Transparency Talk

Category: "Government" (32 posts)

Staff Pick: Foundation Funded Research Explores How to Improve the Voter Experience
August 9, 2018

Becca Leviss is a Knowledge Services Fellow at Foundation Center.

This post is part of the GlassPockets’ Democracy Funding series, designed to spotlight knowledge about ways in which philanthropy is working to strengthen American democracy.

Becca 2Voting is central to our democracy, providing citizens from all communities direct way to influence the future by conveying beliefs through civic participation. Though foundations by law must be non-partisan, they can and do support democracy in a variety of ways, and we are tracking these activities in our publicly available Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy web portal.  
 
From this data we can see that encouraging broad civic participation is one of the most popular ways in which institutional philanthropy supports our democracy. Specific strategies under civic participation include issue-based participation, civic education and leadership, naturalization and immigrant civic integration, and public participation. So, what have foundations learned from these efforts about how to strengthen our democracy? Today we will zoom in to learn from a foundation-funded report that is openly available, containing findings from data collection on elections and voting patterns, including how well the process is workingand who is included or excluded. 
 
Our latest “Staff Pick” from IssueLab’s Democracy Special Collection, which is comprised of foundation-funded research on the topic, explores an aspect of the voter experience in America that could be improvedWith less than 90 days to go before the midterm elections, we’re pleased to offer this deep dive into an important piece of voting-related research. 
 
Research in the social sector can sometimes feel inaccessible or artificial—based on complex theories and mathematical models and highly-controlled situations. This report, however, presents its research methodology and results in a clear, understandable manner that invites the reader to continue its work to understanding how polling sites can use their resources to both investigate and improve the voter experience.  

STAFF PICK

Improving the Voter Experience: Reducing Polling Place Wait Times by Measuring Lines and Managing Polling Place Resources, by Charles Stewart III; John C. Fortier; Matthew Weil; Tim Harper; Stephen Pettigrew 

Download the Report

Publisher

Bipartisan Policy Center

Funders

Ford Foundation; The Democracy Fund

Quick Summary

Voting is the cornerstone of civic engagement in American democracy, but long wait times and inefficient organization at polling places can undermine the voting process and even discourage citizens from voting altogether. In 2013, President Barack Obama launched the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) to initiate studies and collaborative research on polling place wait times. The PCEA’s work revealed that while wait times and poll lines are a serious issue in the United States, they are also reflective of deeper, more complex problems within the election administration system. This report by the Bipartisan Policy Center summarizes the PCEA’s efforts and highlights how the knowledge gained can produce action and improvement at polling sites. Ultimately, the report emphasizes the need for continued research and innovation in approaching common issues in the voter experience.

Field of Practice

Government Reform

What makes it stand out?

Ne report“Long lines may be a canary in the coal mine,” begins the report,“indicating problems beyond a simple mismatch between the number of voting machines and voters, such as voter rules that are inaccurate or onerous.” Quantitative and qualitative data has shown that long lines at the polls have wide-reaching economic costs of over half a billion dollars in a presidential election, as well as the immeasurable cost of voter discouragement due to polling place problems. These issues are exacerbated at polling sites that are urban, dense, and with large minority populations, where lack of resources and access can disenfranchise the voting population.

While the dilemma of election administration is complex, the report describes a rather straight-forward series of projects by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Bipartisan Policy Center. MIT and BPC collaborated to create a system of data collection on polling lines and polling place efficiency that would be simple and easily implemented by poll workers. The program utilized basic queuing theory: calculating the average wait time of a voter by dividing the average line length by the average arrival time. For fellow (and potential future) researchers, this report spends a meaningful portion of time explaining the significance of each variable, how it is calculated, and how its fluctuation impacts the overall results of the investigation. We are given examples of several successful iterations of the study and their evaluations, as well as insight into certain research choices.

MIT/BPC’s work has found that an overwhelming majority of Election Day polling sites—82 percent—experienced the longest line when the doors first opened. In all, a total of 90 percent of Election Day polling sites have their longest lines within the first two hourly samples (when observed on Hour 0 and Hour 1), with the lines declining at an average rate after that. Similarly, voters experience the longest wait times when the lines were at their longest. This pattern is vastly different from that of early voting sites, where wait time is relatively constant; however, these sites still most commonly experience their longest lines at the beginning of the day (25 percent of the studied population).

