Transparency Talk

Category: "Grantee/Stakeholder Relationships" (81 posts)

No Pain, No Gain: The Reality of Improving Grant Descriptions
November 8, 2017

Gretchen Schackel is Grants Manager of the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation in Portland, Oregon.

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 explores 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.

Join us at a session about the Open 990-PF in partnership with Southern California Grantmakers. Learn more or register here.                                   

Gretchen Schackel - Miller photoYou know those blog posts that describe adopting a best practice?  The ones that make it sound so easy and tempting that you try it, only to be let down because you discover that either you are doing something terribly wrong, or it is a lot harder than the author made it sound because they left out all of the pain points? Well, don’t worry—this is not one of those posts! In fact, I will start off with the pain points so you can go in eyes wide open, if like me, you end up on a quest to improve your foundation’s grant descriptions.  

This post is a sequel to another Transparency Talk article that recently featured our foundation’s executive director, detailing lessons learned about why improving grants data is important to the foundation, as well as to the sector as a whole. That article ended with a brief snapshot of some “before and after” grant descriptions, showing how we are working to improve the way we tell the story of each grant, so I’m picking up here where that left off to share an honest, behind-the-scenes look at what it took to get from the before to the after.

“Capturing critical details when writing accurate and complete grant descriptions aids your efforts on the 990-PF form.”

Pain Relievers

As the grants manager, it’s my job to put the right processes in place so we can capture critical details when writing grant descriptions to ensure that they are accurate and complete, and well….actually descriptive (AKA “Purpose of grant of contribution” on form 990-PF). This fall marks my 11-year anniversary at the Miller Foundation and one thing that has remained constant throughout my tenure is what a pain writing good grant descriptions can be if you don’t know where to begin. So, I’m sharing my playbook below, because the communities we are serving, and how we are serving them, deserve to be described and celebrated. I’ve learned some tips and work-arounds along the way that I’ll share as I inventory the various obstacles you might encounter

Pain Point #1:

Lean Staffing. We are a staff of four people: Executive Director, Program Officer, Grants Manager, and Administrative Assistant. We don’t publish an annual report; we have just started using social media, and just completed a website redesign. This makes all of us part-time communications staff. I wouldn’t describe this as a best practice, but it’s the reality at many foundations.  

Pain Reliever #1:

Grant Descriptions Can Serve Many Purposes. As mentioned above, the editorial process involved in prepping text for public consumption can be labor intensive, particularly in organizations without a communications department. Grant descriptions, which represent the substance of our work, turn out to be handy for small organizations like ours because they can serve many purposes. They are used for our minutes, our website, our 990-PF, and for our eReport to Foundation Center for its searchable databases. We don’t have time to write different grant descriptions for each specific use. So, we write one grant description that we can use in multiple platforms and situations.

Pain Point #2:

Garbage In – Garbage Out. Data starts with the grantees, and I know from talking to them that they are often not well equipped with time or technology to collect good data. It’s not just about what questions are we asking but rather how are we helping our grantees understand what we need and help them get us the best data possible.

Pain Reliever #2:

You have to work with what you’ve got. And what we have is the information provided by the potential grantees in their applications.  Most of the information we need can be found in the “Brief summary of the grant request” question on the grant application. Rather than treat this as a test that potential grantees must either pass/fail, we provide detailed instructions of the kind of information we would like to see in the summary as part of our online application process. Taking the guesswork out of the application has improved the data quality we receive at the start of the grant. Our arts portfolio also requires that grantees participate in DataArts, which serves as a collective database that grantees only have to enter once and then all arts funders can access their data. Participating in field-building shortcuts like this is a great way to make the process more efficient for everyone.

Once you have the framework in place to get a good grant summary from your prospective grantees, however, your work is not yet done.  Often, important elements of the funded grant can change during board deliberations, so I find it essential to share the grant summary with our program staff before finalizing to ensure we are capturing the detail accurately.

Pain Point #3: Lack of an industry standard on what makes the perfect grant description.  There are probably as many ways to write a grant description as there are foundations, and reinventing wheels is a waste of our collective time, so I have long wished for a framework we could all agree to follow.

Pain Reliever #3: The Get on the Map Campaign.

We have learned a lot from Foundation Center’s Get on the Map campaign about the elements of a great grant description. The Get on the Map campaign is a partnership between United Philanthropy Forum and Foundation Center designed to improve philanthropic data, and includes a helpful framework that details the best way to share your data with Foundation Center and the public. What I immediately loved about it is how it reminded me of being that weird kid who loved to diagram sentences in junior high. But perhaps it’s not that strange since I know grants managers enjoy turning chaos into order. So, let's try to use sentence diagramming as a model for writing grant descriptions.

The Anatomy of a Good Grant Description

First, we’ll start with the four elements of a good grant description and assign each a color.

  • WHAT: What is the primary objective of the grant?
  • WHO:  Are there any specifically intended beneficiaries?
  • HOW: What are the primary strategies of the grant?
  • WHERE:  Where will the grant monies serve if beyond the recipient address?

Example #1:

We’ll start with an easy example. Program support grant descriptions often write themselves:

Brief summary of the grant request from application form:

“We are seeking support for Chicas Youth Development which serves over 500 Latina girls and their families in grades 3-12 in Washington County. Chicas launched in 2008 and has since grown to partner with three Washington County school districts and over 500 local families each year to offer after school programming, leadership, and community service opportunities for Latina youth and their families.”

Grant Description: to support the Chicas Youth Development program which serves 500 Latina girls in grades 3-12 located in Washington County.

That was pretty easy!! Particularly because of how we improved the clarity of what we ask for.

