Transparency Talk

Category: "Ethics" (9 posts)

A Brief Analysis of the Clinton and Trump Foundations
September 13, 2016

(Jacob Harold is GuideStar president and CEO.  He has written extensively on climate change and philanthropic strategy; his essays have been used as course materials at Stanford, Duke, Wharton, Harvard, Oxford, and Tsinghua. This post first ran on the GuideStar blog.)

Nonprofits are a cornerstone of American democracy. They reflect the political diversity of the American people. That diversity is well illustrated by two institutions currently in the news: the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the Donald J. Trump Foundation.

GuideStar takes no position on elections and we will not comment on Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as candidates for the presidency. We have, however, been repeatedly asked about the Trump and Clinton Foundations. Accordingly, we would like to offer a few notes of analysis on their structure, size, strategy, and transparency practices.

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Structure

Let us begin with a comparison of the basic facts. The Trump Foundation is legally categorized as a “private non-operating foundation” whereas the Clinton Foundation is a “public charity.” In simple terms that means the Trump Foundation is meant primarily as a vehicle for distributing grants from the Trump family fortune—although it also accepts funding from other donors. The Clinton Foundation is meant primarily as a vehicle for directly operating programs for the social good—while also making some grants to other organizations. 

Despite these differences, both organizations are, in a (non-legal) sense, “celebrity foundations.” They are seeded by money donated by their founders and also serve as a vehicle for members of the public to demonstrate their support of a prominent person. At their worst, celebrity foundations are vanity projects with negligible impact. At their best, such organizations channel fragmented resources and yield extraordinary impact for society. For example, the Michael J. Fox Foundation is known as one of the most sophisticated players in the fight against Parkinson’s Disease.  

Both the Trump Foundation and the Clinton Foundation are filed under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code, meaning they legally cannot engage in electoral activity. In general, they appear to have followed this requirement. There is at least one exception, though. The Trump Foundation made one donation to a political action committee associated with Florida Attorney General Bondi. It is not legal for a foundation to make a donation to a PAC; the Trump Foundation has paid a $2,500 IRS fine for this infraction. The the Trump Foundation characterized this as a clerical error although others have described it as a case of "pay-to-play politics." At the very least, this incident indicates insufficient controls and lax managerial oversight.      

Size

One thing is indisputable: the Clinton Foundation is far larger than the Trump Foundation. The latest comparable data from December 31st, 2014 shows the Clinton Foundation with assets of $354 million, compared with the Trump Foundation’s $1 million. The Clinton Foundation had total expenses of $91,281,145, versus $596,450 for the Trump Foundation. The Clinton Foundation had 486 staff compared to zero staff at the Trump Foundation.  

The Clinton family’s tax returns suggest that the majority of its charitable giving has been through the Clinton Foundation. Without access to Mr. Trump’s tax forms it is difficult to know the scale of his charitable activities outside the Trump Foundation. But it does appear that the dollars have not matched the pledges. An investigation by the Washington Post has not been able to validate that Trump has actually donated the money he pledged, instead finding, “Trump promised millions to charity. We found less than $10,000 over 7 years.” In addition, the last donation to the Trump Foundation by any of its trustees—family or otherwise—was in 2008. Indeed, David Farhenthold of the Post has suggested that the Trump Foundation has transformed over the last decade from "standard-issue rich person’s philanthropy into a charity that allowed a rich man to be philanthropic for free."

All told, the data at hand would suggest that the Clinton family has—at least over the last several years—donated more money (and at a far higher proportion of their wealth) than the Trump family.

Similarly, it appears clear that the Clintons have out-raised Trump. The Clintons’ fundraising for their foundation is one aspect of a broader fundraising portfolio totaling $3 billion over the last four decades. This is a remarkable number but they are not alone operating at this level: the Bush family raised $2.4 billion over a similar period. Trump has certainly helped raise money for both charitable and electoral efforts, but the total is undoubtedly less than the Clintons’. 

Fundraising at this scale takes place in a rarefied social circle. Each of these families—the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Trumps—must navigate a tangle of relationships with wealthy individuals. These relationships have caused some to claim that fundraising for the Clinton Foundation compromised Clinton’s role as Secretary of State. There appears, though, to be little evidence to support this claim. The Clinton Foundation signed an MOU in 2008 clarifying that Hillary Clinton would not have a role with the Foundation during her tenure at the State Department. And, indeed, funding for the Clinton Foundation decreased significantly during that period (2009-2013). A fair argument can be made that the Clinton Foundation should have been more aggressive in dealing with the perception of potential conflict. To its credit, the Foundation now proactively shares its key legal and audit documentation and has built a tool on its website to provide an additional layer of transparency about its donors (including both Donald and Ivanka Trump). 

Transparency and Strategy

Transparency is not a guarantee of effectiveness—but, in general, we believe that transparency is correlated with excellence in nonprofits. Transparency indicates an openness to questions and accountability. And, importantly, the act of transparency can force an organization to be clear about its goals and strategy.

Most nonprofits—including the Trump and Clinton Foundations—are required by law to file a regulatory document with the IRS, the Form 990. The 990 provides important baseline information but does not give a full view of the nuances of nonprofit work. Accordingly, GuideStar invites nonprofits and foundations to share additional data. Approximately 128,000 have done so. Some 34,997 organizations have provided enough to get one of GuideStar’s four “transparency seals”; of those, 1,061 have earned the highest level, Platinum. The Clinton Foundation is one of them. The Trump Foundation has provided no additional information and so has not earned a transparency seal. 