The research emphasizes the importance of how to adequately prepare for the length of the longest line. The report suggests that if polling sites adjust worker shifts to accommodate for strong early morning voter turnout on Election Day, they can easily clear the lines within the first few hours of voting, thus saving money and better serving their voters. The report also recognizes the range of its results: in other words, individual precincts have individual needs. Without meaningful research, however, we cannot know how to meet those needs and improve the voter experience. Therefore, as readers (and hopefully fellow voters), we are encouraged by MIT/BPC’s work to take clear and simple action to improve our own polling sites through continued research and investigation. This report exemplifies the importance of making the research and data process transparent and attainable so that we can not only understand its significance, but actively contribute to its efforts. There are many processes that could benefit from this kind of data analysis to improve the user experience. What if foundations analyzed their grant processes in this way? I can’t help but think that there is much that philanthropy can learn from the government from reports like this that show how institutions are opening up data collection to improve the user experience for actors and stakeholders.

Key Quote

“Precincts with large numbers of registered voters often have too few check-in stations or voting booths to handle the volume of voters assigned to the precinct, even under the best of circumstances. Precincts that are unable to clear the lines from the first three hours of voting are virtually guaranteed to have long lines throughout the day. Polling places in urban areas often face design challenges—small, inconvenient spaces—that undermine many election officials’ best efforts to provide adequate resources to these locations.”

--Becca Leviss

The IRS just made an important change related to transparency
July 19, 2018

This post originally appeared in Philanthropy News Digest July 19, 2018.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury has announced that the Internal Revenue Service will no longer require 501(c) organizations other than 501(c)(3)s to file personally identifiable information about donors on their Form 990s.

While the procedure does not affect the statutory reporting requirements that apply to tax-exempt groups organized under section 501(c)(3) or section 527, it will exempt associations, labor unions, social welfare organizations, and other groups from having to file Schedule B information with their 990s — though organizations must still collect that information and make it available to the IRS upon request.

According to Treasury department officials, the information was not necessary for the government to enforce tax laws, and the change itself will better protect private taxpayer information. "Americans shouldn't be required to send the IRS information that it doesn't need to effectively enforce our tax laws, and the IRS simply does not need tax returns with donor names and addresses to do its job in this area," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. "The IRS's new policy for certain tax-exempt organizations will make our tax system simpler and less susceptible to abuse."

However, Philip Hackney, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and former IRS attorney, told the NonProfit Times that, from a tax-exemption perspective, the Schedule B requirement was crucial to the agency's federally mandated oversight of the nonprofit sector. No longer requiring the information "does harm to our democracy and harm to the IRS's ability to oversee the tax law generally," he said. And because the IRS is willingly giving up important data related to where money is flowing in a tax-exempt manner from wealthy individuals, Hackney added, "[i]t makes it [easier] for wealthy interests to influence our political system covertly."

What Philanthropy Can Learn from Open Government Data Efforts
July 5, 2018

Daniela Pineda, Ph.D., is vice president of integration and learning at First 5 LA, an independent public agency created by voters to advocate for programs and polices benefiting young children. A version of this post also appears in the GOVERNING blog.

Daniela Pineda Photo 2Statistics-packed spreadsheets and lengthy, jargon-filled reports can be enough to make anybody feel dizzy. It's natural. That makes it the responsibility for those of us involved in government and its related institutions to find more creative ways to share the breadth of information we have with those who can benefit from it.

Government agencies, foundations and nonprofits can find ways to make data, outcomes and reports more user-friendly and accessible. In meeting the goal of transparency, we must go beyond inviting people to wade through dense piles of data and instead make them feel welcome using it, so they gain insights and understanding.

How can this be done? We need to make our data less wonky, if you will.

This might sound silly, and being transparent might sound as easy as simply releasing documents. But while leaders of public agencies and officeholders are compelled to comply with requests under freedom-of-information and public-records laws, genuine transparency requires a commitment to making the information being shared easy to understand and useful.

“…genuine transparency requires a commitment to making the information being shared easy to understand and useful.”

