Transparency Talk

Category: "Effectiveness" (77 posts)

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.

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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.

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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

What Will You #OpenForGood?
July 13, 2017

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

Janet Camarena Photo

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

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

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A Short History

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

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

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

Working Collectively Smarter

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

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

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

Calls to Action

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

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

Share Your Photos

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

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

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

What will you #OpenForGood?

--Janet Camarena

Bringing Knowledge Full Circle: Giving Circles Shape Accessible and Meaningful Philanthropy
June 21, 2017

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is a Lecturer in Business Strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Founder and President of the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation, Founder and Board Chairman of Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series done 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. View more posts in the series.

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen PhotoNathalie Morton, a resident of Katy, TX, was passionate about giving back to her suburban Houston community. However, she felt her lack of philanthropic experience might hinder her effectiveness. 

After initial conversations with her friends and neighbors, she discovered that they shared her desire to give locally and, like herself, lacked the financial ability to make the large contributions that they associated with high-impact philanthropy. After initial online research, Nathalie learned that a giving circle is a collaborative form of giving that allows individuals to pool their resources, knowledge and ideas to develop their philanthropic strategy and scale their impact. Nathalie then discovered the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation’s (LAAF.org) Giving Circles Fund (GCF) initiative, an innovative online platform that provides an accessible and empowering experience for a diverse group of philanthropists to practice, grow and scale their philanthropy by giving collaboratively.

“Philanthropists have an imperative to share the research and rationale behind their philanthropic decisions for the greater good.”

With LAAF support, Nathalie was inspired to create the Cinco Ranch Giving Circle to pool her community members’ resources for the greater good. In its first year, this circle of over 30 families has come together to invest thousands of dollars in local nonprofits — all through donations as modest as $10 per month. Every member found that sharing time, values, wisdom and dollars not only deepened their relationships with one another but also that the measurable impact they could have together far exceeded that which they could achieve alone. This experience empowered Nathalie and her fellow giving circle participants to see themselves as philanthropists and develop their practice in a collaborative environment.

Nathalie’s story is just one of myriad ways that the giving circles model has made strategic philanthropy more accessible. Two years ago, I wrote a post on this same blog about how funders should have not only glass pockets but also “glass skulls,” underscoring that philanthropists have an imperative to share the research and rationale behind their philanthropic decisions for the greater good of all who are connected to the issue.  Or put another way, giving circles can help donors of all sizes become #OpenForGood. GCF allows philanthropists, like Nathalie, to do just that — by empowering givers at any level to make their thinking and decisions about social impact more open and collaborative.

LAAF logoA lack of financial, intellectual and evaluation resources are barriers to entry for many people who want to give in a way that matters more. That’s why I’ve committed the past two decades to not only redefining philanthropy — I believe that anyone, regardless of age, background or experience, can be a strategic philanthropist — but also to providing highest quality, free educational resources (MOOCs, teaching materials, case studies, giving guides) to empower anyone to make the most of whatever it is they have to give. Although most GCF individual monthly contributions are in the double digits, the impact of our giving circles is increasingly significant — our circles have given over $550,000 in general operating support grants to nonprofits nationally. By design, giving circles amplify individual giving by providing built-in mechanisms for more strategic philanthropy, including increasing

  • Transparency: Giving circles are effective because they are radically transparent about their operations, selection processes, meeting etiquette, voting rules, etc. We have found that giving circles grow and flourish when members understand exactly how the circle works and their role in its success. In addition, all of our circles publish their grants on their GCF pages, so that current and prospective members have insight into each circle’s history, portfolio and impact.
  • Democracy: GCF giving circles have a flat structure, in which everyone has an equal vote — regardless of their respective donations’ size. With LAAF support and a comprehensive portfolio of resources, group leaders facilitate meetings — ranging from casual meetups to knowledge sharing and issue ecosystem mapping gatherings to nonprofit nomination and voting sessions. Even in multigenerational giving circles where members are able to give at different levels, all of their members’ voices, perspectives and opinions hold equal weight.
  • Accessibility: Giving circles require a lower level of financial capital than other philanthropic models. A 2014 study has shown a higher rate of participation in giving circles for Millennials, women and communities of color — reflecting the spectacular pluralism that makes philanthropy beautiful. [1] On our GCF platform, we host multiple college and high school circles that have started teaching their members to carve out philanthropic dollars even on a minimal budget. Additionally, most of our circles are open to the public, and anyone can join and actively participate (yes, that includes you!).
  • Risk-tolerance: With more diverse participants and lower amounts of capital, GCF giving circles are more likely to give to community-based or smaller organizations that typically struggle to secure capital from more established philanthropies, thus meeting a critical social capital market need.

The power of collectively-pooling ideas, experiences and resources, as well as sharing decision-making, inspired me to found Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2) in 1998. What began as a small, local giving circle has grown into the second largest venture philanthropy partnership in the world. More importantly, its experiential education model — grounded in the principles listed above — has influenced the philanthropic practice of hundreds of now highly strategic philanthropists who respectively have invested hundreds of millions of dollars globally.  To this day, being a partner-member of the SV2 giving circle continues to inform how I give and evolve my own philanthropic impact.  Now, powered by the GCF platform, technology gives all of us the ability to scale our own giving by partnering with like-minded givers locally, nationally and globally so we can all move toward an #OpenForGood ideal. The mobilization of givers of all levels harnesses the power of the collective and demonstrates that the sum of even the smallest contributions can lead to deeply meaningful social change.

--Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen

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[1] https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Giving-Circles-Popular-With/150525

Why Evaluations Are Worth Reading – or Not
June 14, 2017

Rebekah Levin is the Director of Evaluation and Learning for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, guiding the Foundation in evaluating the impact of its philanthropic giving and its involvement in community issues. She is working both with the Foundation’s grantmaking programs, and also with the parks, gardens, and museums at Cantigny Park. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series done 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. View more posts in the series.

Rebekah Levin photoTruth in lending statement:  I am an evaluator.  I believe strongly in the power of excellent evaluations to inform, guide, support and assess programs, strategies, initiatives, organizations and movements.  I have directed programs that were redesigned to increase their effectiveness, their cultural appropriateness and their impact based on evaluation data, helped to design and implement evaluation initiatives here at the foundation that changed the way that we understand and do our work, and have worked with many foundation colleagues and nonprofits to find ways to make evaluation serve their needs for understanding and improvement. 

“I believe strongly in the power of excellent evaluations."

One of the strongest examples that I’ve seen of excellent evaluation within philanthropy came with a child abuse prevention and treatment project.  Our foundation funded almost 30 organizations that were using 37 tools to measure treatment impact of treatment, many of which were culturally inappropriate, designed for initial screenings, or inappropriate for a host of other reasons, and staff from these organizations running similar programs had conflicting views about the tools.  Foundation program staff wanted to be able to compare program outcomes using uniform evaluation tools and to use that data to make funding, policy, and program recommendations, but they were at a loss as to how to do so in a way that honored the grantees’ knowledge and experience.   A new evaluation initiative was funded, combining the development of a "community of practice" for the nonprofits and foundation together to:

  • create a unified set of reporting tools;
  • learn together from the data about how to improve program design and implementation, and the systematic use of data to support staff/program effectiveness;
  • develop a new rubric which the foundation would use to assess programs and proposals; and
  • provide evaluation coaching for all organizations participating in the initiative.

The evaluation initiative was so successful that the nonprofits participating decided to continue their work together beyond the initial scope of the project to improve their own programs and better support the children and families that they are serving. This “Unified Project Outcomes” article describes the project and established processes in far greater detail.

But I have also seen and been a part of evaluations where:

  • the methodology was flawed or weak;
  • the input data were inaccurate and full of gaps;
  • there was limited understanding of the context of the organization;
  • there was no input from relevant participants; and
  • there was no thought to the use of the data/analysis;

so that little to no value came out of them, and the learning that took place as a result was equally inconsequential.

Mccormick-foundation-logo_2xSo now to those evaluation reports that often come at the end of a project or foundation initiative, and sometimes have interim and smaller versions throughout their life span.  Except to a program officer who has to report to their director about how a contract or foundation strategy was implemented, the changes from the plan that occurred, and the value or impact of an investment or initiative, should anyone bother reading them?  From my perch, the answer is a big “Maybe.”  What does it take for an evaluation report to be worth my time to read, given the stack of other things sitting here on my desk that I am trying to carve out time to read?  A lot.

  1. It has to be an evaluation and not a PR piece. Too often, "evaluation" reports provide a cleaned up version of what really occurred in a program, with none of the information about how and why an initiative or organization functioned as it did, and the data all point to its success.  This is not to say that initiatives/organizations can’t be successful.  But no project or organization works perfectly, and if I don’t see critical concerns/problems/caveats identified, my guess is that I’m not getting the whole story, and its value to me drops precipitously.
  2. It has to provide relevant context. To read an evaluation of a multi-organizational collaboration in Illinois without placing its fiscal challenges within the context of our state’s ongoing budget crisis, or to read about a university-sponsored community-based educational program without knowing the long history of mistrust between the school and the community, or any other of the relevant and critical contextual pieces that are effect a program, initiative or organization makes that evaluation of little value.  Placed within a nuanced set of circumstances significantly improves the possibility that the knowledge is transferable to other settings.
  3. It has to be clear and as detailed as possible about the populations that it is serving. Too often, I read evaluations that leave out critical information about who they were targeting and who participated or was served. 
  4. The evaluation’s methodology must be described with sufficient detail so that I have confidence that it used an appropriate and skillful approach to its design and implementation as well as the analysis of the data. I also pay great attention to what extent those who were the focus of the evaluation participated in the evaluation’s design, the questions being addressed, the methodology being used, and the analysis of the data.
  5. And finally, in order to get read, the evaluation has to be something I know exists, or something I can easily find. If it exists in a repository like IssueLab, my chances of finding it increase significantly.  After all, even if it’s good, it is even better if it is #OpenForGood for others, like me, to learn from it.

When these conditions are met, the answer to the question, “Are evaluations worth reading?” is an unequivocal “YES!,” if you value learning from others’ experiences and using that knowledge to inform and guide your own work.

--Rebekah Levin

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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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