Transparency Talk

Category: "Open Data" (38 posts)

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

Becca Leviss is a Knowledge Services Fellow at Foundation Center.

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

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

STAFF PICK

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

Download the Report

Publisher

Bipartisan Policy Center

Funders

Ford Foundation; The Democracy Fund

Quick Summary

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

Field of Practice

Government Reform

What makes it stand out?

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

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

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

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

Key Quote

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

--Becca Leviss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Daniela Pineda

The Risky Business of Foundation Opacity
May 23, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center.

Janet Camarena PhotoIn case there was ever any doubt that foundation philanthropy suffers from an opacity problem, a recent Foundation Review article, Foundation Transparency: Opacity — It’s Complicated, by Robert J. Reid, helps settle the matter through research findings that confirm the existence of “significant opacity.” From the lack of foundation websites and annual reporting, to perpetual insider control, and a desire to keep a low public profile, the author’s research confirms what many of us have been saying for years--that there is much room for improved transparency in the field.

The problem is, one can read the entire article, and not get the message that opacity is a problem, and a risky one at that. In our networked world of social media, open data, and audience-generated reviews, sending a message that transparency or opacity are operational approaches of choice is dangerous and much higher risk than encouraging donors to discover and tell their own story, lest others tell it for them.

History also confirms that philanthropic freedom is most at risk from an opaque approach than from a transparent one. Foundations learned this lesson the hard way in the 1950’s during McCarthyism, when two separate congressional commissions were formed to investigate foundation activities. Since there was no central place containing information about institutional philanthropy, no aggregate industry data, no collective data about the grants they were making, foundation leaders spent years telling their stories one foundation at a time, giving testimony to defend their work against accusations that they were committing “Un-American” acts.

It became clear to the foundation leaders who were called to testify that it was this lack of public understanding of institutional philanthropy that led to the suspicions and accusations they were facing, and that as a result of opacity, they may lose the philanthropic freedom that the tax laws allowed. As a result of this crisis, foundation leaders established Foundation Center as an organization devoted to providing transparency for the field of philanthropy. During his testimony, Russell Leffingwell, at the time chair of the Carnegie Corporation, said: “The foundation should have glass pockets,” so that anyone could easily look inside foundations and understand their value to society, and inspire confidence rather than suspicion. This is both the origin story for Foundation Center and for our Glasspockets website and initiative to champion greater foundation transparency.

“...existing and emerging technologies and networks are making foundation opacity obsolete...”

The lessons in this history couldn’t be more relevant to today’s operating environment where existing and emerging technologies and networks are making foundation opacity obsolete, and more importantly, creating conditions that actually serve to strengthen philanthropy such as facilitating feedback loops, peer benchmarking, and stakeholder input. Though foundations can continue to practice what Reid refers to as “opaque practices” or “situational transparency,” it’s important that foundations also understand that they do so at their own peril, because due to new user-review tools and open data platforms that didn’t exist previously, the relative level of transparency and opacity are rapidly slipping out of their control. Let’s review a few of these new tools that are poised to shake up the quiet, insular world of foundations.

Open 990-PF

990-PF graphicBeginning in 2016, the IRS started releasing e-filed Forms 990 and 990-PF as machine-readable, open data. Because the data is now not only open, but digital and machine-readable this means that anyone from journalists to researchers to activists can aggregate this data and make comparisons, correlations, and judgments about philanthropy at lightning speed, all without input from foundations and regardless of how opaque they may prefer their activities to be. Investment practices, demographics of beneficiaries, and compensation practices are examples of 990 data that can get easily turned into compelling narratives about foundations. This has institution-wide implications for foundations, from governance practices to grants data and from staffing to investment management and communications strategy.  Foundation administrators who have not been looking at their foundation’s 990-PF with an eye to the story that it tells about their work, probably should. Because of how the open 990-PF has the potential to transform foundation transparency, Glasspockets has devoted an ongoing blog series to providing guidance and helpful examples to prepare foundations for this new age of open data.