Example #2:

The grant below is also a project grant but the Brief summary of the grant request from the application is a little less straight forward:

“GRANTEE requests $AMOUNT to support the presentation of two new publications and four community readings featuring the writing of diverse voices: people who are experiencing homeless, immigrants and refugees living in our community, seniors living on a low income, LGBTQ folks, people living with a disability, and many others whose voices often live on the margins.  This project will bring together people to experience and explore art and will focus on those with the least access to do so.

Grant Description: To support community building through publication and public readings of works written by marginalized populations.

Example #3:

This grant is for both general operating support and a challenge grant. Tricky.

GRANTEE respectfully requests $AMOUNT over two years to support program growth as well as provide a matching challenge for individual donations as we continue to increase our sustainability through support from individual donors. If awarded, $AMOUNT would be put to general operating funds to support our continued program growth in all areas: traditional high school program, statewide initiative pilot program and our college program. The remaining $AMOUNT each year would serve as a matching challenge grant. In order to be eligible for the match, GRANTEE would have to raise $AMOUNT in new and increased individual donations each year of the grant period.

Okay Grant Description: To support program growth and provide a matching challenge for individual donations.

Good Grant Description: General operating funds to support program growth and a challenge grant to increase support from individual donors.

Better Grant Description: This grant was awarded in two parts: 1. General operating funds for mission related activities that provide intensive support to low-income high school juniors and seniors in Oregon. 2. A 1:1 challenge grant to increase support from individual donors.

The above description is a perfect example of why it’s important to read the proposal narrative as well as confer with program staff.

If you follow this process, I can’t promise it will be painless, but it will go a long way to relieving a lot of the pain points that come with grants management—particularly the grants management of today in which grants managers are at the crossroads of being data managers, information officers, and storytellers.  I have found making this journey is worth it. Because, after all, behind every grant lies a story waiting to be told and a community waiting to hear it. So, let’s get our stories straight!

--Gretchen Schackel

Open Access to Foundation Knowledge
October 25, 2017

This post is part of the Glasspockets #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. This post also appears in Medium. 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.

Lisa Brooks Photo
Lisa Brooks

Foundations have a lot of reasons to share knowledge. They produce knowledge themselves. They hire others to research and author works that help with internal strategy development and evaluation of internal strategies, programs, and projects. And they make grants that assist others in gaining insight into social issues — be it through original research, evaluation work, or other work aimed at creating a better understanding of issues so that we can all pursue better solutions to social problems. In almost all aspects of foundation work, knowledge is an outcome.

While openly sharing this knowledge is uneven across the social sector, we do see more and more foundations starting to explore open access to the knowledge assets they make possible. Many foundations are sharing more intentionally through their websites, external clearinghouses, and other online destinations. And more foundations are suggesting — sometimes requiring — that their grantees openly share knowledge that was produced with grant dollars.

Lacey Althouse Photo
Lacey Althouse

Some foundations are even becoming open access champions. For example, the Hewlett Foundation has authored a terrifically helpful free toolkit that provides an in-depth how-to aimed at moving foundation and grantee intellectual property licensing practices away from “all rights reserved” copyrights and toward “some rights reserved” open licenses. (Full disclosure: IssueLab is included in the toolkit as one solution for long term knowledge preservation and sharing.) (“Hewlett Foundation Open Licensing Toolkit for Staff”)

For those who are already 100% open it’s easy to forget that, when first starting out, learning about open access can be daunting. For those who are trying to open up, like most things, getting there is a series of steps. One step is understanding how licensing can work for, or against, openness. Hewlett’s toolkit is a wonderful primer for understanding this. IssueLab also offers some ways to dig into other areas of openness. Check out Share the Wealth for tips.

Hawaii

 

However it is that foundations find their way to providing open access to the knowledge they make possible, we applaud and support it! In the spirit of International Open Access Week’s theme, “Open in order to….,” here’s what a few leading foundations have to say about the topic of openness in the social sector.

James Irvine Foundation 
Find on IssueLab.

“We have a responsibility to share our knowledge. There’s been a lot of money that gets put into capturing and generating knowledge and we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves.”

-Kim Ammann Howard, Director of Impact Assessment and Learning

Hewlett Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

“Our purpose for existing is to help make the world a better place. One way we can do that is to try things, learn, and then share what we have learned. That seems obvious. What is not obvious is the opposite: not sharing. So the question shouldn’t be why share; it should be why not share.”

-Larry Kramer, President

Hawaii Community Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

“Openness and transparency is one element of holding ourselves accountable to the public — to the communities we’re either in or serving. To me, it’s a necessary part of our accountability and I don’t think it should necessarily be an option.

-Tom Kelly, Vice President of Knowledge, Evaluation and Learning

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

“Why do we want to share these things? …One, because it’s great to share what we’re learning, what’s worked, what hasn’t, what impact has been made so that others can learn from the work that our grantees are doing so that they can either not reinvent the wheel, gain insights from it or learn from where we’ve gone wrong… I think it helps to build the field overall since we’re sharing what we’re learning.”

-Bernadette Sangalang, Program Officer

The Rockefeller Foundation
Find on IssueLab

“To ensure that we hold ourselves to this high bar, The Rockefeller Foundation pre-commits itself to sharing the results of its evaluations — well before the results are even known.”

-Veronica Olazabal, Shawna Hoffman, and Nadia Asgaraly
(Read more on why the Rockefeller Foundation is open for good.)

If you are a foundation ready to make open access the norm as part of your impact operations, here’s how you can become an open knowledge organization today.

IssueLab believes that social sector knowledge is a public good that is meant to be freely accessible to all. We collect and share the sector’s knowledge assets and we support the social sector’s adoption of open knowledge practices. Visit our collection of ~23,000 open access resources. While you’re there, add your knowledge — it takes minutes and costs nothing. Find out what we’re open in order to do here. IssueLab is a service of Foundation Center.

