Transparency Talk

Category: "Nonprofit Management" (11 posts)

An Insider’s Guide to Giving Day
November 28, 2016

(Mike Berkowitz and Daniel Kaufman are co-founders and principals at Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies. Whitney Caruso is a director at Third Plateau. They are the authors of the recent report, “Beyond the dollars: the long-term value of giving days for community foundations.”)

Mike Berkowitz
Mike Berkowitz

Giving days can be incredible tools for place-based foundations to catalyze nonprofit fundraising. We have witnessed this up close through monitoring and evaluating 49 giving day campaigns as part of the Knight Foundation’s Giving Day Initiative and through advising the Sacramento Region Community Foundation on its BIG Day of Giving. We are also the authors of Knight Foundation’s Giving Day Playbook, a how-to guide with resources and recommendations for giving day organizers. Based on our experiences, however, we have also seen that just hosting a giving day is no guarantee of community impact.

Here are three key tips for foundations in accelerating community impact with giving days and other community-wide online fundraising campaigns:

Caruso Headshot
Whitney Caruso

1. Become a data hub. The power of big data to improve programs and accelerate social impact is becoming increasingly apparent. Giving days enable communities to collect large amounts of data from participating nonprofits and donors, which they can utilize to inform programs and ideas to improve their communities. In Miami, the community foundation is creating a map of the nonprofits and donors that participated in Give Miami Day in 2015. Community foundation staff have said that this will give them a firm understanding of where nonprofits and donors come from and enable them to identify gaps in services and more strategically engage specific neighborhoods. Going a step further, technology expert Amy Webb, speaking at Knight Foundation’s 2016 Media Learning Seminar, argued that community foundations have the potential to use data not just to map current community needs, but to predict them.

Daniel
Daniel Kaufman

2. Build local nonprofit capacity. This kind of fundraising does not necessarily come naturally to all organizations. Trainings are a central component of giving day organizers’ responsibilities and provided community foundations a chance to teach nonprofits important new skills. To build the capacity of nonprofits for the giving days and beyond, community foundations ran trainings on topics such as online fundraising, communications and branding, major donor cultivation and donor retention.

The Sacramento Region Community Foundation had a sophisticated training series for its Big Day of Giving. The “Boot Camp” series included sessions on building a GivingEdge profile, maximizing social media, engaging nonprofit donors and boards, and developing an eight-week work plan for the campaign. Post-event surveys in 2015 found that these trainings paid off, as nonprofits whose representatives attended all four sessions of the series raised 100 percent more than those that did not.

3. Build awareness of broader foundation efforts. Giving days should not operate in a vacuum, and community foundations increasingly tied the campaigns to their other strategic initiatives. For example, the Community Foundation of Grand Forks used its giving day in 2014 as part of an existing effort to engage the community around two issues (homelessness and limited access to health care) and two opportunities (adventure and public arts).

4. Connect fund holders to the broader community. Community foundations found the giving days to be a useful and exciting opportunity to engage fund holders. Thirteen community foundations enabled DAFs to donate through their giving days, resulting in 592 DAFs donating $3,556,129 to participating nonprofits.

Giving days are not for every foundation, so if a giving day does not align with your foundation’s goals, you may be better off skipping it than trying to get in on the campaign just because everyone else is. But as with most things in life, the more experience you have with giving days, the better you will be at using them to your organization’s full advantage—particularly if you see them as learning opportunities and track donation and marketing data to help shape future efforts.

Good luck, and happy holidays!

--Mike Berkowitz, Whitney Caruso, and Daniel Kaufman 

How the Lack of Market Feedback Puts Foundations At Risk and What Some Funders Are Doing About It
October 7, 2016

(David La Piana is the founder and managing partner of La Piana Consulting, which helps nonprofits and foundations achieve their mission and accelerate their impact. This post first ran in PhilanTopic.)

David La Piana Company PhotoQuick: What's the difference between a private foundation and a public charity? To answer, you could consult the Internal Revenue Code, or you might just as easily say: "One has money, and the other needs it."

