Transparency Talk

Category: "Effectiveness" (80 posts)

It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Your Organization’s Inequitable Funding Practices
March 21, 2018

Erika Grace “E.G.” Nelson is a Community Health and Health Equity Program Manager at the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. E.G. recently led the Center through an equity scan of its Request for Proposal (RFP) policies and procedures.

Erika Nelson photo“It’s not you; it’s me” is possibly the most cliché break-up excuse, but for many funders, it really is their own policies and procedures that undermine their ability to find community soulmates. Perhaps you have had conversations with community members who have said that they found out about your funding opportunity too late, were too busy to apply, or, worse yet, were rejected even though their project sounds like a great fit based on the conversation you are currently having with them. The reality is that funders typically enact policies that are convenient for themselves, as opposed to what makes sense for grantseekers, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) fall by the wayside of expediency. As a result, organizations with the most social and fiscal capital have the best shot at receiving awards.

Have you ever taken the time to think about how your funding portfolio might look differently if your RFP process was designed to be more equitable and inclusive? We recently completed an equity scan, and here is a bit about how this reflection has led to changes in our RFP process.

“Funders typically enact policies that are convenient for themselves, as opposed to what makes sense for grantseekers.”

At the Center for Prevention, our goal is to improve the health of all Minnesotans by tackling the leading causes of preventable disease and death – commercial tobacco use, physical inactivity, and unhealthy eating. While Minnesota has one of the best overall health rankings in the nation, we see huge gaps in health outcomes when considering factors such as race, income, and area of residence.

We also know that communities are aware of what they need to be healthy, but organizations established by and for marginalized communities tend to face greater barriers than well-resourced, mainstream organizations in getting what they need. We wanted to remove as many barriers from our application process as possible so that we could find and support more community-based and culturally-tailored approaches to addressing health needs. To begin identifying these barriers, our team reflected on challenges identified by communities we work with and walked through our application process from beginning to end using an equity lens. As a result, we have implemented several systemic changes to move towards our vision of a truly equitable process.

Bringing the Funding Opportunities to the Community

BCBS_Center_Prevention_vert_blueWe began our journey by thinking about funding opportunities. Before an organization can even apply for funding, it needs to know that an opportunity exists. Through community conversations, we learned that many organizations were unfamiliar with our resources and work. We recommended that project teams develop a tailored outreach plan for each funding opportunity, with specific outreach to organizations or sectors we considered to be key stakeholders or who had been markedly absent in previous rounds. Moving forward, we also have a goal of literally meeting folks where they are at – town halls, cultural events, on social media – to share our work and funding opportunities.

As a result, here are some ways we shifted how we engage with community organizations through our RFP process:

  • Time. Once applicants find out about an opportunity, they need to apply, which takes some time. We learned that some potential applicants prioritized other opportunities because they didn’t have the staff capacity to apply for multiple opportunities concurrently. The easiest solution to this problem was to give applicants more time, so we extended our open application period. In our case, we went from no set minimum to at least six weeks.
  • Assistance. We also wanted to make sure that applicants could make informed decisions about how to prioritize staff time, so we opened up new channels for discussing funding opportunities. We made sure that every application had a designated point person for answering questions from the public, and even piloted some creative ways to interact with the community in advance of the submitted application, such as an “office hours” hotline where anyone could call in and ask questions. The number of inquiries was manageable and allowed applicants to receive guidance on whether their projects were a good match before they invested time in applying. Follow-up survey data showed that this strategy paid off because applicants reported that they understood our funding objectives and that the time they invested in applying was appropriate for the potential award.
  • Accessibility. We are also working towards using more accessible language to articulate the merits of a viable proposal. We now run a readability test on all RFP language before publication, with the goal of using language that is no higher than an eighth grade reading level. Such tests have helped us remove jargon, and improve comprehension by professionals outside of public health as well as by non-native English speakers.

Leveling the Playing Field of Community Relationships

Our team also considered the role relationships play in evaluating proposals. We approached equity from two angles. We set limits on which and when “outside information”— knowledge we have about a project that didn’t come from the application—can be shared during proposal review. We also started reaching out to new applicants to discuss their work more deeply. Our familiarity with mainstream organizations and those we have previously funded can influence how we evaluate an application, and in some cases lead to an unfair advantage for groups that already have many advantages.  So these limits on “outside information” were put in place to level the playing field, as well as to begin to strengthen relationships with organizations that were new to us. These conversations helped us to fill in gaps in our understanding that we may unconsciously fill in for organizations we are already familiar with.

“We now run a readability test on all RFP language before publication…to remove jargon, and improve comprehension.”

Transparent Evaluation Processes

We felt transparency in our decision-making process could only improve the quality of proposals. One way we have done this is by making scoring rubrics available to applicants. We also began providing tailored feedback to each declined applicant on how the proposal could have been stronger in hopes that it will improve future submissions. Though we have yet to determine what impact this will have in the future, we can say that applicants have been appreciative and found this feedback to be useful.

Hope and More Work to Be Done

While we don’t yet have much data to analyze post-implementation, we have noticed a few positive outcomes. We have seen a great increase in applications from greater Minnesota in particular, demonstrating that our targeted outreach is increasingly effective. Our funding awards to projects by and for people of color have also doubled in one of two opportunities we have analyzed since implementation. Despite this progress, we continue to wrestle with how to develop scoring tools that better reflect our values. 

The above are just some examples of how we have begun to identify and address equity barriers in our process that may be helpful for others. If your foundation is considering something similar, here are some things we learned from our experience that may be helpful for you.