--Lisa Brooks and Lacey Althouse

How "Going Public" Improves Evaluations
October 17, 2017

Edward Pauly is director of research and evaluation at The Wallace Foundation. 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.

ED_finalAs foundations strive to be #OpenForGood and share key lessons from their grantees' work, a frequent question that arises is how foundations can balance the value of openness with concerns about potential risks.

Concerns about risk are particularly charged when it comes to evaluations. Those concerns include: possible reputational damage to grantees from a critical or less-than-positive evaluation; internal foundation staff disagreements with evaluators about the accomplishments and challenges of grantees they know well; and evaluators’ delays and complicated interpretations.

It therefore may seem counterintuitive to embrace – as The Wallace Foundation has – the idea of making evaluations public and distributing them widely. And one of the key reasons may be surprising: To get better and more useful evaluations.

The Wallace Foundation has found that high-quality evaluations – by which we mean independent, commissioned research that tackles questions that are important to the field – are often a powerful tool for improving policy and practice. We have also found that evaluations are notably improved in quality and utility by being publicly distributed.

Incentives for High Quality

A key reason is that the incentives of a public report for the author are aligned with quality in several ways:

  • Evaluation research teams know that when their reports are public and widely distributed, they will be closely scrutinized and their reputation is on the line. Therefore, they do their highest quality work when it’s public.  In our experience, non-public reports are more likely than public reports to be weak in data use, loose in their analysis, and even a bit sloppy in their writing.  It is also noteworthy that some of the best evaluation teams insist on publishing their reports.
  • Evaluators also recognize that they benefit from the visibility of their public reports because visibility brings them more research opportunities – but only if their work is excellent, accessible and useful.
  • We see evaluators perk up when they focus on the audience their reports will reach. Gathering data and writing for a broad audience of practitioners and policymakers incentivizes evaluators to seek out and carefully consider the concerns of the audience: What information does the audience need in order to judge the value of the project being evaluated? What evidence will the intended audience find useful? How should the evaluation report be written so it will be accessible to the audience?

Making evaluations public is a classic case of a virtuous circle: public scrutiny creates incentives for high quality, accessibility and utility; high quality reports lead to expanded, engaged audiences – and the circle turns again, as large audiences use evaluation lessons to strengthen their own work, and demand more high-quality evaluations. To achieve these benefits, it’s obviously essential for grantmakers to communicate upfront and thoroughly with grantees about the goals of a public evaluation report -- goals of sharing lessons that can benefit the entire field, presented in a way that avoids any hint of punitive or harsh messaging.

“What is it that you don’t know, that if you knew it, would enable you to make important progress in your own work?”

Asking the Right Questions

A key difference between evaluations commissioned for internal use and evaluations designed to produce public reports for a broad audience lies in the questions they ask. Of course, for any evaluation or applied research project, a crucial precursor to success is getting the questions right. In many cases, internally-focused evaluations quite reasonably ask questions about the lessons for the foundation as a grantmaker. Evaluations for a broad audience of practitioners and policymakers, including the grantees themselves, typically ask a broader set of questions, often emphasizing lessons for the field on how an innovative program can be successfully implemented, what outcomes are likely, and what policies are likely to be supportive.

In shaping these efforts at Wallace as part of the overall design of initiatives, we have found that one of the most valuable initial steps is to ask field leaders: What is it that you don’t know, that if you knew it, would enable you to make important progress in your own work? This kind of listening can help a foundation get the questions right for an evaluation whose findings will be valued, and used, by field leaders and practitioners.

Knowledge at Work

For example, school district leaders interested in Wallace-supported “principal pipelines” that could help ensure a reliable supply of effective principals, wanted to know the costs of starting such pipelines and maintaining them over time. The result was a widely-used RAND report that we commissioned, “What It Takes to Operate and Maintain Principal Pipelines: Costs and Other Resources.” RAND found that costs are less than one half of 1% of districts’ expenditures; the report also explained what drives costs, and provided a very practical checklist of the components of a pipeline that readers can customize and adapt to meet their local needs.

Other examples that show how high-quality public evaluations can help grantees and the field include:

Being #OpenForGood does not happen overnight, and managing an evaluation planned for wide public distribution isn’t easy. The challenges start with getting the question right – and then selecting a high-performing evaluation team; allocating adequate resources for the evaluation; connecting the evaluators with grantees and obtaining relevant data; managing the inevitable and unpredictable bumps in the road; reviewing the draft report for accuracy and tone; allowing time for grantees to fact-check it; and preparing with grantees and the research team for the public release. Difficulties, like rocks on a path, crop up in each stage in the journey. Wallace has encountered all of these difficulties, and we don’t always navigate them successfully. (Delays are a persistent issue for us.)

Since we believe that the knowledge we produce is a public good, it follows that the payoff of publishing useful evaluation reports is worth it. Interest from the field is evidenced by 750,000 downloads last year from www.wallacefoundation.org, and a highly engaged public discourse about what works, what doesn’t, why, and how – rather than the silence that often greets many internally-focused evaluations.

--Edward Pauly

No Moat Philanthropy Part 5: The Downsides & Why It’s Worth It
October 6, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we have devoted this blog space all week to the series. This is the final post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedEverything we do is a trade-off. Spending time and money on the activities described in this No Moat Philanthropy series means time and money not invested in something else. Here are some of the downsides of the trade-offs we have made:

It takes some operating expense.  It requires real staff time for us to do office hours in western North Dakota and to reformat grant reports to be shared online and to do every other activity described in these posts. We believe there is lots of opportunity to advance our mission in the “how” of grantmaking and weigh that as an investment alongside others. In our case, we did not have an increase in staff costs or operating expenses as we made this shift. We just reprioritized.