This simple truth carries profound consequences for foundation decision-making and culture, through the impact of market feedback — or the lack thereof. A private foundation (generally an independent, endowed grantmaking entity) has a fundamentally different and weaker market feedback loop than either a for-profit business or a public charity (generally an operating nonprofit). Even the smallest business receives regular feedback from its market in the form of changes in sales. In order to maintain its tax status, a public charity must constantly attract public resources to put toward its mission — and the response to these efforts is a very real, ongoing, and often painful example of market feedback. A nonprofit unable to attract sufficient funds faces an existential crisis. Negative market feedback in the form of inadequate resources presents the organization with an imperative: either change in ways that will attract the necessary resources, or risk economic failure.

In a striking contrast, no such feedback loop exists for a private foundation. Because its resources were provided by a donor in an endowment at the outset of its existence, there is never a question of economic failure. Put more simply: to survive, a private foundation need not operate successful programs or make effective grants; it need not manage its staff well, engage its board in generative thinking, or meaningfully participate in larger conversations about its work. So long as it achieves the low bar set by the law (meeting payout requirements, paying excise tax, etc.), it has nothing to fear. The only external measure of its success is whether it remains in good standing with the IRS and the state in which it is incorporated. Beyond that, accountability begins and ends with itself.

“Philanthropy has a more difficult time than other industries getting honest feedback from customers.”

This unique situation is a source of jealousy, impatience, and frustration among nonprofit leaders, who find it hard to imagine a world not dominated by their continuous need to fundraise. For the foundation, however, this insularity removes one of the most valuable inputs for any organization: frequent, timely, and accurate market feedback.

What is "the market" for a private foundation, anyway? If we think of a market as, collectively, those who consume (or might consume) an organization’s products and services, the market for private foundations is composed of those public charities that comprise its current, past, and potential future grantees.

One oddity of this situation is that it reverses the usual market dynamic. Businesses sell to customers in exchange for money. The private foundation’s product is money, which it gives toits customers. Given this counterintuitive arrangement, philanthropy has a more difficult time than other industries getting honest feedback from customers. For one thing, at a private foundation it is always boom time: whether the economy is up or down, "customers" continuously clamor for its product, money!

Not only do grantees besiege the foundation with requests for money, they do so by a more or less sophisticated application of that essential grant-seeking trait: fawning. Grantseekers commonly validate the foundation's ideas as nothing short of genius, thanking their program officers for sharing their wisdom, when in fact the nonprofit’s own people are likely to know far more about the work their organization does than the staff of a foundation. Potential grantees will acquiesce to the funder's demands, no matter how onerous or outrageous, ill-informed, or careless. They will endure duplicative requirements, inefficiencies, multiple layers of bureaucracy, and stultifying decision-making delays designed for the foundation's convenience, not the needs of its grantees. If the foundation sets up hoops, the nonprofit willingly (although unhappily) jumps through them. After all, it needs the money.

This understandable dynamic, and the power imbalance it creates, further exacerbates the lack of honest feedback that is the norm for foundations. Unless it is careful, a foundation can find itself living in a self-referential bubble of its own making. Its finances are assured, its ideas (both well-considered strategies and idiosyncratic whims) consistently validated by customers, its mildest suggestions received  as nuggets of wisdom, its burdensome bureaucratic requirements followed without  complaint.

None of this is trivial. The private foundation must work against this powerful wave of empty validation or risk intellectual death internally and doing more harm than good in the field.

Over the past 20 years, some private foundations have taken steps to address this troubling dynamic. Some large foundations offer their program staff term-limited positions as a way to ensure a steady inflow of new ideas (and an equally steady outflow of veteran staff before they begin to believe they are as brilliant as grantees say they are). At the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for example, program directors and program officers serve eight-year terms.

