Transparency Talk

Category: "Failures" (16 posts)

Through a Glass a Little Less Darkly: 2015 Philanthropic Transparency Highlights
January 7, 2016

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

Janet Camarena PhotoAs we begin 2016, it’s important to reflect on the progress and highlights from the previous year.  And here at Glasspockets, we are always looking for examples of how the field is opening its windows and giving us all a better glimpse of what is going on inside. So, here you will find a listing of the top ten moments, efforts, and singular examples in 2015 that stood out to me as serving to bring the great kaleidoscope of philanthropy into sharper focus. 

The Thought Leaders:

#10 - Fund for Shared Insight (FSI) shares baseline report, Feedback Loops and Openness: A Snapshot of the Field, in March.  One of the report’s most interesting findings was that the key barrier to foundation openness is organizational culture.  This could be seen as a lowlight rather than a highlight since culture is tough to overcome.  But this was an important finding and report to be commissioned and shared because FSI is not just another industry group out to improve philanthropy; it is actually made up of philanthropy professionals now representing more than a dozen leading foundations, so the opportunity for peer learning, influence, and momentum building is high. 

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen#9 - Philanthropist and Silicon Valley Thought Leader, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, advocates that philanthropy should adopt a "glass skulls" approach, encouraging donors to open up about the processes and strategies foundations use to think through grantmaking decisions.  In an August Transparency Talk blog, she explained that true transparency "provides a window into the brain of the foundation," and also elaborated on the link between greater transparency and greater impact.  The tech community has not exactly been lauded for openness around its giving. Since Arrillaga-Andreessen is particularly influential among Silicon Valley’s tech philanthropists, this is a hopeful sign that her peers may eventually recognize openness - as a better strategy than stealth - to attain social impact. 

Darren Walker photo#8 - Leading foundations opened up their processes and strategies via the blogosphere and other online engagement.  Some foundations have been blogging for a long time, but last year I noticed a couple of online missives in particular that I hope signals a new trend of foundations, including their own CEOs, more regularly engaging online with audiences-and more importantly, signaling that they are listening, informing strategies based on what they are hearing, and responding to feedback and questions.  A notable example is Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker and his online letter in June, "What’s Next for the Ford Foundation?" Much has been written, and deservedly so, about Walker’s eloquent case for continuing to focus the foundation’s resources on inequality.  What stood out to me happened earlier in that letter, where Walker wrote about the responses he received when he asked stakeholders to assess his first year on the job: "Tell me the truth. That simple request drew more than 2,000 e-mails to my inbox. Some of them were profound and insightful. Others, lighthearted. But all of them were truthful. And I couldn’t be more grateful. In reading and reflecting on each and every response, I have become more aware of the ways in which we can improve our institution, and serve our mission."

In a field in which many grantees never receive a response to a completed grant report, hearing about a CEO who reads his emails is hard to believe were it not for how Walker proceeded to then openly share the kind of institutional self-awareness that is only possible from taking such an exercise seriously.

Larry Kramer PhotoAnother notable mention in this vein is the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's "Work in Progress" blog, which counts CEO Larry Kramer as a regular contributor, and offers insights into foundation operation, strategy, and direction.  The blog, which just completed its second year, quickly gained attention when Kramer made it a key part of his foundation leadership to create a culture of transparency at Hewlett, and has consistently offered a window on a variety of leaders at Hewlett.  At a foundation with term limits, in which the cast is consistently changing, having this kind of frequent access to the humans behind the philanthropy machinery is important.  This was underscored in a blog Kramer wrote in September called Question Time in which he re-caps good questions that came up in "open forum" calls the foundation hosted in the summer to offer grantees a platform to ask the foundation about "anything and everything."  The questions and answers included everything from the foundation’s strategy to combatting climate change to preparing grantees for program staff transitions given the term limits, as well as future directions for funding. But the key message from the post and the Open Forum is that the foundation is listening and responding.

