Transparency Talk

Category: "Evaluation" (69 posts)

Glasspockets Find: Exponent Philanthropy Video Series Encourages Transparency
July 14, 2016

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

Embracing failure has the potential to maximize effective and impact in philanthropy.  This trend of self-reflection and sharing lessons learned among foundation and funder leaders is upping the ante on the need for transparency and opening up the work of grantmakers.

Exponent Philanthropy – a philanthropic membership organization representing approximately 2,300 foundations and funders – won a Fund for Shared Insight grant last year to produce a video series that shares wisdom and best practices in philanthropy. The videos will delve into how foundations can be more open about how they work, why and how they make their decisions, and the lessons they have learned – both good and bad.

This year, Explonent Philanthropy released a total of nine Philanthropy Lessons videos that highlight tips and best practices for funders, grantees and philanthropy work. 

Among the videos, the importance of transparency and the tricky topic of evaluation are explored.  How can funders and grantees communicate honestly with one another, and with the communities they serve?  How can impact and effectiveness be measured?  What criteria should be used? 

Several funders acknowledged the challenge in evaluating the effectiveness of grantees and the measures used.  One funder likened the overzealousness of foundation reports to “overjudginess,” where foundation expectations of grantees may be unfair.  Another funder said it’s OK for a grantee to fall short of their program objectives; instead, he expected grantees to be honest and explain the encountered challenges and barriers.

Miguel Milanes, vice president of Allegany Franciscan Ministries (also profiled on Glasspockets), described the importance of flexibility and listening, truly listening to grantees.

Milanes’ organization had given a $2,000 grant to help preserve Mexican American culture through traditional dance and requested a written report on the project outcomes.  Unable to speak or write in English, two grantee representatives gave a face-to-face report to Milanes and shared two binders full of photos and receipts documenting the project.

“It was more important than any report I’ve ever received,” Milanes said of the unorthodox grant report.  “That was a seminal moment.  It changed the way we did our grantmaking and our reporting.  We accept other types of reports and documents on the grants we make.”

Other foundation leaders raised questions about the how and why of evaluation.  Would pre-and post-test survey results really show the impact of helping a human trafficking survivor?  Is the requirement of sending an international fax report of every attendance list for an African HIV women’s program excessive and costly?

Exponent Philanthropy’s innovative project also invites website visitors and funders to share their lessons and personal stories on the website and also via social media using #MyPhilLesson. 

One website visitor, Lisa Tessarowicz of The CALM Foundation, shared how being “uncomfortable” and not having the answers actually helps foundations to think creatively, take more risks to “experiment more and think critically” about how money is given away.

We look forward to seeing more stories from funders, grantees and community at large.  It will interesting to see what grantmaking leaders glean from their experiences with grantees, and how they will apply these important lessons to improve philanthropy and elevate transparency.

--Melissa Moy

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

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

Janet Camarena

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

Do Ants Know Something Foundations Don’t?

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

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

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

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

Moving Toward a Collective Brain Trust

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

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

The Path to Open Knowledge

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

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

IssueLab breaks it down into the following practices:

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

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

How Can We Know What Others Know?

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

New features include:

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

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

--Janet Camarena

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.

Foundation Transparency: Game Over?
May 23, 2016

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center).

BradfordKSmithThe tranquil world of America's foundations is about to be shaken, but if you read the Center for Effective Philanthropy's (CEP) new study -- Sharing What Matters, Foundation Transparency -- you would never know it.

Don't get me wrong. That study, like everything CEP produces, is carefully researched, insightful and thoroughly professional. But it misses the single biggest change in foundation transparency in decades: the imminent release by the Internal Revenue Service of foundation 990-PF (and 990) tax returns as machine-readable open data.

Clara Miller, President of the Heron Foundation, writes eloquently in her manifesto, Building a Foundation for the 21St Century: "…the private foundation model was designed to be protective and separate, much like a terrarium."