It can be bureaucratic.  Having open programs and having community members involved in processes requires some structure and rules and standardization in a way that can feel stifling. Philanthropy feels more artful and inspired when you can be creative and move quickly. To be equitably accessible and to improve the chance we are funding the best idea, we are committed to making this trade-off. (While, of course, being as artful and creative as possible within the structures we set!)

“We believe our effectiveness is fundamentally tied to our ability to influence and be influenced by others.”

Lots of applications means lots of turndowns.  Conventional wisdom in philanthropy is to try to limit unsuccessful applications – reducing the amount of effort nonprofits invest with no return. This is an important consideration and it is why many foundations have very narrow guidelines and/or don’t accept unsolicited proposals. The flip side, however, is that the more we all narrow our funding apertures, the harder it is for organizations to get great ideas funded. We’ve decided to run counter to conventional wisdom and give lots of organizations a shot at funding. Of course, we don’t want to waste their time. We have three strategies to try to mitigate this waste: (1) through our hotlines we try to coach unlikely grantees out of the process. (In our experience, nonprofits will often apply anyway – which suggests to us that they value having a shot – even if the odds are long.); (2) we try to make the process worth it. Our surveys suggest that applicants who do the programs with the biggest pools get something out of the process – (and we learn from the applicants even if they are not funded.); and (3) we try to make the first stage of our processes as simple as possible so folks are not wasting too much effort.

Relationships are hard!  Thinking of ourselves as being in relationship with people in the region is not simple. There are lots of them! And it can be super frustrating if a Bush staff member gives advice on a hotline that seems to be contradicted by the feedback when an application is declined. We’ve had to invest money and time in developing our CRM capacity and habits. We have a lot more work to do on this front. We will never not have a lot more work to do on our intercultural competence and our efforts to practice inclusion. Truly including people with different perspectives can make decisions harder as it makes decisions better.  The early returns on our efforts have been encouraging and we are committed to continuing the work to be more fully in relationship with more people in the communities we serve.

Conclusion

Overall, we believe a No Moat Philanthropy approach has made us more effective. When we are intentional about having impact through how we do our work — building relationships, inspiring action, spreading optimism — then we increase the positive impact we have in the region.

We believe our effectiveness is fundamentally tied to our ability to influence and be influenced by others, which demands trust, reciprocity and a genuine openness to the ideas of others. It requires understanding perspectives other than our own. It requires permeability.

While we arrived at this approach largely because of our place-based sensibility and strategic orientation toward people (see learning paper: “The Bush Approach”), the same principles can apply to a national or international foundation focused on particular issues. The definition of community is different, but the potential value of permeability within that community is the same.

--Jen Ford Reedy

No Moat Philanthropy Part 4: Beyond the Transactional
October 5, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we are devoting our blog space all week to the series. This is the fourth post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedWe have a grantmaking model that is based on the belief that, if we do it right, we will create more good by what we inspire than by what we directly fund. Principle #4 and #5 of No Moat Philanthropy are directly related to this, how connecting and sharing with others can advance your foundation’s mission.

Principle #4: Value every interaction as an opportunity to advance your mission

Our tagline and our strategy are one and the same: We invest in great ideas and the people who power them. We know that the only way anything happens is through people. Any place or field, therefore, is limited by the ambitions and the skills of the people in it.

The Bush Fellowship has been a flagship program of the Foundation for decades. We hear repeatedly from Bush Fellows that the experience changed what they thought was possible in their life and career. With the Bush Fellows program as our source code, we’ve been working for the past five years to ensure that all of our programs have the same effect. How can we encourage people to think bigger and think differently? How can we be a force for optimism?

This notion of a foundation being a force for optimism is not an obvious one. After all, we mostly tell people no. Last year, 95 percent of people who applied for the Bush Fellowship did not receive one. We’ve worked diligently to make sure all applicant interactions with us are helpful and encouraging, regardless of grant or fellowship outcome. And our surveys suggest the work is paying off. For example, 79 percent of declined Bush Fellowship applicants said the process increased their beliefs that they can accomplish “a lot.”

“If we do grantmaking right, we will create more good by what we inspire than by what we directly fund.”

To have this impact with each applicant, we:

Operate hotlines to speak with Bush staff. For our open programs, we have established hotlines for potential applicants. We will speak with people as many times as they desire to provide coaching on their idea or proposal. For applicants, this is a way to clearly understand what we are looking for and to vet ideas with us. For Bush staff, this is a way to provide coaching and encouragement to strengthen proposals and to influence activities beyond those we fund.

Give feedback about declined applications. We offer feedback to declined applicants for our major grant and fellowship programs because we see this as another valuable opportunity to provide coaching and encouragement. We have also witnessed applicants using the feedback to improve their plans and proposals, which benefits both them and us. This two-way dialogue also allows applicants to share how we can improve the process for them.

Find ways to support declined applicants. In the course of our processes, we learn about far more amazing people and organizations than we can actually fund. Therefore, we try to find ways to be useful to more than just the limited number of accepted applicants. For example, we consider declined Bush Fellowship finalists to be part of our “Bush Network” and invite them to bushCONNECT. We also provide declined Bush Prize finalists with a $10,000 grant. In our hiring process, we offer unsuccessful finalists the chance to meet with our hiring consultant for an individual coaching session. In addition, across all our programs and operations, we try to craft our applications and our processes so that the experience of applying adds value to an applicant’s thinking and planning.

Every interaction is an opportunity to influence and be influenced.  Every interaction is an opportunity for shared learning. And that brings me to our fifth and final principle…

Bush-altlogo-color Principle #5: Share as you go.

In the past five years, we’ve been working to get more of what we are thinking — and learning — out to the community. This has required adjusting our standards and prioritizing just getting something out, even if it is not glossy and beautiful. It has required a new, shared understanding with grantees and Fellows that their reports and reflections will be public, so as many people as possible can benefit from their experience. It has required designing our internal work — like strategy documents for the Board — with external audiences in mind so they are ready to share.