The Watchdogs:

David Callahan photo#7 - Inside Philanthropy becomes a must read.  The world needs watchdogs, and in 2015, Inside Philanthropy became a must read for many insiders looking to see if they had been written about.  David Callahan used his journalistic chops and considerable knowledge about philanthropy to write compelling content about high profile givers and didn’t hold back on his assessments.  More than 30 of Inside Philanthropy’s blogs in 2015 either mention or focus on transparency, and in fact, he closed the year with a particularly detailed piece, Darkness Grows: Time for a New Conversation About Philanthropy and Transparency that shows why for those who find transparency a burden, it is definitely better to give than to receive.

 

Aaron Dorfman photo#6 - NCRP’s executive director, Aaron Dorfman releases video footage of how difficult it can be to get an appointment with foundation executives. Philamplify, which is a project of NCRP, produced a report criticizing the opacity of the Hess Foundation and challenging it to evolve beyond "transaction philanthropy."  The only problem is they had no way to actually make sure the foundation ever saw the written report.  You can watch the video to see the lengths to which Dorfman went to try and deliver the unsolicited advice.  But the reason this is a highlight and not a lowlight is that the video and Philamplify have a sphere of influence beyond just the foundation in question, and it served as a cautionary tale here to others about why the "don’t call us, we’ll call you" approach in philanthropy is part of the problem and not a solution.

 

Philanthropy-Not Business as Usual:

DonSDoering Photo#5 - While some foundations are still debating the merits of sharing grants data publicly on websites or external databases, one foundation executive director devoted significant real estate on the JRS Biodiversity Foundation website to showcasing the full story of each funded project. In a March Transparency Talk blog post, Don Doering outlined the JRS Biodiversity Foundation’s commitment to transparency in service to greater philanthropic impact.  The online "Grant Portfolio" section of its website reads like one might expect an internal board docket would look.  Visitors to this area of the website can quickly get up to speed on: the background of each grant; key objectives and activities of the grant; planned outcomes and outputs; progress reports; lessons learned; and notes from JRS staff about the project in question.  When colleagues ask me what my hopes are for the future of transparency in philanthropy, it often looks a lot like what the JRS Biodiversity Foundation website already has to offer. 

James Canales#4 - In late November our CEO Brad Smith wrote a blog post that appeared in PhilanTopic and Transparency Talk on the growing and troubling trend of foundations accepting applications by invitation only. In fact, he cited that only 28 percent of foundations in our database appear to have a responsive grantmaking process, and asserted that isolating a foundation from the outside world is not a best practice and concluded with some practical suggestions for how the field can open the door, "even if it’s just a crack."  Well, we heard back very swiftly from one foundation CEO, Jim Canales of the Barr Foundation, who immediately took the advice to heart and took the time to add language to the foundation’s website explaining the various ways in which one can get invited to apply.  The page outlines the often mysterious process of things like trustee-directed grants, staff initiated grants, and how to introduce foundation staff to a new idea or organization. Since taking the helm of the Barr Foundation, similar to what I stated earlier about Kramer at Hewlett and Walker at Ford, Canales has made improved transparency a priority at Barr and a signature of his leadership strategy. I hope this signals a trend of foundation leadership transitions that actually do lead to, well, leadership.   It may seem a small thing to add language to a website, but to those on the outside looking in, explaining the process of securing an invitation shows sensitivity toward inclusion, as opposed to the growing tendency toward exclusion.

Ross-150#3 - Throughout 2015, a number of high-profile foundation CEOs wrote about the importance of tracking and sharing diversity data.  Business as usual in philanthropy often can mean a double standard applies, with high expectations for transparency with grantee organizations, and a completely different yardstick for foundations.  So it was refreshing to see the foundation executives who were stepping forward to make these declarations do so with their own data in hand.  Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment (TCE), wrote about why diversity is important enough for philanthropy to measure in a Transparency Talk blog post last month, and he reflected on the impact the TCE Diversity Audit has had.  Ross states, "The Diversity Audit has helped us strengthen the culture and authorizing environment to express our values through our policies, practices, processes." In case you’re wondering, TCE is one of a very few foundations that conduct and publicly share transparency data.  According to our "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency assessment tally: of the 77 foundations that have taken and shared their assessments, only six publicly share head counts of this kind publicly, so TCE’s example here will perhaps serve as a framework for others. 