Terrarium photo 2Terrariums, of course, are highly "curated" environments over which their creators have complete control. The CEP study, proves that point, to the extent that much of the study consists of interviews with foundation leaders and reviews of their websites as if transparency were a kind of optional endeavor in which foundations may choose to participate, if at all, and to what degree.

To be fair, CEP also interviewed the grantees of various foundations (sometimes referred to as "partners"), which helps convey the reality that foundations have stakeholders beyond their four walls. However, the terrarium metaphor is about to become far more relevant as the release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within.

What Is Open Data?

It is safe to say that most foundation leaders and a fair majority of their staff do not understand what open data really is. Open data is free, yes, but more importantly it is digital and machine-readable. This means it can be consumed in enormous volumes at lightning speed, directly by computers.

"The release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within."

Once consumed, open data can be tagged, sorted, indexed and searched using statistical methods to make obvious comparisons while discovering previously undetected correlations. Anyone with a computer, some coding skills and a hard drive or cloud storage can access open data. In today's world, a lot of people meet those requirements, and they are free to do whatever they please with your information once it is, as open data enthusiasts like to say, "in the wild."

Today, much government data is completely open. Go to data.gov or its equivalent in many countries around the world and see for yourself.

The theory behind open data, increasingly born out in practice, is that making information available leads to significant innovation for the public good while the demand for and use of such data also improves its accuracy and quality over time. And some open data is just fun: one of my personal favorites is the White House visitors list!

What is the Internal Revenue Service Releasing?

Irs-logo-250Thanks to the Aspen Institute's leadership of a joint effort - funded by foundations and including Foundation Center, GuideStar, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, and others - the IRS has started to make some 1,000,000 Form 990s and 40,000 Form 990PF available as machine-readable open data.

Previously, all Form 990s had been released as image (TIFF) files, essentially a picture, making it both time-consuming and expensive to extract useful data from them. Credit where credit is due; a kick in the butt in the form of a lawsuit from open data crusader Carl Malamud helped speed the process along.

The current test phase includes only those tax returns that were digitally filed by nonprofits and community foundations (990s) and private foundations (990PFs). Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data. In other words, that which is born digital will be opened up to the public in digital form. Because of variations in the 990 forms, getting the information from them into a database will still require some technical expertise, but will be far more feasible and faster than ever before.

"Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data."

The Good

The work of organizations like Foundation Center-- who have built expensive infrastructure in order to turn years of 990 tax returns into information that can be used by nonprofits looking for funding, researchers trying to understand the role of foundations and foundations, themselves, seeking to benchmark themselves against peers—will be transformed.

Work will shift away from the mechanics of capturing and processing the data to higher level analysis and visualization to stimulate the generation and sharing of new insights and knowledge. This will fuel greater collaboration between peer organizations, innovation, the merging of previous disparate bodies of data, better philanthropy, and a stronger social sector.

The (Potentially) Bad

The world of foundations and nonprofits is highly segmented, idiosyncratic and difficult to understand and interpret. GuideStar and Foundation Center know this.

But many of the new entrants who are attracted by the advent of open 990 data will not. They will most likely come in two forms: start-ups claiming their new tools will revolutionize the business of giving, and established, private sector companies, seeking new market opportunities. Neither of these is intrinsically bad and could lead to some degree of positive disruption and true innovation.

The negative potential could be two-fold. Funders will inevitably be intrigued by the start-ups, their genius and their newness and divert funding towards them. Foundations are free to take risks and that is one of their virtues. But while needs grow, funding for the data and information infrastructure of philanthropy is limited, technology literacy among foundations relatively low, and many of these start-ups will prove to be shooting stars (anybody remember Jumo?).

"Once the 990 data is 'in the wild,' conclusions may be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair."