Things to consider include how your intended audience prefers to access and consume information. For instance, there are generational differences in the accessing of information on tablets and mobile devices as opposed to traditional websites. Consider all the platforms your audience uses to view information, such as smartphone apps, news websites and social media platforms, to constantly evolve based on their feedback.

Spreadsheets just won't work here. You need to invest in data visualization techniques and content writing to explain data, no matter how it is accessed.

The second annual Equipt to Innovate survey, published by Governing in partnership with Living Cities, found several cities not only using data consistently to drive decision-making but also embracing ways to make data digestible for the publics they serve.

Los Angeles' DataLA portal, for example, offers more than 1,000 data sets for all to use along with trainings and tutorials on how to make charts, maps and other visualization. The portal's blog offers a robust discussion of the issues and challenges faced with using existing data to meet common requests. Louisville, Ky., went the proverbial extra mile, putting a lot of thought into what data would be of interest to residents and sharing the best examples of free online services that have been built using the metro government's open data.

Louisville's efforts point up the seemingly obvious but critical strategy of making sure you know what information your target audience actually needs. Have you asked? Perhaps not. The answers should guide you, but also remember to be flexible about what you are asking. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District is set to launch a new portal later this summer to provide parents with data, and is still learning how to supply information that parents find useful. District officials are listening to feedback throughout the process, and they are willing to adjust. One important strategy for this is to make your audience -- or a sampling of them -- part of your beta testing. Ask what information they found useful and what else would have been helpful.

“When you share, you are inviting others to engage with you about how to improve your work.”

Remember, the first time you allow a glimpse into your data and processes, it's inevitable your information will have gaps and kinks that you can't foresee. And if you are lucky to get feedback about what didn't work so well, it may even seem harsh. Don't take it personally. It's an opportunity to ask your audience what could be done better and commit to doing so. It may take weeks, months or maybe longer to package information for release, making it usable and accessible, but this is an investment worth making. You might miss the mark the first time, but make a commitment to keep trying.

And don't be daunted by the reality that anytime you share information you expose yourself to criticism. Sharing with the public that a project didn't meet expectations or failed completely is a challenge no matter how you look at it. But sharing, even when it is sharing your weaknesses, is a strength your organization can use to build its reputation and gain influence in the long term.

When you share, you are inviting others to engage with you about how to improve your work. You also are modeling the importance of being open about failure. This openness is what helps others feel like partners in the work, and they will feel more comfortable opening up about their own struggles. You might be surprised at who will reach out and what type of partnerships can come from sharing.

Through this process, you will build your reputation and credibility, helping your organization advance its goals. Ultimately, it's about helping those you serve by giving them the opportunity to help you.

--Daniela Pineda

To Serve Better, Share
May 3, 2018

Daniela Pineda, Ph.D., is vice president of integration and learning at First 5 LA, an independent public agency created by voters to advocate for programs and polices benefiting young children.

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

Daniela Pineda Photo 2We share ideas freely on Pinterest, we easily give our opinions on products on Amazon and we learn from “how-to” videos on YouTube from the comfort of our homes. We even enjoy sharing and being creative by pulling ideas and concepts together.

Often, this is not what happens once we step foot in the office. We may find ourselves more reluctant to embrace sharing what works, learning what doesn’t and then applying these lessons to our work. It’s hard to speak about how things didn’t turn out as expected. It is as if we are saving the treasure of our knowledge for a rainy day, as if it’s a limited resource.

I believe in the power of being #OpenForGood, using knowledge to improve philanthropic effectiveness, in our case, to help create more opportunities and better outcomes for young children.

That’s why I am delighted to participate in a new how-to guide that was just released this week by sharing examples from our journey to opening up our knowledge at First5 LA. As part of Foundation Center’s #OpenForGood movement, the new GrantCraft guide Open for Good: Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking provides tips and resources, including strategies for knowledge sharing. Everyone benefits when organizations strengthen their knowledge sharing practices by enhancing organizational capacity and culture, and by understanding how to overcome common hurdles to sharing knowledge.  

“We can achieve more collectively and individually by sharing information and creating knowledge.”

