Transparency Talk

Category: "Human Rights" (17 posts)

When Is Transparency a Really Good Idea?
December 23, 2014

(Brad Smith is the president of Foundation CenterThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

Brad SmithWhen it comes to philanthropy, the answer to this question is a simple one: almost always. This may seem to put me at odds with Jo Andrews’ well-reasoned argument against transparency in all circumstances, but it doesn’t.

Jo is not really talking about philanthropy writ large, but rather a small group of funders with which she has had the privilege to work directly or collaboratively through her leadership of Ariadne (European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights). In her sphere she has indeed been a data warrior. But her sphere is specific and modestly sized: the funders she works with number in the low hundreds, whereas there are over 200,000 public benefit foundations in the US and Europe alone.

Jo rightly points to foundations’ unique independence as precisely what makes them so appropriate for supporting high-risk activities dealing with human rights. But the reality is that the vast majority of funders do not get anywhere near these issues.

The reality is that the vast majority of work done by funders, be it through grants or operating programmes, is in areas that are rarely controversial. In the US, where Foundation Center has access to comprehensive and detailed data on the grants of all foundations – thanks to regulatory oversight that requires baseline transparency – we know that more than 60 per cent of all foundation philanthropy goes to health and education. Survey data from other parts of the world shows similar priorities. Jo rightly points to foundations’ unique independence as precisely what makes them so appropriate for supporting high-risk activities dealing with human rights. But the reality is that the vast majority of funders do not get anywhere near these issues.

I couldn’t agree more that funders who do take risks have a responsibility to minimize potential danger for their grantee partners. This principle is embodied in the Global Philanthropy Data Charter, developed by the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), which states: ‘Data should be public in principle, but clear policies and procedures should be implemented to ensure an adequate balance between openness and privacy and security.’ This can be easily accomplished by making the recipient of a grant, or even the donor if necessary, appear as ‘anonymous’. But even among funders who do work on human rights issues, many of their grants are not particularly controversial. The Sigrid Rausing Trust sees no need to make its £9.6 million support for Human Rights Watch anonymous. Why should it?

So while I agree with Jo on many of her core points, I am worried that, much like the Hungarian government that she criticizes for using ‘left-leaning’ NGOs as an excuse for a blanket crackdown on foreign funding, foundations will too easily use the exception to justify the rule. Too many times I have heard funders talk about their work being so sensitive that data about it cannot be shared, when in fact the vast majority of their work is not sensitive at all.

While I agree with Jo on many of her core points, I am worried that... foundations will too easily use the exception to justify the rule. Too many times I have heard funders talk about their work being so sensitive that data about it cannot be shared, when in fact the vast majority of their work is not sensitive at all.

As president of Foundation Center – an organization created by foundations that saw transparency as the best way to respond to McCarthy-era hearings accusing them of supporting communism – I believe in the concept very deeply. Transparency is entirely appropriate for organizations that receive some kind of tax benefit in exchange for providing public benefit. It is a valuable means of informing the public while also supporting foundation collaboration and sharing the kind of knowledge and lessons learned that alone can make funding more effective in the future.

As I write, I am also plagued by the nagging feeling that we may be caught up in yesterday’s debate. In an era of Big Data, in which governments either abuse or struggle to protect citizens’ information while those same citizens open up their lives on mobile phones and through Facebook, secrets of any kind are getting harder to hold. The idea that a foundation could fund something that no one would know about seems increasingly unrealistic in our digital world – and perhaps a bit dangerous.

Transparency is inevitable. Being wise and proactive about how philanthropy uses its information is imperative; believing that we can continue to fly beneath the radar is impractical.

-- Brad Smith

The U.N. Millennium Development Goals: How the Social Sector, Government and Civil Society can Effectively Collaborate on Global Development
October 10, 2013

(Emily Keller is an editorial associate in the Corporate Philanthropy department at the Foundation Center.)

Keller-100

As the 2015 deadline for achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) nears, philanthropic leaders convened at the Ford Foundation on September 27 to discuss methods for effectively collaborating with the social sector, government, and private sector to ensure their work leads to substantive long-term change. Panelists discussed the significance of transparency and accountability in achieving the MDGs.