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As a part of achieving a Platinum seal, the Clinton Foundation has provided a set of quantitative metrics about its programs. For example, one metric, “number of farmers benefitting from access to improved agricultural practices, increased yields, and enhanced market access,” rose from 66,124 in 2014 to 114,825 in 2015. Another, the “number of girls and women provided access to job skills training and livelihood support,” rose from 35,587 in 2014 to 48,696 in 2015. The fact that the Clinton Foundation provides such metrics makes it far easier for donors and citizens to meaningfully analyze the institution’s value to society.

The Trump Foundation provides no such metrics. Any analysis must therefore be based on the content of publicly available tax forms. These forms appear to indicate an unfocused generosity. For example, the below sample from the Trump Foundation's 2014 tax return includes grants to the Orthopaedic Foundation, the Palm Beach Opera, the Police Athletic League, Protect our Winters, and the Ronald McDonald House of New York. There is nothing inherently wrong with sprinkling many small grants in unrelated areas. But the Trump Foundation’s approach would certainly not meet the standard of focused, proactive grantmaking commonly called “strategic philanthropy.” 

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Conclusion

Both the Clinton and Trump Foundations have been the subject of controversy while seeking to contribute to social good. They are undoubtedly different from each other in size, structure, and openness. Indeed, the two organizations reflect the perceived styles of the two candidates: one systematized, the other improvisational. Donors regularly decide which approach they prefer for their giving. Later this year voters will decide which approach they prefer for their leadership.

--Jacob Harold

Why the Olympics and Other Major Sporting Events Usually Increase Inequality in the Host City
August 16, 2016

(Stefan Norgaard is Stanford University Tom Ford Fellow in Philanthropy at Ford Foundation. This post first ran in Ford Foundation’s Equals Change blog.)

Stefannorgaard_linkedinAll eyes are on Rio de Janeiro as it hosts the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. While everyone watches and roots for the athletes from their countries to win gold, few will realize that the ones really losing out are residents of Rio from low-income and working class communities.

This is because the development model for major international sporting events—like the Olympics and the World Cup as well as countless national sporting leagues like the NFL—rarely benefits all residents of the cities where the games are held. For example, even though the city of Rio promoted the Olympics to residents by arguing that hosting the games would increase tourism and lead to major urban infrastructure improvements, the likely result will be billons in losses.

In fact, thousands of low-income Brazilians have already been displaced in order to build infrastructure for the games that will largely only benefit wealthy communities. In addition, several contracting companies for the Olympics now face corruption allegations. What was seen as an opportunity to democratize development in Rio has instead become an opportunity for city officials to justify actions that would otherwise never be tolerated—like human rights abuses, forced evictions, and hiding poor people and neighborhoods away from view.

Olympic Rio Police Salary Protest

Sporting Events and Inequality

These challenges are not unique to Rio or the Olympics. During the preparations for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA—the governing body for international soccer—discouraged local authorities from upgrading an existing soccer stadium in a working-class neighborhood of Cape Town. The local government had wanted to modernize this stadium and invest in infrastructure in its surrounding neighborhood because it would help reduce inequality in the city. Instead, FIFA forcibly urged and got local authorities to agree to build a new World Cup stadium in a wealthier section of the city.

“The Olympics in Rio...human rights abuses, forced evictions, and hiding poor people and neighborhoods away from view.”

In Cleveland, owners of the Quicken Loans Arena—home of the NBA’s Cavaliers—requested a 50/50 public-private funding split for the arena’s construction amid critical financing concerns for the healthcare system, justice system, and other government agencies in the country surrounding Cleveland.

And across the United States, the Federal Communications Commission’s “Nixon Rule” allows NFL franchise owners to black out games from being locally televised if high-priced tickets do not sell out even though the stadiums where these football games are played are often built with taxpayer money. As a result, it can sometimes be nearly impossible for city residents to watch their home teams play in person or on TV.

Public spending for large sporting events is often justified through an economic development model that says investing in the infrastructure, marketing, and preparations for these events will benefit everyone. But time and time again, we see that with large sporting events, only a select few—usually wealthier and more privileged members of the community—benefit at the expense of everyone else.

An Equitable Development Model for Sporting Events

Cities and communities do not have to displace their working class residents to build sports stadiums and venues. They don’t have to funnel public funding away from public goods or only build infrastructure in wealthy areas in the name of economic development. Instead, cities can adopt an equitable development model for urban planning, which ensures that all city residents have a chance to benefit from major sporting events.

Olympic Rio ProtestWhat would such an approach look like? For starters, there should be a push for the Olympics and other major sporting event bids to more centrally take into consideration the impact of these events on low-income communities and the general public. These international bodies should allow and empower civil society groups to comment on Olympic development plans at an early stage.

It is important to note that major sporting event planning and the Olympic bidding process often start years before construction even occurs. So in theory there should be plenty of opportunities to engage with civil society and broader communities on proposed development plans. However, the Olympics has a compressed and frenzied bidding process that prevents broad citizen involvement and long-term planning. And once a bid is awarded to a host city, planners rarely want any input that would derail their already-approved plans.