  • Leadership & Promising Practices. As with any new process implementation, support from leadership is critical. If you are met with resistance, keep in mind that funders typically want to emulate best and promising practices in philanthropy, and sharing what other funders are doing around diversity, equity, and inclusion can be highly motivating.
  • Checks & Balances. It is also important to keep in mind that old habits die hard. It is not necessarily because team members are resistant to change, but simply need to get into the routine of doing things differently. For that reason, be sure that you build in checks and balances along the way to ensure that all who touch your RFP process have the opportunity to identify pain points along the way while also upholding equity commitments.
  • No One Size Fits All. Keep in mind that there is not one model that will work for everyone, and much in the same way, not all the communities you serve will be pleased with the changes you make. So, keep asking for and responding to feedback from community and know that correcting mistakes is part of improvement and part of ensuring our processes continue to be ones that facilitate, rather than undermine, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

--Erika Grace “E.G.” Nelson

New on Glasspockets: Open Knowledge Feature Added to Glasspockets Profiles
March 19, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center

Janet Camarena photoWho has glass pockets when it comes to knowledge? Answering this question using our Glasspockets profiles just became a lot easier, thanks to a new feature we’ve added to emphasize the importance of creating a culture of shared learning in philanthropy. Beginning today, Glasspockets profiles are featuring a tie-in with our ongoing #OpenForGood campaign, designed to encourage open knowledge sharing by foundations.

All Glasspockets profiles now have a dedicated space to feature the knowledge that each foundation has contributed to IssueLab, which is a free, open repository that currently provides searchable access to nearly 24,000 knowledge documents. Currently, 67 of the 93 profiles on Glasspockets showcase recently shared reports on IssueLab. For example, looking at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund's Glasspockets profile reveals that it is participating in the #OpenForGood movement; a window appears on the right side of its profile featuring the latest learning the foundation has shared on IssueLab.

"Sharing your knowledge via open repositories is openness that is good for you and good for the field."

This window on shared knowledge is a dynamic feed generated from our IssueLab database, so if you have published evaluations or other publications to share that are not showing up in your profile, simply go to IssueLab to upload these documents, or contact our Glasspockets team for assistance. And if your foundation invested specifically in monitoring and evaluating results, you can share those evaluations in our new IssueLab: Results. To acknowledge your efforts for sharing your recent evaluations, your foundation will receive an #OpenforGood badge to display on your website and on your Glasspockets profile to signal your commitment to creating a community of shared learning.

Though not a formal part of the transparency assessment, the #OpenForGood feature makes profile users aware of the kinds of learning that are available from participating foundations. Besides linking to the two most recent reports, a shortcut is also provided linking the user to a landing page of all of that foundation’s available knowledge documents.

OFG Everyone Learns GroupSince Glasspockets began, the transparency self-assessment has tracked whether foundations make available a central landing page of knowledge on their own websites, and that will continue to be included moving forward. So what’s the difference here? Opening up your knowledge on your own website is great for people who already know about your institution and visit your website, but it doesn’t really help to spread that knowledge to peers and practitioners unaware of your work. The fragmentation of knowledge across thousands of websites doesn’t do much to accelerate progress as a field—but that’s where open repositories like IssueLab come in.

Open repositories have several things going for them that truly live up to the idea of being #OpenForGood. First of all, any report you make available on IssueLab becomes machine-readable, so it can more easily be used and built upon by others doing similar work. Secondly, once a resource has been added to IssueLab, it becomes part of the sector’s collective intelligence, feeding through an open protocol system, which integrates with systems like WorldCat in 10,000+ public libraries, which means students, academics, journalists, and the general public can easily find the knowledge you’ve generated and shared, even if they’ve never heard of IssueLab, Foundation Center, or your organization. Once in the system, your knowledge resources can also be issued something called a Digital Object Identifier (DOI), so you can track access and use of that knowledge in an ongoing way.

The easiest way to think of it is that sharing your knowledge via open repositories is openness that is good for you and good for the field. So how about it? What will you #OpenForGood?

--Janet Camarena

Open for Transformational Change: How Foundation Transparency Sets the Stage for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice
February 14, 2018

Whitney Tome is the executive director of Green 2.0, a campaign dedicated to increasing the racial diversity of mainstream environmental NGOs, foundations and federal government agencies through data transparency, accountability, and increased resources.

Whitney Tome photoPhilanthropy invests billions of dollars into charitable causes each year. According to Foundation Center, foundations gave an estimated $59.28 billion in 2016. That’s a tremendous amount of capital. For better or worse, the field of philanthropy is a leader in determining what’s important and how social change happens. Whoever holds the purse also holds the power. And with power comes responsibility for foundations to set the gold standard, especially for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ).

In my role as executive director of Green 2.0, I spend a lot of time helping foundations better understand how improved foundation transparency around DEIJ can position philanthropy to lead by example instead of just playing catch up, or worse, just going through the motions. Though we focus on the environmental field, what we have learned in the process can serve as a helpful example for all of philanthropy because every sector has been influenced by the power and privilege that exist in our society.

“Being transparent about the demographics of foundation staff and boards…can spur a review of recruitment and hiring process to reduce implicit biases.”

So what have we learned?  The environmental movement, in particular, has failed to adequately represent people of color. In 2014, Green 2.0 commissioned “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” report authored by Dr. Dorceta Taylor, which found that while people of color are 36% of the U.S. population, they only comprise 12% of foundation staff in the world of environmental funding. And ample studies have shown that communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. Green 2.0 envisions a different, more diverse movement that wins environmental battles for those most impacted. To catalyze transformational change, Green 2.0 works to increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the mainstream environmental movement. We call for data transparency, accountability, and increased resources to ensure NGOs and foundations are diverse.

As the sustained drumbeat to improve workplaces and increase opportunities for talented people of color, Green 2.0 engages with environmental NGOs and foundations by calling on them to share their demographic data year after year. This is not just transparency for transparency’s sake. We find there are direct benefits to this kind of transparency that spurs change for the better as outlined below. But there is still lots of room for improvement.

Since 2014, only 12 of the Top 40 environmental foundations have answered the call. Given the benefits of transparency to the DEIJ movement, it is important that both GuideStar and Glasspockets encourage disclosures pertaining to diversity data in their respective profiles. In the case of Glasspockets, the transparency self-assessment covers disclosures about both diversity values statements and demographic data, and what we have learned here is it remains a challenge for the field as a whole with fewer than half of participating foundations reporting any kind of values statement, and fewer than 10 percent disclosing any demographic data at all.  And out of a universe of more than 86,000 foundations, only 500 foundations have willingly submitted their demographic data to GuideStar via their profile page demonstrating that this is a challenge for all foundations. 