A lot of the problems we want to solve can’t be easily solved by one sector. Foundations are very nimble and can take risks that governments can’t.

The MDGs, created in 2000, consist of eight goals to fight poverty, hunger, and disease, empower women, protect maternal health and children, and ensure environmental sustainability across the globe. Targets include cutting poverty in half, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, and providing universal primary education. Governments have been tasked with setting and implementing the MDGs, but philanthropy plays a significant role in supporting these processes and helping to shape the post-2015 international development agenda spearheaded by the U.N. That effort has yielded the collection of input from 1.5 million people and counting through a program called A Million Voices: The World We Want.

In his opening remarks, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker praised the United Nations Development Programme for being increasingly inclusive and collaborative in these processes, and he reminded the audience of the philanthropy sector’s unique ability to act independently in addressing social justice and inequality. Walker quoted a friend of his in saying, “You occupy a unique and privileged perch in society, but you don’t use it enough.”

Speakers on the opening panel focused on the importance of seeking participation from under-represented groups, data sharing, and communication between foundations as some of the key ways that philanthropy can support accountability and transparency.

Alexandra Garita, executive coordinator of Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ), and Theo Sowa, chair of the African Grantmakers Network and chief executive officer of the African Women’s Development Fund, called for bringing unheard voices into the conversations about the post-2015 international development agenda.

Garita cited a new U.N. report, “Advancing Regional Recommendations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda: A Consultation with Civil Society,” which calls for accountability and the participation of disenfranchised people in all aspects of policy-making. “I think what philanthropy can really contribute is investing in participation…It would be really great if philanthropy could invest in regional networks of social justice organizations,” Garita said.

Sowa said, “There are still large numbers of people who are excluded from the MDG process. The U.N. has tried to reach people but it’s the usual suspects and large NGOs who are given a voice. We need to be active and proactive in reaching the people who aren’t being reached. I think that there’s still time to do that and there’s a role philanthropy can play in that.”

Panelists at the subsequent breakout session, “Fostering Stakeholder Participation for Transparency and Accountability in Governance Processes,” provided detailed advice to foundation leaders seeking to support the MDGs, including:

Data Sharing and Sector-Wide Communication
Erik Lundsgaarde, senior researcher at the German Development Institute, noted the importance of transparency about “where foundation funding goes and what it’s used for,” and said, “Foundations vary a lot in the information they provide. Going forward, there should be more attention to the usability of funding data and more disaggregation of funding data, especially at the country level.”

Steven Lawrence, director of research at the Foundation Center, said foundations benefit by sharing information about their work in specific issues areas for comparison with other funders. Lawrence also noted the importance of lowering transaction costs to enhance the availability of data.

Direct Funding for Accountability and Transparency
Another way to support this work is to fund programs like the Better Than Cash Alliance, a multi-sector effort to facilitate the market shift from cash to electronic payments globally to increase the inclusion of the poor in the formal financial sector and reduce theft by corrupt employers and governments. Frank DeGiovanni, director of financial assets at the Ford Foundation, said the program is intended to increase transparency through the creation of electronic records while reducing the cost of disbursing benefits for governments. Lundsgaarde said that while foundations deal with accountability issues frequently, funding for governance programs is relatively small compared with more popular issues such as health care.

Develop Cross-Sector Partnerships
DeGiovanni recommended using principles of comparative advantage in establishing programs and partnerships. “A lot of the problems we want to solve can’t be easily solved by one sector. Foundations are very nimble and can take risks that governments can’t. There are inherent advantages to each group. Look for comparative advantages,” DeGiovanni said.

Support Grassroots and Advocacy Organizations
Dr. Wiebe Boer, chief executive officer at The Tony Elumelu Foundation in Nigeria said corporations and foundations that support programs in other continents should look to the organizations on the ground for guidance on how to invest there. “I think we need to start changing who’s telling who how to do things the right way,” he said.