GrantAdvisor

Phil goalsIndustries as diverse as restaurants, travel, retail, health, and even nonprofits have had the blessing and curse of receiving unfiltered user feedback via online review sites for many years now, so it’s hard to believe that until 2017 this was not the case for philanthropy. With the launch of GrantAdvisor.org last year, now foundations can view, for better or worse, what their stakeholders really think—and so can anyone else. (For transparency’s sake, I currently serve in an advisory role to this platform.) Anyone can register to give feedback, and once a foundation receives more than five reviews their profile goes live on the site for the world to see, whether the foundation wants it there or not, so opacity here is not an option the funder controls. Given the power dynamic, reviews are anonymous, and foundations are able to post responses. A profile with emoji-symbols invites users to rate foundations on two principal metrics: the length of time it takes to complete a foundation’s application process, and a smiley/frowning face rating what it’s like to work with the particular funder.

So far, enough reviews have been submitted to provide 69 foundations with unfiltered feedback, and participation is steadily growing. And, more than 130 foundations have registered to receive alerts when feedback is posted, has yours? And some, which Reid may refer to as “transparency enthusiasts,” are even inviting their grantees to leave them a review on GrantAdvisor. These foundations understand that this kind of transparency about how applicants can provide feedback, and the open, unfiltered way in which it’s collected, can actually serve to strengthen and improve foundation policies and practices.

These are just a couple of emerging platforms that exist that are specific to philanthropy itself. When you zoom out to think about the entire universe of user generated content that is now easily available to all, from blogs to Twitter and employee-review sites like Glassdoor, it’s clear that while you can choose opacity, opacity may not choose you, because opacity as we all know it is over. To think otherwise is to risk adopting practices that don’t actually mitigate risk, but rather promote a false sense of security while only serving to limit effectiveness. So don’t make the mistake of thinking transparency is too complicated, or that opacity is the convenient and safer choice, because it’s actually not a choice at all, but a risky and ultimately obsolete way of working.

--Janet Camarena

Increasing Attention to Transparency: The MacArthur Foundation Is #OpenForGood
April 17, 2018

Chantell Johnson is managing director of evaluation at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 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.

Chantell Johnson photoAt MacArthur, the desire to be transparent is not new. We believe philanthropy has a responsibility to be explicit about its values, choices, and decisions with regard to its use of resources. Toward that end, we have long had an information sharing policy that guides what and when we share information about the work of the Foundation or our grantees. Over time, we have continued to challenge ourselves to do better and to share more. The latest refinement of our approach to transparency is an effort toward increasingly sharing more knowledge about what we are learning. We expect to continue to push ourselves in this regard, and participating in Foundation Center’s Glasspockets  and #OpenForGood movements are just a couple of examples of how this has manifested.

In recent years, we have made a more concerted effort to revisit and strengthen our information sharing policy by:

  • Expanding our thinking about what we can and should be transparent about (e.g., our principles of transparency guided our public communications around our 100&Change competition, which included an ongoing blog);
  • Making our guidance more contemporary by moving beyond statements about information sharing to publishing more and different kinds of information (e.g., Grantee Perception Reports and evaluation findings);
  • Making our practices related to transparency more explicit; and
  • Ensuring that our evaluation work is front and center in our efforts related to transparency.

Among the steps we have taken to increase our transparency are the following:

Sharing more information about our strategy development process.
The Foundation's website has a page dedicated to How We Work, which provides detailed information about our approach to strategy development. We share an inside look into the lifecycle of our programmatic efforts, beginning with conceptualizing a grantmaking strategy through the implementation and ending phases, under an approach we refer to as Design/Build. Design/Build recognizes that social problems and conditions are not static, and thus our response to these problems needs to be iterative and evolve with the context to be most impactful. Moreover, we aim to be transparent as we design and build strategies over time. 

“We have continued to challenge ourselves to do better and to share more.”