Voter ImageOther foundations undertake anonymous, third-party-administered grantee surveys to gauge  how well they treat grantees, often committing to share the results with the field as an external metric of success. The Center for Effective Philanthropy has provided such assessments for more than three hundred foundations, receiving feedback from more than fifty thousand grantees. Impressive, except for the fact that there are 110,000 private non-operating foundations in the U.S. that have not availed themselves of CEP's service.

Still other foundations place grantees or recipients of the services supported by the foundation on their governing or advisory boards. The California Wellness Foundation includes a number of past grantees whose experience provides "ground-truthing" for the foundation.      

These and other well-intentioned steps are commendable, but they do not fully address the lack of market feedback that gives nonprofits a general read on how they are doing. Strikingly, two simple but powerful questions most nonprofits monitor diligently are just not translatable to the foundation world:

  1. Are more or fewer people using our services/joining as members?
  2. Are we attracting the dollars we need to support our work?

The lack of market feedback is not without consequences in the area where it matters most — a foundation’s engagement with its grantees. Recently, foundations have congratulated themselves on taking steps in the right direction, but philanthropy, collectively, still routinely makes  mistakes that hurt its intended beneficiaries, and those beneficiaries are still loath to bite the hand that feeds them. Grantee engagement is a popular approach to the problem.Stanford Social Innovation Review, in partnership with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, recently organized a whole series on the topic. The fact remains, however, that even the most engaged grantee is still at a huge power disadvantage in any conversation with a grantmaker. Careful grantee engagement may lead to positively-framed constructive feedback for the foundation (itself a huge step forward), but it  seldom leads to a grantee telling a philanthropic emperor that he or she has no clothes.

Accurate market feedback within predictable bounds may be the best we can hope for, given the huge, unavoidable power differential between grantmaker and grantseeker. The world is not a fair and equitable place, but talent and character do seem to be randomly dispersed. The people making funding decisions are no more likely to be brilliant, ethical, compassionate, or “right” than the people seeking grants — yet one group holds all the cards. Thoughtful grantee engagement strategies are our best hope of balancing what will never be a level playing field. But authentic engagement requires a fundamental shift in private foundation thinking grounded in the lived reality of their grantees.

--David La Piana

YouthGiving.org: Opening Up the Power of Youth as Grantmakers
September 7, 2016

(Sarah Bahn is a former Foundation Center knowledge services fellow. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in peace and justice studies at Tufts University. A version of this blog first ran on the GrantSpace blog.)

SarahbahnWhen I enrolled in the “Experimenting with Philanthropy” course at my college, I had the opportunity to work with a board of my peers to distribute $10,000 to local nonprofits. After so many years of being a dedicated supporter of the nonprofit sector—from childhood bake sale fundraising to volunteering at homeless shelters and completing summer internships—I finally felt like I was playing a real, powerful role in the social sector. I only wish I had known to get involved with grantmaking sooner.

Engaging youth in grantmaking increases their agency and leadership skills while also bringing much needed fresh perspective to the field. After the course, I became passionate about the need for young people, even children and teens, to act as real leaders in philanthropy.

BREAKING NEWS: They already are! When I started interning at Foundation Center this summer, I dove in to help with the launch of YouthGiving.org, a website that gathers and shares information about the youth giving movement so that young changemakers, and the adults who support them, can access amazing tools for youth grantmaking, like:

  • A funding map tracking youth-driven grants around the world
  • A program directory with over 800 youth grantmaking programs
  • Hundreds of resources about engaging youth in philanthropy
  • News about the movement, upcoming events, blog posts from experts, and LOTS MORE!

If this information had been easily accessible in this way when I was younger, I would have known that there are at least 14 youth grantmaking programs where I grew up (Washington state), 35 in Massachusetts where I attend school, and hundreds more around the world! It turns out that there are A LOT of people who are also passionate about young people being leaders in the social sector. Check out the Program Directory to find youth giving programs where you live.

“ Youth grantmaking is not just a cute group of kiddos running a lemonade stand for charity, although that's great, too!”