As a public entity, First 5 LA is uniquely positioned to share knowledge with the field. Our mandate to be transparent serves as a powerful launchpad for sharing knowledge. For example, in our work with communities across Los Angeles County, we work to elevate the voices and perspectives of parents to leaders and lawmakers.

When we create opportunities for parents and policymakers to hear from each other, we are moving beyond a transparency requirement to foster more nuanced conversations on how we can all help improve outcomes for kids.

No matter your type of organization or mission -- foundations, nonprofit, government or business, we can achieve more collectively and individually by sharing information and creating knowledge.

Sharing information about what has worked, what hasn’t, and being open to learning lessons from others is a skill that sharpens your thinking, benefits the field, and helps advance your own goals, while also benefiting those you serve.

We must be mindful of the many potential roadblocks to sharing in service of becoming more effective, both inside and outside of our own organizations. Among them: egos and a lack of humility; competition for resources; a lack of incentives to share; and a lack of awareness of what information is shared and what outcomes it produces.

Sharing Sharpens Your Thinking

Failing to see knowledge sharing as part of your job amounts to lost opportunity, lost time, and lost resources. Making the time to find out what others are doing is important. At a minimum, we can feel empowered by the simple knowledge that we aren’t the only ones dealing with the problems we face in our jobs. In a best case scenario, we can adapt that information to our context, and try new ways to do our jobs better.

Open For Good CoverThis notion really hit home for me from a very simple online search when I started a new role. Curious if others were also grappling with similar issues about how to effectively evaluate place-based work, I searched a few sites. In philanthropy, we are fortunate to have impressive open online repositories such as Foundation Center’s Issue Lab, where we can find loads of information.

Indeed, my search led to several pieces on lessons learned from funders of place-based work. I fortunately found a thoughtful report on the topic at hand. But what was most useful, beyond reading the insight gleaned, was that I was then able to reach out to one of the authors to learn exactly what it meant to let the evaluation design evolve with the initiative.

Based on this connection, I refined a step on our learning agenda process to ensure we set the expectation that community voices were consulted earlier, during the planning phase of the project. While we had already planned for inclusion, I learned what types of pitfalls to avoid when structuring community engagement on a long-term evaluation project.

Since reaching out to my colleague, I have continued to learn from him and a broader network of learning practitioners who also value sharing knowledge. This concept of reaching out to others and asking simple questions is simple, and yet so few make the time to do it.

The truth is, great ideas can come from anywhere: a conversation on a commuter train, a session at a conference, or results from a search engine. Sharing, and being open to new ideas, serves to sharpen thinking and can improve your ability to achieve your philanthropic to  goals.

Sharing Benefits the Field

At a more global level, to make an impact on society and change things for the better, share what you know, and be willing to adjust your approach based on what you learn. That’s the approach we embrace at First 5 LA.

This not only helps our organization in our mission, but it sets an example for other like-minded organizations to open their viewpoints on sharing their successes and failures.

“Don’t save your knowledge for a rainy day—it’s an unlimited resource!”

For example, we recently worked with an evaluation partner to restructure the scope of its engagement. This was difficult because the project had been in place for a long time and the restructuring resulted in a more narrow scope. The partner was disappointed that we determined only two of the four initially designed subprojects remained relevant to our work. It could appear we were no longer committed to learn about this investment.

By being open with them, we also heard about their own concerns that the data would be of sufficient quality to conduct rigorous analyses. We listened and came up with a joint approach  to reach out to a different entity to secure an alternative data source. This worked, and now the project has been refocused, new data was secured, and the partner saw firsthand that while the approach changed, we were still committed to learning together.

Sharing information and outcomes is essential to being influencers in our areas of expertise. And learning from others is essential to being assets within our fields. In this case, we landed on an alternative approach to leverage data, and we maintained a productive relationship with our partner. We plan to share this approach broadly so that it can spark new ideas and insights or confirm an approach among other grantmakers grappling with similar issues.

Once we as individuals, managers and organizations can distill and discern knowledge, we can apply it to our own important work for public good, and share it with others to help them with theirs.

Sharing Is a Skill

These sharing efforts should permeate your organization, beyond the C-suite. Leaders must lead by example and encourage staff to see themselves as gatherers – and contributors – of knowledge to their fields.