Using evaluation to document what we are measuring and learning about our work.
Core to Design/Build is evaluation. Evaluation has become an increasingly important priority among our program staff. It serves as a tool to document what we are doing, how well we are doing it, how work is progressing, what is being achieved, and who benefits. We value evaluation not only for the critical information it provides to our Board, leadership, and program teams, but for the insights it can provide for grantees, partners, and beneficiaries in the fields in which we aim to make a difference. Moreover, it provides the critical content that we believe is at the heart of many philanthropic efforts related to transparency.

Expanding the delivery mechanisms for sharing our work.
While our final evaluation reports have generally been made public on our website, we aim to make more of our evaluation activities and products available (e.g., landscape reviews and baseline and interim reports). Further, in an effort to make our evaluation work more accessible, we are among the first foundations to make all of our evaluation reports publicly available as part of Foundation Center's #OpenForGood campaign.

Further evidence of the Foundation's commitment to increased transparency includes continuing to improve our “Glass Pockets” by sharing:

  • Our searchable database of grants, including award amount, program, year, and purpose;
  • Funding statistics including total grants, impact investments, final budgeted amounts by program, and administrative expenses (all updated annually);
  • Perspectives of our program directors and staff;
  • Links to grantee products including grant-supported research studies consistent with the Foundation's intellectual property policies;
  • Stories highlighting the work and impact of our grantees and recipients of impact investments; and
  • Center for Effective Philanthropy Grantee Perception report results

Going forward, we will look for additional ways to be transparent. And, we will challenge ourselves to make findings and learnings more accessible even more quickly.

--Chantell Johnson 

Are You Over or Under-Protecting Your Grants Data? 5 Ways to Balance Transparency and Data Protection in Sensitive Contexts
April 12, 2018

Laia Griñó is director of data discovery at Foundation Center. This post also appears in the Human Rights Funders Network's blog.

Laia Grino photoOver the last few months, this blog has presented insights gained from the Advancing Human Rights initiative’s five-year trend analysis. Getting to these insights would not have been possible had not a growing number of funders decided to consistently share more detailed data about their grantmaking, such as through Foundation Center’s eReporting program. In a field where data can pose real risks, some might feel that this openness is ill-advised. Yet transparency and data protection need not be at odds. By operating from a framework of responsible data, funders can simultaneously protect the privacy and security of grantees and contribute to making the human rights field more transparent, accountable, and effective.

This topic – balancing transparency and data protection – was the focus of a session facilitated by Foundation Center at the PEAK Grantmaking annual conference last month. Our goal was not to debate the merits of one principle over the other, but to help provide a framework that funders can use in determining how to share grants data, even in challenging circumstances. What follows are some of the ideas and tips discussed at that session (a caveat here: these tips focus on data shared voluntarily by funders on their website, with external partners like Foundation Center, etc.; we recognize that funders may also face legal reporting requirements that could raise additional issues).

HRFN Graphic

  • Think of transparency as a spectrum: Conversations regarding data sharing often seem to end up at extremes: we must share everything or we can’t share anything. Instead, funders should identify what level of transparency makes sense for them by asking themselves two questions: (1) What portion of our grants portfolio contains sensitive data that could put grantees at risk if shared? and (2) For the portion of grants deemed sensitive, which grant details – if any – are possible to share? Based on our experience with Advancing Human Rights, in most cases funders will find that it is possible to share some, if not most, of their grants information.
  • Assess the risks of sharing data: Answering these questions requires careful consideration of the consequences if information about certain grants is made public, particularly for grantees’ security. As noted at the PEAK session, in assessing risks funders should not only consider possible negative actions by government actors, but also by actors like militant groups or even a grantee’s community or family. It is also important to recognize that risks can change over time, which is why it is so critical that funders understand what will happen with the data they share; if circumstances change, they need to know who should be notified so that newly sensitive data can be removed.
  • Get grantees’ input: Minimizing harm to grantees is of utmost importance to funders. And yet grantees usually have little or no input on decisions about what information is shared about them. Some funders do explicitly ask for grantees’ consent to share information, sometimes at multiple points along the grant process. This could take the form of an opt-in box included as part of the grant agreement process, for example. At a minimum, grantees should understand where and how data about the grant will be used.
  • Calibrate what is shared based on the level of risk: Depending on the outcomes of their risk assessment (and grantees’ input), a funder may determine that it’s inadvisable to share any details about certain grants. In these cases, funders may opt not to include those grants in their reporting at all, or to only report on them at an aggregate level (e.g., $2 million in grants to region or country X). In situations where it is possible to acknowledge a grant, funders can take steps to protect a grantee, such as: anonymizing the name of the grantee; providing limited information on the grantee’s location (e.g., country only); and/or redacting or eliminating a grant description (note: from our experience processing data, it is easy to overlook sensitive information in grant descriptions!).
  • Build data protection into grants management systems: Technology has an important role to play in making data protection systematic and, importantly, manageable. For example, some funders have “flags” to indicate which grants can be shared publicly or, conversely, which are sensitive. In one example shared at PEAK, a grants management system has been set up so that if a grant has been marked as sensitive, the grantee’s name will automatically appear as “Confidential” in any reports generated. These steps can minimize the risk of data being shared due to human error.