Another initiative, Green 2.0, has been pushing for similar transparency among environmental organizations, including environmental funders.  According to its latest chart, 12 of the top 40 environmental funders are sharing diversity data, and eight have made public statements about its importance. So the net positive here is not just the individual sharing of the data, but the movement building among peers that has the potential to influence how foundations approach inclusivity and diversity in the future, and perhaps more importantly, expand the spectrum of individuals who might consider philanthropy as a viable career path.

Rainbow Flag#2 - One of the great philanthropic strategy success stories happened in 2015 with Marriage Equality officially becoming the law of the land.  Through the work of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, philanthropy learned that when it works collectively and engages in storytelling about its beneficiaries, it can accelerate the pace of change.  Changing public opinion on gay marriage was key to the decision. In a break from business as usual in philanthropy, a collective of funders came together to support advocacy efforts, and stuck together over 11 years, investing $153 million to change hearts and minds.  Key to this was a willingness to invest in media campaigns, as well as to think broadly about the beneficiaries who would benefit from this investment, and then to humanize the case by showcasing stories featuring the voices of parents and grandparents of gay children as part of the effort.  The Civil Marriage Collaborative also gets extra kudos for sharing the lessons learned over those 11 years, the successes as well as the failures, with a case study and video titled appropriately, Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of How Philanthropy and the Civil Marriage Collaborative helped America Embrace Marriage Equality.

Zuckerberg & Chan#1 - Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in December, and in so doing, also launched a global debate that put philanthropic transparency in the spotlight like never before.  Some may be surprised to see me list the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as a transparency highlight, but what gave me hope is not the Initiative on its own, but the attention and visibility it gave to the importance of philanthropic transparency.  Suddenly topics usually reserved for the geekiest of foundation geeks--tax code, philanthropic vehicles, and the difference between traditional philanthropy and the LLC approach -- were being covered by everyone from The New York Times to San Jose Mercury News.  Committing Facebook shares currently valued at $45 billion to "advancing human potential and promoting equality" was bound to make a splash, but the ripples of the splash had more to do with the structure the couple chose for its largesse, rather than their eloquently written letter and the couple’s desire to make a positive difference. 

Unlike private foundations, LLCs are not required to provide details on giving, are able to fund both for profit and nonprofit entities, and there is no transfer of funds to an entity that is regulated to serve the public good.  However, on the positive side, with the launch of the Initiative,  Chan and Zuckerberg didn’t just write a moving letter; as one might expect, they developed an extensive and actually very informative Facebook page that includes a detailed timeline going back to the Initiative’s inception in 2009 through to the present, outlining key milestones and investments.  There are many foundations that don’t go to this extent.  However, at least with a private foundation, eventually all grants must be disclosed on the 990pf form, and there is no telling whether whatever information the Initiative provides is comprehensive.  So, is a Facebook status update really enough for an Initiative of this scale? It is a fair question to ask whether the public is really going to be served if there are no public disclosures actually required. And the win here is that perhaps enough people globally raised this question that it will inspire greater affinity for more transparent vehicles. 

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

--Janet Camarena

A Dash of Diversity and a Cup of Reality
December 15, 2015

(Dolores Estrada is director of grant operations at 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 5 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 second post in the series, and the first post appears here.

Estrada-150At The California Endowment (TCE), our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is strong.  It is driven by a fundamental belief that we cannot achieve our mission of improved health for Californians unless every segment of our community participates in advancing solutions.  This commitment to diversity created a guiding framework for our organization.  It also set the stage for what we now call an authorizing environment, which means permission to talk about and engage in diversity-related work with the Foundation as leverage.   This space also allows us to gather information on the governance, management, and staff composition of our community partners which, in turn, helps to ensure that TCE holds itself accountable to our diversity and inclusion goals. 

Timing, as they say, is everything. In 2010, TCE transitioned to our 10-year Building Healthy Communities (BHC) strategy.  The planning and implementation of BHC was the perfect time to embrace our values through meaningful collection and use of diversity data.  Our recipe for moving forward had a pinch of confidence, a dash of diversity, doused with a cup of reality. 