Ultimately, learning to share information is a skill. To do this, and to glean the best information from data includes sharing it with others both inside and outside of your organization.

But collecting reams of information will do us no good if we do not have a specific plan for the data, and then analyze what it means in a bigger universe – and for those we serve.

At First 5 LA, we take a very pragmatic approach to data collection. First, we work with our programs to identify the specific systems we are trying to impact. Once that is determined, we then create learning agendas, which are tools for us to prioritize the key learning questions that will help us know if we are making progress on behalf of kids in Los Angeles  County.

Our approach requires that we specify how we plan to use those data before we collect it. Data should be tied to specific learning questions.

We are proud of our work and approach to use learning as a strategy, and it is not always easy to let others benefit from what we learn the hard way.

But our work is not ultimately about a singular institution. And you don’t need to save your knowledge for a rainy day—it’s usually an unlimited resource! It’s about huddling under a shared umbrella in stormy weather, and basking together in the sunshine for the ones who need us the most. Those we serve.

--Daniela Pineda

In the Know: #OpenForGood Staff Pick December 2017
December 20, 2017

Gabriela Fitz is director of knowledge management initiatives at Foundation Center.

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

Gabi Fitz photo

As the #OpenForGood campaign builds steam, and we continue to add to our IssueLab Results repository of more than 400 documents containing lessons learned and evaluative data, our team will regularly shine the spotlight on new and noteworthy examples of the knowledge that is available to help us work smarter, together. This current pick comes to us from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Read last month's staff pick here.


Staff Pick: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

Evaluation of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Chronic Homelessness Initiative: 2016 Evaluation Report, Phase I

Download the Report

Quick Summary

 

In 2011, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation partnered with Abt Associates Inc. to conduct an evaluation of the Hilton Foundation’s Chronic Homelessness Initiative, with the goal of answering an overarching question: Is the Chronic Homelessness Initiative an effective strategy to end and prevent chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County?

Answering that question has not been so easy. And it bears mentioning that this is not one of those reports that strives to prove a certain model is working, but instead provides a suitably complicated picture of an issue that will be an ongoing, multi-agency struggle.  A combination of economic conditions, insufficient and shrinking availability of affordable housing, and an unmet need for mental health and supportive services actually resulted in an increase in homeless people living in Los Angeles County during the time period under study. The numbers even suggest that Los Angeles was further from ending chronic homelessness than ever before. But the story is a bit more complicated than that.

In this final evaluation report on the community’s progress over five years, (January 2011 through December 2015), Abt Associates Inc. found that the collaborative system that had been developed during the first phase of the initiative actually represented a kind of turning point for the County to address chronic homelessness, which was needed more than ever by the end of 2015.

Field of Practice

  • Housing and Homelessness

What kinds of knowledge does this report open up?

This report goes beyond evaluating a single effort or initiative to look at the larger collaborative system of funding bodies and stakeholders involved in solving a problem like chronic homelessness. We often hear that no foundation can solve problems single-handedly, so it’s refreshing to see a report framework that takes this reality into account by not just attempting to isolate the foundation-funded part of the work. The initiative’s strategy focused on a systemic approach that included goals, such as the leveraging of public funds, demonstrated action by elected and public officials, and increased capacity among developers and providers to provide permanent and supporting housing effectively, alongside the actual construction of thousands of housing units. By adopting this same systemic lens, the evaluation itself provides valuable insight into not just the issue of chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County, but also into how we might think about and evaluate programs and initiatives that are similarly collaborative or interdependent by design.

What makes it stand out?

This report is notable for two reasons. First is the evaluators’ willingness and ability to genuinely grapple with the discouraging fact that homelessness had gone up during the time of the initiative, as well as the foundation’s willingness to share this knowledge by publishing and sharing it. All too often, reports that don’t cast foundation strategies in the best possible light don’t see the light of day at all. Sadly, it is that kind of “sweeping under the rug” of knowledge that keeps us all in the dark. The second notable thing about this report is its design. The combination of a summary “dashboard” with easily digestible infographics about both the process of the evaluation and its findings, and a clear summary analysis for each strategic goal, makes this evaluation stand out from the crowd.