The second category of new entrants is far more complex and will come in the form of for-profit data analytics companies. Some of these have business models and immensely sophisticated black box technologies that rely heavily on government contracts for defense and national security. They will be lured by the promise of lucrative contracts from big foundations and mega-nonprofits and the opportunity to demonstrate social responsibility by doing good in the world.

But these for-profit analytics companies will quickly discover that there is only one Gates Foundation among the 87,000 private foundations and only a handful of richly-resourced nonprofits among the 1.3 million on the IRS registers. And those who choose to contract the services of "Big Analytics" will need to consider the potential reputational consequences of aligning their "brands" with the companies behind them.

Sound defensive? Not at all: Foundation Center welcomes the competition, has been building for it since 2010, and knows the challenge can only make us and the social sector better.

The Ugly

Once the 990 data is "in the wild," it is possible if not probable, conclusions will be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair. Those who are new to the field and relatively uninformed (or uninterested) in its complexity, may make claims about executive compensation based on comparisons of foundations of wildly disparate size and scope.

The same could be done with overhead rates, payout, or any other figure or calculation that can be made based on information found in the 990-PF. Some foundations already chafe when responsible sector advocates like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) use Foundation Center data to rank foundations according to their Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. Imagine claims coming over the transom from individuals and organizations whose core values do not include a belief in the practice of philanthropy and a normative vision for how it could be better.

"Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing."

Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing. This was the spirit in which Clara Miller introduced her terrarium analogy to highlight what she sees as the artificial disconnect between the controlled, strategic, and curated world constructed by the grants side of foundations and the sometimes contradictory forces at work in the larger economy in which their assets are invested.

Foundations like Heron are striving to put 100% of their assets toward mission, while others like Rockefeller Brothers Fund are divesting their investment portfolios from fossil fuels and re-investing those assets in ways that further the goals of their climate change grantmaking, rather than exacerbate the problem.

A recent (and as of yet unpublished) Foundation Center survey found that 60% of foundations were not engaged in impact investing and had no plans to do so. That is their choice, but open 990 data may well put them in a position of having to publicly explain it.

For example, using Foundation Center databases, I searched across several hundred thousand foundation 990-PF tax returns and found 37 foundations that held Corrections Corporation of America stock in their investment portfolios. These foundations may well believe, as the majority of foundations insist, that the purpose of the investment arm of the foundation is to generate the highest sustainable return possible in order to fund the mission through grants. But if a foundation holding that stock is striving to work on juvenile justice or improve the lives of black men and boys, an investigative reporter or activist might well ask why they are investing in a corporation that runs private, for-profit prisons

It's 10:00pm, Do You Know Where Your 990 Is?

With the game over for foundation transparency, the big takeaway is to know your 990-PF (or 990 for community foundations). Suddenly, it will be transformed from a bureaucratic compliance document into one of your foundation's key communications vehicles.

"Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable."

Right about now, you may be thinking: "What about the website re-design we spent all that money on, with our new logo, carefully crafted initiative names, and compelling photos??" It's still important, and you can follow the lead of those foundations guided by the online transparency criteria found on Foundation Center's Glasspockets website.

But for the sector as a whole, while fewer than 10% of all foundations have websites, they all file 990 tax returns. As the IRS open data release unfolds and mandatory digital filing kicks in, the 990-PF will become one of the primary sources of information by which your individual foundation will be known and compared to others.

I recently asked a group of foundation CEOs whether they ever had an in-depth discussion about their 990-PFs among their board members and was met with blank stares. In a world of digital transparency, this will have to change. As 990s become a data source and communications vehicle, the information on them will need to be clear, accurate and above all, a faithful representation of how each individual foundation makes use of the precious tax exemption it has been granted to serve the public good.

A few simple tips for starters:

  • Take advantage of Section 15 (block 2) to talk about your priorities, grant process, limitations, and restrictions.
  • In Section 15 (block 3) write the correct, legal name for each grantee organization and add its EIN or BRIDGE ID
  • In the same section, write clear and compelling descriptions for the purpose of each grant (more than you might think, people look at foundations by what they fund).
  • Make sure all numbers on the form add up correctly (you'd be surprised!).

Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable. Philanthropy is essential to American society and a positive source for good in a challenging world.

As the terrarium walls insulating individual foundations fall, we will surely face a few moments of anxiety and discomfort. But greater transparency, fueled by open IRS data, can only make us more conscientious stewards of our resources, more effective decision-makers, and better collaborators on our way to achieving greater and greater impact in the world.

Game over? It's just beginning!

-- Brad Smith

The Next Generation of Nonprofit Data Standards
May 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard

Description

History

BRIDGE

A unique identifier for every nonprofit organization in the world.

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

Philanthropy Classification System

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

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

GuideStar Profile Standard

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

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

eGrant/hGrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Jacob Harold and Brad Smith

Walking the Talk on Foundation Openness: Behind the Scenes in the Making of an RFP
April 19, 2016

(Chris Cardona is program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation.)

Chris Cardona Photo

When the latest Star Wars movie came out on DVD, Disney made a big deal about its inclusion of deleted scenes. Director J.J. Abrams announced the deleted scenes on social media and mentioned them in magazine interviews.

While we haven’t just directed a billion-dollar-grossing movie, the Fund for Shared Insight (“Shared Insight”) is taking a page from Abrams’ playbook and offering the following commentary on our own deleted scenes. In our case, they’re from our recently published request for proposals for projects that advance foundation openness.

Come take a look behind the scenes of how a philanthropic initiative evolves….

"Compared to what nonprofits do on the front lines, foundations talking about failure is not particularly courageous."

Shared Insight is a funder collaborative working to improve philanthropy by increasing foundation openness – i.e. sharing our goals, strategies and failures; listening and engaging in dialogue with others; acting on what we hear; and, sharing what we have learned.  We made our first round of grants in 2014, and have been learning a lot alongside the grantees with whom we’re privileged to work. And as my colleague Melinda Tuan wrote about on the CEP blog, one of the things we’ve learned from our evaluation partners at ORS Impact, who are looking at the impact of our grants as well as that of our own collaboration, is that we’re not making as much progress as we’d hoped on foundation openness. (To download the full report, please see Fund for Shared Insight: Theory of Change Progress and Lessons.)

In an effort to do better, we sought the advice of our philanthropy infrastructure colleagues and had a number of productive conversations among members of the collaborative. Based on those discussions, we developed a draft request for proposals (RFP), and decided that we should model the behavior we hope other funders will adopt by publishing the draft online, and inviting anyone to comment.

If you compare the draft and the final version, they’re pretty different.

So what changed, and why did we take certain things out in response to feedback?

We were honored to receive 18 pages worth (!) of feedback on the draft request for proposals. Here’s what we took away from the comments:

  • Don’t impose a framework where it doesn’t belong. At the core of the draft RFP was a three-part model distinguishing among “closed organizations,” which don’t practice any openness; “fundamental openness,” in which foundations broadcast information in a one-way manner; and “courageous openness,” in which they engage in two-way dialogue with outside parties. This framework went through much iteration in our internal discussions. Somewhere there’s a PowerPoint slide with an image of a mountain, with “courageous” at the summit, “fundamental” at the basecamp near the foot of the mountain, and “closed” in a cave underneath the mountain. We talked about it as a spiral. We talked about multiple points of entry. Gosh, foundation folks sure do love our frameworks. But this one just didn’t work. No matter how we tried to frame it, people told us, it’s not a spectrum. All three levels are valid and have their benefits, and all three require changes in practices and/or culture. So, we dropped the idea of a spectrum with judgments about more or less desirable kinds of openness.
  • “Courageous” we’re not. That specific label was VERY unpopular. We were inspired by one of our colleagues who used that term to describe (we thought) things like foundations talking openly about failure. Yet that very person wrote to us to say that we’d gotten it wrong! Compared to what nonprofits do on the front lines, and what the people we seek to help face in their daily lives, foundations talking about failure is not particularly courageous. Whatever risk a funder might face in engaging in dialogue about what works and what doesn’t pales compared to the risks our partners and beneficiaries take all the time. So we dropped that label.
  • Listen to the sounds of silence. Our category of “closed foundation” didn’t take into account funders that deliberately remain anonymous for personal or ethical reasons. Anonymous giving is a tradition with deep cultural and faith-based roots, and is very different than the case we had in mind, of a foundation just neglecting to share information it has ready at hand. So we dropped “closed foundation” as a category or point of contrast, and focused instead on the positive or affirmative elements of openness that we seek to foster.
  • Don’t assume you have control over your message. This is the flip side of anonymity. One commenter pointed out that because of the increasingly public nature of foundation tax returns (known as 990-PFs), which are starting to become machine-readable, foundations do not have the luxury of remaining anonymous. As this commenter observed, soon, two kids in a garage in Ohio could be able to write a program that searches machine-readable 990-PFs and produces analyses of giving patterns. Another commenter made a related point; we shouldn’t assume that foundations have control over their communications and information, because in an increasingly social-media-saturated and surveilled world, they don’t. To assume that a base level of openness is a choice may not turn out to be true. This is another reason we dropped the “closed foundation” as a point of contrast.
  • What will it take to make this real? Finally, we heard from commenters who asked about the implications of foundation openness for decision-making. Under the kinds of practices we’re encouraging, will foundations retain control over decision-making about resources? In “courageous” openness, how much decision-making power are you giving stakeholders? While it only came from a couple of people, this was a particularly interesting piece of feedback, because it gets to a core issue in foundation openness: the desire for control, and the fear of giving it up. Foundation openness does usually mean real change in organizational practices and culture. That’s not something we took out in response to feedback; if anything, we’re doubling down on that notion. We are betting it will take real commitment by CEOs and boards to change their culture and become more open.

The upshot of this feedback is we’ve produced an RFP that we hope is more streamlined, more straightforward, and more direct. We added several more examples of the types of projects we’re interested in funding, and we made our definition of openness much simpler, without a framework. The process of gathering the feedback was tremendously informative, and we deeply appreciate all those who contributed their time and wisdom to this effort. We hope the result was worth it – and that in the end, we’re able to fund even better projects that advance foundation openness.

Apparently, a feature of the new Star Wars DVD is that if you already have a toy of the robot* BB-8, it can react to what’s playing on the screen. While we can’t promise anything as cute or compelling as that, we hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the scenes of how a philanthropic initiative evolves. We look forward to the projects that will result, and to the impact that they’ll generate.

*Yes, I know it’s technically a droid!

--Chris Cardona

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

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

Janet Camarena

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

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

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

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

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

Some interesting facts quickly reveal both strengths and blind spots:

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

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

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

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

Knowledge Center Open Licensing

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

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

Customized ReportA customized report from Transparency Trends

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

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

Explore Transparency Trends and let me know what you think.

-- Janet Camarena

Transparency Chat: CEP On Sharing What Matters
March 2, 2016

CEP_Ellie-ButeauEllie Buteau, Ph.D., is the vice president of research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), which received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. Transparency Talk is featuring grantees in the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, Foundation Center’s director of transparency, and Ms. Buteau discussed the findings of CEP's new report, "Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency."

Janet Camarena:  I'm going to start with what jumped out at me as surprising. The report lists time and inconsistencies across staff members as the most common barriers to greater foundation transparency.  Only 6% responded to your survey that a lack of commitment to transparency was a barrier and a full 24% responded that there was nothing specific that limited their foundation's transparency. Could this be because those surveyed are already predisposed to pushing the effectiveness envelope? Can you talk a little bit about the survey sample and how representative it might be? 