While the Olympic host cities have generally not had a strong track record of creating long-term social and economic benefits for everyone, there are some instances where host cities have intended to do good for the broader community. For example, the 2012 London Olympic Games included a proposal to turn the Olympic Village into 6,000 units of affordable housing. Unfortunately, development for the games also led to widespread evictions. Urban regeneration schemes for Canary Wharf and elsewhere in East London—where the games were mostly centered—have led to intense gentrification post-Olympics. And while the London Olympic Planning Committee had good intentions, the results have been quite uneven.

In hosting the 1992 Olympic Games, the city of Barcelona leveraged the opportunity to develop a comprehensive urban renewal plan that helped create new jobs and transform the city’s deteriorating infrastructure by building a new airport and telecommunications network and improving the sewage system.

Philanthropy’s Role in Promoting Equitable Development

What can philanthropy do to ensure to equitable development models for major large sporting events and arenas benefit everyone? Here are some possible courses of action:

  • Lift up untold stories of injustice. For example, Ford’s investigative journalism grantees, such as Agencia Publica, are working to find cases of injustice related to the Rio Olympics and tell them to a broader public. They recently launched a project on the recent militarization of the Rio police in advance of the games.
  • Convene organizations and make civil society connections. What is happening in Brazil is far from unique and philanthropy can connect grassroots and civil society organizations in Rio with organizations in Cape Town, Athens, Qatar, the United States, and elsewhere. Groups can share common stories, brainstorm potential solutions, and consider new global development models for the Olympics, World Cup, other major sporting events, and domestic sporting leagues. 
  • Build community capacity to engage in urban development policies and debates. Community organizations such as the Observatório de Favelas in Brazil and the Sports Fan Coalition in the United States need critical capacity to build local power and to counter prevailing assertions that major sporting events always leave lasting social and economic benefits for everyone. The Ford Foundation’s commitment to building institutions and networks seeks to support and grow social justice institutions—which often outlive any one battle or campaign—to do just this.

Major sporting events can ignite a city’s spirit and civic capacity, can lead to a sense of citywide pride, and can certainly help to increase tourism and economic stimulus. But major sporting events and projects only benefit everyone when they are deliberately designed to do so. If we change the approach to development, large sporting events like the Olympics can reduce, rather than drive, inequality.

--Stefan Norgaard

2016 Olympic Games: What Rio Doesn’t Want the World to See
August 9, 2016

(Leticia Osorio is a program officer at Ford Foundation. This post first ran in Ford Foundation’s Equals Change blog.)

Leticia_osorio_0142cWith the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro under way, it is clear the Olympic legacy already falls short of its initial promises to the city.

 Rio is still dealing with inadequate and unfinished infrastructure projects and overinflated costs, on top of the economic and political instability facing Brazil. These unfilled promises mimic the disorganization and corruption from the 2014 World Cup in Rio.

Both games brought promises of meaningful transformations for Rio’s citizens, but instead ended up violating human rights, increasing public debt, and concentrating expensive infrastructure mostly in developed neighborhoods.

Six million people live in the city of Rio de Janeiro, and one in four of them are poor residents living in slums called favelas. In preparing for the World Cup and Olympics, the city government announced a comprehensive development plan that they called the social legacy plan. The favelas have long been starved of investment in public infrastructure, so the prospect of new developments and upgrades was exciting. Instead, the plan only further segregated poor residents.

In Providencia, Rio’s oldest slum, the main project was the construction of a $20 million cable car. While developers promised the cable car would connect residents to jobs, in reality 30 percent of residents were threatened with forced evictions to make way for the project. Not only was the community unaware of the project beforehand, but it also had no input in the draft planning or approval processes.

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 The damaging effects of the Olympics on Rio’s poor residents

Widespread threats of forced removals of citizens from their neighborhoods for development projects related to major sporting events in Rio have been controversial. The Popular Committee on the World Cup and the Olympics— a civil society network comprising social movements, NGOs, research centers and universities— estimates that from 2009 to 2015, 22,059 families were forcibly uprooted from their homes for development projects related to these events.

 Agencia Publica, an investigative journalism outlet and a Ford Foundation grantee, told the stories of 100 evicted families, providing them a voice through one of the largest multimedia investigations related to the Olympics. According to Agencia Publica's co-director Natalia Viana, these firsthand stories provide “concrete evidence of serious human rights violations, of the right to housing, to freedom of movement, to information and even freedom of expression.”

Fifty days before the opening of the Olympics, the governor of Rio declared a state of financial emergency and asked for federal support to avoid a collapse in public security, health, education, transportation, and environmental management.

The cost of the Rio Olympics is estimated to be more than $10 billion and that does not include all of the tax exemptions, public loans, and fiscal incentives that have not been disclosed. The government gave special legal exemptions to developers, allowing them to circumvent planning and urban laws, restrict civil liberties, waive mandatory environmental analyses, ban local and informal businesses, and criminalize public protests.

“ More than 90 percent of the 900 families in the low-income community of Vila Autodromo were forcibly relocated to make way for the Olympic Park.”

The NGO Justiça Global, another Ford partner, produced a video series of four episodes telling how such measures are felt disproportionately by those who are already not well protected, such as those with insecure housing, informal jobs, or already suffering from marginalization and discrimination.

