Transparency Talk

Category: "Lessons Learned" (71 posts)

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

Is Your 990-PF Working Against You?
September 12, 2017

Lauren Haverlock has practiced public accounting since 2004. As a senior manager at Moss Adams LLP, she provides compliance and consulting services to all types of exempt organizations, including public charities and private foundations.

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

Join us at a session about the Open 990PF in partnership with Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Learn more or register here.

Lauren HaverlockAs a CPA specializing in tax exempt organizations, the annual 990-PF form that private foundations must file with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the source of many questions I receive. And now that this data is not just publicly available, but open, it is wise for us all to take a closer look at whether your 990-PF may unintentionally be working against you.

Of course, the IRS has been gathering data on 990-PF filers for years. It has used this data to better identify and investigate anomalous and non-compliant private foundations. But now, all electronically filed Form 990-PF data is available to the general public in machine readable formats opening up the investments, portfolio performance, grant recipients, expenses, and transactions of foundations like never before.

Now that this information is publicly available in machine readable format, it can be easily aggregated to provide valuable insight into the industry as a whole. It can also highlight outliers. Ultimately, the availability of this data provides a window into private foundations, many of which were previously used to operating outside the public eye. As Glasspockets has reported, currently only 10% of U.S. foundations even have a website, so if your foundation is among the 90% that do not, that means that your 990-PF is the only source of intelligence about your organization. 

In the new world of readily available machine-readable Form 990s, private foundations will want to verify their tax filings—the source of their data—are prepared completely and accurately. Common mistakes to watch out for when filing the Form 990-PF are detailed in this article.

Transactions

Private foundations face more burdensome regulations on investments and expenses than 501(c)(3) public charities:

  • Restrictions on how money is spent
  • Requirements as to how much money is used for charitable purposes
  • Rules regarding how endowments can be invested

The consequences for noncompliance in regards to the above transactions can range from excise-tax penalties assessed on the foundation or its managers to revocation of exempt status.

Specific items to be aware of include the following:

  • Prohibited transactions with a disqualified person, including trustees, directors, and foundation managers as well as certain family members and businesses of the aforementioned.
  • Failure to meet the minimum distribution requirement in a previous year
  • Excess business holdings of an active trade or business
  • Risky asset investments that could jeopardize a foundation’s charitable purpose (for example, not having a diversified portfolio of investments)
  • Certain types of expenditures, such as foreign grants, grants to for-profit entities, unapproved scholarships, or lobbying and political activities, are either prohibited outright or require extra diligence to be permissible. 

For example, foundations are permitted to reasonably compensate a disqualified person for personal services. And an organization can grant funds to foreign or for-profit organizations if expenditure responsibility is exercised. And more details about what is permissible in regards to political funding appears below. But the main point here is just the affirmation of these closely scrutinized transactions could raise the risk profile of a private foundation.

Net Investment Income

Although considered tax-exempt, private foundations are still required to pay an excise tax at a rate of 1% or 2% of the income they generate. As such, investment income is of intense focus when foundations file their tax returns. Foundations should remember that the calculation of taxable income should be undertaken with the same tax-reduction mindset that for profit entities and individuals undertake.   

“Ultimately, the availability of this data provides a window into private foundations, many of which were previously used to operating outside the public eye.”

The Form 990-PF reports income both on a book and on a tax basis on Page one. A foundation should ensure that it is properly capturing all taxable income from all sources and not simply assuming that taxable income is the amount reported on their financial statements. For example, private foundations with “alternative investments,” including private equity, hedge funds, managed futures, real estate, commodities and derivatives contracts, could receive a Schedule K-1 from their investments. Flow-through income from that Schedule K-1 should be reported in the foundation’s tax-basis income statement. 

Additionally, any excise tax a foundation pays could bring negative attention. If an entity consistently pays the higher excise tax of 2%, it could lead donors to question why the foundation is giving money to the IRS in the form of taxes rather than providing grants.  