Transparency is at the core of Foundation Center’s mission. We believe deeply that transparency can not only help build public trust but also advance more inclusive and effective philanthropy. For that reason, we are committed to being responsible stewards of the data that is shared with us (see the security plan for Advancing Human Rights, for example). A single conference session or blog post cannot do justice to such a complex and longdebated topic. We are therefore thankful that our colleagues at Ariadne360Giving and The Engine Room have just started a project to provide funders with greater guidance around this issue (learn more in these two thoughtful blog posts from The Engine Room, here and here). We look forward to seeing and acting on their findings! 

--Laia Griñó

“OpenNotes” for Funders: A Radical Idea for More Transparency and Better Relationships
April 11, 2018

Kevin Bolduc is vice president, assessment and advisory services, at Center for Effective Philanthropy. This post also appears in CEP.

Kevin-350x350Transparency — being open, honest, and clear — is a key driver of strong relationships between funders and grantees. It’s valued by foundation and grantee CEOs alike, and grantees think foundations are doing a decent job of being transparent (though more so in sharing about their processes than their learning).

Still, are there more radical ways to improve openness in ways that would benefit both funders and grantees? As I’ve thought about this question, I’ve been drawn to a transparency movement called OpenNotes, which is changing the relationship between doctors and patients.

(To be clear up front, I admit the doctor-patient/funder-grantee analogy is imperfect. Yes, both involve relationship dynamics with significant levels of information and power asymmetry, punctuated by intermittent high-stakes visits and conversations. But, unlike a patient, an individual grantee doesn’t depend on a foundation for its mortal life. Still, I think the analogy can be instructive. Even the savviest patients I know — like my physician husband — talk about not wanting to bother or anger their doctors.)

In the OpenNotes movement, doctors have taken the radical step of directly sharing their medical notes, lab results, and plans — the entire medical record — with patients. They’ve created systems to make those notes easy to access and discuss. It’s a rapidly growing movement, and now more than 20 million patients have access to their doctors’ perspectives about their health, treatments, and plans.

“Transparency — being open, honest, and clear — is a key driver of strong relationships between funders and grantees.”

So how does this relate to foundations? I’d argue that virtually every foundation I’m aware of has similar “notes” in the form of the grant write-ups and recommendations created by program officers for boards and/or senior leadership.

Why not open up those notes to the grantees they’re about? 

If we want to improve funder-grantee relationships — not to mention capacity building and shared learning — what better ways to share than these summaries about why a grant should be funded and what the risks are in doing so? Even when grant recommendations contain worries about a particular risk — organizational capacity challenges or major external risks, for example — a direct, if difficult, conversation between a grantee and her program officer, prompted by an open note, could yield new ideas, clarifications, or opportunities for assistance.