For example, more than 90 percent of the 900 families living in the low-income community of Vila Autodromo were forcibly relocated to make way for the Olympic Park, even though most of them held land concessions titles granted by the state. Although compensation and nearby alternative housing was offered, many families resisted leaving, prompting violent clashes with police. The residents felt they were excluded and disturbed by the games for the capital interests of wealthy developers.

In reaction to the negative impacts related to these infrastructure projects, Rio’s government has responded by blocking access to information and reducing transparency. The organization Article 19, another Ford grantee, put in 39 Freedom of Information requests on the impact of the construction of the Transolimpica bus rapid transit system on the lives of the families whose homes are in the way of the new bus system. But only one was fully answered. It was impossible to find out information on the final route of the bus system, although hundreds of families had already been forcibly displaced.

Additionally, more than 2,500 people killed by the police in Rio since 2009, as reported by Ford grantee Amnesty International. In the month of May alone, 40 people were killed by police officers on duty in the city and 84 across the state. The communities most affected by this violence are those living in slums located around the main access routes to and from the international airport and competition arenas.

Involving communities to ensure shared benefits

While cities agree to host major sporting events based on the premise that the resulting development and legacy will benefit everyone, wealthy developers are usually the ones that get all of the gains at the expense of residents, especially those who are poor and marginalized. So what is happening in Rio is not a new story.

What is new is that communities in Rio are starting to push back. A robust civil society network came together to monitor and collect information on development processes, expenditures, and rights violations. It helped residents speak out against harmful development plans and get compensation for those being displaced. The network submitted reports to international organizations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and various United Nations mechanisms. Communities became the defenders of their own rights, and they sought the assistance of powerful institutions like the Public Defender’s Office and the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, leveraging alternative planning and national and international advocacy.

The alliances established between communities and relevant stakeholders were unfortunately not enough to reconfigure the existing power relationship between the city government and the residents. The laws that were passed to relax tender regulations and urbanistic controls did not ban forced evictions or set procedural safeguards, and there was no broad public debate over the nature of improvements needed.

Governments and public managers still need to learn how a city can stage world events successfully while also respecting the rights of the communities living in the path of infrastructure projects. Participatory development and stricter international regulation is a good place to start. Just like how government and business elites organize and lobby to host these games, we must help communities organize and defend their rights to ensure that they are truly benefitting from the development and investment associated with these games.

-- Leticia Osorio

'Dark Money' Expected to Set 2016 Records
January 18, 2016

(This post first appeared in Philanthropy News Digest.)

The amount of so-called dark money, contributions to nonprofits and other tax-exempt entities that are not required to disclose their donors, backing various presidential campaigns in 2016 is expected to exceed the more than $300 million contributed during the 2012 presidential election cycle, the New York Times reports.

The troubling lack of transparency, the Times notes, is being driven by political advocacy groups that exploit a loophole in the tax code that allows them to avoid disclosing their donors while holding on to their tax-exempt status. Many of those organizations court special interest groups and wealthy donors who crave the influence that political contributions can buy but spurn any public accountability implied by those contributions. For example, almost 20 percent of the television ads touting the positions of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) have been financed by dark money, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, with most of that coming from the nonprofit Conservative Solutions Project.

The biggest dark money spenders in this cycle, however, have been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that operates under the umbrella of the American Crossroads "super" PAC, which was co-founded by longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove. While the Federal Election Committee could force such organizations, with their heavy involvement in political campaigns, to register as political action committees, the commission hasn't shown any inclination to do so. Indeed, with Congress having effectively quashed, in the ominubus spending bill it passed at year-end, near-term efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to regulate these groups until after the 2016 election cycle and the FEC content to sit on the sidelines, the Justice Department is seen as the only federal agency that might attempt to shed some light on their activities.

Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and a longtime advocate of campaign finance reform, has asked the Justice Department to do just that, with an emphasis on political activities associated with Rubio's campaign. "Secret money is the formula for corruption," Wertheimer told the Times. "It's the influence buyer's dream."

Albert R. Hunt. "'Dark' Funds May Bode Ill in 2016 Election." New York Times 01/03/2016

A Case for Better (Self-Imposed) Transparency Standards for Foundations
December 29, 2015

(Rick Cohen is the National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and the editor of NPQ's Cohen Report. Prior to joining NPQ, Rick was executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and vice president of the Enterprise Foundation. A version of this blog appeared in NPQ.)

Editor's Note: As the year draws to a close, it is natural to remember and reflect on those whom we have lost.  Last month, philanthropy lost one of its strongest voices for change with the passing of Rick Cohen. A prolific writer, Cohen was known for encouraging philanthropy to extend its reach to marginalized and underserved communities. Seeing the weaknesses of a closed door culture, Cohen also frequently wrote and spoke about the need for greater foundation transparency and the potential for improving philanthropic practice by increasing stakeholder participation and influence. In honor of Cohen, Transparency Talk is closing out 2015 by revisiting a two-part post Cohen authored for Transparency Talk in 2012 on the case for enhanced foundation transparency, and his recommendations for improved transparency standards.