We believe that if we do it right, we can have as much and potentially more impact from sharing the stories and spreading the lessons from our grantees and Fellows as from the investments themselves. This belief is at the heart of all our communications (see learning paper: “Communications as Program”) and is also reinforced with specific tactics such as:

“We potentially have more impact from sharing the stories and spreading the lessons from our grantees and Fellows.”

Post grantee reports on our website. We introduced “Learning Logs” to make grant reports public, and we hope, to give them life and utility beyond our walls. We refer prospective applicants to relevant learning logs as they craft their proposals, and we hear from applicants that they have indeed learned from them. Grantees and Fellows also share that they read one another’s Learning Logs as a way to get new ideas for overcoming barriers.

Share lessons along the way. We are publishing learning papers (like this one) as we believe we have something useful to share. We intended this to lower the bar of who, when and how we share. Our learning papers are not beautiful. Most of them are not based on statistically significant evaluation methodologies. They simply document a staff effort to process something we are working on and to share our reflections.

Tie evaluation to audience analysis. We invest heavily in external evaluations of our work, but in doing so we have found that the end-product is often only useful to our staff and key stakeholders. Consequently, we introduced a different approach to thinking about evaluation with a sharing mindset. We use a framework to identify the audiences who might care about or benefit from the lessons of an evaluation, what questions are relevant to each group, and what form or output would be most useful to them.

Webinar to the max. Webinars are not a particularly novel activity; however, we view them as a core tool of permeability. We host a webinar at the beginning of every application period for Grant and Fellowship programs to explain the process and what we are looking for. We also host them when we have a job opening to discuss the role and what it is like to work here. We host them annually for our Foundation initiatives to explain what we are up to and where we are headed. Most webinars feature a staff presentation followed by an open Q&A with videos archived on our website for anyone who missed it.

If you’ve been reading this series all week, you might be wondering when I’m going to get to the downsides of No Moat Philanthropy. All new approaches have their pain points.  So, come back tomorrow and I’ll share our pain and why we believe it is worth it.

--Jen Ford Reedy

No Moat Philanthropy Part 3: Building Your Network
October 4, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we are devoting our blog space all week to the series. This is the third post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedIn yesterday’s post I shared how we have tried to bring different perspectives into the Foundation.  Today’s post is mostly about getting out of the Foundation, to meet new people.  This is the third principle of No Moat Philanthropy.

Principle #3: Continuously and intentionally connect with new people

Five years ago we had close working relationships with people in each of our initiative areas. While we valued those relationships, we kept a pretty tight circle. We knew people wanted money from us, and we also knew their chances of receiving it were slim. This can be awkward and who wants that? While avoiding awkwardness can make life more pleasant, we now believe embracing that awkwardness actually makes us smarter. While we can only fund a limited number of people and organizations, interacting with lots and lots of people and organizations helps us better understand our region and make better, more informed strategic choices and funding decisions.

We believe in the power of networks. We believe that a community’s strength and diversity of connections help define its capacity for resilience and innovation. We work to ensure we are continuously connecting with new and different people. Each year, we set outreach priorities for geographic areas, cultural communities and/or sectors based on our analysis of where our network is weakest. Then we strive to make new connections in a way that creates connections between others, too. Specifically we:

“We believe that a community’s strength and diversity of connections help define its capacity for resilience and innovation.”

Hold office hours to meet with people all around the region. We hold “office hours” in communities around the region for anyone interested in with our Foundation staff. These are sometimes coupled with a listening session, co-hosted with a local partner, that allow us to understand what issues are most important to the community.

Sponsor and attend other people’s events. We introduced an open process to request Bush Foundation sponsorship of events. We had been sponsoring some events, but we never considered it a program strategy. One of the primary criteria for event sponsorship is whether it will help us connect with people who might benefit from learning about our work. This might include having a Bush Foundation booth manned by staff members who are there to meet and field questions from attendees.

Host events designed for connection. We were already hosting a number of events to build relationships with and among our Fellows and grantees. In the past five years, however, we have taken our events strategy to a higher level by focusing on connecting people across our programs with people beyond our existing grantee and Fellowship networks. The best example of this is bushCONNECT, our flagship event which brings together 1,100 leaders from the region. To ensure we are attracting individuals beyond our community network, we engage “recruitment partners” from around the region who receive grant support to recruit a cohort from within their network to bring to the event, thereby ensuring bushCONNECT attendees more fully represent the geography — and diversity — of our region.

Take cohorts of people to national events. We also offer scholarships for cohorts of people from our region to attend national conferences together. During the event, we create opportunities to build connections with and among the attendees from the region. This allows us to meet and support more people in the region, build attendees’ individual networks, and ensure leaders in our region are both contributing to and benefitting from national conversations.

We are not throwing parties for fun.  We see relationship building as core to our strategy.  We see every interaction as an opportunity to influence and be influenced.  More on that tomorrow.

--Jen Ford Reedy

No Moat Philanthropy Part 2: Bringing the Outside In  
October 3, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we are devoting our blog space all week to the series. This is the second post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedIn the past five years, we have been working hard at the Bush Foundation to go beyond transparency to permeability.  In yesterday’s post, I described our work to ensure we are sourcing and supporting the best ideas from the communities we serve.  Today I’ll share Principle #2 of No Moat Philanthropy and the ways we are working to ensure our work is informed by and improved by many different perspectives.

Principle #2: Bring lots of perspectives into your strategy design and decision-making

Five years ago, it said on our website to let us know if you had a good idea that aligned with our strategy, but there was no clear way for people to do so. We had formal advisors on our initiatives and advisors on the ground in North Dakota and South Dakota, whom we kept secret. While we talked a lot about co-creation, in practice it was hard to develop and nurture true partnerships with organizations given our very specific agenda and the power dynamics in our funding relationships.

