Transparency Talk

Category: "Data" (92 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.

Building the Social Sector's Collective Brain Trust: Redesigned IssueLab Launched
June 23, 2016

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena

Recently when I was helping my son cultivate his ant farm, I learned that a lone ant is a dead ant.  Ants are the ultimate collective, working in teams, and by doing so, they accomplish amazing feats that no lone ant alone could do. 

Do Ants Know Something Foundations Don’t?

As you may know from unwelcome encounters in your home, ants tend to move very effectively by moving in swarms.  They operate with what scientists call a “collective brain” or “swarm intelligence” that helps them share knowledge, move quickly over great distances, build bridges and highways, organize, and make collective decisions that accomplish tasks that they couldn’t do alone. 

"IssueLab’s relaunched website has almost 20,000 knowledge resources, covering 38 different issue areas, from 7,000+ organizations around the world."

Philanthropy by contrast is increasingly fragmented, with individual foundations developing and often holding lessons learned, strategic direction, and operating plans close to their vests. Yet, like ants, they are often trying to move proverbial mountains and accomplish goals that a single institution can’t do alone. So, is there something we can learn from the insect world, much like how observing bird flight informed and inspired the development of aircraft?  Can we observe insects to inform the development of collective intelligence?

There is hope here in that increasingly, philanthropy articles and conferences are turning to the theme of collective impact, and knowledge sharing, which are in many ways a departure from the current practice in philanthropy in which fragmentation - or the “lone ant” phenomenon - tends to be the prevailing norm. And there is also hope in the form of new tools that are available to you to help us all work smarter, provided we commit to take advantage of them.

Moving Toward a Collective Brain Trust

New tools recently launched by IssueLab may give us all a roadmap to how to go from struggling, lone ants to mighty ants. IssueLab’s relaunched website has almost 20,000 knowledge resources, covering 38 different issue areas, from 7,000+ organizations around the world. Each resource includes links to the full report, and helpful data, such as article abstracts, related articles, and author information. 

Many of these resources include lessons learned and were funded directly by foundations. Together, IssueLab resources represent one of the greatest assets of the social sector, provided they remain easily findable and usable by others.

The Path to Open Knowledge

Toward that end, IssueLab's relaunched website also includes helpful resources aimed at helping the social sector commit to creating a culture of open knowledge. The website includes recommended principles and also tactical practices that organizations can adopt to move toward this vision of a collective brain trust, from which we can all mutually benefit.

Given the critical connection between transparency and shared learning, earlier this year Glasspockets added Open Licensing to the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency self-assessment profile. Since this is one of our newest elements, and it is an emerging practice among foundations, we want to draw particular attention to a set of tools now available on IssueLab's redesigned site that aim to demystify the path to open knowledge.

IssueLab breaks it down into the following practices:

  • Articulating an open knowledge policy; 
  • Using open licensing on all knowledge products; 
  • Using open knowledge repositories like IssueLab to catalog and better share your work; and 
  • Using a shared descriptive vocabulary, such as schema.org, on your organization’s website to make it easier to discover and index knowledge products.

To learn more about each practice, visit IssueLab's Open Knowledge area.

How Can We Know What Others Know?

And to continue building a bigger and bigger brain trust that truly represents the shared knowledge of our labors, the redesigned IssueLab also makes it easier for anyone to upload, find, and freely share research by providing metadata and links to original documents on publishers' websites.

New features include:

  • An improved interface that makes it easier and faster to upload research to IssueLab and share items via a website, blog, or on social media.
  • Filtered search, the ability to curate user libraries, and "what to read next" suggestions for related research.
  • The ability to use Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) to increase a document's long-term accessibility across the Internet and on archival sites like WorldCat, the world's largest library catalog.
  • Metadata such as keyword search, date published, geography, and language to facilitate powerful searching and browsing capabilities.

Visit IssueLab to start collecting, connecting, and sharing knowledge, and just maybe collectively moving mountains.

--Janet Camarena

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).

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.

-----

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.