Photo_74078_landscape_650x433Rather than simply arguing for more or less transparency, a better strategy is to consider the public purposes that might be served by better, proactive standards of disclosure. I suggest the following: 

  1. A better story: Spruill’s charge to the sector is still the ultimate reason, to explain what organized philanthropy is and does, but it is so much more credible when it emerges from the analysis of independent analysts and the public. The glossy annual reports whose cost of writing, design, and printing exceeds many nonprofits’ budgets are not persuasive. They look more and more like corporate advertisements. If philanthropy has a strong story to tell, it should be one that can be told by independent observers examining the data.
  2. Civic engagement: Foundations themselves are relatively unified, regardless of their political leanings, in favor of increased civic engagement, not just in the public arena of government, but in the engagement with communities, in the overall pursuit of community and societal betterment. If foundations are part of a sectoral commitment for advancing the public good, one means is to make more foundation information available, to make citizens and policy makers better “consumers” of foundation products, just as foundations want to help citizens be better consumers and participants in the processes of government and business. 
  3. Foundations in public policy: Increasingly, foundations have been moving into the public policy arena, not simply through their grantmaking, but their direct participation. Foundations partner with government at various levels, notably a recent spate of foundation engagements with the federal government in programs such as the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service and the “Race to the Top” in the Department of Education. In some cities, notably Detroit, where local government has taken a turn toward the dysfunctional, foundations are developing and running programs that in some ways are taking the place of the public sector. As foundations become direct players in the public arena, not simply supporting nonprofits to do so, foundations should be increasing the transparency the public needs about their operations.
  4. Increased accountability: At this time, there is a parallel debate going on about increasing the transparency of government data. Virginia Senator Mark Warner has introduced the DATA Act which would create standardized formats for reporting and publication of government spending data. The Act, as the Sunlight Foundation commented, “could help eliminate much government waste, fraud, and abuse, and make spending oversight much easier.” Better, expanded, standardized data makes oversight easier, it’s that logical.  But so much of the data reported in 990s is not particularly standardized and, when it comes to data on foundation investments, virtually uninterpretable.  That isn’t a reason to drop the data requirement.  It is to improve the reporting and formatting of data so that the public—and oversight agencies—can figure out what it contains. 
  5. Abuse of 501(c) confidentiality:  The nation faces an explosion of organizations—and money—seeking the 501(c) confidentiality for the only purpose of keeping the identities of the players pulling the levers of the political system secret.  Television commentator Dylan Ratigan suggests that “our political system has become an auction in which the highest bidder wins,” but the identities of the bidders are increasingly under wraps.  In other arenas, public agencies such as municipal governments and state universities are creating affiliated nonprofits and foundations with a purpose of reducing or removing a slice of their operations from public scrutiny and oversight.  If this nation is going to pursue greater freedom of information, we will, as Senator Warner suggests, need to have better mechanisms with which to “follow the money.” ( We have to better follow foundation moneys, too. 

Let’s face it that there is no discernible Congressional appetite for playing with the laws and regulations facing foundations right now.  Since foundations are overseen by the Internal Revenue Service—and in some measure by a number of states that have provided at least a semblance of staffing and support for charity oversight functions usually in their AG offices, though state attention only sporadically ever nears private foundations—not much is going to happen. 

If there is more money for the Internal Revenue Service, it is logically going to go to expanding its capacity for dealing with its new responsibilities under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, not for oversight and enforcement activities regarding charities.  In general, there’s no money to be made by the IRS for chasing nonprofits and foundations, and like a sports agent looking for a contract, the IRS wants to be shown the money that it can generate through stepped up enforcement. 

Moreover, the IRS is not generally among the more popular of federal agencies.  The outcry against Maine Governor Paul LePage’s denunciation of the IRS as new Gestapo caused him to apologize to Jews, but not to IRS agents who might have been offended, and few in Congress stepped to the plate to defend the IRS.  Ways and Means Committee hearings into IRS operations have been held,  prompted in part by the complaints of Tea Party groups believing that their applications for 501(c)(4) social welfare status were being subjected to politically motivated IRS reviews. 

--Rick Cohen

Philanthropic Dollars Also Shape Electoral Outcomes: Here’s How…
October 28, 2015

(David Callahan is founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy. Previously, he was a senior fellow at DemosThis is the fifth in a series of 10 posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day, and beyond. This post first ran in PhilanTopic.) 

Callahan Headshot%2c 1With another presidential campaign season under way, we’re again hearing a lot about the mega donors and Super PACs that fuel modern politics. But this isn’t the only stream of money that influences how elections unfold in the U.S.; philanthropic dollars also play a key role, with foundations supporting a range of activities that affect how our democracy functions and what happens at the polls.

Understanding the flow of these grants isn’t just helpful for nonprofits hoping to get a piece of the pie. It’s also super useful for journalists or others keen to see how foundations — which, by law must be nonpartisan — are deploying funds in ways that can sway electoral outcomes.

Let’s take the area of voter education, registration, and turnout as an example. It’s no secret that who turns out to vote, and where, can make a big difference in determining which candidates win on Election Day. If more African Americans turn out in swing states like Florida or North Carolina, for instance, that’s good news for Democrats. If the electorate tilts toward older and white voters, Republicans stand to gain.

Campaigns and Super PACs spend mightily to shape who votes. But what have foundations been doing? Well, Foundation Center’s newly launched Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool offers some answers to that question.

Consider the state of Florida, a fiercely contested battleground in both presidential and off-year elections. Drilling into the data, where grantmaking can be easily segmented by the populations served, we find that five funders have given over a half million dollars in grants in recent years to seven groups that work with “ethnic and racial groups” on voter education, registration, and turnout. For example, the Florida New Majority Education Fund pulled in $200,000 in grant money from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Proteus Fund in 2012 and 2013. Casey has described this group as working to “increase the voting and political power of marginalized and excluded constituencies toward an inclusive, equitable, and just Florida.” Historically, these constituencies have supported Democrats at election time.