 

Balance-Sheet Investments

Private foundations are required to report the details of their investments, including the number of shares and types of publicly traded stock held. Reporting this can often be burdensome and feel invasive, but failure to include this information could result in an incomplete Form 990-PF. An incomplete Form 990-PF is deemed to have never been filed in the first place, which could result in late-filing penalties or revocation of exemption if it occurs three years in a row.

Lobbying and Political Activities

Private foundations are prohibited from undertaking any lobbying or political activities, unlike 501(c)(3) public charities, which are permitted to undertake limited lobbying activities. However, not all actions related to politics are prohibited—private foundations can undertake certain bipartisan educational activities or support charities that undertake lobbying if they follow certain guidelines. For example, the specific project grant rule, when followed, could allow a private foundation to fund a project that explicitly has lobbying activities.

Grant Reporting

The grant reporting schedule seems innocuous, but it can weave a story of relationships that extend beyond grantor and grantee. The grant recipients of private foundations are public, which means the public can gather data regarding which organizations a foundation supports by using data-mining tools.

Open-990-borderAlthough this information can be valuable to fundraisers and your grantmaking peers, it can also reveal an informal or unclear grantmaking process and serve as an inadvertent disclosure of taxable expenditures. As such, a foundation should ensure that there is a due diligence process related to grant recipients that verifies if a recipient is a qualified 501(c)(3) public charity, and use the space provided in the 990-PF (Part XV) to explain its grantmaking process, deadlines, and eligibility requirements.

While grants to other types of entities are permitted, if certain expenditure responsibility procedures are not followed, this type of granting could possibly raise a red flag. Any grantee that reports a foreign address, appears to be a corporation, or otherwise stands out could still garner a foundation unwanted attention from the general public and IRS. Grantmakers making grants to foreign organizations also have the option of using a process called equivalency determination to demonstrate how they determined that a foreign organization is equivalent to a U.S. charity. The grantmaker is required to collect a specific set of data, as outlined in IRS Revenue Procedure 92-94, that provides details about the grantee’s operations and finances.

Private foundation contributor schedules are public, which means anyone can pull these donor lists. With open-source data, foundation support can be easily compiled and aggregated to better understand an ecosystem of donors and support—keeping a private foundation accountable to the community it serves.

Even though the Form 990-PF is a government filing, its public nature and the increased openness of its data may lead to both greater interest and scrutiny in the private foundations filing it. Take control of your financial story by filing timely, complete, and accurate Form 990 returns, paying special attention to the areas noted above, and ultimately what increases may be a greater understanding of the field itself.

--Lauren Haverlock

The Power of Narrative: Philanthropy and Storytelling
August 31, 2017

Nicole Richards is Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia

Nicole Richards photoWhen it comes to storytelling, philanthropy generally gets a failing grade.

It’s not that we’re short on great stories—they’re everywhere. We hear, see and experience them every day in our work to catalyse positive social change. The story opportunities in philanthropy flow as bountifully as the chocolate river in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

But who has the time to capture them so that they become more than just a feel-good anecdote? Who has the capacity to tell them in a way that might influence others to act? Most of us are too busy with the business of grantmaking and measuring impact to share more than the occasional story at a board meeting or conference. Thousands of stories slip away.

Willy Wonka & RiverThat’s to our detriment. Humans are hard-wired for storytelling—stories are what connect us.

Three months ago, I stepped into the newly created role of Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia, the national industry association for giving in Australia. The position, which is directly aligned with the organization’s strategic plan, has been backed for three years by five local funders who believe in the power and potential of storytelling to grow giving in this country.

The stories I tell span the spectrum of philanthropy, with a view to increasing transparency for a diverse cast of philanthropic actors. From collective giving groups and newly established private ancillary funds to the country’s oldest philanthropic foundations—the stories and the protagonists are distinct but the intent is the same: to make a difference.

Some of those are human interest stories that profile funders and their giving journeys case studies that showcase good practices, and opinion-style narratives designed to challenge the status quo.