-----

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

Blind Spots No More: Introducing Transparency Trends
April 13, 2016

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena

There are some lessons you learn that you never forget. "Mirror, signal, blind spot," is thankfully one of those lessons for me, dating all the way back to driver's ed when I was equal parts excited and horrified that someone was handing me the keys to a moving vehicle. I still recall the teacher emphasizing how important it is when changing lanes to first check the mirror for what is behind you; signal to let others know you are entering/exiting a lane; and then to check your blind spot, assuming there is someone invisible to you that only looking over your shoulder and out the window will reveal.

"The new Transparency Trends tool helps foundations benchmark openness."

So, is our new Glasspockets' Transparency Trends a mirror, a signal, or a viewer for revealing blind spots a foundation may be creating? It actually serves all of these purposes. Transparency Trends, created with support from the Barr Foundation, aggregates the data we have collected from all foundations that have taken and publicly shared their "Who Has Glass Pockets?" self-assessment transparency profiles, and allows the user to interact and display the data in a variety of ways.

The default view displays data about all 77 participating foundations, and users can perform a number of helpful transparency benchmarking activities with the tool, including:

  • Learn which transparency elements are most and least commonly shared online;
  • Access lists of which participating foundations share each transparency indicator;
  • Access statistics about the sharing frequency of each transparency element;
  • Compare a specific foundation to a select peer group by region/asset/foundation type; and
  • Download a customized report detailing suggested improvements for a particular foundation.

Some interesting facts quickly reveal both strengths and blind spots:

Searchable Grants Performance Assessment
  • Nearly two-thirds of participating foundations provide searchable grants via their websites;
  • 87% of participating foundations provide key staff biographies;
  • Fewer than half of participating foundations post a Code of Conduct online;
  • Despite all of the talk about impact, only 22% of participating foundations share foundation performance assessments via their websites; and
  • Only 31% of participating foundations use their websites to collect grantee feedback.

The more I explore Transparency Trends, the more excited I became about the "Mirror, signal, blind spot" rule of the road as a metaphor for the importance of philanthropic transparency. After all when you are handed the keys to a foundation, it's great if someone also hands you some institutional memory so you can have a view of the road travelled so far and what has been learned so you can actually get somewhere rather than driving in circles.

And since there are likely others who are travelling a similar path, the notion of signaling to the world what direction you are going resonates as well, since you might get there faster (and more efficiently) via a pooled or shared ride approach, or by at least sharing your road maps and shortcuts.

And finally, are you and the others on the road actually creating blind spots that prevent those around you from knowing you exist and building on your shared efforts? From Transparency Trends, you can see that fewer than half of participating foundations have a Knowledge Center that shares the lessons they are learning, and only 12% have open licensing policies that make it clear how to build on the knowledge the foundations funds and produces.

Knowledge Center Open Licensing

As fun as it is to explore the data on the pinwheel display, don't miss the opportunity to download a customized report. Since the reports are particularly helpful as a mechanism to surface both the transparency blind spots and strengths a particular foundation might have, Transparency Trends is accessible to any foundation, whether or not they have previously participated in Glasspockets.

So, if you have not submitted a profile to Glasspockets, you can still explore and extract helpful information from the tool by completing a short questionnaire about your existing transparency practices. The questionnaire will not be shared without your permission, but it will allow you to view your foundation as compared to others in our database.

Customized ReportA customized report from Transparency Trends

Our hope is these reports will serve to encourage greater foundation transparency by quickly surfacing data that identifies areas in which a foundation is behind its peers in regards to specific transparency indicators. And for those foundations that have already participated, you get a shortcut to your customized report since you will skip the questionnaire and go directly to a report to reveal your strengths and weaknesses, or areas where you may inadvertently be creating blind spots.

And speaking of blind spots, I have been thankful for the "Mirror, signal, blind spot" mantra many times when it has literally saved my life. I can recall several occasions when I've ritually check the blind spot, convinced it was empty, and only because I did the over-the-shoulder check did I avoid a collision. I'm reminded of this particular lesson at the launch of Transparency Trends because perhaps philanthropy needs a way to do the over-the-shoulder check as well. By visualizing both philanthropy's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to greater openness, we can collectively work toward a future with fewer blind spots, more awareness of those around us, and a clear view of what we have learned from the road travelled so far.