Ellie Buteau:  Yes, definitely. Response bias is always a top-of-mind question when we conduct a survey. The main bias we wondered about for this study was whether or not foundations that are already working on, and care about, transparency were more likely to respond. Unfortunately, we have no way of reliably measuring that. We did have data about a few other variables that were important to compare, including assets, giving, geographic location, etc. The main difference we saw was that foundations that have used one of CEP’s assessments (such as our Grantee Perception Report) in the past were more likely to respond to the survey. This is something we find in most of our survey samples. It doesn’t mean that foundations that haven’t used our assessments aren’t responding, but they are doing so at a lower rate. It could indicate, though, that foundations interested in gathering feedback on their performance were more likely to respond. We have more information about what we tested for response bias on page 45 of the report. 

JC:  I found it a little troubling that only 45% of CEOs of independent foundations view the general public as a relevant stakeholder group for their transparency efforts, yet the premise of philanthropy is that it is dedicated to serving the public good.  Did you also find this surprising? And any thoughts on the disconnect there?  

CEP_Foundation-Transparency_coverEB:  I did not find that surprising, and I’m not sure our data indicates that there is a disconnect between how foundations are thinking about certain aspects of transparency and serving the public good. If foundations are focused on being open with the nonprofits they fund and the nonprofits that may want funding from them in the future, that does seem like a pretty direct connection to serving the public good. After all, those are the organizations through which foundations are able to serve the public.

I think sometimes conversations about transparency suggest foundations should make sure they are sharing information with anyone and everyone. But that doesn’t seem like the most effective or efficient use of foundation resources. If people want to know what foundations are up to, most of the foundations of the size included in our study have websites or publicly available annual reports. Where I see real opportunity for foundations to do more is in sharing information about what does and doesn’t work in addressing the tough challenges they’re working to address. While that information itself may not be of interest to the general public, it can be applied in ways that benefit the general public.

JC:  Since the report points out that the philanthropy field is weak when it comes to sharing lessons learned and assessments of foundation performance, and since it also correlates stronger grantee-grantmaker relationships among foundations who have a tendency to be more transparent, will you be advocating that those who use your Grantee Perception Reports and other survey products share them?    Why or why not?

EB:  It’s up to foundations that use our Grantee Perception Report to decide whether to share their results publicly. Many, in fact, do, and almost all at least share a summary of what they learned. You can find on our website a list of those foundations that have made their GPRs public (scroll down on this page). I think it’s great when foundations are open in this way. But I don’t think that a foundation publicly sharing its GPR results is necessarily indicative of it doing more to respond to feedback or having strong relationships with its grantees.

JC:  Of the websites you examined, only 5% shared any information about lessons learned when things didn't go as planned.  Often this is because grantmakers fear harming the reputation of grantees or casting their work in a negative light.  Can you talk about how those grantmakers that were opening up this side of the work tackled that issue.

EB:  In the report, we share some examples of foundations being open about when things didn’t pan out as hoped. Those foundations do not name names of specific grantee organizations or tie results back to any individual organization. They seemed to share their lessons in a more general way, but still communicated enough specificity that others could learn from their experiences. I think their examples show that it’s possible to strike this balance.


JC:
 One of the struggles with the field and transparency is, of course, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, once you start looking under the hood of foundation websites, patterns of emerging and best practices often surface.  Can you point to one or two transparency examples you uncovered that you wish others in the field would emulate?

EB:  Here is where we had a finding that did surprise me. I thought that perhaps the more information foundations shared on their websites, the more transparent they’d be seen to be by grantees. It turned out that was not borne out in the data. I think this is really important to consider: that the amount of information shared isn’t directly tied to perceptions of transparency. In my own experience, that makes sense. Sometimes, even when I know that a foundation has shared information about what it’s learned, I’ve had difficulty figuring out where to find that on a foundation’s website because there is so much other information on the site. I think what I’d suggest is that a focus be on how their websites can most effectively be used as a tool for sharing information that matters.  