Commitment means:

  • Being transparent about the demographics of foundation staff and boards. Greater transparency can spur a review of recruitment and hiring process to reduce implicit biases but also allow foundations to identify the full range of organizations they should be supporting.
  • Encouraging grantees to submit their diversity data and communicate how they are working on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice both internally and externally. As funders, foundations are uniquely suited to holding grantees accountable for advancing a more diverse environmental movement.
  • Recognizing your role as leaders in the field that influence the whole. When foundations make a move and engage deeply on issues, others follow suit. Foundations have an opportunity and responsibility to show the field the value of diversity through its action and set the standard on recruiting, attracting, and retaining talented people of color.

In order to see transformational change, foundations need to make a real commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, internally. That’s more than providing lip service to the value of diversity. It is rather embedding equity and justice in the practices, policies and procedures of the organization and for foundations also into their grantmaking. Ask your foundation simple questions that may result in complex but informative answers as a start:

  • Are you tracking the data of your staff and board?
  • Do you have an organizational vision and/or mission around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice?
  • Is there authentic leadership on DEIJ issues and are they holding the organization and themselves accountable for change?
  • Are your internal policies for attracting, recruiting, hiring, promoting and retaining staff transparent, equitable and consistently implemented?
  • Are you assessing your organizational culture and making constant adjustments to achieve your vision?
  • Are you tracking the demographic makeup of your grantees? Are you sharing those statistics with program officers? Are you using this to inform future grantmaking?

Several foundations have made or are starting to ask these questions, but many are not public about them.  From sharing the demographic data of their grantees to intentional recruiting and hiring staff of color, these foundations are changing their focus and what they fund. One foundation has been collecting the demographic data of their staff and grantees for several years; and sharing that data with grantees and program officers. This data gives program officers insight into where the dollars are going, how to shift their portfolio over time, and for their grantees they can now compare themselves to other organizations in the field. As a foundation, they have engaged in more DEIJ conversations internally and externally from how they support racial equity through funding to how they support the internal DEIJ work of grantees. This has spurred important conversation and reflection about funding, commitment, and action that this foundation is digging into and learning from every year. More need to start this conversation and be public about the answers that they are coming to.

Green 2.0 will continue to advance enduring change in the environmental movement broadly but we call on foundations to dedicate the time and resources needed to change the face of philanthropy to one that is more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just.

--Whitney Tome

Through a Glass a Little Less Darkly: Looking Back, Looking Forward 2017-2018
January 17, 2018

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

Janet Camarena PhotoIn the spirit of Glasspockets, before we completely erase the past and close the books on 2017, we wanted to identify the highlights of the year from a transparency perspective. Here are last year’s moments and trends that made me think that transparency and openness are not just catching on, but starting to lead to a more permanent culture of transparency, which may signal continued progress in 2018:

E_SDG_Logo_UN Emblem-02#10 - SDGs Catch On: The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. 2017 saw foundations increasingly aligning their funding with the SDGs, and some even using it as a shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress. As foundation strategies become increasingly specialized and strategic, explaining the objectives and the nuances can become a jargon-laden minefield that can make it difficult and time consuming for those on the outside to fully understand the intended goal of a new program or initiative. The simplicity of the SDG iconography cuts through the jargon so foundation website visitors can quickly identify alignment with the goals or not, and then more easily determine whether they should devote time to reading further. The SDG framework also provides a clear visual framework to display grants and outcomes data in a way that is meaningful beyond the four walls of the foundation, and some started taking advantage of this in 2017 to help explain the reach of their work. The GHR Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Tableau Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation each offer inspiring examples of how the SDGs can be used to increase philanthropic transparency, and ultimately understanding of the public good generated from their activities.

Amanda Flores-Witte Photo# 9 - Pain Points See the Light of Day: I noticed a greater willingness among grantmakers to publish reports and blogs not just to enumerate the successes, or business as usual activities, but to also candidly open up about the struggles and pain points along the way. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but some particularly inspired me:

  • A great example comes to us from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s storytelling series on Medium about its adventures in public arts funding. Given the project challenges, Mandy Flores-Witte shared on Transparency Talk that a trusted colleague advised them against opening up about the challenges they encountered, but they saw what could be gained by telling the story from various stakeholder perspectives, and as a result, ended up also producing a great example of why philanthropy needs more storytellers. (Yes, I know I’m cheating a bit here because this is from a 2016 series, but it’s so good that I’m including it anyway!)
  • In terms of formal publications, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation published a very detailed report analyzing the impact of a large-scale, multi-year and multi-sector initiative designed to end and prevent chronic homelessness. Among the report’s findings was the fact that homelessness actually increased during the grant period. At a less learning-focused foundation, this might have been enough to quash its publication.
  • Hanh Cao Yu photoThe California Endowment’s (TCE) chief learning officer, Hanh Cao Yu, lived up to her title by enumerating TCE’s mistakes in a Transparency Talk blog about the pain points the foundation encountered on the road to a health policy systems change.

We hope to see this practice grow in 2018, and that when funders do issue such knowledge that they take the time to share it on an open repository like IssueLab, as part of our #OpenForGood campaign. This practice is a significant one because sharing this knowledge can save other practitioners and funders from repeating costly experimentation and prevents us all from working in the dark.

#8 - Foundation Transparency Movement Builds Globally: The need for greater foundation transparency is not unique to the United States. In fact, the majority of countries outside the United States lack the regulatory structure we have that requires foundation disclosures that we take for granted here, such as transparency about leadership, compensation, grantmaking activities, or even just to verify their very existence. In many regions, this has created urgency around voluntary transparency movements, and some picked up steam by creating their own transparency assessments. In 2017, Australia, Brazil, and New Zealand each launched movements designed to motivate institutional philanthropists to greater transparency. In the case of Australia, the foundations are approaching this from a storytelling lens. And national philanthropic associations in both Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment, developed self-assessments for their own members. Given the dearth of global philanthropic data, we predict more global associations will be emphasizing the importance of voluntary transparency in 2018.

Mac-1024x512-03#7 - Transparency Comes to Competition Philanthropy: While competitions are nothing new in philanthropy, transparency about the competition can often fall short. This was not the case with the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change, as they designed the competition with transparency in mind. The goal was to award $100 million to an organization aiming to make “real and measurable progress on a critical problem of our time.” In the end, after several rounds, the winner was announced at the end of 2017 as a joint effort between Sesame Workshop West and the International Rescue Committee to team up to serve the growing population of child refugees in the Syrian response region.