Thanks to YouthGiving.org making this philanthropic movement more transparent, the whole world can now see that there are tons of young people who are making real, tangible change in their communities. In fact, youth have made more than $14 million in grants since 2001 (check out grants data on the Funding Map) -- youth grantmaking is not just a cute group of kiddos running a lemonade stand for charity, although that's great, too!

YouthGiving.org connects members of the youth giving movement, elevates the stories of incredible young leaders, and  serves to make the field of grantmaking more inclusive as more young people can now see themselves as active leaders in philanthropy.  By expanding knowledge and collaboration about youth giving, more young people can access grantmaking opportunities and those who do will see the impact their peers are making across the globe. 

Transparency for the youth giving movement is critical because it illuminates the ways in which young people have been raising their voices to move the needle on the issues they care about. As this resource gains traction, I hope that other young people like me will know that they’re not alone in thinking that youth deserve a space at the grantmaking table.

-- Sarah Bahn

Who Has Glass Pockets Now? New Transparency Indicators Added
March 9, 2016

Who Has Glass Pockets?As of today, the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency and accountability self-assessment form has been expanded to a total of 25 indicators, which includes the addition of three new indicators: diversity data, open licensing, and strategic plans.

When Glasspockets launched in 2010, there were a total of 23 indicators that were developed based on an inventory of current foundation practice and on a framework designed to identify how foundations were using their websites to demonstrate transparency and accountability.

Those 23 elements were never meant to be the same indicators forever, and in fact, our hope was that they would evolve over time to reflect greater transparency at work in the field. Well that time has come, as foundation websites (for those that have them) have continued improving and some foundations are using them as a place to build awareness about their evolving strategies, or to build for scale through open licensing efforts by stating what can be done with the knowledge the foundation funds or produces, or to demonstrate their own commitment to diversity by providing demographic data about the foundation's staff and leadership.

The three new indicators were selected based on a survey of Glasspockets users, from our own inventory of emerging transparency practices in the field, and on which have the greatest potential to address critical transparency gaps. As was the case when we launched, every indicator has examples of foundations that are already using their websites as a way to share this information.

As part of the evolution of the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" assessment framework, we also determined it was time to remove the indicator that focused on how economic conditions affect the foundation's grantmaking since that had greater relevance during the recession, and we can bring that back in the future, when appropriate.

"By opening up strategic plans, grantmakers can strengthen relationships with their grantees."

Open Licensing Policies

Among the new indicators, there seems to be greatest momentum around sharing information about open licensing policies in which foundations specify what can and cannot be done with intellectual property that the foundation produces and/or funds. Generally, an open license is one which grants permission to access, re-use, and redistribute a work with few or no restrictions.

For a field that focuses on investing in new solutions to complex issues, this seems a natural and necessary next step to spreading the knowledge produced from those investments, and ultimately creating a learning culture in philanthropy. In our latest review of foundations which have used the Glasspockets assessment, 13% of them now have such policy statements on their websites, and most have recently added this to their websites, so there is reason to believe that this will continue to grow.

Strategic Plans

Though nearly all of the foundations that have used the Glasspockets assessment use their websites to share information about their grantmaking priorities, only 12% share information about the strategy that led to those priorities. By opening up strategic plans, grantmakers can strengthen relationships with their grantees as well as understanding about how a particular grant fits into the overall foundation's strategy.

Diversity Data

We are continuing to track which foundations have values statements related to diversity and inclusion, which has been an indicator since the beginning of Glasspockets, and have now added a new transparency element indicating which foundations openly share diversity data about their staff and, in some cases, also their board. Currently, relatively few foundations provide diversity head counts, with only 6 out of 77 profiled foundations sharing that data publicly.