Other Florida groups that have received money for voting work, according to the database, include the Farmworker Association of Florida and Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast.

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Moving to another swing state, North Carolina, we find a similar pattern: Nearly a half million dollars in grants have been made in recent years for voting work with racial and ethnic groups. The biggest recipient here was Democracy North Carolina, which has lately been at the forefront of efforts to defend voting rights amid a legislative push in that state to restrict the franchise in ways that research has found tends to reduce turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and young people.

Speaking of efforts to restrict the franchise, it’s important to note that not all grantmakers in the democracy space have sought to make voting more accessible by historically marginalized groups. Some have supported work to require voter identification at the polls and to roll back  measures such as early voting and same-day registration, which advocates have pressed for in many states as a way to expand and diversify the electorate.

In North Carolina, the John William Pope Foundation has long been known for its support of tougher voting rules that it says are needed to protect against voter fraud. What exactly has this entailed? The data shows 61 grants totaling more than $2.4 million by the foundation in North Carolina since 2011 that relate to democracy issues.

The Pope Foundation — controlled by Republican activist Art Pope — has been one of the top funders in the democracy space in recent years in North Carolina. But two other funders have given more: the Triad Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Other big funders of democracy work in the state include the Z. Smith Reynolds and Ford foundations.

There are a lot more examples we could dig into to illustrate how funders are shaping voting work at the state level in ways that can and do affect electoral outcomes. All this grantmaking is officially nonpartisan and perfectly legal, but little of it is actually impartial.

And herein lies an important truth about how money influences America’s democracy. Yes, there is a vast and swollen river of cash flowing into political campaigns. But another, separate tributary of philanthropic money related to elections has also been growing. In fact, Foundation Center reports that funders have made grants totaling nearly $300 million since 2011 specifically for work in support of campaigns, elections, and voting.

That amount is nothing compared to the more than $6 billion that political contributors gave in the 2012 election cycle alone. But it’s still serious money that deserves close scrutiny.

 --David Callahan 

Are Chinese Foundations More Transparent than American Foundations?
September 13, 2012

(Bradford K. Smith is the president of the Foundation Center.)

Brad SmithOn August 29, the China Foundation Center launched its online Foundation Transparency Index a "proactive solution to set a new standard for the ethical conduct of foundations in China." Many people are surprised to learn there are foundations in China, let alone that they might be held to higher standards of transparency than their American counterparts. Could that really be the case?

First of all, there are foundations in China -- more than twenty-seven hundred of them, according to the China Foundation Center. China Foundation Transparency IndexLaunched in 2010, the CFC was created as a public information service at a time when China's economic growth increasing wealth concentration and strained social safety net were catalyzing a surge in the number of new foundations. The vision of its founders is not unlike the vision of John Gardner and others who, in 1956, created the (U.S.) Foundation Center to provide greater transparency to a rapidly expanding foundation sector in this country. In 1956, that meant stuffing the paper records of seven thousand foundations into filing cabinets. Today it means online databases, data visualization, video, social media, and digitized research reports covering some ninety thousand U.S. grantmakers and millions of their grants, research reports, news stories, and tweets. In contrast, the China Foundation Center was born digital and in just two short years has created online databases, interactive graphics, and research reports that take into account every grantmaker in China.

The CFC's Foundation Transparency Index is comprehensive, having already rated close to 70 percent of Chinese foundations.

Second, the CFC's Foundation Transparency Index is an elaborate one, carefully crafted with technical assistance from an advisory group of experts from some of China's leading universities with backgrounds in public policy, "anti-corruption studies," law, and nonprofit studies. The index comprises a checklist of sixty transparency indicators grouped into four categories: basic information, financial information, projects information, and donor information.  An elaborate algorithm produces a weighted composite score, with a maximum score of 129.4. Foundations' positions change in the rankings as their scores are adjusted weekly depending on the information they publicly disclose.  Just to be sure you don't miss the dynamic nature of the rankings, the tables for each foundation show their previous rankings, whether they are moving up or down, and their twelve-week range.  For the 1,831 foundations currently included in the index, only two (this week) get a perfect score of 129.4, while the average for all foundations (this week) is 52.98.

Third, foundations in China are regulated by the Chinese government, making the index a kind of complementary mechanism designed to further enhance voluntary transparency among Chinese foundations. If a foundation chooses not to publicly disclose the information via its own Web site, it will end up with a lower ranking. That is where a crucial difference between the Chinese and American contexts comes into play. In China, the term "foundation" is applied to both "public foundations," which are more like what we would call public charities, and "private foundations," which are akin to private operating foundations in the U.S. The former have every motivation to earn a high score in the Foundation Transparency Index because they solicit and depend on contributions from the public to carry out their work. The latter, though not technically endowed, are established with "registration capital" provided by an individual donor or corporation. Both, however, are concerned about the negative impact of scandal on the sector and know they can benefit from a positive image and general societal appreciation of their role.  Thus, the CFC' s Foundation Transparency Index is part Charity Navigator and part "Who Has Glasspockets?" -- a cross between a rating system and a transparency framework.