From what we’ve seen, the appetite for these stories is boundless—philanthropists of all sizes and persuasions love learning from the collective experience of their peers. Telling these stories, or better yet, passing the mic so that the stories can be recounted firsthand by the funders, their nonprofit partners and the communities they serve, is a powerful form of knowledge sharing, of connecting people with new ideas and networks.

While it’s easy enough to find  and package the stories for ready consumption by those already practicing philanthropy, the bigger challenge is to send the stories beyond the echo chamber and put them before would-be philanthropists and aspiring social change makers. 

That’s as much about opening up philanthropy to demystify it for the uninitiated as it is about sharing stories of philanthropic impact for other philanthropy insiders. Philanthropy is too often viewed as the closed-door, exclusive domain of the ultra-wealthy. As agents of philanthropy, we have a responsibility to bust that myth and lift the veil.

Not all the stories we choose to tell should gleam like candy—the authenticity of the story is critical to its impact. We need more cautionary tales such as stories of failure, of missteps and strategies that went awry. By sharing the stories that aren’t sugar-coated, we make philanthropy less opaque, more accessible and ultimately more effective. By making storytelling a part of our process, we begin to normalize a culture of openness.

While crooning about pure imagination beside his chocolate river, Willie Wonka intoned: “Want to change the world…there’s nothing to it.”

We know he’s wrong on that front, but his golden ticket giveaway of the chocolate factory was a great story.

There’s a story behind every act of giving. For the sake of more and better philanthropy, it’s time we took those stories beyond the chocolate factory gates.

--Nicole Richards

 

How To Keep Me Scrolling Through What You Are Sharing
August 10, 2017

Tom Kelly is Vice President of Knowledge, Evaluation & Learning at the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. He has been learning and evaluating in philanthropy since the beginning of the century. @TomEval  TomEval.com

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.

Tom Kelly Hi ResHello, my name is Tom and I am a Subscriber. And a Tweeter, Follower, Forwarder (FYI!), Google Searcher, and DropBox Hoarder. I subscribe to blogs, feeds, e-newsletters, and email updates. My professional title includes the word “Knowledge,” so I feel compelled to make sure I am keeping track of the high volume of data, information, reports, and ideas flowing throughout the nonprofit and foundation worlds (yes, it is a bit of a compulsion…and I am not even including my favorite travel, shopping and coupon alerts).

It is a lot and I confess I do not read all of it. It is a form of meditation for me to scroll through emails and Twitter feeds while waiting in line at Aloha Salads. I skim, I save, I forward, I retweet – I copy and save for later reading (later when?). In fact, no one can be expected to keep up, so how does anyone make sense of it all, or even find what we need when we need it? Everyone being #OpenForGood and sharing everything is great, but who is reading it all? And how do we make what we are opening for good actually good?

Making Knowledge Usable

We have all experienced at some point Drowning in Information-Starving for Knowledge (John Naisbitt’s Megatrends…I prefer E.O. Wilson’s “starving for wisdom” theory). The information may be out there but rarely in a form that is easily found, read, understood, and most importantly used. Foundation Center and IssueLab have made it easier for people in the sector to know what is being funded, where new ideas are being tested, and what evidence and lessons are available. But nonprofits and foundations still have to upload and share many more of their documents than they do now. And we need to make sure that the information we share is readable, usable, and ready to be applied.

Hawaii Community Foundation Graphic

DataViz guru Stephanie Evergreen recently taught me a new hashtag: #TLDR – “Too Long, Didn’t Read.”

She now proposes that every published report be available in three formats – a one-page handout with key messages, a 3-page executive summary, and a 25-page report (plus appendices). In this way the “scanners,” “skimmers” and “deep divers” can access the information in the form they prefer and in the time they have. It also requires writing (and formatting) differently for each of these sets of eyes. (By the way, do you know which one you are?)