A good example of why it's important to share this information can be found in the tech industry, where public pressure pointing to the lack of diversity led many companies to issue such reports. Though the diversity gaps were known before, the act of aggregating and publicly sharing the information has led to increased and formalized efforts to diversify the industry with many leading companies now offering fellowships and other diversity pipelines. Pinterest's Inclusion Labs, Intel's Diversity in Technology Initiative, Google's NextWave program, and Toptal's Global Mentor program are just a few examples of the power transparency has to make inclusion a priority.

You can learn more about the importance of sharing diversity data from this blog series featuring California Endowment's efforts in this area.

Next Steps

The "Who Has Glass Pockets?" self-assessment form has now been updated to reflect the new indicators and framework. So, if you are currently working on your submission, please download the new form. And for those foundations that have already participated, this may be good timing to revisit the transparency indicators and discuss whether your foundation's approach to transparency would benefit from providing these added dimensions. 

Our team reviewed the websites for all 77 foundations who have publicly participated in the transparency self-assessment process, and added links to the new indicators on each profile, as appropriate. Of course, in our review, it's possible we may have missed a relevant link, so let us know if you have any links that we should add. 

So, how about it - Who has Glass Pockets now? We can't wait to find out.

-- Janet Camarena

Innovation Trends: The Influence of Transparency Across Multiple Sectors
February 25, 2016

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

A thoughtful and recently released report from Weber Shandwick –“Innovation Trends: Always-On Transparency” – investigates how transparency and openness can be implemented into organizations across corporate, social and public sectors.

Leader voices include Howard Schulz, Starbucks Chairman and CEO; Paul Polman, Unilever CEO; Jean Case, Case Foundation CEO; and Brad Smith, Foundation Center CEO.

AO_social_TC-1 and 3
Rather than view transparency and openness as an administrative burden, leaders among corporations, foundations, nonprofits and government share the realization that working in a more open way can accelerate effectiveness in unexpected ways. 

One organization is embracing failure and encouraging others to be open about what is not working.  As part of its “Be Fearless Campaign,” Case Foundation shares lessons learned on its website.  The foundation encourages organizations to “fail forward” and work through challenges by solving the right problem, being a collaborator and leading through uncertainty, and remaining humble to acknowledge learning opportunities and feedback. 

Transparency and openness can accelerate effectiveness in unexpected ways.

For “a clear theory of change” and transparency across nonprofits and foundations, Case advised that organizations must disclose legal status and financial accountability as well as evaluate effectiveness using rigorous social and environmental metrics.

At Foundation Center, Smith suggests foundations can take three critical actions to foster openness and partnership: innovate together, listen more and share early and often.  Foundations have the unique opportunity as funders and experts to “set the tone for collaboration among their grantees” and incorporate their perspectives into program design, measurement and evaluation.

The report summarizes what transparency looks like across sectors:

  • Corporate: Lead and engage audiences to create shared value
  • Social: Live and foster a culture of shared accountability and impact
  • Public: Empower an informed and active populace

The report also summarizes common roadblocks to transparency across sectors.   According to the report, a lack of understanding of where to begin and how to move forward are the most common barriers to transparency.

To help address these barriers, the report offers an insightful five-step roadmap that provides concrete steps, or “a starting point for organizations across sectors to align their practices with best-in-class transparency efforts.”

Roadmap highlights:

  1. Integrate – Embed transparency and accountability throughout the organizational culture
  2. Listen – Create feedback loops to invite internal and external stakeholder perspectives
  3. Measure – Align indicators and analytics processes to continuously track outcomes and impact
  4. Learn – Surface examples of challenges and successes to document what works and fix what doesn’t
  5. Lead – Curate a rich multi-channel dialogue about progress and impact to share the transparency journey with key stakeholders.

Another helpful feature is a template that details how to visualize and act on concrete next steps.  The graph points to four key areas: research and reporting; thought leadership; storytelling and campaigns; and events and convenings.

For example, the firm advises how leaders should act in the area of thought leadership. 

  • With employees: “Empower employees to contribute to thought leadership with their own perspectives and impact examples.”
  • With consumers: “Position thought leadership as the authentic voice of the organization, leveraging diverse spokespeople.”
  • With shareholders and boards: “Leverage board member and shareholder expertise and perspectives to inform thought leadership and help co-create op-eds and think pieces.”