 JC:  The last time CEP issued a report on transparency, it led to changes in the kinds of questions you include in your Grantee Perception Survey, which now includes questions specific to assessing perceptions about foundation transparency.  How will what you learned from this report impact your own work in the future? 

EB:  This research has given us a better understanding of how foundation CEOs, themselves, are thinking about transparency. It turns out there is a lot of agreement about what transparency means, so this research really validates the importance of the questions we added to our grantee survey a few years back. Transparency, especially about the substance of foundations’ work, is considered crucial by both grantees and foundation CEOs. Foundations and grantees are more aligned than they may realize when it comes to the information they think is important for foundations to share. Now it’s about foundations implementing — and really doing it well. Our research suggests they are doing well in some areas but not in others. We will build off of the findings in this study as we continue our research on other related topics. For example, we recently fielded a survey on evaluation practices at foundations, in partnership with the Center for Evaluation Innovation, and are seeing findings in that study that further build upon what we published in this report.

Innovation Trends: The Influence of Transparency Across Multiple Sectors
February 25, 2016

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

A thoughtful and recently released report from Weber Shandwick –“Innovation Trends: Always-On Transparency” – investigates how transparency and openness can be implemented into organizations across corporate, social and public sectors.

Leader voices include Howard Schulz, Starbucks Chairman and CEO; Paul Polman, Unilever CEO; Jean Case, Case Foundation CEO; and Brad Smith, Foundation Center CEO.

AO_social_TC-1 and 3
Rather than view transparency and openness as an administrative burden, leaders among corporations, foundations, nonprofits and government share the realization that working in a more open way can accelerate effectiveness in unexpected ways. 

One organization is embracing failure and encouraging others to be open about what is not working.  As part of its “Be Fearless Campaign,” Case Foundation shares lessons learned on its website.  The foundation encourages organizations to “fail forward” and work through challenges by solving the right problem, being a collaborator and leading through uncertainty, and remaining humble to acknowledge learning opportunities and feedback. 

Transparency and openness can accelerate effectiveness in unexpected ways.

For “a clear theory of change” and transparency across nonprofits and foundations, Case advised that organizations must disclose legal status and financial accountability as well as evaluate effectiveness using rigorous social and environmental metrics.

At Foundation Center, Smith suggests foundations can take three critical actions to foster openness and partnership: innovate together, listen more and share early and often.  Foundations have the unique opportunity as funders and experts to “set the tone for collaboration among their grantees” and incorporate their perspectives into program design, measurement and evaluation.

The report summarizes what transparency looks like across sectors:

  • Corporate: Lead and engage audiences to create shared value
  • Social: Live and foster a culture of shared accountability and impact
  • Public: Empower an informed and active populace

The report also summarizes common roadblocks to transparency across sectors.   According to the report, a lack of understanding of where to begin and how to move forward are the most common barriers to transparency.

To help address these barriers, the report offers an insightful five-step roadmap that provides concrete steps, or “a starting point for organizations across sectors to align their practices with best-in-class transparency efforts.”

Roadmap highlights:

  1. Integrate – Embed transparency and accountability throughout the organizational culture
  2. Listen – Create feedback loops to invite internal and external stakeholder perspectives
  3. Measure – Align indicators and analytics processes to continuously track outcomes and impact
  4. Learn – Surface examples of challenges and successes to document what works and fix what doesn’t
  5. Lead – Curate a rich multi-channel dialogue about progress and impact to share the transparency journey with key stakeholders.

Another helpful feature is a template that details how to visualize and act on concrete next steps.  The graph points to four key areas: research and reporting; thought leadership; storytelling and campaigns; and events and convenings.

For example, the firm advises how leaders should act in the area of thought leadership. 