From Information to Influence

But it is not enough to make your reports accessible, searchable, and also easily readable in short and long forms; you also need to include the information people need to make decisions and act. It means deciding in advance who you want to inform and influence and what you want people to do with the information. You need to be clear about your purpose for sharing information, and you need to give people the right kinds of information if you expect them to read it, learn from it, and apply it.

“Give people the right kinds of information if you expect them to read it, learn from it, and apply it.”

Too many times I have read reports with promising findings or interesting lessons, and then I race through all the footnotes and the appendices at the back of the report looking for resources that could point me to the details of evidence and data or implementation guidance. I usually wind up trying to track down the authors by email or phone to follow up.

A 2005 study of more than 1,000 evaluations published in human services found only 22 well-designed and well-documented reports that shared any analysis of implementation factors – what lessons people learned about how best to put the program or services in place. We cannot expect other people and organizations to share knowledge and learn if they cannot access information from others that helps them use the knowledge and apply it in their own programs and organizations. YES, I want to hear about your lessons and “a-ha’s,” but I also want to see data and analysis of the common challenges that all nonprofits and foundations face:

  • How to apply and adapt program and practice models in different contexts
  • How to sustain effective practices
  • How to scale successful efforts to more people and communities

This means making sure that your evaluations and your reports include opening up the challenges of implementation – the same challenges others are likely to face. It also means placing your findings in the context of existing learning while also using similar definitions so that we can build on each other’s knowledge. For example, in our recent middle school connectedness initiative, our evaluator Learning for Action reviewed the literature first to determine specific components and best practices of youth mentoring so that we could build the evaluation on what had come before, and then report clearly about what we learned about in-school mentoring and open up  useful and comparable knowledge to the field. 

So please plan ahead and define your knowledge sharing and influence agenda up front and consider the following guidelines:

  • Who needs to read your report?
  • What information does your report need to share to be useful and used?
  • Read and review similar studies and reports and determine in advance what additional knowledge is needed and what you will document and evaluate.
  • Use common definitions and program model frameworks so we are able to continually build on field knowledge and not create anew each time.
  • Pay attention to and evaluate implementation, replication and the management challenges (staffing, training, communication, adaptation) that others will face.
  • And disseminate widely and share at conferences, in journals, in your sector networks, and in IssueLab’s open repository.

And I will be very happy to read through your implementation lessons in your report’s footnotes and appendices next time I am in line for a salad.

--Tom Kelly

Crafting A Better Tap of Knowledge
August 9, 2017

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

Gabi Fitz photoThis past weekend, I went to visit an old meat packing plant in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The plant, renamed “Plant Chicago,” serves as a workshop and food production space, playing host to a number of micro-enterprises including a brewery and bakery. But it wasn’t the beer or even the pies that drew me there. It was their tagline, “Closed Loop, Open Source.”

If you know me (or the work of IssueLab at all), you know why I couldn’t resist. The closed loop approach is all about a circular economy, where we take “waste from one process and re-purpose it as inputs for another, creating a circular, closed-loop model of material reuse.” It’s a simple principle and one that I imagine most of us would get behind.

But what’s not so simple is building and maintaining those closed loop systems so that people begin to see (and taste) the benefits. Standing in the lobby of Plant Chicago it was painfully clear to me that circular economies, whether they are in food production or in knowledge production, require more than just good intentions.

Plant Chicago
Plant Chicago, a workshop and food production space, hosts micro-enterprises, including a brewery and bakery. Credit: Gabriela Fitz

Just as I started to feel the familiar weight of trying to execute systems change, I spotted a small sketch of a pyramid amongst a number of technical diagrams and development plans covering a large wall. This simple sketch was similar to a model many of you are probably familiar with but  is still worth describing. In the sketch, the base of the pyramid was labeled “beliefs and values.” The next level up was “practices and actions.” The top of the pyramid was “results.”