Explore Transparency Trends and let me know what you think.

-- Janet Camarena

From Cardboard to the Cloud: Grantmaking Systems in an Era of Collaboration and Learning
April 6, 2016

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

AjimenezThe Surdna Foundation’s first grants management system was made of cardboard: it was a shoebox filled with index cards. (Next there was a custom-built system, followed by an off-the-shelf installed one). For decades, this box served the foundation’s basic record-keeping needs, but technology –and transparency – eventually took precedence.  

Now in its 99th year, the foundation has since ditched the cardboard for the cloud. In 2015, Surdna transferred its grantmaking database to the workflow- and cloud-based system, Fluxx.

Moving to the cloud has helped the foundation become more open, streamlined and transparent.

These benefits were not accidental. Our decision to switch grants management platforms arose from a 2012 three-year strategic Roadmap which recommended the following changes in support of mission: 

1) Working more collaboratively with grantees.

2) Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

3) Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

To implement these changes Surdna’s Roadmap suggested retooling outdated systems and processes. It was clear we’d need a new grants management system: we’d reached the limits of our next cardboard box.

Surdna’s transition to the cloud highlights how foundations are beginning to use grants management systems to inform and improve their overall strategic directions. Through the use of data- and community-driven platforms, funders can support their efforts in collecting, harnessing and sharing better information, while working more collaboratively across teams and beyond.

Here’s how our new grantmaking system is helping us advance Surdna’s strategic goals.


1)  Working more collaboratively with grantees.

Cloud-based platforms provide actionable data on-demand. This has been empowering for staff, particularly those who previously lacked direct contact with our grant information (and those with busy travel schedules).

Phil Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation, says: “Our new system has made data accessible on the fly. I can now review and approve grants from any location and drill down to get more information.” (And by “drill,” he means literally – he recently approved a grant from his dentist’s chair.)

"Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes."

Beyond its streamlining implications, this opens new channels for deepening our connections with grantee partners and empowering our senior leadership. For example, while on the road the president can now use organizational and grants data to help him strategize for site visits, or identify grantees to greet at a reception. With the aid of a mobile app a data point becomes a real person, fostering face-to-face collaboration.

Via the cloud-based grantee portal, invited applicants can now work collaboratively with program officers throughout the proposal-writing process and get feedback from staff in real time.

Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes. For instance, in our previous system grantees had no way of accessing their “final” proposal (with edits made by Surdna’s program and grants management staff) online; now they can view revisions in real time, as well as access information on upcoming payments, reports, and past grants.

For Jose Garcia, Program Officer for the Strong Local Economies Program, the portal has expedited the proposal formulation process and created a new, direct line of communication between program staff and applicants. Moving to the cloud has “decreased bureaucracy in our work with grantees and prospective grantees, allowing greater responsiveness to both. It has eliminated unnecessary paperwork so we can spend time on the important stuff.”

By “important stuff,’ he means our mission, and the people working to make it happen. Streamlining our processes means grantees can spend more time on their own mission-related activities, rather than draining resources on fundraising.

In a recent survey, grantees described the portal as “accessible,” “user-friendly,” “easy” and “organized”. 85 percent of respondents were “satisfied” to “very satisfied” with the accessibility of Surdna’s application forms.

But there is room for improvement. Grantees felt ambivalent about their level of satisfaction with the portal as a tool for communicating with Surdna staff. Only a total of 23 percent were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied, while 1/3 were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied,” and 52 percent were “unsure”.

By making future enhancements to the portal we can continue to unlock its potential as a robust communication tool.


2)  Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

Unlike many installed databases (designed primarily for grants managers), our workflow- and cloud-based system is used regularly by everyone on staff, from the receptionist to the president. Working on a single platform has reduced shadow systems while supporting a more holistic understanding of our work across programs.