Now, to ensure we are being shaped by more people and more perspectives, we:

Create learning cohorts to shape our strategies. In the early stages of learning about a new area, we invite others to learn with us and shape our thinking. For example, to inform how we should best integrate the arts into our work, we created the Community Creativity Cohort, providing organizations a $100,000 operating grant and asking them to attend a few workshops and provide counsel (see learning paper “Lessons from the Community Creativity Cohort”). As we develop our strategy to support individualizing education, we have an advisory group of regional experts in Native education to help us understand how our strategy can be most relevant in Native communities.

Bush-altlogo-colorUse external selectors. Historically, we have engaged community leaders to select Bush Fellows, and we have expanded that practice to other programs, including the use of state-level advisory committees to select Bush Prize winners and working through state-level intermediaries to promote and award our smaller-scale Community Innovation grants.

Hire staff and recruit board members differently. We have made numerous changes to our staff hiring and board recruitment practices to attract people from a variety of backgrounds with different perspectives. For staffing, we have always hired from a variety of professional backgrounds, and while we continue to do so, we are also now focusing on diversity in race and cultural background. In three years, we increased the percentage of Bush staff who identify as people of color from a 14 percent to 50 percent. From a Board perspective, we set (and met) specific five-year targets for Board composition, focusing primarily on geographic and racial diversity.

Host internal Fellows. In addition to staff diversification, we created an internal Fellows program designed to routinely bring new and different perspectives into our work. The Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellows program, now operated by the Minnesota Council on Foundations, hires professionals from communities underrepresented in foundation leadership to work at foundations for three years. We have hosted 11 Fellows and hired four of them into permanent positions.

Build staff and board intercultural competence. If we really want to understand perspectives other than our own, we need the skills to do so. We invest heavily in staff development and board learning and have placed particular emphasis on intercultural competence. We hope that training, combined with out-of-the-office interactions and learning experiences, make us more aware of our biases, better able to truly understand the lived experiences of others, more effective in truly engaging and working with people across the region, and better able to make smart decisions and design strategies that actually work.

In combination, these tactics have given us more opportunity to hear different perspectives in our work and better skills to truly understand different perspectives in our work. Tomorrow I will share Principle #3, how to continuously and intentionally connect with new people.

--Jen Ford Reedy

No Moat Philanthropy Part 1: Opening Up  
October 2, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we are devoting our blog space all week to the series. This is the first post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedThere’s a famous philanthropy quote that defines foundations as “a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.”

There’s truth in this statement, and it can lead foundations to have a fortress mentality — building moats and barricades in the form of needle-eye guidelines or brick wall websites. The stronger our defenses, however, the more difficult it is to be exposed to enough ideas and engage with enough people to be truly effective.

Over the past five years at the Bush Foundation, we have worked actively against this fortress mentality, first by adopting a set of core operating values, that helped to fuel and shape what was to follow. We believe our efforts have made us smarter and more effective. Over the next five days I’ll describe what else we have done, in the form of Five Principles of No Moat Philanthropy:

“Being truly open to the ideas of others has made us smarter and more effective.”

Principle #1: Get excited about other people’s ideas

Five years ago, we operated initiatives focused on three specific goals. This approach posed some challenges, and in our pursuit of these goals, we became our own largest strategic constraint. Planning and executing the work at a pace to consume all of our payout was difficult. It was also difficult to be relevant in all corners of the region and to fund the best ideas without having ways to solicit and consider ideas that were not our own. Basically, we were only as smart as we were smart and only as effective as we were effective.

In the past five years, we have changed both our mindset and our processes to try to find the best possible ideas and to trust and invest in others to do the work. Specifically, we have worked to:

Do less. Enable more. The first thing we did was to ease our grip on controlling our funding. We adopted “do less, enable more” as a mantra to push ourselves to focus as much as possible on getting money out to community organizations. We cut the number of consultants we were directly managing to advance our agenda and redirected those funds to grants. Within one year, we increased the percentage of our payout that goes out in the form of grants from 64% to 75%.

Bush-altlogo-colorBalance the proactive with the responsive. We now invest about half of our grants in strategic initiatives that advance our Foundation priorities and about half in open grantmaking programs that allow us to fund people and communities to advance their own priorities. This balance allows us to use our power to proactively advance goals while also being available to respond to emerging challenges, encourage unexpected bursts of community momentum and support way-out-there new ideas. We believe these are some of the highest-return investments we can make.

Harness the power of open grant programs. We believe that traditional open grantmaking can be every bit as powerful and strategic as ambitious, proactive initiatives if done thoughtfully and well. We now have four standing open grant programs: community innovation grants, the Bush Prize, event sponsorships and ecosystem grants. We also have used one-off open processes four times as we learn about a particular issue or approach. These open programs allow us to engage with lots of organizations on lots of issues across lots of communities, helping us to stay informed and relevant on regional issues. As a learning tool, our one-off grant programs allow us to quickly understand the players and the various approaches in a particular issue area across the entire region we serve. Participating organizations have a better opportunity to showcase their work and compete on a level playing field for funding. Between 2012 and 2016, the amount of our funding that was awarded through some sort of competitive process increased from 8 percent to 72 percent.

Commit to followership. Five years ago, the goals of our initiatives were so specific and our tactics so defined that we were unable to collaborate easily with others. We established “willingness to follow” as a principle within our operating values, and to make this easier, we created a President’s Partnership and Innovation Fund that allows us to contribute to collaborative funder efforts, even when not in our focus areas. Within our focus areas, we now have an explicit principle to be open to “adjacent” investments when there is collaborative energy.

We believe that being truly open to the ideas of others has made us smarter and more effective.  Tomorrow I’ll share what we have done to bring more and different perspectives into our program strategy and our grantmaking.