When it comes to the closed loop we care so much about at IssueLab, we keep seeing organizations try to skip from beliefs to results. The social sector wants shared learning without sharing; collective impact without collectivized intelligence. But open knowledge - like any sector-wide or organizational change - has to include a change in practices, not just beliefs. If we don’t adopt open knowledge practices, we can’t expect to see the results we hope for: improved program design and delivery at the community level or less duplication of avoidable mistakes. If we truly want to live up to the #OpenForGood ideal, our beliefs and values are simply not sufficient. (Note that the definition of closed loop I quote above is not about beliefs, it’s about actions, relying on verbs like “take,” “re-purpose,” and “create.”)

The good news is that we have the infrastructure to make a circular knowledge economy possible. We’ve built the plant. Tools like open licenses and open repositories were designed to facilitate and support change in knowledge sharing practices, making it easier for foundations to move up the levels of the pyramid.

Now, we just need to start taking a couple simple actions that reflect our beliefs and move us towards the results we want to see. If you believe in the #OpenForGood principle that social sector knowledge is a public good from which nonprofits and foundations can benefit, your foundation can: 1) use open licensing for your knowledge products, and 2) earn an #OpenForGood badge by sharing your knowledge products, like evaluations, through IssueLab’s open repository. Once those practices are as much part of the normal way of doing foundation business as cutting checks and producing summary reports are, we can all sit back and enjoy that beer, together.

--Gabriela Fitz

How Improved Evaluation Sharing Has the Potential to Strengthen a Foundation’s Work
July 27, 2017

Jen GlickmanJennifer Glickman is manager, research team, at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. 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.

Philanthropy is a complex, demanding field, and many foundations are limited in the amount of resources they can dedicate to obtaining and sharing knowledge about their practices. This makes it necessary to consider, then, in what areas should foundations focus their learning and sharing efforts to be #OpenForGood?

Last year, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) released two research reports exploring this question. The first, Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency, looks at foundation CEOs’ perspectives on what it means to be transparent, who the primary audiences are for foundations’ transparency efforts, and what is most important for foundations to share.

The second report, Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices, presents benchmarking data collected from senior foundation staff with evaluation responsibilities on topics such as evaluation staffing and structures, investment in evaluation work, and the usefulness of evaluation information. Together, these reports provide meaningful insights into how foundations can learn and share knowledge most effectively.

CEP’s research found that there are specific topics about which foundation CEOs believe being transparent could potentially increase their foundation’s ability to be effective. These areas include the foundation’s grantmaking processes, its goals and strategies, how it assesses its performance, and the foundation’s experiences with what has and has not worked in its efforts to achieve its programmatic goals. While foundation CEOs believe their foundations are doing well in sharing information about their grantmaking, goals, and strategies, they say their foundations are much less transparent about the lessons they learn through their work.

CEP Transparency Graphic

For example, nearly 70 percent of the CEOs CEP surveyed say being transparent about their foundation’s experiences with what has worked in its efforts to achieve its programmatic goals could increase effectiveness to a significant extent. In contrast, only 46 percent say their foundations are very or extremely transparent about these experiences. Even fewer, 31 percent, say their foundations are very or extremely transparent about what has not worked in their programmatic efforts, despite 60 percent believing that being transparent about this topic could potentially increase their effectiveness to a significant extent.

And yet, foundations want this information about lessons learned and think it is important. Three-quarters of foundation CEOs say they often seek out opportunities to learn from other foundations’ work, and is that it enables others to learn from foundation work more generally.

How is knowledge being shared then? According to our evaluation research, foundations are mostly sharing their programmatic knowledge internally. Over three-quarters of the evaluation staff who responded to our survey say evaluation findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the foundation’s CEO, and 66 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with foundation staff. In comparison:

  • Only 28 percent of respondents say evaluation findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the foundation’s grantees;
  • 17 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with other foundations; and
  • Only 14 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the general public.

CEP Evaluation Survey Graphic

In fact, less than 10 percent of respondents say that disseminating evaluation findings externally is a top priority for their role.