I’ve seen quite a few examples of funder write-up formats, and most contain explanations about a funder’s perspective on the fit between its program’s strategy and the grantee’s work, assessments of why the organization has the capacity to succeed (and sometimes where that capacity can be strengthened), risks the project faces, and observations about potential impact. This is exactly the kind of substance that program officers and grantees should be discussing as much as possible!

I can imagine the reasons why some of you might think this is some combination of silly, impossible, or harmful. Maybe a foundation OpenNotes-style movement would create extra work because grantees would reach out to correct the record or debate the program officers’ assessment of their work. Maybe it would require a different writing style or more editing — or make funders feel pressured to be less honest in their write-ups. Maybe it would create hard feelings.

Well, a lot of that is exactly what doctors once thought, too. I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Tom Delbanco, John F. Keane & Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, who was one of the founders of the OpenNotes movement. He told me about how the first doctors to pilot this crazy idea were viewed as “mavericks.” He also described how the early and long-term funding from foundations, including Commonwealth Fund, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, made the movement possible when health systems were skeptical.

Doctors initially felt that the notes would not be easy to share. Of course, they contain the good news of their judgments about what’s going well (e.g., “The patient has had a remarkable response to treatment and is thriving”). But they also contain the unvarnished assessment of what’s not going well (e.g., “Treatment has failed and the patient continues to have unrealistic expectations about the likelihood of cure”).

Funders who share their internal notes with grantees can build “a stronger sense of alignment, approachability, and trust.”

Doctors worried that patients couldn’t handle the more sensitive information, Dr. Delbanco said. The notes felt like expert doctor-to-doctor talk. And doctors worried they’d be inundated with patient requests and extra work. For a few, “closed” notes reinforced a comfortable hierarchical relationship between doctors and patients.

However, research on doctors’ experiences with OpenNotes has been almost universally positive. Writing OpenNotes hasn’t added time to doctors’ work, nor have doctors been besieged by emails from patients. Some participating doctors do feel they need to change their writing (e.g., less jargon, better documentation). But, overall, doctors seem to think opening up their notes provides benefits. In studies of OpenNotes pilots, virtually all doctors chose to continue with OpenNotes even after the pilots ended.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t about the effect on doctors (or funders, in my analogy), right? What we care most about is the effect on patients (or grantees).

This is a question that Dr. Delbanco and others in the OpenNotes movement have studied since the very beginning. It turns out that OpenNotes seems to strengthen both the quality of care and the patient-doctor relationship — and the specifics of those improvements pretty closely match some of the most important components of the grantee-funder relationship.

As a starting point, research suggests that 99 percent of patients feel the same or better about their doctors after having access to their notes. Research by Dr. Delbanco suggests OpenNotes is associated with patients having a greater sense of control, greater adherence to treatment plans, and greater understanding of their medical situation. The results of a qualitative study of patients’ experiences highlights the ways patients say OpenNotes creates better mutual understanding, a greater sense of trust and partnership with their doctors, greater confidence and comfort in their relationships, and better and clearer communication. Another study describes how patients feel that OpenNotes ensures “that we are on the same page,” “helps me come to my appointments better prepared,” and “provides another opportunity for two-way communication.”

Some of these benefits translate fairly directly to the grantee-funder relationship.  I can picture the grantee who, in reading her grant recommendation note, gains a deeper understanding about a funder’s analysis of the context in which she works, greater clarity about how her organization’s work contributes to the outcomes a funder is seeking, and a stronger sense of alignment, approachability, and trust.

When I’m working with funders on responding to results of a Grantee Perception Report, it’s often efforts to improve relationships that feel particularly challenging — especially in an environment where program staff don’t feel they have enough time for more interaction with grantees. So why not try opening up your notes and improving the quality of the conversations you do have? If the experience of patients and doctors is any indication, I bet that simple act of transparency — sharing both the enthusiasm and worries that grant recommendations contain — would help. I’d love to hear your experience if you try.

--Kevin Bolduc

From Dark Ages to Enlightenment: A Magical Tale of Mapping Human Rights Grantmaking
April 4, 2018

Mona Chun is Executive Director of Human Rights Funders Network, a global network of grantmakers committed to effective human rights philanthropy.