To be continued... 

--Jen Ford Reedy

 

Opening Up the Good and Bad Leads to Stronger Communities and Better Grantmaking
September 28, 2017

Hanh Cao Yu is Chief Learning Officer at The California Endowment.  She has been researcher and evaluator of equity and philanthropy for more than two decades. 

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.

Hanh-Cao-Yu-photoMore than a year ago when I began my tenure at The California Endowment (TCE), I reflected deeply about the opportunities and challenges ahead as the new Chief Learning Officer.  We were six years into a complex, 10-year policy/systems change initiative called Building Healthy Communities (BHC).  This initiative was launched in 2010 to advance statewide policy, change the narrative, and transform 14 of California’s communities most devastated by health inequities into places where all people—particular our youth—have an opportunity to thrive.  This is the boldest bet in the foundation’s history at $1 billion and the stakes are high.  It is not surprising, then, that despite the emphasis on learning, the evaluation of BHC is seen as a winning or losing proposition. 

“By acknowledging our mistakes, our focus has sharpened and our dual roles as changemakers and grantmakers have continued to evolve.”

As I thought about the role of learning and evaluation in deepening BHC’s impact, I became inspired by the words of Nelson Mandela: “I never lose.  I either win or I learn.”  His encouragement to shift our mindset from “Win/Lose” to “Win/Learn” is crucial to continuous improvement and success.  

I also drew from the insights of Amy Edmondson who reminds us that if we experience failure, not all failures are bad.  According to Edmondson, mistakes can be preventable, unavoidable due to complexity, or even intelligent failures.  So, despite careful planning and learning from decades of research on comprehensive community initiatives and bold systems change efforts, in an initiative as complex as BHC, mistakes can and will occur. By spurring change at community, regional and state levels, and linking community mobilization with sophisticated policy advocacy, TCE was truly venturing into new territory when we launched BHC.

BHC's Big Wins and Lessons 

At the mid-point of BHC, TCE staff and Board paused to assess where we have been successful and where we could do better in improving the conditions under which young people could be healthy and thrive in our underserved communities.  The results were widely shared in the 2016 report, A New Power Grid:  Building Healthy Communities at Year 5.

As a result of taking the time to assess overall progress, we identified some of BHC's biggest impacts to date. In the first five years, TCE and partners contributed to significant policy/system wins:

  • Improved health coverage for the underserved;
  • Strengthened health coverage policy for the undocumented;
  • Improved school climate, wellness and equity;
  • Prevention and reform within the justice system;
  • Public-private investment and policy changes on behalf of boys and young men of color; and
  • Local & regional progress in adoption of “Health In All Policies,” a collaborative approach incorporating health considerations into decision-making across all policy areas

Our Board and team are very pleased with the results and impact of BHC to date, but we have been committed to learning from our share of mistakes. 

Along with the victories, we acknowledged in the report some hard lessons.  Most notable among our mistakes were more attention to:

  • Putting Community in “Community-Driven” Change.  Armed with lessons on having clarity about results to achieve results, we over thought the early process.  This resulted in prescriptiveness in the planning phase that was not only unnecessary, but also harmful. We entered the community planning process with multiple outcomes frameworks and a planning process that struck many partners as philanthropic arrogance. The smarter move was to engage community leaders with the clarity of a shared vision and operating principles, and create the space for community leaders and residents to incubate goals, results, and strategy. Fortunately, we course corrected, and our partners were patient while we did so.
  • Revisiting assumptions about local realities and systems dynamics.  In the report, we discussed our assumption about creating a single locus of inside-out, outside-in activity where community residents, leaders and systems leaders could collaborate on defined goals. It was readily apparent that community leaders distrusted many “systems” insiders, and systems leaders viewed outsider/activists as unreasonable. We underestimated the importance of the roles of historical structural inequalities, context, and dynamics of relationships at the local level.  Local collaboratives or “hubs” were reorganized and customized to meet local realities, and we threw the concept of a single model of collaboration across all the sites out the window.

Some course corrections we made included adjusting and sharpening our underlying assumptions and theory of change and taking on new community-driven priorities that we never anticipated early on; examples include school discipline reform, dismantling the prison pipeline in communities of color through prevention, and work that is taking place in TCE’s Boys & Young Men of Color portfolio.  By acknowledging our mistakes, our focus has sharpened and our dual roles as changemakers and grantmakers have continued to evolve. 

“Some partner feedback was difficult to hear, but all of it was useful and is making our work with partners stronger.”

Further, significant developments have occurred since the report:

Positioning “Power Building” as central to improving complex systems and policies.  In defining key performance indicators, we know the policy milestones achieved thus far represent only surface manifestations of the ultimate success we are seeking.  We had a breakthrough when we positioned “building the power and voice” of the adults and youth in our communities and “health equity” at the center of our BHC North Star Goals and Indicators.  Ultimately, we’ll know we are successful when the power dynamics in our partner communities have shifted so that adult and youth residents know how to hold local officials accountable for full, ongoing implementation of these policies.

Continuing to listen to our partners.  In addition to clarifying our North Stars, we sought further mid-point advice from our partners, reaching out to 175 stakeholders, including 68 youth and adult residents of BHC communities, for feedback to shape the remainder of BHC’s implementation and to inform our transition planning for the next decade.  Some of what our partners told us was difficult to hear, but all of it was useful and is making our work with partners stronger.    

From these lessons, I challenge our philanthropic colleagues to consider:

  • How can we learn to detect complex failures early to help us go beyond lessons that are superficial? As Amy Edmonson states, “The job of leaders is to see that their organizations don’t just move on after a failure but stop to dig in and discover the wisdom contained in it.”
  • In complex initiatives and complex organizations, what does it take to design a learning culture to capitalize successfully on mistakes? How do we truly engage in “trial and error” and stay open to experimentation and midcourse corrections?  How can we focus internally on our own operations and ways of work, as well as being willing to change our strategies and relationships with external partners?  Further, how do we, as grantmakers responsible for serving the public good, take responsibility for making these lessons #OpenForGood so others can learn from them as well?

