investing in our investment portfolio) for how to move forward without “mission drift”, and have been communicating our approach to our own program staff and stakeholders, but it has not been easy. But the worst of all worlds would have been to promise community leaders a course of action that we would either abandon or renege upon later on. We decided to stick to our mission and results (the right move, however discomforting for foundation-community relations).  

5. Be dogmatic about the results, but flexible about the strategies. The work of community change is noble, but funders cannot afford to fall in love with the process of the work at the expense of meaningful results and impact. Once community leaders and funders agree on a set of outcomes, objectives, or results, these must represent the “true north” on the compass. In the BHC planning and early implementation, we gave community leaders and organizations in the BHC planning process a blank slate on strategies, but insisted on being results driven and logic-model supported. The good news is that across our 14 BHC sites, there is community and resident ownership about the priorities and the strategies to achieve healthier community environments for young people. While these strategies vary, we are seeing growing convergence as the sites engage and learn from one another.

6. Listening is a form of leadership. Irish poet David Whyte underscores the importance of “leadership through conversation.” We have been quite intentional about active listening at all stages of the planning and implementation, and being mindful of closing the feedback loop with community leaders and grantees. We utilized a fairly simple “what we said, what they said, what we heard, what we’ll do” format. At the conclusion of the one-year planning process, our past Board Chair (Tessie Guillermo) and I co-authored and co-videotaped messages to the 14 sites summarizing the key themes and priorities we heard from community leaders in the sites, and what to expect in support from our foundation in the months ahead. We have now begun to bring site leaders together twice annually with foundation staff, so that leaders and staff can share stories of progress, struggles, and inspiration. All of this in service of the all-too critical “t-word”: trust. Trust is the mother’s milk of community change efforts by philanthropy, and active, engaged listening is the foundation.

7. Make “patient” grants, and “urgent” grants. Investors engaged in place-based, community change efforts encounter several tensions to manage. Among them is the tension of patience versus urgency. As efforts such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, Market Creek Plaza in Southeast San Diego, the Skillman Foundation’s work in Detroit, and the Dudley Street Initiative in Boston have demonstrated, positive community change takes time. A two- or three-year grant just won’t do it, and most successful efforts require 7, 10, or 12 years of “patient money.” The most thoughtful investments on this front involve leadership development, organizational capacity building, and collaborative efficacy; but “impact” yield from these investments will typically take years to bear fruit. “Urgent” money involves investing in short-term campaigns or capital projects where tangible results are realized within 12-18 months. Community change, place-based philanthropy will require both types of investments, and too heavy a bias or tilt towards “patient” investments will leave the investor and the partnership vulnerable to allegations that some money has been spent, some meetings have occurred, but nothing “tangible” has been produced. As a result, confidence in the effort will dissipate. Our BHC effort in the early going has been appreciative of the need to simultaneously make “patient” and “urgent” (which we also call “early wins”) grants.

8. Story-telling is part of the doing. The two-most under-appreciated and under-invested themes in social-change philanthropy are power-building and story-telling. Having been at the helm of a large-asset foundation for more than a decade, I am guilty-as-charged on this front; in retrospect, I would gladly trade in half of the (often expensive) academic and research-oriented reports we have commissioned in my twelve years as CEO for more compelling, interesting, and impactful “stories” of community-level change that illuminate the path towards a healthy, more vibrant community. Story-telling by community leaders, youth, or community-based organizations can be powerful tools on multiple fronts: local residents and youth experience the power and passion of their own voice; local media are inspired to re-tell the story in a way that scales up the audience; policymakers pay greater heed and attention to the issue being raised; civic engagement and participation is served; cynicism, disengagement, and disempowerment are reduced. Utilizing multiple forms of story-telling, from social media to flip-cam videos to traditional approaches, we have been assertive in support of community leaders and youth on this front, and it has been inspiring to witness.

Why build, preserve, and protect our respective brands and reputations if we are not going to spend it? Spend that damn brand.

9. Spend the damn brand. Institutional philanthropy is risk-averse. We tend to worry and fret about how our institutional brand, reputation, and civic standing might be sullied by associating with potentially controversial efforts or organizations, and as a general rule, we keep our heads and our profile low. But we have discovered, in the early years of the BHC effort, that thoughtful, surgical application of our civic standing and reputation matters to community leaders – and that they want us to spend “it” on their behalf. Sometimes it comes in the form of convening a meeting, writing and placing an op-ed, placing a phone call to a civic leader, or taking out a full-page ad on an issue in the local newspaper. We have done this with regards to healthy food options for youth and families, health insurance coverage for the uninsured, gang prevention and intervention strategies, and school health efforts. There is a school of thought among philanthropy that our job as funders is “to make the grant and get out of the way.” We would argue that our job is to achieve our respective missions, and by any means necessary. On occasion, this requires stepping out of character on behalf of grantees, and utilizing our voice as well. Why build, preserve, and protect our respective brands and reputations if we are not going to spend it? Spend that damn brand.

10. A Highly Engaged Board. In the earliest planning stages of BHC with our Board of Directors, the Board made it clear that they understood the value and importance of a ten-year commitment, but they also made three points clear. The first was the importance of honesty, candor, and trust about the progress of the effort. The second was a complete commitment to an evaluation approach framed by “learning through impact.” And thirdly, they wanted to be engaged for the purposes of learning, and governance, but not micromanagement. We accomplished the latter by organizing our quarterly Board meetings in or near a BHC community site at least three times a year, and each Board member accepted an assignment of one community site for more in-depth and richer learning. Board members share their observations over dinner at our Board meetings.

In closing, we have found the work of community change to be an exhilarating journey in pursuit of our health mission. We have gained an appreciation of the importance of the “right brain-left brain balance” in this work: having a Theory of Change, and Logic Models, and metrics are important, but trust-building, power-building, and the spiritual dimension of the work constitutes the real glue to hold partners and relationships together over the long haul. And finally, a special note of thanks and appreciation to those foundations who have traversed this path before us, sharing tidbits of lessons and wisdom so that we can “make new mistakes” in the battle for community improvement and health justice.

--Robert K. Ross, M.D.

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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.

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