Supporting the MDGs is a complex endeavor since it involves bringing the corporate, government, civil society, and philanthropy sectors together to address issues that have inherent overlap—such as poverty, health care, employment, and climate change. What do you think philanthropy should do to facilitate accountability and transparency in support of the MDGs? Please leave your comments below.

-- Emily Keller

IHRFG Holds up a Map That is a Mirror
July 8, 2013

(Kate Kroeger is the Executive Director at the Urgent Action Fund. This blog is re-posted from the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) blog.)

Kroeger-100I have always loved maps. As a young girl, I would spend hours staring at the maps of the world hanging on the walls of my classrooms, absorbing the contours of each continent and the oceans in between. The obsession has been a lasting one, staying with me as I have traveled to places near and far. So when the Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funders Group published Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking, I was immediately drawn to it: opening it right up to the map at its center.

Maps tell us stories as much as they tell us longitudes and latitudes.

What I found was a fascinating snapshot of the ways in which, as funders, we are spending our resources around the world. Marking the continents is a total of $1.2 billion in foundation grants to advance human rights globally. Maps tell us stories as much as they tell us longitudes and latitudes. Often, stories about power and politics: whose place names get used, which way is “up”, which towns and cities get listed and which do not, how the borders get drawn. Whenever we see a map, it’s helpful to ask what is included and what is not. Beyond the numbers, what does this map show us? And what can’t it show us? First, it shows us:

  • We’re thinking globally.
    This map paints a global picture. Despite interviewing funders primarily based in one country, the United States, we learn that 31% of grant recipients are based outside the United States and 46% of grants supported international work.
  • We see a role for human rights foundations in shaping policy solutions.
    The report notes that advocacy has become a greater part of several funders’ work. This is an important development. As funders we can use our voices and our collective weight to shape the policy priorities of our own governments, who in turn play a significant role in being able to influence the governments where our grantees live and work.
  • We’re connecting to the right people.
    We cannot do our work well without the participation, indeed the leadership, of the activists our funding supports. The report tells us that funders are working with indigenous people, sex workers, ethnic and racial minorities, the poor, migrants, people with disabilities, LGBT people, victims of violence, women and girls. These are the communities most affected by structural inequality and restrictions on human rights.

So, what stories don’t we hear? For one, this map cannot show us whether the data it provides is an accurate reflection of the human rights challenges facing the world. In other words, it shows us the landscape of (proposed) solutions but not necessarily the problems.

If someone with no knowledge of human rights were to look at this report, and assume that donors must be directing the greatest share of funding to the most important problems, they could reasonably conclude that the personal liberty and security of individuals in the United States is the most important human rights issue of our time. If we think that it is not, then it might be time to listen more closely to what we are hearing from the grassroots, and to think again about where, and how, we direct our dollars.

Recently, in Tunisia, I had the chance to reflect on the value of listening. The value of a funder listening to grantees. The value of human rights activists listening to one another. Feminists from across North Africa and the Middle East gathered for a day to share their experiences of participating in the revolutions of their countries and to assess the impact of political change on women’s rights. Activists from Syria listened to the counsel of their sisters in Tunisia that the call for change should not come at the expense of their freedom and that they must choose their alliances carefully. Older women in the movement heard from their younger counterparts that priorities are changing for young feminists. Through the act of listening, they made space for the greater inclusion of new voices. And straight women heard from LGBT activists in the room about the indivisibility of the struggle for equal rights. As Urgent Action Fund supported this convening, I listened in order to learn and to identify the strategic opportunities where our grants could make a difference. The eight hours I spent with those activists changed in fundamental and profound ways the map of Urgent Action Fund’s own priorities in the region and brought it into better alignment with the voices of the women’s human rights defenders we support.

The IHRFG map is a mirror that reflects back to us the form and content of our collective work. Let’s look closely and honestly into that mirror and use it as a starting point for moving in a direction that represents the collective aspirations of funders and activists working for a better world, around the world.

--Kate Kroeger

Now That We're 'Canon': 3 Ways to Advance Human Rights Philanthropy
July 1, 2013

(Daniel Jae-Won Lee is the executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, an independent private foundation that conveys the pioneering spirit and enduring values of Levi Strauss & Co.: originality, empathy, integrity and courage. He leads the foundation's international grantmaking in four areas: confronting HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination, advancing worker rights in the apparel industry, helping low-income people save and invest in their futures, and advancing social justice. This blog is re-posted from PhilanTopic.)