But respondents do not think these numbers are adequate. Nearly three-quarters of respondents say their foundation invests too little in disseminating evaluation findings externally. Moreover, when CEP asked respondents what they hope will have changed for foundations in the collection and/or use of evaluation information in five years, one of the top three changes mentioned was that foundations will be more transparent about their evaluations and share what they are learning externally.

So, if foundation CEOs believe that being transparent about what their foundation is learning could increase its effectiveness, and foundation evaluation staff believe that foundations should be investing more in disseminating findings externally, what is holding foundations back from embracing an #OpenForGood approach?

CEP has a research study underway looking more deeply into what foundations know about what is and isn’t working in their practices and with whom they share that information, and will have new data to enrich the current conversations on transparency and evaluation in early 2018. In the meanwhile, take a moment to stop and consider what you might #OpenForGood.

--Jennifer Glickman

How to Make Grantee Reports #OpenForGood
July 20, 2017

Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen joined the [Archibald] Bush Foundation in 2011, where they created and now direct the Foundation's Community Innovation programs. The programs allow communities to develop and test new solutions to community challenges, using approaches that are collaborative and inclusive of people who are most directly affected by the problem. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Ellertonmandy20152
Mandy Ellerton

When we started working at the Bush Foundation in 2011, we encountered a machine we’d never seen before: the Lektriever. It’s a giant machine that moves files around, kind of like a dry cleaner’s clothes rack, and allows you to seriously pack in the paper. As a responsible grantmaker, it’s how the Bush Foundation had meticulously tracked and stored its files for posterity - in particular, grantee reports - for decades.

In 2013, the Bush Foundation had the privilege of moving to a new office. Mere days before we were to move into the new space, we got a frantic call from the new building’s management. It turned out that the Lektrievers (we actually had multiple giant filing machines!) were too heavy for the floor of the new building, which had to be reinforced with a number of steel plates to sustain their weight.

MMG 2015 Headshot1
Molly Matheson Gruen

The Lektrievers symbolized our opportunity to become more transparent and move beyond simply preserving our records, instead seeing them as relevant learning tools for current audiences. It was time to lighten the load and share this valuable information with the world.

Even with all this extra engineering, we would still have to say goodbye to one of the machines altogether for the entire system to be structurally sound. We had decades of grantee stories, experiences and learning trapped in a huge machine in the inner sanctum of our office, up on the 25th floor. 

Learning Logs Emerge

We developed our grantee learning log concept in the Community Innovation Programs as one way to increase the Foundation’s transparency. At the heart of it, our learning logs are a very simple concept: they are grantee reports, shared online. But, like many things that appear simple, once you pull on the string of change – the complexity reveals itself.

“Every Community Innovation project is an opportunity for others to learn and the learning logs are a platform to share this learning.”

Before we could save the reports from a life of oblivion in the Lektriever, build out the technology and slap the reports online, we needed to entirely rethink our approach to grantee reporting to create a process that was more mutually beneficial. First, we streamlined our grant accountability measures (assessing whether the grantees did what they said they’d do) by structuring them into a conversation with grantees, rather than as a part of the written reports. We’ve found that conducting these assessments in a conversation takes the pressure off and creates a space where grantees can be more candid, leading to increased trust and a stronger partnership.

Second, our grantee reports now focus on what grantees are learning in their grant-funded project. What’s working? What’s not? What would you do differently if you had it to do all over again? This new process resulted in reports that were more concise and to the point.

Finally, we redesigned our website to create a searchable mechanism for sharing these reports online. This involved linking our grant management system directly with our website so that when a grantee submits a report, we do a quick review and then the report automatically populates our website. We’ve also designed a way for grantees to be able to designate select answers as private when they want to share sensitive information with us, yet not make it entirely public. We leave it up grantee discretion and those selected answers do not appear on the website. Grantees designate their answers to be private for a number of reasons, most often because they discuss sensitive situations having to do with specific people or partners – like when someone drops out of the project or when a disagreement with a partner holds up progress. And while we’ve been pleased at the candor of most of our grantees, some are still understandably reluctant to be publicly candid about failures or mistakes.