The leader lessons and transparency plan provide a unique framework and may help remove some of the guess work and uncertainty out of what organizations should explore and where change can occur.

How can your organization “fail forward” and cultivate a culture of transparency, openness and dialogue?  Where can you start today?

--Melissa Moy

Beyond Money: Foundations Can Create Change by Building Communities
December 3, 2015

(Mark Schmitt directs the political reform program and is director of studies at New America, an independent think tank and civic enterprise. He is a former editor of The American Prospect and has been a program director at the Open Society Foundations and worked on Capitol Hill. Follow him on Twitter at @mschmitt9. This post originally appeared on Philantopic. It is the 10th and final post in a series about U.S. democracy and civil society.)

Schmitt headshotThe world of foundations and the work they fund has for too long been shrouded in obscurity. While many foundations boast a commitment to transparency and release lists of their own grants, it has been far too difficult to see who funds an entire field, or understand how a foundation-backed policy idea made it onto the agenda. Given that foundations can be at least as influential as big political donors, driving policy initiatives such as charter schools and health reform, there should be resources that open up the sector to journalists and activists, as well as grantseekers interested in understanding the often mysterious question of who got what.

But that’s only part of the question. Even the most complete list of grantees and grant dollar amounts tells us only so much about the work and the vision: What does restoring American democracy mean, in practice? Can this mapping resource help answer that question?

Foundations do more than just give money to worthy projects. At their best, they make at least two other vital contributions: They help build a community — that is, the whole network of sustainable, adaptive organizations, from research projects to grassroots activists, that can further a cause — and they create connections, across issues and communities, in order to make each one stronger and more vibrant. So in looking at the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool, I wanted to ask those questions: Where have foundations built strong communities around democracy issues? And have they created the kinds of connections — between, for example, nonprofit journalism and efforts to reduce the role of money in politics — that strengthen these communities and the cause?

Schmitt_blog_image
The “constellations” section of the tool doesn’t fully answer these questions — to do so would require much deeper analysis and for foundations to provide more complete and plain-English descriptions of the “why” of their grantmaking — but it provides some useful clues. For example, one can see a distinct community of organizations working on election administration and access-to-the-ballot issues — a relatively small number of sizable organizations, with reliable support over several years, often in the form of general-support grants. Closely aligned to these core groups is a larger group of smaller organizations focused on a single state or a particular constituency. (This community would be even larger if the substantial and central contribution to the field made by the Pew Charitable Trusts were included. While grants to its elections project from other foundations are listed, its self-financed work is not.) It is probably no accident that despite the partisan acrimony over voting and significant setbacks to the voting rights movement, there has been significant progress and consensus on ideas such as early voting, online voter registration, and other aspects of election reform.

In a 2013 article in Democracy, Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons argued that the $45 million a year that foundations and other donors were investing in efforts to reform the role of money in politics was too little, and that if they wanted to advance progress on the causes they care about, individual and institutional philanthropists ought to commit one percent of total private giving, or $3 billion annually, to causes such as fixing the corrosive role of money in politics. This tool extends the point made by Penniman and Simmons to show that not only is total funding for campaign reform inadequate to the challenge, the community engaged in that effort is diffuse, the core organizations comprising that community are hard to identify, and the grants awarded in support of that cause are relatively small and often for specific projects rather than general support.

Moreover, in neither case does there seem to be much connection to other issues of democracy or to efforts such as improving journalism or civic education. Each of these issues, such as funding for innovations in public service journalism or for the Newseum in Washington, DC, seems to attract a unique set of funders who do little or no giving for other democracy issues.

Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is not the definitive answer to the questions about how funding works and whether it has built effective communities around democracy issues. To really see foundation funding for democracy and how it has worked requires a deeper investigation and the kind of real journalistic scrutiny that foundations rarely get. But much like the databases we rely on to understand the influence of money in democracy, this tool is a start and provides valuable clues and an outline for those who want to follow the money.