But an additional real winner in this example was also transparency. As is often the case with competition or even ordinary grant programs, the demand for worthy ideas far outstrips the supply of grant dollars. The potential solutions in the proposals are wasted since they usually do not see the light of day, and those agencies must then source new prospects, re-package those requests to other funders, or give up. In response to these realities, the MacArthur Foundation partnered with Foundation Center to bring greater visibility to those ideas, with three goals in mind: drive investment in proposals that merit it; facilitate collaboration and learning between organizations working on similar problems; and inspire funders and organizations working for change to do things differently. As a result, there is now an open database of solutions ready for others to learn from and support, the 100&Change Solutions Bank.

Relationships Matter Practices-1#6 - Transparency Recognized as Key to Effective Grantmaking: A common concern we often hear is that funders don’t want to just “do transparency for transparency’s sake”—they want to do it because it leads to better and more effective grantmaking. 2017 was notable in that several industry groups took up the charge and leveraged member and client experience to demonstrate how transparency leads to more effective philanthropy, which should help foundations justify spending time on transparency efforts in 2018. The National Center for Family Philanthropy featured webinars and a blog series to reinforce the idea that transparency is appropriate for family foundations too. In April, we were happy to see that transparency topped GuideStar’s list of practices philanthropy should adopt to overcome common challenges. And in November, the Center for Effective Philanthropy published Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success. And guess what? The report found that transparency is key to healthy grantee/grantmaker relationships and particularly well-suited to addressing the power imbalance inherent in the relationship. Now that the ROI question has been put to rest, we expect to see more foundations prioritizing transparency in 2018.

Reedyjenniferford-cropped#5 - No Moat Philanthropy: Listing transparency among a list of cultural values or stating that one’s institution is aiming to create a culture of openness is a good place to begin, but Jen Ford Reedy’s excellent blog series about the Bush Foundation’s efforts is a great reminder to the field not to start and stop with elegantly written values statements. The blog series shares detailed steps and strategies foundation leaders can use to move their foundation toward greater openness. Ford Reedy’s blog series also deserves attention because it offers the field helpful advice on how working more openly can serve to help the field become more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

Phil goals#4 - GrantAdvisor Breaks Through Insular Foundation Culture: Industries as diverse as restaurants, travel, retail, health, and even nonprofits have had the blessing and curse of receiving unfiltered user feedback via online review sites for many years now, so it’s hard to believe that until 2017 this was not the case for philanthropy. With the launch of GrantAdvisor.org in April, now foundations can view, for better or worse, what their stakeholders really think. Anyone can register to give feedback, and once a foundation receives more than five reviews their profile goes live on the site. Given the power dynamic, reviews are anonymous, and foundations are able to post responses. An engaging profile with emoji-symbols invites users to rate foundations on two principal metrics: the length of time it takes to complete a foundation’s application process, and a smiley/frowning face rating assessing what it’s like to work with the particular funder. So far, enough reviews have been submitted to provide 49 foundations with unfiltered feedback. And perhaps more importantly, more than 130 foundations have registered to receive alerts when feedback is posted, so it’s an encouraging sign that the field is listening. As more reviews get published, this will continue to scale in 2018, and it will be interesting to see the kinds of changes foundations make in response.

990-PF graphic#3 - Open Data & Open 990-PFs Set the Stage for Change: Open, machine-readable 990-PFs actually became a reality in 2016, but 2017 represented the first full year of their availability and allowed some interesting experimentation to take place. For the uninitiated, though the IRS 990 and 990-PFs have always been public documents, they weren’t made digitally available as open data until April 2016 when the IRS started making digitally available all electronically filed 990 and 990-PF documents. Since the data is now not only open, but digital and machine-readable, this means that anyone from journalists to researchers to activists can aggregate this data and make comparisons, correlations, and judgments about philanthropy at lightning speed, all without any input from foundations. Throughout 2017, agencies like Foundation Center, GuideStar, and academic research institutions that use data from the 990s to analyze the field experimented with the usability of the data for new analytic tools. Here at Foundation Center, we prototyped investment transparency and financial benchmarking tools, while others also experimented with using the new treasure trove of open data in innovative ways. For example, a start-up company called Foundation Financial Research is compiling 990-PF benchmarking data on foundation endowment investment performance. Though there are technical glitches to be worked out, it is likely that over time the data will become more reliable and comprehensive leading to more such comparative tools. A recorded webinar by Digital Impact reviewed the challenges and opportunities of this new age of open philanthropic data, and a webinar and blog series on Transparency Talk outlines specific considerations for private foundations.

Paradise Papers graphic
Source: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

#2 - Paradise Leaked: I should preface this one by saying that Glasspockets remains committed to advocating for voluntary transparency and the inclusion of this particular item should not be taken to mean that we are shifting to advocating forced entry! The “Paradise Papers” refers to a set of 13.4 million financial documents, originating from the Bermuda-based law firm Appleby, detailing investments held in offshore accounts often in paradise-like locales. Leaked to German reporters from Süddeutsche Zeitung, who then shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the documents name more than 120,000 people and companies, including many prominent individuals ranging from the likes of Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II, to celebrities like Madonna and Bono, and to government officials like U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. The “Paradise Papers” also include offshore financial holdings of philanthropists like Open Society Foundations founder, George Soros and Simons Foundation founder, Jim Simons. You can read more here about that. But in terms of our work at Glasspockets, the headline to this story is not that high-net worth individuals hold large sums of money in offshore bank accounts—that is really old news. But coming on the heels of the Equifax leaks, which exposed vulnerabilities in one of the nation’s largest credit data reporting agencies and could impact upwards of 143 million American households, the subsequent Paradise Paper leaks further demonstrated that there is no longer any impenetrable fortress for our financial data. Couple these vulnerabilities with the interest in the activities of high-net worth individuals, and you have a perfect storm of motive and opportunity.

