Transparency Talk

Category: "Risk" (13 posts)

Communications Network Survey Provides Some Transparency Benchmarks
June 21, 2011

Michael Remaley is the director of Public Policy Communicators NYC and president of HAMILL REMALEY breakthrough communications.

Michael Remaley

Back in January, I wrote a commentary for Transparency Talk titled "Foundations Fail at Failing," which produced a robust conversation among colleagues both online and off. The post restated the case made by many philanthropy experts about the importance of transparency, talking openly about foundation initiatives that don’t produce expected results, and allowing others to learn from one’s failures. It also reported on my investigation into the transparency and frankness of 21 major foundations, the web sites of which I had explored and assessed in terms of their openness and self-evaluation.

45% of foundations view themselves as fully transparent or more transparent than most, while only 30% of foundations acknowledge program failure and publicly discuss it in those terms.

At the time I was conducting research for that piece, I was also working with the Communications Network on the design of its 2011 Survey of Foundation Communications Professionals, the report for which is aptly titled "Foundation Communications Today" and was released just last week. We surveyed a national sample of Communications Network members and a larger list of philanthropic communicators who were not members, yielding 155 responses for a 40% response rate (see full methodology section in the report). The survey included a set of questions meant to help the field better understand communications practices among foundations. We also thought it would be helpful to probe for information related to topics that Transparency Talk readers would find useful. Overall, the report includes some very interesting revelations about foundation communicators’ attitudes toward transparency and willingness of their foundations to talk about failure.

Failure PDFWhen your organization's work does not produce expected results, how do you address the failure publicly?

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Nearly a third (31%) of foundation communicators told us that neither evaluations nor anecdotal evidence had ever shown that their organization’s work had been anything less than successful. The larger group, however, was able to identify instances where their organization had, realistically, not made the impact it had planned. The majority of foundation communicators (69%) acknowledged that some of their organizations’ work had not produced successful outcomes.

Of those who admitted their organizations had experienced failures, the greatest number (44%) said that their organization had spoken publicly and forthrightly about those results. But most had not. Nearly a third (30%) of those who acknowledged foundation failure said that they had publicly discussed what they considered failures, but talked about them publicly in other terms. Another 15 percent said they had debated internally whether or not to publicly discuss failures but decided it might be harmful to others and therefore did not discuss them externally, and 12 percent said their foundation had never even considered talking publicly about failures.

In an open-ended question, we asked respondents to share any thoughts they had on foundations talking about failures. Respondents most commonly said it was the reluctance of trustees that held them back from being more open about unmet expectations. Said one, "Board members want to know, most of the time, about failures and encourage risk taking. But many don't see the wisdom in discussing it publicly." Another said, "There is a transparency issue and power dynamic issues with foundations. Many simply will not discuss their internal workings good or bad. Many are not embracing social media and new tech within the foundation themselves, but they expect their grantees to be using it. In general, one foundation will not comment on the work of another. In general, few will admit failure outside of affinity group meetings. It is also rare there."

But others said they thought concerns among foundations about talking publicly on failure are overblown. One said, "I think there is a fear of discussing failure, but that fear isn't warranted by our experience. When we publicly discussed our failure, we received nothing but praise. It enhanced our brand, rather than damaging it." And another said, "Once you share a failure it gets easier."

This last sentiment was, however, not shared by the respondent who said, "With two concrete examples, we can check the box saying we've publicly acknowledged our failures... But with many others, we have debated internally how/if to discuss these publicly and most often decide against doing so."

Transparency PDFIn terms of transparency, how would you describe your organization?

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Clearly, even those who have experimented with communicating about unmet expectations and failures continue to struggle with how and when to make the best use of valuable information that doesn’t necessarily shed the best light on people and organizations working with good intentions. Organizational ambivalence toward openness also came through in the responses to the survey questions about transparency.

The responses to the question on perceptions of transparency were fairly evenly distributed across the spectrum of choices offered to respondents. We provided respondents detailed descriptions of different levels of transparency based largely on the criteria used by Glasspockets. Given that our sample is drawn from foundations with communications staff, it is not surprising that only 2% said their organization was less transparent than most. Next along the spectrum of transparency, 16% said their organization is moderately transparent, 37% said it has an average degree of transparency, 35% said it is more transparent than most, and 10% said their foundation is fully transparent.

"Foundation Communications Today" contains many revelations and insights on topics such as philanthropic use of technology and social media, communications departments’ relationships with other parts of the foundation, and how creating a written communications plan relates to transparency. If you are curious about how your organization’s communications compare, check it out.

Ultimately, I find the responses of foundation communicators about failure and transparency to be very encouraging. While we do not have longitudinal data on these topics, the quantitative and qualitative responses seemed to indicate a trend toward greater openness and increasing awareness of the value of foundation self-evaluation. I'm hopeful that next time we survey foundations, we’ll see findings a great leap closer to 100% "Fully Transparent."