But why does this new approach to grantee reporting matter, besides making sure the floor doesn’t collapse beneath our Lektrievers?

Bushfoundation-Lektriever photo
The Lektriever is a giant machine that moves files around, kind of like a dry cleaner’s clothes rack. The Bush Foundation had meticulously tracked and stored its files for posterity - in particular, grantee reports - for decades. Credit: Bush Foundation

Learning Sees the Light of Day

Learning logs help bring grantee learning into the light of day, instead of hiding in the Lektrievers, so that more people can learn about what it really takes to solve problems. Our Community Innovation programs at the Bush Foundation fund and reward the process of innovation–the process of solving problems. Our grantees are addressing wildly different issues: from water quality to historical trauma, from economic development to prison reform. But, when you talk to our grantees, you see that they actually have a lot in common and a lot to learn from one another about effective problem-solving. And beyond our grantee pool, there are countless other organizations that want to engage their communities and work collaboratively to solve problems.  Every Community Innovation project is an opportunity for others to learn and the learning logs are a platform to share this learning, making it #OpenForGood.

We also want to honor our grantees’ time. Grantees spend a lot of time preparing grant reports for funders. And, in a best case scenario, a program officer reads the report and sends the grantee a response of some kind before the report is filed away. But, let’s be honest – sometimes even that doesn’t happen. The report process can be a burden on nonprofits and the only party to benefit is the funder. We hope that the learning logs help affirm to our grantees that they’re part of something bigger than themselves - that what they share matters to others who are doing similar work.

We also hear from our grantees that the reports provide a helpful, reflective process, especially when they fill it out together with collaborating partners. One grantee even said she’d like to fill out the report more often than we require to have regular reflection moments with her team!

Learning from the Learning Logs

We only launched the learning logs last year, but we’ve already received some positive feedback. We’ve heard from both funded and non-funded organizations that the learning logs provide inspiration and practical advice so that they can pursue similar projects. A grantee recently shared a current challenge in their work. It directly connected to some work we knew another grantee had done and had written about in their learning log. So, since this knowledge was now out in the open, we were able to direct them to the learning log as a way to expand our grantee’s impact, even beyond their local community, and use it to help advance another grantee’s work.

Take, for example, some of the following quotes from some of our grantee reports:

  • The Minnesot Brain Injury Alliance's project worked on finding ways to better serve homeless people with brain injuries.  They reflected that, "Taking the opportunity for reflection at various points in the process was very important in working toward innovation.  Without reflection, we might not have been open to revising our plan and implementing new possibilities."
  • GROW South Dakota addressed a number of challenges facing rural South Dakota communities. They shared that, “Getting to conversations that matter requires careful preparation in terms of finding good questions and setting good ground rules for how the conversations will take place—making sure all voices are heard, and that people are listening for understanding and not involved in a debate.”
  •  The People's Press Project engaged communities of color and disenfranchised communities to create a non-commercial, community-owned, low-powered radio station serving the Fargo-Moorhead area of North Dakota. They learned “quickly that simply inviting community members to a meeting or a training was not a type of outreach that was effective.”

Like many foundations, we decline far more applications than what we fund, and our limited funding can only help communities tackle so many problems. Our learning logs are one way to try and squeeze out more impact from those direct investments. By reading grantee learning logs, hopefully more people will be inspired to effectively solve problems in their communities.

We’re not planning to get rid of the Lektrievers anytime soon – they’re pretty retro cool and efficient. They contain important historical records and are incredibly useful for other kinds of record keeping, beyond grantee documentation. Plus, the floor hasn’t fallen in yet. But, as Bush Foundation Communications Director Dominick Washington put it, now we’re unleashing the knowledge, “getting it out of those cabinets, and to people who can use it.”

--Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen

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About Transparency Talk

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

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