Lee-100For better or worse, the field of philanthropy is inundated with reports. My swelling "to-read" pile is the root cause of seemingly intractable clutter in my office.

Amid this cacophony, Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking warrants our attention. On its part, the International Human Rights Funders Group deserves kudos for culling rich insights from wide-ranging interviews with members from nine countries.

Shedding light on egregious abuses will always remain a crux part of the human rights agenda. On the other hand, narratives of human possibility and courage -- whether of affected communities or defenders -- can powerfully influence hearts and minds.

It's significant, as well, that the Foundation Center co-authored the report, its first-ever in-depth look at the topic of global human rights. As the go-to clearinghouse for information about philanthropy, the Foundation Center tracks trends and makes new knowledge visible, literally and figuratively putting grants data on the map. You might even say that funders look to the Foundation Center to discern what's "canon" in institutional philanthropic funding flows.

Human rights funders, rejoice -- we're on the map.

Some of you will recall the Foundation Center's groundbreaking survey Social Justice Grantmaking: A Report on Foundation Trends, released eight years ago (not to mention the incisive second edition in 2009). Whether by coincidence or correlation, its publication heralded a period of substantial growth for the field of social justice philanthropy, climbing to nearly 15 percent of all institutional giving. More important, it served as a touchstone for vigorous dialogue and nimble collaboration among foundations – even luring new players to the table.

As the ink dries on Advancing Human Rights, how can we spur a similar ripple effect for the field of human rights philanthropy? Here are my initial thoughts -- and let's borrow from the metaphorical trove of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement:

1. Help peers out of the closet. Advancing Human Rights identifies a swath of funders making grants that fall within the report’s definition of human rights but do not categorize their work as human rights philanthropy (many explicitly embrace “access to” approaches that go far beyond service delivery in such realms as health and education). Curiously, this includes six of the top fifteen funders -- all based in the United States -- that are featured in the survey.

It is time for more seasoned funders to share lessons from their institutions on "making the case" for a rights-based approach. What arguments or illustrations can convince trustees, donors, executives, and fellow staff members? What tools can we share to make human rights funding accessible -- and not the hallowed (and isolated) terrain of experts?

2. Let’s be "out, loud, and proud" on impact. Advancing Human Rights underscores the need for bold grantmaking that bolsters local advocacy and organizing -- and, moreover, for broadened general operating and multiyear support. This echoes the call to action of the U.S.-based National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, a sector "watchdog" that aims to represent the best thinking of the nonprofit sector and social justice leaders.

Stark fault lines separate those funders who do and do not embrace these perspectives. Vigorous action to demonstrate the value proposition of investing in advocacy -- and illuminate its "life cycle" of impact over time -- is sorely needed. Within our grant portfolios and databases resides a wealth of data and narratives that will help cement this case. What are the big wins, the intermediate wins -- and, for that matter, the setbacks and upshots? How do strategies like policy advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement collude to foster "perfect storms" of social change?

Many of us know instinctively that investing in the grassroots is a powerful and durable strategy. If we'd like to see more flows of general and multiyear support for advocacy, it is incumbent upon us to provide convincing evidence. In a provocative report, Leveraging Limited Dollars, NCRP calculated a $115 return in community benefit for every $1 invested in policy and civic engagement in the United States. Let's join this conversation with examples from the global front.

3. Convey "positive" human rights stories. As Advancing Human Rights notes, clear public messaging is critical to build a moral and political consensus for human rights on the grassroots, national, regional and global levels. But this field faces a vexing challenge: people tend to notice human rights only in their absence. In other words, communicating about human rights can seem a rather morbid affair -- as appealing as chasing ambulances.