Fourth, American foundations, like their Chinese counterparts, are required to comply with government disclosure requirements by filing Form 990 or 990-PF. That information is made publicly available by the Internal Revenue Service in the form of unwieldy image files.  Organizations like the Foundation Center take millions of those forms and make them searchable in their entirety or, cleaned and coded, in tools like Foundation Directory Online. The cleaning and coding compensates for the missing, inconsistent, and limited information often found on those forms, but no one has ever had the temerity to actually score and rate American foundations on the information provided in the forms. Conventional wisdom has always assumed that, as endowed institutions, American foundations would be relatively impervious to any pressure a rating system might generate and, perhaps more importantly, unlikely to provide grants to whoever created and maintained such a system.

So getting back to the question that inspired this post, the answer is "maybe." The CFC's Transparency Index is geared more toward measuring to what degree Chinese foundations are disclosing compliance information, a good portion of which (43 of the 60 indicators) they are supposed to be providing to the government anyway. In addition to other types of information the CFC has deemed conducive to transparency (e.g., social media profiles, bios of board members, the foundation president's resume), a Chinese foundation wishing to attain a higher index score needs to go the extra mile by making the information available on its own Web site.

The Foundation Center's "Who Has Glasspockets?" transparency profile mixes a few compliance elements with governance indicators and features -- things like grants databases, knowledge centers, and performance assessments -- that help to illustrate a foundation's efforts to openly promote deeper understanding of the nature, impact, and quality of its work. At the same time, the FC transparency profile presumes that transparency in the digital age starts with a Web presence, thereby excluding the 74 percent of U.S. foundations that have no Web site at all. Foundations that are online can work voluntarily with Foundation Center staff to develop their individual "Who Has Glasspockets?" profiles. There is no scoring or ranking.

The CFC's Foundation Transparency Index is comprehensive, having already rated close to 70 percent of Chinese foundations, while the Foundation Center has painstakingly convinced forty-three foundations to voluntarily post transparency profiles on Glasspockets.

Philanthropy has long been a global phenomenon. But today technology gives us near real-time information by which to understand ourselves through comparison with others.  American foundations may be different than Chinese foundations in some ways, but in facing growing demands for transparency from government, media, and the public we are more alike than we realize.

-- Brad Smith

Glasspockets Find: 2011 Grantee Community Call Hosted by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
November 22, 2011

Bill & Melinda Gates FoundationAs part of our "Who Has Glass Pockets" transparency and accountability assessments, our Glasspockets team regularly scouts for mechanisms that allow grantmakers to receive ongoing grantee feedback, as well as ways in which grantmakers are using technology to build networks and learning communities.

How does the nation's largest foundation encourage two-way communication and engage with its global grantees? One method is through its second annual Grantee Community Call. I had the opportunity to listen in on the first of two one-hour conference calls (12 hours apart) that were hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on November 21. With more than 600 participants on this call, the session began with CEO Jeff Raikes citing the importance of understanding the perception and the reality of working with the Gates Foundation and the critical role of "smart collaboration" between the foundation and its grantee partners and with other funders. He repeated the foundation's commitment to grantees based on three concepts: quality interaction, clear and consistent communication, and opportunities to provide feedback that will be used to make continuous improvements. Indeed, this Grantee Community Call was a means to put this philosophy into action—and may serve as a good example for other grantmakers with a lot of ground to cover.

Grantees were reassured that the foundation's priorities will not be changing, despite two new leadership additions and the melding of the Global Health Program with the Global Development Program. The foundation also remains committed to the evolving process of breaking down silos in order to integrate and better coordinate the sharing of information across multiple sectors, both internally and with its grantee partners.

The first half of the community call featured presentations by three program directors: Gary Darmstadt, director, Family Health; Vicki Phillips, director, College Ready; and Sam Dryden, director, Agricultural Development. Each, in turn, reinforced the foundation's commitment to constructive, effective relationships by:

  • encouraging grantees to challenge the foundation to strive for continuous improvement at various levels;
  • working together as thought partners;
  • breaking down internal silos to encourage cross-sectional integration; and
  • promoting transparency and welcoming accountability.

The second half of the session was a time for questions and answers. Participants were able to submit questions before the call via an e-mail address and during the call via a special Twitter hashtag and by queuing up with the conference call operator. There was time for nearly a dozen questions from a representative assortment of grantees, including callers from Asia and Africa.

What was perhaps the most impressive take-away was the seemingly genuine and sincere effort of the Gates Foundation to display respect and gratitude to its grantee partners. As Mr. Raikes said in conclusion, [we strive for] "greater impact together." With multiple opportunities for feedback, grantees should not hesitate to engage with the foundation in their mutual goal of improving lives. One very interesting, and rare, feedback mechanism allows grantees to anonymously report issues that raise ethical concerns to EthicsPoint, a service provided by an independent third party.

Finally, the foundation plans to conduct its next Grantee Perception Report, working with the Center for Effective Philanthropy, in the first quarter of 2013.

Recorded versions of the 2011 Grantee Community Calls are now available on the foundation’s web site.

-- Mark Foley

Another Way of Thinking about Accountability
October 25, 2011

(Michael Remaley is the director of Public Policy Communicators NYC and president of HAMILL REMALEY breakthrough communications. In a previous post for Transparency Talk, he wrote about identifying transparency benchmarks in foundation communications.)