--Mark Schmitt

#FailEpic Continued
August 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Chris Cardona

Glasspockets Find: The Weingart Foundation Lays Out Its Assumptions and Its Grant Plan
March 3, 2014

(Rebecca Herman is special projects associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Herman-150Everyone has assumptions about charitable giving and philanthropy, but we usually don't spell out what those assumptions are. We may have devoted months to researching what nonprofits need most, and we may have spent hours deliberating where to focus our efforts--and where is that information to be found? In a foundation's private files? Not anymore.

Weingart Foundation logoThe Weingart Foundation starts planning its annual grantmaking by laying out its assumptions. This public document reads like a kind of "state of the union" from one funder's perspective, informed by grantee feedback, research, conversations with colleagues and analysis of grant applications. In the President's Message, Fred Ali describes the observations and challenges in the field that led to the Weingart Foundation's grant planning assumptions, such as:

"The failure of private and, in particular, government funders to adequately support administrative and fundraising costs undermines nonprofit effectiveness and sustainability."

Providing support for administrative costs and infrastructure versus program expenses is undoubtedly a hot-button topic in philanthropy, and it is one The Weingart Foundation addresses head-on in their FY2014 Grant Plan Assumptions:

"When combined with strong leadership and management, providing unrestricted, multi-year core operating support is one of the most effective ways to build nonprofit organizational capacity. Core Support grants provide the 'working capital' nonprofits need to sustain and improve their operations, and necessary infrastructure."

What kind of conversations are you having internally about funding administrative expenses? What might your colleagues learn from your assumptions? To start a dialogue about how to share such information publicly, check out the Why Transparency section of Glasspockets, and our new guide, Opening Up: Desmystifying Funder Transparency, created by GrantCraft in collaboration with Glasspockets.

SoundcloudThe Weingart Foundation is one of the case studies that is featured in the guide, and you can hear Belen Vargas, vice president of programs, speak about the foundation's reasons for sharing information about their grantmaking process in one of GrantCraft's new Transparency Chat podcasts.

When you find other great examples of foundations sharing their planning processes, share them with us at: glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

-- Rebecca Herman

Glasspockets Goes to Grad School: Using Glasspockets to Teach about Grantmaking Foundations
April 16, 2012

Hager_100

(Mark Hager is associate professor of nonprofit studies in the School of Community Resources & Development at Arizona State University. His research with the Foundation Center and Urban Institute has shed light on how grantmaking foundations spend their money. He is always looking for ways to get his graduate students to think critically about the relationship between grantmaking foundations and their communities.)

Nonprofit management education has grown and taken shape over the last couple decades, and the current number of colleges and universities offering some kind of course in nonprofits runs over 300. Almost 200 of these offer a graduate degree with at least a concentration in nonprofit management. The program at Arizona State University (ASU) is particularly well-developed, with a specific nonprofit studies faculty, and undergraduate and graduate degrees in nonprofit studies. 

Around the country, these programs usually focus on service delivery and general administration in the nonprofit sector. They don’t typically concentrate on the grantmaking side, but courses in this area aren’t totally unusual either. Grand Valley State University has a professional school dedicated to grantmaking, and an assortment of other schools feature courses where students review grant applications, deliberate, and give away real money. ASU has one graduate-level course that gives at least some attention to the grantmaking side, and I’m one of the people who gets to teach it. The class is called Theory and Practice of Philanthropy, and it is one of the required (core) classes in the Master of Nonprofit Studies curriculum

I threw away the old syllabus and re-designed the course from scratch when I arrived at ASU in the fall of 2008. I then fleshed out a dozen or so issues that I felt were important to cover, and we spent a week or so on each one. This semester (spring 2012), I threw out the syllabus again and went back to scratch. Well, almost scratch… I kept some of the best content from the old approach. What is new is that we now spend more time on fewer topics so that students can dig deeper on essential content. Over the course of the semester, we’ll cover three broad arenas: the charitable deduction, high net worth individual and institutional giving, and public expectations of how nonprofits spend their money. This lets us come at the topic of “philanthropy” from three different directions… from the point of view of the individual, the grantmaking foundation, and the nonprofit organization.