Over the course of the last five years, as the manager of grants administration, I have had the task of operationalizing our institutional values of diversity, equity and inclusion into our paperless grantmaking and grant administration.  Although The California Endowment has held to these values since inception, we needed clarity on the mechanics of how collecting data would help us with our mission.  We have the resources and technology to collect the data, but when diversity principles and values meet reality, it gets a little complicated.  We discovered that when it came to incorporating DEI practice in our grantmaking and grant administration, we knew the outcomes we wanted, but had no clear, easy recipe to get there.

Being an advocate of diversity, equity and inclusion has meant being prepared to embrace failure as a pathway for future success.  Promoting and practicing DEI is not simple.  It requires planning, patience, and a willingness to openly share and learn from our failures.  And boy have we shared a lot!

We started with voluntary applicant diversity data questionnaires attached to our online applications.  Our diversity questionnaire was crafted with care to ensure that we were using the correct terminology to capture the information we needed.  We asked for diversity information on the board of directors, executives, and staff of our grantee organizations and stored it in our grants database. 

Being an advocate of diversity, equity and inclusion has meant being prepared to embrace failure as a pathway for future success.

Bam!  Our first clue that something wasn’t working?  In a grouping of over 600 applications submitted less than 400 provided diversity data.  More importantly, the data points submitted didn’t make sense given what we knew about the grantees.  We decided to give the data collection process more time and see what happened. 

We considered the phrasing of the various questions, terminologies used, and online format as possible culprits.  Were those the reason for this data desert?  No, what we failed to do was to explain to our grantee organizations and community stakeholders why we were asking for diversity data and what we intended to do with this information.  In addition, we realized that we had assumed “everyone” had the data and did not factor in barriers or challenges that applicants might have in collecting this information themselves. 

Our team convened, determined to clearly communicate our values and goals and the importance of the data.  Our CEO, Dr. Robert Ross, then penned a message for our online applications and communicated our intent for collecting diversity data, stating: 

"The data collected will serve multiple purposes: to help us understand how we reflect the communities we serve, equip our staff with critical data to assistant nonprofits to better serve the needs of California's diverse communities and to track our progress with our Board and our grantees and communities."

For the next couple of months, our goal will be to create opportunities to learn, share and have open dialogue about DEI data pertaining to the foundation and that of our grantees organization wide.  Our benchmark for success is not about collecting data from everyone, but rather an understanding of how diversity data is incorporated into our grantmaking and allow us to engage our communities and partners in meaningful ways. 

A dash of diversity and a cup of reality make the best recipe for success.

#FailEpic Continued
August 19, 2015

(Chris Cardona is program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. This post first ran in The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy.”

I appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it’s so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened – when do you know to throw in the towel? – and that it’s not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

Chris CardonaI would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success – that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it – masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who’s doing the telling, and when.

I see two strands of conversation worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

One is to explore what it looks like to have candid conversations between funders and nonprofits about real issues of execution and responsibility (on all sides!) in a context beyond the one-on-one grant relationship. I come to this with an instinct that a more public version of such conversations would be salutary, but also deep wariness about doing it in a way that’s constructive instead of harmful.

  • Are there stages by which such conversations evolve? Do you need to start with self-reflection, then within your own organization, then within a trusted network of peers, then more publicly? That’s an awful lot of steps.
  • Perhaps the best starting place is not talking about failure within a particular grant relationship, but in the context of a topic of shared interest in which the participants don’t have a direct stake. One can imagine a study group dedicated to reviewing examples of initiatives that have failed, and seeking to generate and apply insight from them – with an audience of funders and nonprofits who aren’t part of that field. Might that be a less threatening way to get started?
  • Because trying to have a conversation within a field about what worked and what didn’t is incredibly difficult. I think about the “four pillars” strategy in the immigration reform movement, which national funders and nonprofits developed together after a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006-07. They analyzed why they lost and how they could overcome those disadvantages, and then moved resources and effort toward filling those gaps. What makes cases like that possible? Where else does this happen?

The other strand of conversation worth pursuing is to ask what it looks like within an organization, and specifically a foundation, to be open to acknowledging, learning from, and acting on failure. What values and motivations need to be in place? Who are the change agents and culture bearers? How do incentives need to change? Are there particular structures or systems that make it easier to learn from and act on failure? What do a higher risk tolerance and a culture of inquiry look like in practice? I feel like we know a lot about this in the field, but the threads of conversation aren’t necessarily organized.