It is worth noting that a key action that TCE took at the board level as we embarked on BHC was to dissolve the Board Program Committee and replace it with Learning and Performance Committee.  This set-up offered consistent opportunity for learning from evaluation reports between the Board, the CEO, and the management team and for sharing our learnings publicly to build the philanthropic field.  Now, even as we enter the final phase of BHC, we continue to look for ways to structure opportunities to learn, and I can say, “We are well into a journey to learn intelligently from our successes as well as our mistakes to make meaningful, positive impacts.”

--Hanh Cao Yu

Trend to Watch: Using SDGs to Improve Foundation Transparency
September 19, 2017

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

Janet Camarena PhotoAs Foundation Center's director of transparency initiatives, one of the most interesting parts of my job is having the opportunity to play "transparency scout," regularly reviewing foundation websites for signs of openness in what is too often a closed universe. Some of this scouting leads to lifting up practices that can be examples for others on our Transparency Talk blog, sometimes it leads to a new transparency indicator on our assessment framework, and sometimes we just file it internally as a "trend to watch. "

Today, it's a combination of all three; we are using this blog post to announce the launch of a new, "Trend to Watch" indicator that signals an emerging practice: the use of the Sustainable Development Goals to improve how foundations open up their work to the world.

Sustainable Development GoalsThe United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. There are a total of 17 goals, such as ending poverty, zero hunger, reduced inequalities, and climate action. Written deliberately broad to serve as a collective playbook that governments and private sector alike can use, they can also serve as a much needed shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress.

And let's face it, as foundation strategies become increasingly specialized and strategic, explaining the objectives and the nuances can become a jargon-laden minefield that can make it difficult and time consuming for those on the outside to fully understand the intended goal of a new program or initiative. The simplicity of the SDG iconography cuts through the jargon so foundation website visitors can quickly identify alignment with the goals or not, and then more easily determine whether they should devote time to reading further. The SDG framework also provides a clear visual framework to display grants and outcomes data in a way that is meaningful beyond the four walls of the foundation.

Let's take a look at how some foundation websites are using the SDGs to more clearly explain their work:

Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF)

One of my favorite examples is from a simple chart the Silicon Valley Community Foundation shared on its blog, because it specifically opens up the work of its donor-advised funds using the SDGs. Donor-advised funds are typically not the most transparent vehicles, so using the SDGs as a framework to tally how SVCF's donor-advised funds are making an impact is particularly clever, refreshing, and offers a new window into a fast-growth area of philanthropy.

A quick glance at the chart reveals that quality education, good health and well-being, and sustainable cities and communities are the most common priorities among Silicon Valley donors.

GHR Foundation

A good example of how the SDGs can be used as a shared language to explain the intended impact of a grant portfolio is from GHR Foundation in Minnesota. I also like this example because it shows how the SDGs can be effectively used in both global and domestic grant portfolios. GHR uses the SDG iconography across all of its portfolios, as sidebars on the pages that describe foundation strategies. GHR's "Children in Families" is a core foundation grantmaking strategy that addresses children and families in need on a global scale. The portfolio name is a broad one, but by including the SDG iconography, web visitors can quickly understand that GHR is using this program area to address poverty, hunger, as well as lead to outcomes tied to health and well-being:

GHR is also able to use the SDG framework to create similar understanding of its domestic work. Below is an example from its Catholic Schools program serving the Twin Cities:

Through the visual cues the icons provide, I can quickly determine that in addition to aligning with the quality education goal, that this part of GHR's portfolio also addresses hunger and economically disadvantaged populations through its education grantmaking. This could also signal that the grantmaker interprets education broadly and supports the provision of wrap-around services to address the needs of low-income children as a holistic way of addressing the achievement gap. That's a lot of information conveyed with three small icons!

Tableau Foundation

The most sophisticated example comes to us from the tech and corporate grantmaking worlds--the Tableau Foundation. Tableau makes data visualization software, so using technology as a means to improve transparency is a core approach, and they are using their own grantmaking as an example of how you can use data to tell a compelling visual story. Through the interactive "Living Annual Report" on its website, Tableau regularly updates its grantmaking tallies and grantee data so web visitors have near real-time information. One of the tabs on the report reveals the SDG indicators, providing a quick snapshot of how Tableau's grantmaking, software donations, and corporate volunteering align with the SDGs.

As you mouse over any bar on the left, near real-time data appears, tallying how much of Tableau's funding has gone to support each goal. The interactive bar chart on the right lists Tableau's grantees, and visitors can quickly see the grantee list in the context of the SDGs as well as know the specific scale of its grantmaking to each recipient.

If you're inspired by these examples, but aren't sure how to begin connecting your portfolio to the Global Goals, you can use the SDG Indicator Wizard to help you get started. All you need to do is copy and paste your program descriptions or the descriptive language of a sample grant into the Wizard and its machine-learning tools let you know where your grantmaking lands on the SDG matrix. It's a lot of fun – and great place to start learning about the SDGs. And, because it transforms your program language into the relevant SDG goals, indicator, and targets, it may just provide a shortcut to that new strategy you were thinking of developing!

What more examples? The good news is we're also tracking SDGs as a transparency indicator at "Who Has Glasspockets?" You can view them all here. Is your foundation using the SDGs to help tell the story of your work? We're always on the lookout for new examples, so let us know and your foundation can be the next trend setter in our new Trend to Watch.

-- Janet Camarena

Share This Blog

  • Share This

About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

Categories