Key Quote

“From our vantage point, the Foundation’s investment in Systems Change was its most important contribution to the community’s effort to end chronic homelessness during Phase I of the Initiative. But that does not mean the Foundation’s investments in programs and knowledge dissemination did not make significant contributions. We believe it is the interplay of the three that yielded the greatest dividend.”

--Gabriela Fitz

Apocalypse Later? Philanthropy and Transparency in an Illiberal World
March 6, 2017

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. As recently reported by Nonprofit Quarterly, the National Council of Nonprofits has launched a campaign to get nonprofits to sign a Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship that calls for preservation of the Johnson Amendment in its current form. This blog also appears in PhilanTopic.)

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

Brad Smith PhotoHow long will it be before nonprofit transparency takes its place alongside diceros bicornis on the endangered species list? Hopefully never, but in a world that's growing more technologically sophisticated and more illiberal, I'm beginning to think that if it's not Apocalypse Now, maybe it's Apocalypse Later.

The value of transparency

Transparency has been a boon to the philanthropic sector, making it possible for organizations like Foundation Center, Guidestar, the Urban Institute, Charity Navigator, and others to create searchable databases spanning the entire nonprofit and foundation universe. Our efforts, in turn, contribute to responsible oversight, help nonprofits raise funds to pursue their missions, and fuel online platforms that enable donors to make better giving choices. Transparency also enables foundations to collaborate more effectively, leverage their resources more efficiently, and make real progress on critical issues such as black male achievement, access to safe water, and disaster response. The incredibly rich information ecosystem that undergirds the American social sector is the envy of others around the globe — not least because it gives us a clear view of what nonprofit initiative can accomplish, how it compares and contrasts with government, and how social, economic, and environmental issues are being addressed through private-public partnerships.

Where we are today

Federal law — U.S. Code, Title 26, Section 6104 — stipulates that public access to Form 990, a federal information form that tax-exempt organizations are required to file annually, must be provided promptly on request at the exempt organization's office or offices, or within thirty days of a written request. However, exempt organizations don't have to provide copies of their Forms 990 if they make these materials broadly available through the Internet, or if the IRS determines that the organization is being subject to a harassment campaign.

“ The social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts.”

In 2015, Carl Malamud, the Don Quixote of open data, dragged transparency into the digital age when he brought suit against the Internal Revenue Service to force it to make the 990s of a handful of organizations that had been filed electronically available as machine-readable open data. Malamud won, and, somewhat surprisingly, the IRS then did more rather than less to comply with the order: as of June 2016, all Forms 990 filed electronically by 501(c)(3) organizations are available as machine-readable open data through Amazon Web Services. As such, they can be downloaded directly in digital form and processed by computers with minimal human intervention. The development represents a victory not only for Malamud but for the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, which has toiled for years to make 990s more accessible. The idea, of course, is that free, open data on nonprofits will enable more innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to use the data in ways that help make the sector more effective and efficient. Since Malamud won his case, the IRS has posted some 1.7 million Forms 990 as machine-readable open data.

Philanthropy in a shifting world

The increasingly illiberal world in which we find ourselves was not made in America: it is a worldwide phenomenon born of globalization, income inequality, technology-driven unemployment, the unprecedented movement of migrants and refugees, and the specter of terrorism. The democratization of information driven by social media and the Internet also has been accompanied by distrust of traditional media, the narrowing of the space in which civil society organizations operate, and growing attempts to restrict thought and behavior. Author William Gibson (credited with inventing the term "cyberspace") presciently (if darkly) described a world we probably all recognize today in his 2003 reflections on George Orwell: "A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and quotidian degrees of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree on it any more readily." Indeed.

The bitter, divisive 2016 presidential election in the United States saw information from the 990s of the Clinton and Trump foundations used to support allegations of influence peddling, self-dealing, and the like. The resulting bad press and subsequent investigations by the New York State Attorney General's office caused both foundations to eventually announce that they planned to wind down their activities.