  • With employees: “Empower employees to contribute to thought leadership with their own perspectives and impact examples.”
  • With consumers: “Position thought leadership as the authentic voice of the organization, leveraging diverse spokespeople.”
  • With shareholders and boards: “Leverage board member and shareholder expertise and perspectives to inform thought leadership and help co-create op-eds and think pieces.”

The leader lessons and transparency plan provide a unique framework and may help remove some of the guess work and uncertainty out of what organizations should explore and where change can occur.

How can your organization “fail forward” and cultivate a culture of transparency, openness and dialogue?  Where can you start today?

--Melissa Moy

Diversity at the Foundation: Important Enough to Measure
December 8, 2015

(Robert K. Ross, M.D., is President and Chief Executive Officer for The California Endowment, a health foundation established in 1996 to address the health needs of Californians.)

Editor’s Note: In the near future, our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment will include an additional data element related to diversity. We will continue to track which foundations have values statements related to diversity and inclusion, and we will also be adding a transparency element indicating which foundations openly share diversity data about their staff and board.  Currently, relatively few foundations provide diversity head counts, with only 6 out of 77 profiled foundations sharing that data publicly.  The California Endowment recently completed and posted its annual Diversity Audit, so we invited its team to draft a series of posts explaining why and how they share this information. This is the first post in that series.

Ross-150About seven years ago, our Board of Directors engaged in a conversation about the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion at our institution.  While we re-affirmed our allegiance to these values which was present at the inception of The California Endowment, we concluded that we needed to ratchet up the seriousness of our resolve.  The questions that arose: Are we, as a foundation, committed enough to this issue to measure and track improvement?  We have metrics for a range of equity indicators in our healthy communities work, Sons and Brothers program etc., and overall strategic plan, so why not on the matter of diversity in our operation and structure as a foundation?

So, off we went.  We resolved to create a tool to assess our progress, now known as the Diversity Audit.  In it, we committed to express the value of, and commitment to, diversity across a range of parameters at The California Endowment: on our Board, at the management level, among our staff, grantees of the foundation, as well as contractors, consultants, and even investment managers.  We wanted to be able to express our commitment to diversity-equity-inclusion no matter which aspect or element of the foundation one might encounter.

The process of creating, and then institutionalizing the Diversity Audit required the support and engagement of Board, management, and staff.  There is a saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We pay particular attention to recruiting new board members and senior management who value diversity, equity and inclusion.  We look to them to ensure that this commitment lives beyond any one individual or position, and becomes engrained in the DNA of the culture of The Endowment.  While turnover is inevitable in any organization, we do not ever take this commitment as a given. 

Cal Endow Photo
We also required the support of a savvy, thoughtful partner to hold our organizational hand through the process, and we procured the services of SPR Associates to do so.  SPR worked with our staff to begin establishing the right kind of data collection and reporting platform; we needed our Human Resources, Grants Administration, Contracts Administration, Program and Learning Staff, and Investments team all in the boat.  Obviously it required us to embark on the business of asking grantees, contractors, and consultants for the right kind of diversity information – and in the right way.  We now have the diversity question being posed nearly every time we engage in a financial or business transaction.

Diversity Audit 2013 coverOur Diversity Audit, while focusing on tracking progress through metrics, should not be confused or mistaken with the use of quotas.  Simply put, we don’t have numerical goals that define “success” in the Diversity Audit.  But we do want to know whether we have an organization that reflects the range of diversity that the state of California – and the communities we serve – now boasts.  Can we look ourselves in the mirror and comfortably state that our commitment to diversity is at last maintained, and even improves over time?

The Diversity Audit has helped us strengthen the culture and authorizing environment to express our values through our policies, practices, processes.  We review its progress with our Board every three years.  We share both our successes and mistakes with the philanthropic field because we believe that our efforts and value can inform our sector’s learning.  Diversity is indeed an element of my performance measures as President & CEO.  And that’s the way it should be.

--Robert K. Ross

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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