— Michael Remaley

Foundations Fail at Failing
January 18, 2011

Michael Remaley is the director of Public Policy Communicators NYC and president of HAMILL REMALEY breakthrough communications.

"If you hit the bull's eye every time,
you've set the target too close."

I thought of this, one of my favorite aphorisms, at the Communications Network's annual conference last September when the Hewlett Foundation's Communications Director Eric Brown talked about his organization's "failed grantmaking" contest.  Hewlett's smart internal exercise forces each department to name one grant from its portfolio that did not meet expectations, think through and explain what went wrong and help the entire organization learn from its failure. 

This is a learning exercise that more foundations should consider adopting. But more than that, it is an important example of how Hewlett's leadership has set the tone for candor about the unavoidable truth of philanthropic experimentation: failure is part of the equation. 

It is no coincidence that Hewlett is also one of the few foundations that has talked publicly about initiatives that didn't live up to expectations. It is also no coincidence that Hewlett's profile on Glasspockets gives a good indication of its commitment to transparency.  I would assert that Hewlett's reputation for being one of the most innovative, thoughtful, and effective foundations is directly related to its transparency, willingness to publicly question its strategies, and forthrightness in discussing the limitations of its successes. And that reputation further enhances its ability to exert influence and make change.

The hard sciences learned the importance of sharing candid assessments of "failed" experiments centuries ago. In fact, scientists seem to treasure results that do not meet expected outcomes even more highly than those that confirm what is already believed to be true. 

I am hardly the first person to call upon foundations to talk more openly about failure, experimentation, and unexpected outcomes. (See list below.) Hewlett's Paul Brest seems to have really kickstarted the conversation in 2007 by writing and talking about his foundation's experiences. That was followed by Robert Giloth and Susan Gewirtz's seminal 2008 piece in Foundation Review, "Philanthropy and Mistakes: An Untapped Resource." Many others, including Bob Hughes, Larry Blumenthal, Edward Pauly, Grant Oliphant, and Sean Stannard-Stockton, have added important insights about the need for foundations to be more open about their lessons learned.  The conversation about failure and experimentation seemed to grow and deepen over the past three years.  So you might think that foundations would be making major changes in how they communicate about failure.  You would be wrong.

Foundations give a lot of lip service to supporting "experimentation" in social sciences. But you almost never hear them talking about outcomes that failed to meet expectations, and even more rarely, those that call their basic strategies into question. If foundations want to be real leaders in advancing social change, they must move past the endless happy-talk that makes every grant sound like a success. Instead, they should use their web sites to detail how they are evaluating their work and what they've learned from unexpected outcomes. 

A foundation sharing its experiences with grants gone wrong is still very much the exception.  Anyone who is on the receiving end of foundation annual reports and newsletters knows this is true.  But to substantiate my assertion, I decided to do a little systematic poking around.

I figured the 21 largest supporters of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (most of which are also supporters of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations) would be the foundations most attuned to the value of self-reflection, evaluation, and sharing results that defy expectations, and also those that would have budgets big enough to support substantial evaluation efforts. I spent many hours exploring the nooks of crannies of these foundations' web sites.  I looked at numerous publications and evaluation sections of the sites, and I searched each site on the terms failure, failed, unmet expectations, unmet objective, unmet goal, experimentation, mistake, lessons learned, and assessment.

What I found was that few foundations make it easy to learn from projects that didn't go as spectacularly as planned, let alone talk frankly about what has been learned from the shortcomings of foundation strategy or execution.   Many of the 21 foundations I examined made no mention at all of evaluation criteria and organizational outcomes, even though their association with CEP and GEO implies that they demand that kind of forthrightness from grantees. The majority of the foundation sites I examined had a few project evaluation reports scattered among other foundation supported research – and many of those evaluation reports were laudatory with pablum like "real collaboration is a challenge" tacked on at the end. 

Some of the best exceptions were Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation. Each of those foundations not only makes it easy to find many project evaluations that are balanced in presenting positive and negative outcomes along with what was learned through the process, but also present self-critical examinations of foundation strategy and progress as whole. It is also not a coincidence that each of those foundations' profiles on Glasspockets indicates a commitment to transparency demonstrated by making public an assessment of overall foundation performance.

But perhaps the best example – the foundation that gets the Gold Star for Succeeding in Failing – is the James Irvine Foundation. The evaluation section of its site describes their approach to evaluating grantee success and links to all of its individual evaluations of initiatives. It also links to a Foundation Assessment section that has foundation annual progress reports for the last four years.  These progress reports are exceptionally detailed and well-documented, as well as frank about successes and failures.  Irvine has also produced "Insights: Lessons Learned" publications with candid assessments of their experiences with collaborations and other grantmaking practices. A search of the Irvine site on "lessons learned" produces lots of useful and interesting evaluative information and insightful critical analysis.