Mona HeadshotOnce upon a time, back in the old days of 2010, human rights funders were sitting alone in their castles, with no knowledge of what their peers in other towers and castles were doing – just the certainty that their issue area, above all others, was underfunded. Each castle also spoke its own language, making it difficult for castle communities to learn from one another. This lack of transparency and shared language about common work and goals meant everyone was working in the dark.

Then a gender-neutral knight, clad in human rights armor (ethically produced of course), arrived in the form of our Advancing Human Rights research. With this research in hand, funders can now:

  • Peer out from their towers across the beautiful funding landscape;
  • Use a telescope to look at what their peers are doing, from overall funding trends to grants-level detail;
  • Use a common language to compare notes on funding priorities and approaches;
  • Find peers with whom to collaborate and new grantee partners to support; and
  • Refine and strengthen their funding strategies.

Armed with this knowledge, human rights funders can leave their towers and visit others, even government towers, to advocate and leverage additional resources in their area of interest.

Advancing Human Rights MapMapping Unchartered Territory

The Advancing Human Rights initiative, a partnership between Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN) and Foundation Center, has mapped more than $12 billion in human rights funding from foundations since 2010. Because of the great potential such data has to inform and improve our collective work, many years of work went into this. Ten years ago, HRFN recognized that in order to help human rights funders become more effective in their work, we needed to get a better understanding of where the money was going, what was being funded and how much was being spent. After our initial planning, we partnered with Foundation Center, brought in Ariadne and Prospera as funder network collaborators, formed a global Advisory Committee and hashed out the taxonomy to develop a shared language. Then, we began the process of wrangling funders to share their detailed grantmaking data.

It was no easy feat, but we published the first benchmark report on human rights grantmaking for 2010, and since then, we have worked to improve the research scope and process and trained funders to use the tools we’ve developed. In January, we released our first ever trends analysis. Over the five years of data collection featured on the Advancing Human Rights research hub, we’ve compiled almost 100,000 human rights grants from funders in 114 countries.

Adopting A Can-Do Attitude

In 2010, major funders in our network didn’t believe this could be done.

First, could we get the grantmaking data from members? For the first few years, we campaigned hard to get members to share their detailed grants information. We created a musical “Map It” parody (set to the tune of Devo’s “Whip It”) and launched a Rosie the Riveter campaign (“You Can Do It: Submit Your Data!”). We deployed pocket-size fold-outs and enormous posters thanking foundations for their participation. Several years later, we have seen our gimmicks bear fruit: 780 funders contributed data in our most recent year. When we began, no human rights data was being gathered from funders outside North America. In our first year, we incorporated data from 49 foundations outside North America and in the most recent year, that number more than doubled to 109. The value of participation is now clear. Repeated nudging is still necessary, but not gimmicks.

Rosie Collage
The Human Rights Funder Network celebrates its Rosie the Riveter “You Can Do It: Submit Your Data!” campaign. Photo Credit: Human Rights Funders Network

Data Makes A Difference

Once we had the research, could we get busy funders to use the data? With all the hard work being done in the field and so much to learn from it, we were committed to creating research that would be used. Focusing as much energy on sharing the research as we had compiling it, we aimed to minimize unused reports sitting on shelves. Global tours, presentations, workshops and tutorials have resulted in funders sharing story after story of how they are putting the findings to use:

  • Funders sift through the data to inform their strategic plans and understand where they sit vis-à-vis their peers;
  • Use the tools to break out of their silos and build collaborative initiatives;
  • Use the research to advocate to their boards, their governments, their constituencies; and
  • Enter into new areas of work or geographies knowing the existing landscape of organizations on the ground, search for donors doing complementary work, and discover the issues most and least funded.

Overall, their decisions can be informed by funding data that did not exist before, beyond the wishful daydreams of funders in their towers.