So, the take away here is not to live under the false sense of security that data systems can be reinforced and your offshore accounts are safe from prying eyes. Rather, assume that at some point, this will all be disclosed, so why not be proactive and explain long term philanthropic aims? There are valid reasons why donors establish funds and foundations outside of the United States, such as funding projects in countries where it doesn’t have diplomatic relations or for long-range planning so payout rates don’t force rash decisions. If these challenges, visions and strategies are not explained, others can fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. Many foundations have a history section of their website; the new era of leaks suggests that it may be time to add a future directions section. 2018 will likely bring more massive data breaches and leaks—are you ready?

Open Democracy Infographic1_tw#1 - Foundations Take a Stand: Traditionally, foundations are more comfortable writing checks to support others to take the microphone rather than using their institutional voice to speak out. 2017 saw a departure from this practice with many foundations finding their voice as a result of the current political climate. Funder groups banded together to issue open letters, CEOs blogged and foundation staff tweeted to reinforce commitment to issues or population groups that were in the political line of fire. Here at Foundation Center, we continued to improve our open, nonpartisan web portal that explores philanthropy’s role in U.S. democracy. Given the response of foundations in 2017, I’m betting we will see support for movement building of all Communications-network-logo-1-1persuasions grow this year. And speaking of speaking out, given this trend of foundations taking a stand, the Communications Network’s recent conference focused on just this topic and they have crafted some helpful tips on how to navigate institutional communications about politically charged issues of the day.

So, what am I missing?  The drawback of a list like this is that inevitably something that should be included gets left off.  And we want to continue to use this space to highlight emerging trends and excellent examples of transparency at work in philanthropy, so please share any thoughts, self-promotion, or suggestions below.  We have a whole year of blog content ahead of us to fill and welcome audience input.  Happy 2018!

-- Janet Camarena

How "Going Public" Improves Evaluations
October 17, 2017

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

ED_finalAs foundations strive to be #OpenForGood and share key lessons from their grantees' work, a frequent question that arises is how foundations can balance the value of openness with concerns about potential risks.

Concerns about risk are particularly charged when it comes to evaluations. Those concerns include: possible reputational damage to grantees from a critical or less-than-positive evaluation; internal foundation staff disagreements with evaluators about the accomplishments and challenges of grantees they know well; and evaluators’ delays and complicated interpretations.

It therefore may seem counterintuitive to embrace – as The Wallace Foundation has – the idea of making evaluations public and distributing them widely. And one of the key reasons may be surprising: To get better and more useful evaluations.

The Wallace Foundation has found that high-quality evaluations – by which we mean independent, commissioned research that tackles questions that are important to the field – are often a powerful tool for improving policy and practice. We have also found that evaluations are notably improved in quality and utility by being publicly distributed.

Incentives for High Quality

A key reason is that the incentives of a public report for the author are aligned with quality in several ways:

  • Evaluation research teams know that when their reports are public and widely distributed, they will be closely scrutinized and their reputation is on the line. Therefore, they do their highest quality work when it’s public.  In our experience, non-public reports are more likely than public reports to be weak in data use, loose in their analysis, and even a bit sloppy in their writing.  It is also noteworthy that some of the best evaluation teams insist on publishing their reports.
  • Evaluators also recognize that they benefit from the visibility of their public reports because visibility brings them more research opportunities – but only if their work is excellent, accessible and useful.
  • We see evaluators perk up when they focus on the audience their reports will reach. Gathering data and writing for a broad audience of practitioners and policymakers incentivizes evaluators to seek out and carefully consider the concerns of the audience: What information does the audience need in order to judge the value of the project being evaluated? What evidence will the intended audience find useful? How should the evaluation report be written so it will be accessible to the audience?

Making evaluations public is a classic case of a virtuous circle: public scrutiny creates incentives for high quality, accessibility and utility; high quality reports lead to expanded, engaged audiences – and the circle turns again, as large audiences use evaluation lessons to strengthen their own work, and demand more high-quality evaluations. To achieve these benefits, it’s obviously essential for grantmakers to communicate upfront and thoroughly with grantees about the goals of a public evaluation report -- goals of sharing lessons that can benefit the entire field, presented in a way that avoids any hint of punitive or harsh messaging.

“What is it that you don’t know, that if you knew it, would enable you to make important progress in your own work?”

Asking the Right Questions

A key difference between evaluations commissioned for internal use and evaluations designed to produce public reports for a broad audience lies in the questions they ask. Of course, for any evaluation or applied research project, a crucial precursor to success is getting the questions right. In many cases, internally-focused evaluations quite reasonably ask questions about the lessons for the foundation as a grantmaker. Evaluations for a broad audience of practitioners and policymakers, including the grantees themselves, typically ask a broader set of questions, often emphasizing lessons for the field on how an innovative program can be successfully implemented, what outcomes are likely, and what policies are likely to be supportive.

In shaping these efforts at Wallace as part of the overall design of initiatives, we have found that one of the most valuable initial steps is to ask field leaders: What is it that you don’t know, that if you knew it, would enable you to make important progress in your own work? This kind of listening can help a foundation get the questions right for an evaluation whose findings will be valued, and used, by field leaders and practitioners.

Knowledge at Work

For example, school district leaders interested in Wallace-supported “principal pipelines” that could help ensure a reliable supply of effective principals, wanted to know the costs of starting such pipelines and maintaining them over time. The result was a widely-used RAND report that we commissioned, “What It Takes to Operate and Maintain Principal Pipelines: Costs and Other Resources.” RAND found that costs are less than one half of 1% of districts’ expenditures; the report also explained what drives costs, and provided a very practical checklist of the components of a pipeline that readers can customize and adapt to meet their local needs.

Other examples that show how high-quality public evaluations can help grantees and the field include:

Being #OpenForGood does not happen overnight, and managing an evaluation planned for wide public distribution isn’t easy. The challenges start with getting the question right – and then selecting a high-performing evaluation team; allocating adequate resources for the evaluation; connecting the evaluators with grantees and obtaining relevant data; managing the inevitable and unpredictable bumps in the road; reviewing the draft report for accuracy and tone; allowing time for grantees to fact-check it; and preparing with grantees and the research team for the public release. Difficulties, like rocks on a path, crop up in each stage in the journey. Wallace has encountered all of these difficulties, and we don’t always navigate them successfully. (Delays are a persistent issue for us.)