At the same time that foundations are being subjected to more scrutiny, we see a growing number of high-net-worth individuals turn to alternatives that require little or no transparency in exchange for the tax advantages they receive for their charitable giving. The most common of these are donor-advised funds administered by community foundations or investment firms such as Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab. Community foundations do file 990 tax returns, so information about each grant they award is reported and made available to the public, though without the identity of the donor. With the charitable gift funds sponsored by investment funds, however, information on individual grants remains invisible. Then there are newer, hybrid structures like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the LLC formed by the co-founder of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to "advance human potential and promote equal opportunity." There is no public disclosure requirement for the tax returns of LLCs, which means that any details we learn about the grants made by CZI will be what Zuckerberg, Chan, and their colleagues choose to tell us.

The first step?

So what are the implications of all this for the social sector in the Unites States? The media (traditional and social) has been on fire with stories about the Trump administration's intent to remove information on issues like climate change from government websites. In response, universities and others are rushing to download as much of that data to non-government servers as possible. In the same vein, it would not be difficult for the IRS to suddenly stop posting 990 tax returns as open data, especially given all the "trouble" they caused during the presidential campaign. This might be met by another Malamud-style legal challenge but that would take time to unfold. And if successful, this time around the IRS might comply by releasing only a handful of specific 990s rather than all those that have been digitally filed.

"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment

President Trump also has announced his intent to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision (named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson) in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Repeal of the provision could open the way for huge amounts of so-called dark money — donations from corporations, unions, and individuals aimed at influencing the outcome of elections — to find its way into 501(c)(3) organizations. Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits and foundations, the current recipients of such funds — primarily 501 (c)(4) and (c)(6) nonprofits — are not required to disclose their donors.

I am not a lawyer and may be out on a limb here, but overturning the Johnson Amendment would require an act of Congress, and would not be easy. Yet, if Congress decides to do so, it is not inconceivable that the administration, with the assent of Congress, could then remove the public disclosure requirement for Forms 990 in order (depending on your point of view) to: 1) protect donor privacy as an exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech; or 2) make it more difficult to "follow the money" when it comes to political campaigns.

If this were to happen, it is not entirely clear which constituencies would emerge to fight for the continued provision of Forms 990 as public information. Foundations, in particular, are not universally enthusiastic about having their grants and other information in the public domain for a variety of reasons (including privacy, journalistic scrutiny, and wariness of being swamped by applications for funding). What's more, in recent conversations with foundation leaders, I've heard concerns that when it comes to controversial issues such as immigration or charter schools, having their information made more visible could make them targets for harassment. And, of course, neither nonprofit organizations nor foundations enjoy filling out 990s, which like a lot of tax forms are long, time-consuming, and expensive to complete. Yes, organizations like the National Council of Nonprofits, Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations, and the Philanthropy Roundtable might rally to defend broad public access to Forms 990, but only if their members were firmly behind them.

Transparency and hope

Born in 1956 out of hostile McCarthy-era hearings accusing foundations of supporting "un-American activities," Foundation Center has worked for many years with the Internal Revenue Service and other organizations to build a public information system for philanthropy. GuideStar has done much the same for nonprofit organizations. The cornerstone of these systems has been data contained in the Forms 990. If access to these forms were reduced or eliminated, the transparency of the entire social sector — and with it the promise of greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation — would be an obvious casualty. It also would strengthen the position of those in government and the social sector, both here and abroad, who, for whatever reason, believe the need for donor privacy outweighs the value of transparency. Russell Leffingwell, a Republican banker and trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said it best in 1952 in his testimony to the Cox Commission declaring that his foundation "should have glasspockets." Leffingwell went on to say:

"I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk. If the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back and back and back so that our ignorance of ourselves and our     fellow man and of other nations is steadily reduced, there is hope for mankind, and unless those boundaries are pushed back there is no hope...."

At the end of the day, the social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts. We live in an age, illiberal or not, in which our mission to serve the public good to the best of our ability is powered by technology that allows us to share knowledge as never before. And knowledge is rooted deeply in transparency. Apocalypse later? We can't let that happen.

-- Brad Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Olympic Rio Police Salary Protest

Sporting Events and Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

An Equitable Development Model for Sporting Events

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

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

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

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

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

Philanthropy’s Role in Promoting Equitable Development

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

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

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

--Stefan Norgaard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OLYMPIC PROTEST PHOTO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Involving communities to ensure shared benefits

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

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

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

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

-- Leticia Osorio

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).

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

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

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

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