I wish I could say that we’ll live happily ever after with this data. But the pursuit of human rights is a long-term struggle. Those committed to social change know that progress is often accompanied by backlash. As we face the current challenging times together, sometimes we just need to recognize how far we’ve come and how much more we know, holding on to the magic of possibility (and the occasional fairy tale) to inspire us for the still long and winding, but newly illuminated, road ahead.

--Mona Chun

Open Access to Foundation Knowledge
October 25, 2017

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

Lisa Brooks Photo
Lisa Brooks

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

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

Lacey Althouse Photo
Lacey Althouse

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

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

Hawaii

 

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

James Irvine Foundation 
Find on IssueLab.

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

-Kim Ammann Howard, Director of Impact Assessment and Learning

Hewlett Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

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

-Larry Kramer, President

Hawaii Community Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

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

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

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

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

-Bernadette Sangalang, Program Officer

The Rockefeller Foundation
Find on IssueLab

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

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

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

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

--Lisa Brooks and Lacey Althouse

Championing Transparency: The Rockefeller Foundation Is First to Share All Evaluations As Part of #OpenForGood
September 26, 2017

The Rockefeller Foundation staff who authored this post are Veronica Olazabal, Director of Measurement, Evaluation, and Organizational Performance; Shawna Hoffman, Measurement, Evaluation, and Organizational Performance Specialist; and Nadia Asgaraly, Measurement and Evaluation Intern.

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.

Veronica Olazabal
Veronica Olazabal
Shawna Hoffman
Shawna Hoffman
Nadia Asgaraly
Nadia Asgaraly

TRF Color LogoToday, aligned with The Rockefeller Foundation's commitments to sharing and accountability, we are proud to be the first foundation to accept the challenge and proactively make all of our evaluation reports publicly available as part of Foundation Center's #OpenForGood campaign.

A History of Transparency and Sharing

Since its founding more than 100 years ago, The Rockefeller Foundation's mission has remained unchanged: to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world. To this end, the Foundation seeks to catalyze and scale transformative innovation across sectors and geographies, and take risks where others cannot, or will not. While working in innovative spaces, the Foundation has always recognized that the full impact of its programs and investments can only be realized if it measures - and shares - what it is learning. Knowledge and evidence sharing is core to the organization's DNA dating back to its founder John D. Rockefeller Sr., who espoused the virtues of learning from and with others—positing that this was the key to "enlarging the boundaries of human knowledge."

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

Evaluation for the Public Good

Building the evidence base for the areas in which we work is the cornerstone of The Rockefeller Foundation's approach to measurement and evaluation. By systematically tracking progress toward implementation and outcomes of our programs, and by testing, validating, and assessing our assumptions and hypotheses, we believe that we can manage and optimize our impact. Through the documentation of what works, for who, and how/under what conditions, there is potential to amplify our impact, by crowding-in other funders to promising solutions, and diverting resources from being wasted on approaches that prove ineffectual.

But living out transparency as a core value is not without its challenges. A commitment to the principle of transparency alone is insufficient; organizations, especially foundations, must walk the talk. Sharing evidence requires the political will and human resources to do so, and more importantly, getting comfortable communicating not only one's successes, but also one's challenges and failures. For this reason, to ensure that we hold ourselves to this high bar, The Rockefeller Foundation pre-commits itself to sharing the results of its evaluations - well before the results are even known. Then, once evaluation reports are finalized, they are posted to the Foundation website, available to the public free of charge.

#OpenForGood Project

The Foundation Center's #OpenForGood project, and IssueLab's related Results platform, help take the Foundation's commitment to sharing and strengthening the evidence base to the next level. By building a repository where everyone can identify others working on similar topics, search for answers to specific questions, and quickly identify where knowledge gaps exists, they are leading the charge on knowledge sharing.

The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to support this significant effort by being the first to contribute its evaluation evidence base to IssueLab: Results as part of the #OpenForGood movement, with the hope of encouraging others to do the same.

-- Veronica Olazabal, Shawna Hoffman, and Nadia Asgaraly

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

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

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