  • Part of the challenge is, who owns failure within the institution? In other words, who’s responsible for identifying it, naming it, lifting it up, creating a safe space in which to discuss it, making sure meaning is derived, and then following through on application of that insight? Those responsibilities fall across a number of function – evaluation, HR, programs, senior leadership, board. What role should be the steward or the shepherd ensuring that those functions are integrated in pursuit of mining improvement from failure, and what resources or tools does that person or team need?

Thanks again to all have engaged on this topic, and to the organizations that have begun hosting conversations among funders about being more open about failure. Do the strands of conversation I suggest above seem relevant, and worth pursuing? What kinds of spaces could we create for more authentic funder-nonprofit dialogue? And how can we get clearer about the organizational culture needed to support openness about failure?

--Chris Cardona

#FailEpic
July 28, 2015

(Chris Cardona is program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. This post first ran in The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy.”)

CCardonaAt three recent philanthropy gatherings*, I’ve heard open discussions of failure in grantmaking strategy and execution. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but I’m heartened by this mini-trend.

Why is it still so hard to talk about failure in philanthropy?

  • There’s no incentive. Under what circumstances is one encouraged to fail? Working out, playing sports, rehearsing for a performance – these are all activities where you’re meant to try something new, see how it goes, fix what didn’t work, and try again. You get immediate signals that tell you what’s not working, and often someone is there to tell you what to do instead, or how to do better. What’s crucial in those cases is that you’re not alone, and that there is someone in the role of spotter – observing your performance with a frame of reference of how to do it better, giving you timely feedback on how to improve. And you can see the results of your improved performance. Signals about performance in philanthropy travel much more slowly, if at all, and the roles are not nearly as clear. As discussed in a prior post, most foundations are minimally staffed, so there’s not a lot of space for an HR function. And most program staff are recruited for their content expertise, not because they’re good managers. So you can’t count on there being a spotter for you within your foundation. Don’t get me wrong, people within the foundation do pay attention to what you’re doing, and you are called to account if you don’t follow the rules. But those rules aren’t necessarily set up to support performance or performance improvement. Which brings up another point…
  • There are disincentives, real and imagined. Boards are often risk-averse. (But what exactly are they worried about?) Senior leadership may be launching a new initiative that they’ve had to persuade the board or outside stakeholders is worth taking on, and they don’t want to give ammunition to their critics. (But is anyone actually paying attention?) There are internal cultures of perfectionism. (But what are the actual consequences of imperfection?) The audience with whom you’re sharing may not understand what it takes to make a good grant, and will take your failure out of context. (But what’s so bad about having to explain yourself?)
  • There’s not enough context. Foundations are not good about telling the story of their work. On the one hand, you don’t want to brag, when it’s really the nonprofits to whom you provide support that are doing the hard work. On the other hand, if no one ever has any understanding of where you’re coming from, and why you operate the way you do, then it becomes especially hard to talk about when things don’t go right. If the first time people are hearing about you is when something goes wrong, you’re going to get an unsympathetic reading, and you’ll be on the defensive from the get-go.
  • It’s not easy for anyone. Let’s not underestimate the fragility of the human ego: it stings when something doesn’t work out, especially when, like a lot of foundation folks I’ve met (and am), you’re a high achiever with a passion for this work who feels lucky and privileged to play this kind of role.
  • The stakes are comparatively high. I owe this insight to Phil Buchanan from CEP: failure in philanthropy is not the same as failure in a commercial enterprise, the kind where “fail fast” is a popular mantra. If the newest tech product launch fails, the consequences are not the same as if a social-impact bond working on recidivism among juvenile offenders fails. There’s actually an interesting discussion to be had about the loss of jobs if a business effort fails vs. the failure to receive services if a nonprofit effort fails (how well do we know the service works, etc.), but some other time.

What other reasons are there for why it’s hard to talk about failure in philanthropy? How can we overcome them?

*I note that all three discussions happened in grantmaker-only spaces. There’s value in a trusted network of peers, as my colleague Brian Walsh calls it, that provides a space in which to be more open. I look forward to the day when such conversations can happen in broader public networks.

What would it take to promote a more open discussion of failure in philanthropy? What benefits would that provide?