Intuitive searches and dashboards provide a birds-eye view of Surdna’s grantmaking landscape, past and present. This has aided our cross-programmatic learning:

“One of Surdna’s strengths is that each program exists within a larger ecosystem of all programs. In the Thriving Cultures Program, we also think in terms of Sustainable Environments and Strong Local Economies [Surdna’s other 2 programs areas]. We can now view the arts in that broader context,” says Shin Otake, Program Associate for the Thriving Cultures Program.

Shared workflows help his team (and others) keep track of grants in the pipeline: “the grant approval process from invitation to approval is seamless. Any member from my team or the Office of Grants Management can see the status of any grant at any given moment, or create reports to map out where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

"Using data- and community-driven platforms, funders can better share information and collaborate internally and externally."

Increased collaboration among finance, grants management, and program staff has also improved our internal controls.

For example, the finance department can now reconcile grants payments by running monthly reports in the system. The timeliness of these reports is key, as it allows grants management to address errors early on, and provide accurate spending data to program staff for budgeting purposes.  

Non-grant contracts (such as fees for consultants, research, grantee convenings, etc.) have also migrated to our grants management system, where they can now be approved and monitored in a central location by Surdna’s Chief Financial Officer. For Controller Matt Walegir, “this has provided a great oversight procedure which did not exist before. We can now get a complete picture of where our contracts are at any given moment.”

Tracking non-grant contracts in a grants database has significant implications beyond internal controls and budgeting. By co-mingling contracts and grants in one space, we are reminded that our tools for impact extend beyond traditional grantmaking. At Surdna, we also have program-related investments (also tracked in Fluxx), mission-related investments, contracts, funder collaboratives, and of course, communication.

Thinking of these “tools in the toolbox” holistically is critical for foundations as they continue to look less “traditional” in the future.

3)  Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

This priority has the greatest implications for advancing Surdna’s commitment to transparency.

Helen Chin, Director of Surdna’s Sustainable Environments Program, says the new system has “opened up how we interact with the grantmaking process and compliance protocols. It has allowed staff to access reports and other data without having to bypass its gatekeepers, the Office of Grants Management.” 

The “democratization of data” she describes has been a major cultural shift at Surdna, and will continue to transform the way foundations work as the boundaries between different roles are shifted. For example, if program staff can access reports and other data on their own through streamlined processes, the role of grants management can continue to become more strategic, helping foundations interpret their data (rather than merely provide it) to drive decisions. Data-driven foundations can learn from their work over time and share their lessons with the field, helping them become more transparent about their work.

A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that most foundations’ top barriers to achieving transparency are staff-related: 31 percent do not have the time to invest in working to be transparent, and 28 percent lack consistent levels of transparency across staff.

Staff limitations such as these can be appeased by putting the right tools in the right hands (if you hired the wrong hands, that’s a different story!). Cumbersome systems – not people – are what often create stopgaps and inconsistencies.

Fortunately, technology can capture such stopgaps.

Our new system enables the sharing of data with the sector through its ability to communicate with external datasets. One example is our adoption of the Foundation Center’s GeoTree, a taxonomy to classify grants by geographic area served.  This information can now be aggregated into the Foundation Center’s repository and made available to a community of funders, non-profits, and researchers seeking to understand the broader funding landscape.

Taken further, foundations can expand the capabilities of their grantmaking systems through the integration of third-party programs to enhance data analysis, visualization, and operations.  Grants management systems are just beginning to facilitate the connection of their platforms with tools like Tableau, PolicyMap, Census Data Mapper and Foundation Maps to help funders make better sense of their data and aid them in decision-making.

We’ve only scratched the surface. For Jonathan Goldberg, Director of Grants Management, Learning, and Information Systems, “The real power could come from what we learn and share with others outside the foundation.  Consider all the data that foundations currently maintain, and all the untapped knowledge that we might extract by aggregating and sharing that information within and beyond the grantmaking community.  It’s something this platform is tailor-made for, and it could be transformative to the field of philanthropy and those who benefit from it.”