Since we believe that the knowledge we produce is a public good, it follows that the payoff of publishing useful evaluation reports is worth it. Interest from the field is evidenced by 750,000 downloads last year from www.wallacefoundation.org, and a highly engaged public discourse about what works, what doesn’t, why, and how – rather than the silence that often greets many internally-focused evaluations.

--Edward Pauly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

--Jen Ford Reedy

No Moat Philanthropy Part 1: Opening Up  
October 2, 2017

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

Reedyjenniferford-croppedThere’s a famous philanthropy quote that defines foundations as “a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.”

There’s truth in this statement, and it can lead foundations to have a fortress mentality — building moats and barricades in the form of needle-eye guidelines or brick wall websites. The stronger our defenses, however, the more difficult it is to be exposed to enough ideas and engage with enough people to be truly effective.

Over the past five years at the Bush Foundation, we have worked actively against this fortress mentality, first by adopting a set of core operating values, that helped to fuel and shape what was to follow. We believe our efforts have made us smarter and more effective. Over the next five days I’ll describe what else we have done, in the form of Five Principles of No Moat Philanthropy:

“Being truly open to the ideas of others has made us smarter and more effective.”

Principle #1: Get excited about other people’s ideas

Five years ago, we operated initiatives focused on three specific goals. This approach posed some challenges, and in our pursuit of these goals, we became our own largest strategic constraint. Planning and executing the work at a pace to consume all of our payout was difficult. It was also difficult to be relevant in all corners of the region and to fund the best ideas without having ways to solicit and consider ideas that were not our own. Basically, we were only as smart as we were smart and only as effective as we were effective.

In the past five years, we have changed both our mindset and our processes to try to find the best possible ideas and to trust and invest in others to do the work. Specifically, we have worked to:

Do less. Enable more. The first thing we did was to ease our grip on controlling our funding. We adopted “do less, enable more” as a mantra to push ourselves to focus as much as possible on getting money out to community organizations. We cut the number of consultants we were directly managing to advance our agenda and redirected those funds to grants. Within one year, we increased the percentage of our payout that goes out in the form of grants from 64% to 75%.

Bush-altlogo-colorBalance the proactive with the responsive. We now invest about half of our grants in strategic initiatives that advance our Foundation priorities and about half in open grantmaking programs that allow us to fund people and communities to advance their own priorities. This balance allows us to use our power to proactively advance goals while also being available to respond to emerging challenges, encourage unexpected bursts of community momentum and support way-out-there new ideas. We believe these are some of the highest-return investments we can make.

Harness the power of open grant programs. We believe that traditional open grantmaking can be every bit as powerful and strategic as ambitious, proactive initiatives if done thoughtfully and well. We now have four standing open grant programs: community innovation grants, the Bush Prize, event sponsorships and ecosystem grants. We also have used one-off open processes four times as we learn about a particular issue or approach. These open programs allow us to engage with lots of organizations on lots of issues across lots of communities, helping us to stay informed and relevant on regional issues. As a learning tool, our one-off grant programs allow us to quickly understand the players and the various approaches in a particular issue area across the entire region we serve. Participating organizations have a better opportunity to showcase their work and compete on a level playing field for funding. Between 2012 and 2016, the amount of our funding that was awarded through some sort of competitive process increased from 8 percent to 72 percent.

Commit to followership. Five years ago, the goals of our initiatives were so specific and our tactics so defined that we were unable to collaborate easily with others. We established “willingness to follow” as a principle within our operating values, and to make this easier, we created a President’s Partnership and Innovation Fund that allows us to contribute to collaborative funder efforts, even when not in our focus areas. Within our focus areas, we now have an explicit principle to be open to “adjacent” investments when there is collaborative energy.

We believe that being truly open to the ideas of others has made us smarter and more effective.  Tomorrow I’ll share what we have done to bring more and different perspectives into our program strategy and our grantmaking.

To be continued... 

--Jen Ford Reedy

 

Trend to Watch: Using SDGs to Improve Foundation Transparency
September 19, 2017

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

Janet Camarena PhotoAs Foundation Center's director of transparency initiatives, one of the most interesting parts of my job is having the opportunity to play "transparency scout," regularly reviewing foundation websites for signs of openness in what is too often a closed universe. Some of this scouting leads to lifting up practices that can be examples for others on our Transparency Talk blog, sometimes it leads to a new transparency indicator on our assessment framework, and sometimes we just file it internally as a "trend to watch. "

Today, it's a combination of all three; we are using this blog post to announce the launch of a new, "Trend to Watch" indicator that signals an emerging practice: the use of the Sustainable Development Goals to improve how foundations open up their work to the world.

Sustainable Development GoalsThe United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. There are a total of 17 goals, such as ending poverty, zero hunger, reduced inequalities, and climate action. Written deliberately broad to serve as a collective playbook that governments and private sector alike can use, they can also serve as a much needed shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress.

And let's face it, as foundation strategies become increasingly specialized and strategic, explaining the objectives and the nuances can become a jargon-laden minefield that can make it difficult and time consuming for those on the outside to fully understand the intended goal of a new program or initiative. The simplicity of the SDG iconography cuts through the jargon so foundation website visitors can quickly identify alignment with the goals or not, and then more easily determine whether they should devote time to reading further. The SDG framework also provides a clear visual framework to display grants and outcomes data in a way that is meaningful beyond the four walls of the foundation.

Let's take a look at how some foundation websites are using the SDGs to more clearly explain their work:

Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF)

One of my favorite examples is from a simple chart the Silicon Valley Community Foundation shared on its blog, because it specifically opens up the work of its donor-advised funds using the SDGs. Donor-advised funds are typically not the most transparent vehicles, so using the SDGs as a framework to tally how SVCF's donor-advised funds are making an impact is particularly clever, refreshing, and offers a new window into a fast-growth area of philanthropy.

A quick glance at the chart reveals that quality education, good health and well-being, and sustainable cities and communities are the most common priorities among Silicon Valley donors.