--Chris Cardona

Transparency Chat: Exponent Philanthropy Shares Foundation Successes and Failures
January 21, 2015

Jeanne Metzger headshot September 2014Jeanne Metzger is the chief development and marketing officer at Exponent Philanthropy, which recently 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. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Jeanne Metzger about the work this grant will fund.

Janet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Jeanne Metzger: We are the largest philanthropic support membership organization representing approximately 2,300 foundations and other funders who operate with few or no staff. Our mission is to empower philanthropists to leverage their resources and amplify their impact. We achieve this mission through a strategic framework that defines our activities into three areas/goals: Guide, Connect, and Champion. 

In philanthropy, going public refers to intentionally engaging publicly with the communities, causes, and conversations that matter to you and your mission. Going public for a philanthropist is also about raising and leveraging capital – philanthropic capital – or the connections, expertise, influence, and dollars that allow funders to achieve their charitable missions.

By creating a safe place for grantmakers to share information and learn from one another, they report back to us that they are more effective and fulfilled by their philanthropy. We are hoping that by getting some of our member stories on video through the Fund for Shared Insight grant we will be able to improve the effectiveness of more grantmakers.

Throughout our 18 year history (originally as the Association of Small Foundations and now as Exponent Philanthropy) we have found that our members learn a tremendous amount from one another. By creating a safe place for them to share information and learn from one another, they report back to us that they are more effective and fulfilled by their philanthropy. We are hoping that by getting some of our member stories on video through the Fund for Shared Insight grant we will be able to improve the effectiveness of more grantmakers.

JC: Since your specific funded project is to produce videos tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

JM: In 2015, we will be producing a series of videos that capture stories from Exponent Philanthropy members about lessons learned from their grantmaking. We will be encouraging our participants to share lessons learned through successes and failures.  The videos will all be posted to our website and we welcome other organizations to link to them and help spread the word so that the largest community of funders possible can benefit from them. We hope these videos will help to inspire dialogue on platforms such as Transparency Talks. This dialogue will lead to shared learning.

Exponent-logoJC: Greater openness in philanthropy can encompass a lot of elements--why did you choose to tackle lessons learned from both successes and failures? And also why are you choosing video as a way to tell this story over other forms of media (as opposed to podcast, webstory, blog, etc.)?

JM: People can learn a lot from their failures. And, let’s face it, not every grant and/or investment results in the outcomes that it was intended to have. Embracing failure is a unique attribute of the American culture and one that fuels our entrepreneurial spirit. Video is a powerful medium and one that is growing in use and popularity. We already tell our members’ stories through social media, our blog, our website, our publications, and in our programs. A natural progression is to leverage the power of video and it’s something we have wanted to do for several years but have not had the financial resources to do so. The grant from the Fund for Shared Insight is providing us the opportunity and we are really excited about the potential of this project.

JC: Exponent Philanthropy brings a lot of expertise in terms of working with smaller foundations, who often decide that the effectiveness and transparency conversations are better left to the larger foundations that have more staff capacity. What are your thoughts around how to best engage smaller foundations in these kinds of initiatives?

People can learn a lot from their failures. And, let’s face it, not every grant and/or investment results in the outcomes that it was intended to have. Embracing failure is a unique attribute of the American culture and one that fuels our entrepreneurial spirit.

JM: We find that our members are very much interested in effectiveness and how to amplify their impact. That is why they seek out our resources, attend our programs and are part of our community. It is true that many small foundations are private about their philanthropy but a growing number of our members see the benefit of being more open about their activities, collaborating with other funds, and convening key stakeholders around key issues. We hope that these videos will inspire more small foundations to be more open in the future.

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented.

JM: One of the key findings of our recent strategic planning process was that our members unite around a unique style of philanthropy that is agile, responsive, grounded in their communities and in their key issues. Philanthropists who work with few or no staff are different in many ways from larger foundations and I think because of their agility and size tend to be more open to change than larger institutions. There is also a generational change happening in philanthropy and we are finding that the next generation of philanthropists think about their philanthropy differently than the previous generations. All that said, there is still a lot of work to be done to move more small funders to be change oriented.  Highlighting examples of how change and new approaches have resulted in increased impact will help push the needle further.