More and more philanthropic professionals are accepting the idea that their organizations should be transparent and, in part because those who founded the organization took major tax benefits when it was established, have some accountability to the public. Many of our field's big thinkers are making a compelling case that public accountability in philanthropy should be a core value in our work. But when it comes to accountability, what if foundations and the public are talking about entirely different things?

New research from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation presents evidence that the public and leaders across many sectors hold strikingly different ideas about what it means to be accountable. The report, "Don't Count Us Out: How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public's Confidence in Schools, Business, Government and More," is based on new public opinion research. It outlines the key dimensions of accountability as the public defines it and contrasts the public's perspective with prevailing leadership views. Although it isn't mentioned in the subtitle, the report explores the ramifications for foundations, too.

For philanthropic professionals, the implications are significant – both for their foundations and the institutions they support. There are several pros and cons in the research for those foundations already committed to transparency and accountability. For those foundations on the fence about accountability, the research reinforces the fact that the public expects institutions to be accountable, but raises questions about just what that means. 

There are several key points from the research that philanthropic professionals will want to consider:

Accountability requires ethics.

For foundations, the biggest "pro" in this research is that the public sees accountability first as a dimension of ethics and responsibility.  Foundations – especially those with an orientation toward accountability and transparency – will likely fair well with the public in this regard. On the "con" side, many leaders who see accountability measures as the principal way to ensure that their institutions meet their obligations to the public may be putting too much faith in how much the public values the setting of benchmarks, collecting data, measuring performance, disclosing information, and organizing system-wide reforms. Those mechanisms, while often valuable as management tools, fall far short of relieving the public's most potent concerns, especially their fears about an ethical decline in our society. Foundations that demonstrate they are acting responsibly and ethically will be thought by the public to be accountable more than those that simply talk about benchmarks.

More information does not equal more trust.

Typically, people know almost nothing about specific measures, and they rarely see them as clear-cut evidence of effectiveness. Many Americans are deeply skeptical about the accuracy and importance of quantitative measures. Most are suspicious of the ways in which numbers can be manipulated or tell only half the story. So on the "pro" side, this research is good news for those foundations that have become adept at getting their message out with personal stories of those affected by their programs. For those that are still trying to talk about their impact with lists of grants made and lots of data, the "cons" in this research may be quite jarring. Many members of the public feel confused and overwhelmed by the detailed information flying past them in the name of "disclosure" and "transparency." Many fear they are being manipulated by the complex presentations. More and more statistics do not reassure, so in fact, more information can actually lead to less public trust. It's not that they don't want accountability and information from foundations, but a whole lot of data (without any qualitative context) isn't reassuring to them.

Responsiveness is just as important as benchmarks.

For the public, being able to reach someone who listens to you and treats your ideas and questions respectfully is a fundamental dimension of accountability. This may be the biggest challenge for foundations in this research, since even the most transparent rarely open the door more than a crack to let the general public in to give feedback on the funding programs aimed at them. For most people, not being able to talk to someone is a signal that the institution doesn't genuinely care about those they serve. Foundations are particularly opaque to the public. The message is clear for those in philanthropy and other sectors who may fear being besieged by community input: the public wants a better balance and authentic mechanisms that allow them to be heard. On the "pro" side, those foundations that do seek community input and can demonstrate they are listening will likely be afforded a great deal of public trust. Foundations that rate well on the Foundation Center's Glasspockets measures of transparency, especially those dealing with grantee surveys and grantee feedback, can probably feel some relief that they will likely be considered accountable in the public's eyes.

The public expects to be held accountable, too.

For most Americans, the return to real accountability is not the job of leaders alone. Time and again, people in focus groups spoke about their own responsibilities and the near impossibility of solving problems without a broad base of responsibility at every level of society. Many foundations already get this. Institutions that embrace the idea of a public role in fostering institutional accountability must think creatively and proactively about how typical citizens can contribute their knowledge and actions to fulfill the organization's mission. The report emphasizes that giving people more and more information or giving them more and more choices without truly considering public priorities and concerns is likely to backfire.

The "Don't Count Us Out" report is getting a lot of attention in policy circles. The Washington Post's education columnist Jay Mathews said, "Its message is vital. Accountability is a key word in our national debate… The Public Agenda/Kettering report may have exposed the greatest obstacle to getting our kids the educations they deserve." And The Nonprofit Quarterly said, "The authors suggest that there is one other area that needs equal attention: philanthropy, which they say has 'fewer true accountability mechanisms than any other field.' However, there is one dimension of accountability in which philanthropy may be the strongest: the 'publicly stated moral convictions of its leaders.' How to measure that will, perhaps, be the biggest challenge of all."

For foundation professionals involved in communicating the results of their organizations' work, the first thing to recognize is simply the different orientation of your audience. The second is to understand that people expect more than just statistics and analyses of results to feel that the foundation is indeed accountable. Many foundations are hesitant to allow outsiders to even have easy e-mail access to staff (another Glasspockets transparency measure). So allowing the public to give feedback on the programs that are directed at them may seem like a radical idea to some. Many foundations are already doing grantee surveys and allowing public commentary on their blogs. These are likely to go a long way in engendering trust with the public.

Many foundations have already realized that telling stories is a more effective means of communicating with people than rolling off statistics and spewing facts. When it comes to demonstrating our foundations' accountability, it may be time to consider the idea that bringing the public into the process is as important as enumerating outcomes.

-- Michael Remaley

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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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