GHR Foundation

A good example of how the SDGs can be used as a shared language to explain the intended impact of a grant portfolio is from GHR Foundation in Minnesota. I also like this example because it shows how the SDGs can be effectively used in both global and domestic grant portfolios. GHR uses the SDG iconography across all of its portfolios, as sidebars on the pages that describe foundation strategies. GHR's "Children in Families" is a core foundation grantmaking strategy that addresses children and families in need on a global scale. The portfolio name is a broad one, but by including the SDG iconography, web visitors can quickly understand that GHR is using this program area to address poverty, hunger, as well as lead to outcomes tied to health and well-being:

GHR is also able to use the SDG framework to create similar understanding of its domestic work. Below is an example from its Catholic Schools program serving the Twin Cities:

Through the visual cues the icons provide, I can quickly determine that in addition to aligning with the quality education goal, that this part of GHR's portfolio also addresses hunger and economically disadvantaged populations through its education grantmaking. This could also signal that the grantmaker interprets education broadly and supports the provision of wrap-around services to address the needs of low-income children as a holistic way of addressing the achievement gap. That's a lot of information conveyed with three small icons!

Tableau Foundation

The most sophisticated example comes to us from the tech and corporate grantmaking worlds--the Tableau Foundation. Tableau makes data visualization software, so using technology as a means to improve transparency is a core approach, and they are using their own grantmaking as an example of how you can use data to tell a compelling visual story. Through the interactive "Living Annual Report" on its website, Tableau regularly updates its grantmaking tallies and grantee data so web visitors have near real-time information. One of the tabs on the report reveals the SDG indicators, providing a quick snapshot of how Tableau's grantmaking, software donations, and corporate volunteering align with the SDGs.

As you mouse over any bar on the left, near real-time data appears, tallying how much of Tableau's funding has gone to support each goal. The interactive bar chart on the right lists Tableau's grantees, and visitors can quickly see the grantee list in the context of the SDGs as well as know the specific scale of its grantmaking to each recipient.

If you're inspired by these examples, but aren't sure how to begin connecting your portfolio to the Global Goals, you can use the SDG Indicator Wizard to help you get started. All you need to do is copy and paste your program descriptions or the descriptive language of a sample grant into the Wizard and its machine-learning tools let you know where your grantmaking lands on the SDG matrix. It's a lot of fun – and great place to start learning about the SDGs. And, because it transforms your program language into the relevant SDG goals, indicator, and targets, it may just provide a shortcut to that new strategy you were thinking of developing!

What more examples? The good news is we're also tracking SDGs as a transparency indicator at "Who Has Glasspockets?" You can view them all here. Is your foundation using the SDGs to help tell the story of your work? We're always on the lookout for new examples, so let us know and your foundation can be the next trend setter in our new Trend to Watch.

-- Janet Camarena

The Power of Narrative: Philanthropy and Storytelling
August 31, 2017

Nicole Richards is Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia

Nicole Richards photoWhen it comes to storytelling, philanthropy generally gets a failing grade.

It’s not that we’re short on great stories—they’re everywhere. We hear, see and experience them every day in our work to catalyse positive social change. The story opportunities in philanthropy flow as bountifully as the chocolate river in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

But who has the time to capture them so that they become more than just a feel-good anecdote? Who has the capacity to tell them in a way that might influence others to act? Most of us are too busy with the business of grantmaking and measuring impact to share more than the occasional story at a board meeting or conference. Thousands of stories slip away.

Willy Wonka & RiverThat’s to our detriment. Humans are hard-wired for storytelling—stories are what connect us.

Three months ago, I stepped into the newly created role of Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia, the national industry association for giving in Australia. The position, which is directly aligned with the organization’s strategic plan, has been backed for three years by five local funders who believe in the power and potential of storytelling to grow giving in this country.

The stories I tell span the spectrum of philanthropy, with a view to increasing transparency for a diverse cast of philanthropic actors. From collective giving groups and newly established private ancillary funds to the country’s oldest philanthropic foundations—the stories and the protagonists are distinct but the intent is the same: to make a difference.

Some of those are human interest stories that profile funders and their giving journeys case studies that showcase good practices, and opinion-style narratives designed to challenge the status quo.

From what we’ve seen, the appetite for these stories is boundless—philanthropists of all sizes and persuasions love learning from the collective experience of their peers. Telling these stories, or better yet, passing the mic so that the stories can be recounted firsthand by the funders, their nonprofit partners and the communities they serve, is a powerful form of knowledge sharing, of connecting people with new ideas and networks.

While it’s easy enough to find  and package the stories for ready consumption by those already practicing philanthropy, the bigger challenge is to send the stories beyond the echo chamber and put them before would-be philanthropists and aspiring social change makers. 

That’s as much about opening up philanthropy to demystify it for the uninitiated as it is about sharing stories of philanthropic impact for other philanthropy insiders. Philanthropy is too often viewed as the closed-door, exclusive domain of the ultra-wealthy. As agents of philanthropy, we have a responsibility to bust that myth and lift the veil.

Not all the stories we choose to tell should gleam like candy—the authenticity of the story is critical to its impact. We need more cautionary tales such as stories of failure, of missteps and strategies that went awry. By sharing the stories that aren’t sugar-coated, we make philanthropy less opaque, more accessible and ultimately more effective. By making storytelling a part of our process, we begin to normalize a culture of openness.

While crooning about pure imagination beside his chocolate river, Willie Wonka intoned: “Want to change the world…there’s nothing to it.”

We know he’s wrong on that front, but his golden ticket giveaway of the chocolate factory was a great story.

There’s a story behind every act of giving. For the sake of more and better philanthropy, it’s time we took those stories beyond the chocolate factory gates.

--Nicole Richards

 

How to Make Grantee Reports #OpenForGood
July 20, 2017

Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen joined the [Archibald] Bush Foundation in 2011, where they created and now direct the Foundation's Community Innovation programs. The programs allow communities to develop and test new solutions to community challenges, using approaches that are collaborative and inclusive of people who are most directly affected by the problem. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Ellertonmandy20152
Mandy Ellerton

When we started working at the Bush Foundation in 2011, we encountered a machine we’d never seen before: the Lektriever. It’s a giant machine that moves files around, kind of like a dry cleaner’s clothes rack, and allows you to seriously pack in the paper. As a responsible grantmaker, it’s how the Bush Foundation had meticulously tracked and stored its files for posterity - in particular, grantee reports - for decades.