--Jeanne Metzger

Why Grantmakers Need Intelligent Failure
May 29, 2014

(Ashley Good is the CEO and Founder of Fail Forward, which supports organizations to learn, innovate and build resilience. On July 9th, 2014 in Toronto she will host Fail Forward 2014, a full day of thought-provoking ideas, useful tools and practices, and truly novel experiences to help us redefine our relationship with failure.)

Good-150Four years ago, while working with a UN-funded agriculture project in northern Ghana, the team and I started to see flaws in the way the project had been designed: farmer registration requirements took farmers out of their fields during harvest season; procuring local contractors for construction was more time intensive than expected; and funding mechanisms had been designed before the 2008 crash so didn’t reflect current realities.

When the UN evaluator flew in from Rome to assess the project, he asked all the right questions. But instead of speaking up about the shortcomings of the project, our team kept quiet, not wanting to rock the boat.  After all, my colleagues and I were pretty good at our jobs and had found ways of working around the design failures. If we spoke up, we may get fired and be replaced by someone who wouldn’t bother to find ways around the challenges. Besides, we justified to ourselves, nothing would change anyway. 

So nothing did change and the design failures we didn’t share are doomed to be repeated.

Everything changed when I returned to Canada. I took a position at Engineers Without Borders Canada, leading their annual Failure Report. I saw first-hand that a dialogue about failures was incredibly powerful for building agility and resilience into the DNA of an organization.

I wanted to spread the practice of speaking openly about failure in the for-purpose sector and so built the website AdmittingFailure.com where anyone could submit stories of failure and learning. I built a sector wide failure report.

Ironically, the site was a failure and only thirty stories have been submitted. That said, I have done dozens of media interviews, countless blogs have written about the site, and academic after academic still call me hoping to study it.

It failed to be the database for learning I had envisioned, but it has started to flip the idea of failure on its head for funders and their grantees. You’re not underperforming if you fail, you’re underperforming if you don’t discuss and learn from that failure.  The site was different from what came before because it wasn’t about pointing fingers or finding someone to “hold accountable”, but rather it was about driving that critical self-reflection of what can you do better. It represented the mindset I needed to speak up when I was in Ghana.

 The failure of Admitting Failure showed me how hard it was to bridge that gap between knowing we should discuss failures openly and actually doing it in practice.  This insight led me to start the organization I now run, Fail Forward, which works directly with organizations to create a more productive relationship with failure so that learning and innovation can thrive.

The shift toward a transparent, learning culture in the for-purpose sector - one where failures are treated as teachable moments, and aren’t repeated - is possible and it starts with funders acting as role models for the entire sector.

I’ve now been a full-time failure for over three years and I can confidently say I have seen huge steps in the willingness and ability of for-purpose people and organizations to be open about their challenges, missteps and failures. The shift toward a transparent, learning culture in the for-purpose sector - one where failures are treated as teachable moments, and aren’t repeated - is possible and it starts with funders acting as role models for the entire sector.

Laura Dowling was one of the first academics who got in touch with me years ago. She was studying if admitting mistakes in development and humanitarian aid effected public trust in the organization which admitted to the mistake. Her research is now complete and she found “admitting failure makes no difference to public trust or indeed willingness to donate money.”  More important, she also “found strong evidence to suggest that public trust is strongly correlated with public perceptions of transparency.”

Funders need to create a space where failures, your own and those of your grantees, can be discussed productively, with humility and curiosity for what was learned and a willingness to adapt. Time your reflection and evaluation to when you can use that learning to inform future investments. And make sure failures are shared, not repeated.

Some questions for reflection:

  • What’s stopping you?
  • What does “right-sized” transparency look like at your organization?  As in, not everything needs a full post-mortem and Failure Report – what is the appropriate level of transparency that is ideal for learning and impact?
  • How will you make sure any reporting you ask for is what is useful for learning?
  • How will you and your grantees learn through the project, not just after it? As Marilyn Darling says, “We over-emphasize learning from a past event and totally under-emphasize the importance of learning through current events.”
  • What would it look like to engage your board in a discussion that builds up their tolerance and understanding for the value of taking risks (and thus seeing some grants fail) in the interest of innovation?

-- Ashley Good

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