We are all members of the social science community and contributors to the social experiment that is American philanthropy. We now have enough examples of foundations talking humbly about their shortcomings to know that such candor only accelerates social progress and enhances the reputations of those philanthropic leaders. We've seen no evidence that talking forthrightly about the real-world circumstances leading to failure damages nonprofits or the foundations involved, so I wonder why foundations seem so reluctant to take on this leadership role.

What has your organization learned from experiments that didn't meet expectations?

Selected Readings:
A Chronology of the Dialogue on Failure
and Experimentation in Philanthropy

— Michael Remaley

TMI vs. ROI: Risks and Rewards of Philanthropy 2.0
January 4, 2011

(Paul Connolly is Senior Vice President of TCC Group, a management consulting firm that serves nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporate community involvement programs.) 

Paul ConnollyAre "glass pockets" in the digital age half empty or half full? The answer is not so clear, based on the intriguing nuggets that surfaced when I moderated a panel discussion on "Philanthropy 2.0 — The Role of Digital Media, Technology, and Networks" at Yale School of Management's Philanthropy Conference on December 3, 2010. The panelists included Ken Berger of Charity Navigator, Claire Lyons of the Pepsico Foundation, Michael Smith of the Case Foundation, and Jose Zamora of the Knight Foundation. They all agreed that grantmakers can't afford to ignore social media as its saturation grows. They talked specifically about how funders are using digital technology to tap crowd input for influencing funding decisions and to enhance accountability and transparency. The discussion raised some provocative questions.

The Rewards of Crowdsourced Philanthropy

More grantmakers are utilizing online crowdsourcing techniques to engage a wide audience in suggesting funding ideas and priorities. Zamora explained that the Knight Foundation has employed open web-based applications because, "We do not have all the answers, and we often do not even know the right questions; it is too presumptuous for funders to assume that they can adequately identify the best priorities on their own." Through the Knight News Challenge (which has the tagline "you invent it, we fund it"), the Knight Foundation has been able to identify a variety of off-the-radar ideas for journalism. Innovative projects that have been funded include online town halls, digital courtroom coverage, virtual eyewitness video-editing studios, and hyper-local and data-filled maps for community media web sites.

Over the past year, Pepsico has made $20 million in grants through its Pepsi Refresh campaign based on public internet voting on its funding priorities. This online project has served to build the company's brand and increase customer participation and loyalty, as well as support a variety of good causes.

And while relinquishing some control is an inherent part of these interactive approaches to grantmaking, funders need not give it ALL up. One Case Foundation online program that supports citizen-centered solutions lets the public vote to determine an initial cut, but the foundation staff members make the final recommendations for grants.

Risks of Using Interactive Digital Media in the Nonprofit World

Although the Internet provides enormous opportunity for more openness, accountability, and innovation, technology is a platform for collective engagement but not the solution itself. As Lyons noted, "Crowdsourcing is a surgical tool, not a panacea." The hard work of improving communities remains, and won't be magically managed by crowds. Beyond misconceptions about the role of technology, we must also look to the risks of such 2.0 approaches.

The truth is, crowdsourcing can also misfire. Sometimes crowds are wise, and sometimes they are, er, less wise. The resulting broad input can end up being superficial – the philanthropy equivalent of "cute baby" photo contests or slacktivist-style "bumper-sticker" causes. Berger cautioned that for nonprofits, online marketing of "best stories" or "happy news" too often overshadows hard evidence of proven results. (Charity Navigator's motto is "use your head so your heart does not get broken.")

And although the Internet may feel like a more open and level playing field, power imbalances between funders and grantseekers still exist. Participants in one Case Foundation online grant voting program, for instance, reported being less than completely honest with the foundation because it still controlled the purse strings – and therefore held the financial prospects of these organizations in the balance.

Information Overload?

The ubiquity of online tools raises other questions. There are now 62 online information intermediaries in the nonprofit rating information space. Facebook Co-founder Chris Hughes added to the mix last month when he launched yet another called Jumo. While these resources provide the public with diverse choices, donors have also clearly stated that they want information that is easy to access and understand. Are funders — who financially support many of these sites — contributing to information overload? Is there too much fragmentation and should some of the sites consolidate?

Despite the proliferation of online rating sites for nonprofits, we do not see an excess of such sites for foundations. But such a scenario may not be far off — and would certainly shake things up. Would nonprofits — and funders themselves — benefit from a user-generated review site like Yelp for foundations?

— Paul Connolly

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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."

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