In 2013, the Bush Foundation had the privilege of moving to a new office. Mere days before we were to move into the new space, we got a frantic call from the new building’s management. It turned out that the Lektrievers (we actually had multiple giant filing machines!) were too heavy for the floor of the new building, which had to be reinforced with a number of steel plates to sustain their weight.

MMG 2015 Headshot1
Molly Matheson Gruen

The Lektrievers symbolized our opportunity to become more transparent and move beyond simply preserving our records, instead seeing them as relevant learning tools for current audiences. It was time to lighten the load and share this valuable information with the world.

Even with all this extra engineering, we would still have to say goodbye to one of the machines altogether for the entire system to be structurally sound. We had decades of grantee stories, experiences and learning trapped in a huge machine in the inner sanctum of our office, up on the 25th floor. 

Learning Logs Emerge

We developed our grantee learning log concept in the Community Innovation Programs as one way to increase the Foundation’s transparency. At the heart of it, our learning logs are a very simple concept: they are grantee reports, shared online. But, like many things that appear simple, once you pull on the string of change – the complexity reveals itself.

“Every Community Innovation project is an opportunity for others to learn and the learning logs are a platform to share this learning.”

Before we could save the reports from a life of oblivion in the Lektriever, build out the technology and slap the reports online, we needed to entirely rethink our approach to grantee reporting to create a process that was more mutually beneficial. First, we streamlined our grant accountability measures (assessing whether the grantees did what they said they’d do) by structuring them into a conversation with grantees, rather than as a part of the written reports. We’ve found that conducting these assessments in a conversation takes the pressure off and creates a space where grantees can be more candid, leading to increased trust and a stronger partnership.

Second, our grantee reports now focus on what grantees are learning in their grant-funded project. What’s working? What’s not? What would you do differently if you had it to do all over again? This new process resulted in reports that were more concise and to the point.

Finally, we redesigned our website to create a searchable mechanism for sharing these reports online. This involved linking our grant management system directly with our website so that when a grantee submits a report, we do a quick review and then the report automatically populates our website. We’ve also designed a way for grantees to be able to designate select answers as private when they want to share sensitive information with us, yet not make it entirely public. We leave it up grantee discretion and those selected answers do not appear on the website. Grantees designate their answers to be private for a number of reasons, most often because they discuss sensitive situations having to do with specific people or partners – like when someone drops out of the project or when a disagreement with a partner holds up progress. And while we’ve been pleased at the candor of most of our grantees, some are still understandably reluctant to be publicly candid about failures or mistakes.

But why does this new approach to grantee reporting matter, besides making sure the floor doesn’t collapse beneath our Lektrievers?

Bushfoundation-Lektriever photo
The Lektriever is a giant machine that moves files around, kind of like a dry cleaner’s clothes rack. The Bush Foundation had meticulously tracked and stored its files for posterity - in particular, grantee reports - for decades. Credit: Bush Foundation

Learning Sees the Light of Day

Learning logs help bring grantee learning into the light of day, instead of hiding in the Lektrievers, so that more people can learn about what it really takes to solve problems. Our Community Innovation programs at the Bush Foundation fund and reward the process of innovation–the process of solving problems. Our grantees are addressing wildly different issues: from water quality to historical trauma, from economic development to prison reform. But, when you talk to our grantees, you see that they actually have a lot in common and a lot to learn from one another about effective problem-solving. And beyond our grantee pool, there are countless other organizations that want to engage their communities and work collaboratively to solve problems.  Every Community Innovation project is an opportunity for others to learn and the learning logs are a platform to share this learning, making it #OpenForGood.

We also want to honor our grantees’ time. Grantees spend a lot of time preparing grant reports for funders. And, in a best case scenario, a program officer reads the report and sends the grantee a response of some kind before the report is filed away. But, let’s be honest – sometimes even that doesn’t happen. The report process can be a burden on nonprofits and the only party to benefit is the funder. We hope that the learning logs help affirm to our grantees that they’re part of something bigger than themselves - that what they share matters to others who are doing similar work.

We also hear from our grantees that the reports provide a helpful, reflective process, especially when they fill it out together with collaborating partners. One grantee even said she’d like to fill out the report more often than we require to have regular reflection moments with her team!

Learning from the Learning Logs

We only launched the learning logs last year, but we’ve already received some positive feedback. We’ve heard from both funded and non-funded organizations that the learning logs provide inspiration and practical advice so that they can pursue similar projects. A grantee recently shared a current challenge in their work. It directly connected to some work we knew another grantee had done and had written about in their learning log. So, since this knowledge was now out in the open, we were able to direct them to the learning log as a way to expand our grantee’s impact, even beyond their local community, and use it to help advance another grantee’s work.

Take, for example, some of the following quotes from some of our grantee reports:

  • The Minnesot Brain Injury Alliance's project worked on finding ways to better serve homeless people with brain injuries.  They reflected that, "Taking the opportunity for reflection at various points in the process was very important in working toward innovation.  Without reflection, we might not have been open to revising our plan and implementing new possibilities."
  • GROW South Dakota addressed a number of challenges facing rural South Dakota communities. They shared that, “Getting to conversations that matter requires careful preparation in terms of finding good questions and setting good ground rules for how the conversations will take place—making sure all voices are heard, and that people are listening for understanding and not involved in a debate.”
  •  The People's Press Project engaged communities of color and disenfranchised communities to create a non-commercial, community-owned, low-powered radio station serving the Fargo-Moorhead area of North Dakota. They learned “quickly that simply inviting community members to a meeting or a training was not a type of outreach that was effective.”

Like many foundations, we decline far more applications than what we fund, and our limited funding can only help communities tackle so many problems. Our learning logs are one way to try and squeeze out more impact from those direct investments. By reading grantee learning logs, hopefully more people will be inspired to effectively solve problems in their communities.

We’re not planning to get rid of the Lektrievers anytime soon – they’re pretty retro cool and efficient. They contain important historical records and are incredibly useful for other kinds of record keeping, beyond grantee documentation. Plus, the floor hasn’t fallen in yet. But, as Bush Foundation Communications Director Dominick Washington put it, now we’re unleashing the knowledge, “getting it out of those cabinets, and to people who can use it.”

--Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen

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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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