As we enter a new era of collaboration and learning, we’re excited to explore the vast possibilities of continuing to break down foundation silos through cloud-based systems.

We may not have all the answers yet, but when we do we promise not to hide them in a cardboard box.

--Adriana Jimenez

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

An Interactive Timeline to Mark Our 75th Birthday? Piece of Cake
March 23, 2016

(Sally Crowley is the communications director for The John R. Oishei Foundation.)

Sally Crowley Head shotOur 75th anniversary had been looming over us here at The John R. Oishei Foundation for about a year. We knew it was coming, and had brainstormed ways to mark it memorably and cost-effectively. It presented us with an excellent opportunity to build more awareness for our Foundation and its long history of supporting the community.

By mid-2015, we had developed a year-long communications plan to create an ongoing “buzz” about turning 75 in 2016. The plan focused on “75 Years of Giving” and included some “usual suspects” such as a kick-off reception, banners, signage, etc.

Probably the most interesting element of our anniversary plan is the interactive timeline that we created for our website’s homepage. We wanted to compile interesting facts to help the media write about us and to arm our board and staff members with key talking points.

We also wanted to acknowledge and honor the people who helped build the Foundation over time. And, we wanted to be “cutting edge” with our tactics to help enhance our image as a leader in digital communications in our region. Rather than starting from scratch, we searched for an existing timeline “widget” that could be integrated into our site somewhat easily.

We found one used by TIME Magazine to tell the life story of Nelson Mandela. We figured, “hey, if it’s good enough for TIME Magazine, it’s probably good enough for us.”

“TimelineJS” is an open-source tool offered by Northwestern University’s KnightLab that allows the “average Joe” (or “Jo” in this case) to create visually rich, interactive timelines. In theory, beginners (like me) can generate a timeline using nothing more than Google Sheets.

In order to use the tool, we had to have a Google account (which we did.) Our IT vendor got us started by placing KnightLab’s Google Sheets template into our Google Drive and setting up a folder for use as an image repository. Once these were in place, all we needed to do was type in dates, headlines and copy for each timeline entry. It was as easy as filling out an Excel spreadsheet. We then uploaded corresponding images to the repository. Happily, this was just a click-and-drag motion. We added the link from each photo into the matching record on the spreadsheet.

To be very frank, the process was a little more difficult and time consuming than I thought it would be. I needed our IT vendor to set things up for me – that was beyond my technical capabilities. Then, they also needed to “take the generated Javascript code provided on the Knightlab website, and arrange the code nicely in our website.” They, in fact, had to help me write that last sentence describing exactly what they did at the end. It seemed like magic to me. I told them, “I have completed the Google Sheet” and two days later, the timeline was up and functioning.

The most time-consuming part was gathering key milestones from our Foundation’s 75-year history. We scoured microfilm at the library. We rifled through boxes of old memorabilia, pulling out relevant newspaper clippings and scanning them -- being careful not to handle them too much for fear of their complete disintegration. We went through our electronic files to pull snippets from media releases, photos of key happenings, etc. The result, SO FAR, is over 100 timeline entries, and the rescue of significant artifacts of our Foundation’s past from the dustbin of history.

One of the coolest characteristics of the timeline is that it is dynamic. I can keep adding things as I have time. And, we can get input from the community. For example, we promoted the timeline on social media, asking folks to try it out and to let us know if we missed anything important. (I knew we’d missed something, since I have not been at the Foundation for 75 years and am, unfortunately, not omnipotent.) Sure enough, I heard back from a staff member -- I forgot the promotion of a colleague. So, I found a photo, uploaded it into Google Drive, went into the Google spreadsheet and added the date and headline. In 5 minutes, the entry was live.

Overall, I’d say the effort was very worthwhile. Feedback has been extremely positive. And, I have to admit: it’s better than I could have imaged.

Take a look. Let us know your thoughts on it and/or share your experiences with anniversary communications and/or interactive timelines!

--Sally Crowley

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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
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    Director, Transparency Initiatives
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