Shedding light on egregious abuses will always remain a crux part of the human rights agenda. On the other hand, narratives of human possibility and courage -- whether of affected communities or defenders -- can powerfully influence hearts and minds. What's the positive value to society of human rights movements, mechanisms, and wins? How can we use new tools of technology and media to "color in the faces" of those bearing the brunt of stigma and discrimination? How can we make winning cases for values like participation, non-discrimination and access to justice?

No doubt, the global human rights movement is a powerful shaper of the energy and events of our time. Advancing Human Rights sets the stage for funders to deepen our commitment to bolster pioneering advocacy -- and cues the spotlight for the sector of human rights philanthropy to take center stage.

-- Daniel Lee

Ants in the Kitchen: The Role of Data in Human Rights Funding
June 19, 2013

(Caitlin Stanton is the Director of Learning & Partnerships at Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights. Previously, she was the Senior Program Officer for Learning & Evaluation at the Global Fund for Women.)

Stanton-100A professor at Vanderbilt University, Brooke Ackerly, once told me, “Numbers matter. If someone tells you there are ants in your kitchen, you will want to know whether there are two ants in your kitchen or whether there are TWO MILLION ANTS IN YOUR KITCHEN.” And if there are anywhere near two million ants in your kitchen, then your neighbors will also want to know about it. Transparently sharing quantitative data helps us understand the scope of a problem, decide how to gauge the scale of our response, and allows others to learn from our efforts.

Transparently sharing quantitative data helps us understand the scope of a problem, decide how to gauge the scale of our response, and allows others to learn from our efforts.

In Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking, the Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funder’s Group collect, analyze, and publicly share quantitative data that tell us about the scale of our response to human rights violations. The report finds that foundation grantmaking to address these issues occurs on a global scale and is a widespread practice, with 703 foundations giving a total of $1.2 billion in grants for human rights causes in 2010.

For many of us in the field of human rights grantmaking, and particularly within foundations that work to advance the rights of women and girls, the startlingly low amount of funding going to address the issue of freedom from violence stands out as an important finding from the report.

Funding to secure freedom from violence accounts for just 4 percent of the total grantmaking by human rights funders included in the study. Even within that issue, the largest chunk of grant money goes to addressing freedom from torture, a significant issue to be sure, but one that impacts a relatively small number of individuals compared to the one billion women and girls who face violence based on their gender. In fact, the report finds that in 2010, just $5.3 million was directed to the issue of domestic violence and another $8.6 million to the issue of gender or identity-based violence. Combined, these would account for only about 1 percent of all of the $1.2 billion in grants included in the study.

This data helps us identify issues, like that of gender-based violence, where the scope of the problem may not align with the scale of the response. In terms of the scope of the problem, we know that approximately one out of every three women and girls around the world have their right to freedom from violence violated because of their gender – they experience assault, rape, abuse, and even murder. We know that beyond being a human rights violation, this violence costs societies billions ($5.8 billion annually in the US alone, according to the CDC) in lost worker productivity, public health implications, and costs associated with legal and social services.

Any way you look at it, violence against women is a major roadblock to economic and social progress and a human rights violation. When we compare the scope of the problem to the scale of the response, this data is telling us that we are responding to a two million ant problem with a two ant solution.

However, where grantmaking on freedom from violence is happening, there are innovative efforts to integrate grantmaking, field-building and advocacy strategies for greater impact. Recently, three examples stood out to me:

In the city of Chicago, one-third of all crimes reported are domestic violence related. The Chicago Foundation for Women’s Freedom from Violence initiative includes grantmaking, policy advocacy and capacity building strategies. An Advocacy Academy and Executive Directors Roundtable also support local nonprofits working for the right to live free from violence.

Global Fund for Women has funded organizations that helped to achieve stronger legislation on violence against women and girls in 25 countries, including the Philippines, Bulgaria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mongolia, and Georgia among others. Last fall it looked for ways to raise its own voice on this issue, and worked with a coalition of 17 other women’s funds to bring a petition to the Council of Europe in support of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention - a framework to prevent, stop, and sanction the crime of violence against women.