Students, even graduate students with experience in the nonprofit sector, usually have little experience with or understanding of grantmaking foundations. We creep up to it slowly, first talking about giving by wealthy donors, then about donor intent, and then about the creation of private foundations. This semester, the culminating exercise for “evaluating” private foundations involved pouring through a private foundation’s website and evaluating the foundation’s standing on the Glass Pockets indicators.  You can see a copy of my assignment sheet here. I thought this assignment worked well, for several different reasons.

For one, students had a concrete reason and a plan for digging around in the public face of grantmaking foundations. Armed with the list of indicators, they scavenged for governance policies, human resource policies, financial information, grantmaking information, performance measurement reporting, and the range of ways that private foundations communicate with their constituencies. When they could not find such things, students reflected on why grantmaking foundations might choose to mute or control certain aspects of their operations.

A second advantage of using the Glass Pockets indicators is that students feel connected to a larger effort. College course assignments are always better when they have real touchpoints with the world of work. Students selected a foundation not currently profiled in “Who Has Glass Pockets?” for this assignment, but many compared their subjects with others in the Glasspockets fold, or made use of the Glasspockets heat map to get a sense of how typical their subjects were in terms of transparency. I cautioned students that the foundations that have thus-far opted into the Glasspockets effort may not be representative of grantmaking foundations generally – they’re likely a good deal more transparent. However, students found new cases that were both more and less transparent than those already in the portfolio of Glasspockets cases.

Thirdly, students had the opportunity to reflect critically on the value of transparency, and how well the Glass Pockets assessment captures the concept. Case studies are good, but I was particularly interested in how the students came to frame the issues more generally. This is a part of the assignment that I will tweak next time. This first time, I felt that too many students accepted the measures and the value of transparency without much question or depth. Next semester, I will encourage them to dig in a bit harder. One idea might be to present the students with a set of arguments about why foundations have no particular reason to be transparent, and then invite students to take a position on Glasspockets’ justifications of the value of transparency. Somehow, I need to get students off the dime, to think more critically on this.

The semester is still unfolding, but one of the nice features of the assignment is that it broaches the topic of transparency and accountability. In the latter part of the course, we’ll take up similar themes, substituting public charities for grantmaking foundations. In this latter segment, students will consider how annual reports, Form 990, and watchdog reports affect how nonprofits act, and how their public sees them. Do we value transparency in private foundations for different reasons than why we value transparency in our public charities? No doubt that’s a question I’ll want to put before these students. 

Since those just learning the ropes of a field can often offer a fresh perspective to those with years of experience, the Glasspockets team offered to feature a selected student’s thoughts on foundations and transparency in a future blog post. After reviewing the submitted work from the students, I was asked to select the student who had presented the most interesting observations about foundations, transparency, and the “Who Has Glass Pockets” indicators. Check back here on Transparency Talk later this month for that post.

Glasspockets Find: Transparency, Public Pressure and Nonprofit Governance
April 12, 2012

Lucy Bernholz has just posted an excellent, thought-provoking piece on her Philanthropy 2173 blog.  She refers to two recent examples of public pressure—with the Komen Foundation and the Gates Foundation as the separate focal points—that led to a change of direction.  She argues that the increasing ease with which public opinion may be expressed quickly demands that all types of nonprofit organizations, including foundations, be prepared to respond.

As more information becomes more accessible to more people, organizations should expect to engage in a civil conversation—with supporters and critics.  The old-school broadcast model is fading fast.  Transparency is a tool that foundations can embrace to anticipate and react to the public response to their decisions, and in the process build trust.

-- Mark Foley

About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
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