The Open Society Foundations have directed grantmaking toward freedom from violence but also used their website as a platform to share grantee’s stories and to raise awareness of campaigns on this issue. Most recently, the OSF Moving Walls exhibit has included the stories of domestic violence survivors from South Africa

Data can tell us a lot; revealing challenges and the action we’ve taken -- or failed to take -- to solve those problems. Stories from funders that work to secure freedom from violence adds another layer. A sense of what might be possible. Hopefully, these examples are just a beginning. A beginning of a wave of grantmakers, ready not only to fund but to raise our own voices on this issue.

--Caitlin Stanton

Advice on Archives from a Knowledge Manager: A Q&A with Alan Divack
March 28, 2013

(Alan S. Divack is Senior Project Manager for Archives and Knowledge Management at the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program. He was a guest at the recent Philanthropy New York forum, "How Will Your Foundation's Story Be Told in 100 Years: Why Archives Matter," which was chronicled in a blog post here.)

Divack-100Transparency Talk (TT): You mentioned at the forum that electronic data presents new challenges and opportunities for archival preservation, including the challenge of capturing data generated with changing hardware and software. How have these changes affected the functionality of archives in relation to the transparency of information for researchers?

“I think that foundations, as public trusts, are under an obligation (still undefined) to make their information public. The 990s alone just don’t cut it.”

Alan Divack (AD): The changes affect every aspect of records preservation and use of the material.  I think that impact on transparency depends on these other fundamental issues. In order to keep electronic records available over time, institutions have three basic options: 1) the hardware and software platforms necessary for their use must be preserved; 2) the records must be converted to a more generic format more likely to be useable in the future (migration); or 3) systems must be developed that will enable future hardware and software systems to imitate the functionality of the original systems (emulation). Of these, 2 and 3 are the most promising, but each requires substantial planning and investments. If these investments are not made, the records will not be usable in the future and they become completely opaque to researchers.

TT: Based on your work to create the Global Archives at the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program, how can archives enable foundations to further their international human rights work? What documents or data are most important for facilitating a successful archival system in this area, and what are the risks involved with preserving and providing access to this information?

AD: I would actually flip this around and encourage foundations interested in human rights work to consider funding archival programs. A lot of human rights work depends on accurate documentation of offenses. When states or non-state actors commit offenses, it is often up to the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector to document what has happened, and then to preserve this documentation so that it can be used for both mobilization and individual redress. The Ford Foundation has worked with many grantees, particularly in Latin America, on this and I think that there is room for such programs in other regions as well.

TT: According to a new study by The Commonwealth Fund, “The Archives of U.S. Foundations: An Endangered Species,” 80 percent of foundations with archives are not keeping important e-mail messages, and more than half are not preserving Web site information. As a specialist in digitization and electronic records, what value can be gained by archiving e-mail and Web site data and what is lost by deleting it?

AD: I think that the full record format in most organizations is actually e-mail plus attachment. A report or memo may be saved in electronic format, but it leaves a lot of questions. Why was it written? For whom? How was it received? I once cataloged a hard-copy report recommending a new line of work for a foundation. It turns out the recommendations were set aside, but it was impossible to determine this from the documentary record. I only found this out later from talking to some of those involved. A thread of e-mails can provide a tremendous amount of information about the documents that they convey. E-mails tend to be less formal and controlled than other organizational records and therefore present particular challenges, more for cultural than technological reasons. While they are certainly valuable for internal use, organizations may want to be more cautious about their use by the research public. One possible approach is to restrict their use to on-site in research archives, rather than making them available with other electronic resources over the Internet.

Web content is sort of the flip side in that the challenges are more technical than cultural. Because most of it is vetted and designed for public consumption, Web content presents few access/confidentiality problems. The problems with Web content arise because it is changed rapidly and because of the networked nature of the document. What a user sees on a Web page may come from several different sources, and the result may be unusable unless all of the sources are transferred to the archives and linked appropriately. One resource worth exploring is Internet Archive, which  tries to archive Web sites and would probably not only be happy to archive a foundation’s Web content, but would also do it better. 

TT: According to John Craig, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Commonwealth Fund, most institutions do not archive declined proposals. Can foundations or researchers gain knowledge from these proposals, and should they be preserved?

AD: I think that for the most part, foundations are making the right decision on this. In my experience, most large foundations fund very few unsolicited proposals. However, they often get large numbers. I don’t see the long-term value in preserving inquiries that are often tangential to a foundation’s work. In general, proposals and partners are actively solicited by program staff in their fields. These proposals are the end-product of long conversations and interactions, and are very different from most received by a foundation. There are two exceptions to this: responses to Requests-For-Proposals, which are likely to be related to specific foundation initiatives, and cases where foundations actually do fund a large proportion of unsolicited proposals.

TT: Can you give us an example, or tell a story, about how foundation archives have been used to improve philanthropic work in the U.S. or abroad?

Just as, due to the complexities of social change, it can be difficult to attribute specific instances of change to foundation programs, it is difficult to cite uses of foundation archives with specific impact. However, I can refer to a number of research projects from my time at the Ford Foundation where the use of the archives may have helped change how the foundation approached its programming: an evaluation of programs in international relations, which included significant archival research, led to a reorientation of the foundation’s international programs. In a similar field, but with a narrower geographic focus, I believe that a highly critical report questioning the impacts of the foundation’s programs on dialogues between India and Pakistan led the foundation to redirect its resources there. More broadly, on the topic of evaluation and reflection, few foundations have the resources or the attention span to reflect on the long-term impact of their programs. By making their records available to the research public, there are scholars who will do that for them and contribute to knowledge in the fields that foundations continue to care about. 

TT: Do you think that archives help foundations to tell their own stories versus having others tell their stories for them?

AD: It is not an either/or but rather a both. When I worked at the Ford Foundation archives, I think a majority of our research use was for foundation staff. Although communications staff were major users (telling the story), the largest group were program staff. There was little institutional memory, and this was a niche that the archives occupied. With broad availability of a robust intra-net within the foundation, this has changed. Most program staff information needs are for relatively recent information (let’s say the past decade) and enough of this is available electronically from the intranet, rather than from the archives, to meet these needs. 

TT: What are the best access policies to balance the needs of both researchers and foundations?

AD: There is no single best policy. I think that foundations, as public trusts, are under an obligation (still undefined) to make their information public. The 990s alone just don’t cut it. However, I think that just because information or records should be made available, they do not have to be made available immediately and without restriction. In fact, if there are no restrictions and the presumption is that all records should be open to researchers at once, I think that records creators are less likely to create, capture, and maintain the kinds of information that will be of use to researchers, even in the near future. Access policies should balance the needs of the public and researchers to know in the medium term with the necessity of organizations to conduct business and make decisions in the short term.

One way in which I think electronic records will complicate this going forward is the extent to which they might be made universally available over the internet. The access challenges may be more cultural than technological. Institutions had a certain degree of comfort with historical records being used in analog form in a controlled setting. The open frontier of the internet is something else entirely.

-- Alan Divack

Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor…your grants data (Part 1)
October 18, 2012

(Jeff Falkenstein is vice president of data architecture at the Foundation Center.)

Falkenstein-100To say that Jeff Raikes’ announcement of the launch of Markets for Good  was big news is an understatement. Raikes’ call to improve the philanthropic information infrastructure and support the quality of and access to data speaks to the core of the Foundation Center’s mission and vision. The Center, along with fifteen partner foundations, recently made a big announcement of its own when it launched the Reporting Commitment, a movement to improve the transparency of, and reduce duplication among, foundations through the adoption of common reporting standards and a consistent geographic taxonomy. Needless to say, these two developments have the potential to significantly impact the future of the philanthropic sector.

One of the biggest challenges of our work -- and the critique of our products and services we hear most often -- is directly related to the fact that it’s difficult to get our hands on foundation data quickly enough to make these tools as useful as they need to be for program officers, researchers, academics, grantseekers, and others.

For over fifty years, the Foundation Center has aggregated information on U.S. foundations pulled from publicly available 990-PF tax returns, annual reports, press releases, foundation Web sites, and other information sources. In addition to offering this data through the Foundation Directory Online, the Center features it in its many research reports and issue-based portals, and has taken steps to incorporate it into grants management software as well as reports and portals developed with a number of foundations and other partners. Much of the value the Center adds to the information we collect comes from an intensive review of hundreds of thousands of grants made by foundations from around the world. The Center also identifies the recipients of those grants: who they are, what they do, where they (generally) work, and which populations they (generally) serve. Additional analysis is done to understand the purpose of the grant, the subject area funded, the type of support provided, the specific population and geographic area served by the grant, and the strategy behind it.

One of the biggest challenges of our work -- and the critique of our products and services we hear most often -- is directly related to the fact that it’s difficult to get our hands on foundation data quickly enough to make these tools as useful as they need to be for program officers, researchers, academics, grantseekers, and others. Our response to this criticism has been to encourage foundations to report their grants data directly to us. In 1998, the Center established its eGrant Reporting program, a set of standards for foundations to report data electronically to the Center via participating grants management software systems or through a self-created Excel file. Using the grants management software of their choice, foundations can generate Excel spreadsheets of their grants in a standardized format and e-mail them directly to us. Receiving grants information electronically in a consistent format enables the Center to process and publish the data in a more timely fashion, while giving foundations more control over how the Center represents their grantmaking and communicates their work to the world. The nearly seven hundred and fifty foundations currently participating in this program are able to report their grants in near-real-time and have that data uploaded to all the Foundation Center products and platforms where the data is featured. But while the program has been an important first step toward greater transparency in the sector, we’ve only scratched the surface.

Over the last few years, the Center has been working with its foundation and grant management software partners to make it easier for foundations to report their data to us in a more timely fashion. In 2010, the Center acquired Grantsfire and hGrant, an HTML-based micro-format grant reporting system, and adapted it to fully complement our existing eGrant reporting program. Grant feeds published by any foundation using the hGrant Reporting program are available to the public, for free, at Glasspockets.org, the Center’s transparency-focused Web site. Indeed, the hGrant system is at the heart of the Reporting Commitment initiative announced by the Center and its fifteen foundation partners.

But the hGrant system is only a start. In the coming months, the Center will be developing xGrant, an XML-based machine-readable version of our eGrant Reporting standard that will allow for a more flexible and easily adapted standard beyond the current hGrant micro-format. We will also be surveying our software vendor partners about their preferred export method. Why offer three ways to report grants data? Because we recognize that foundations do things differently and have varying degrees of capacity, and we want to give them every opportunity to report their grants data in the most convenient way possible.

What’s more, we are working to refine the eGrant reporting standard to align with other global reporting standards, including those developed by the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Why is this important? Because in order to get a holistic picture of how and where philanthropy complements international aid/ bilateral organization/donor government financial flows, our standard needs to align with existing standards. To that end, we invite any and all standard-setting organizations and bodies to share their standards and taxonomies with us so we can map them to the eGrant standard. Creating “crosswalks” between standards will allow for deeper analysis of the full spectrum of development flows and contribute to greater collaboration among public, private, and philanthropic actors.

To demonstrate the usefulness of submitting data to the Center in a standard format, we have been providing participating foundations with free maps of their grants -- maps that can be shared with their boards, staff, or deployed on their Web sites. Maps aside, we firmly believe that foundations which share their grants data via the eGrant Reporting program are also joining a larger conversation around transparency and open data, are putting themselves in a position to teach and learn from each other, and, as articulated by my colleague Larry McGill in the latest issue of Alliance magazine, are taking a significant step toward working more collaboratively and effectively.

New and powerful tools like WASHfunders, a Web portal for funders working to address the world’s water crisis, and Philanthropy In/Sight Human Rights, an interactive mapping tool that displays grant funding for human rights issues, as well as studies like European Funding for Women and Girls are just a few examples of the ways in which foundations and funder coalitions are harnessing taxonomies and standards to forge a shared understanding of their work. The Foundation Center is delighted to contribute to this effort by offering products and services that can help funders and funder coalitions achieve their goals in this area. We encourage you to join us.

--Jeff Falkenstein

Interested in becoming part of the eGrant Reporting community?  We’re glad to have you on board. Either leave a comment below or contact Jeff at eGrants@foundationcenter.org.

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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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