Transparency Talk

Category: "Open Data" (35 posts)

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

I Thought I Knew You: Grants Data & the 990PF
August 23, 2017

(Martha S. Richards is the Executive Director of the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation in Portland, Oregon.)

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series 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.

Martha Richards photoI have a confession to make. Up until a few years ago when this story begins, I used to take the 990PF for granted. I thought of it as something that ensured we were following federal regulations and that if we filed it on time and followed the reporting practices we had always used, that this would be sufficient for all concerned. I was also pretty certain no one but a few insiders within the government and perhaps a handful of philanthropy groups would ever bother to read it.

Well, you might have heard the expression: "You don't know what you don't know," and that's a good segue to what I have to share.

In Spring 2010, the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC) released a study -- Communities of Color in Multnomah County: an Unsettling Profile -- which defined the disparities facing communities of color in Oregon's largest urban area, Portland. Inspired by this analysis, that December, Foundation Center (FC) and Grantmakers of Oregon and SW Washington (GOSW) co-presented Grantmaking to Communities of Color in Oregon -- a groundbreaking report that acknowledged that philanthropy was part of the problem. The report estimated only 9.6% of grants awarded in 2008 by Oregon private and community funders actually reached communities of color.

While the data told a moving story, the source of the data also became a parallel conversation because the philanthropic community here in Oregon learned about the limitations of using tax returns to tell such important stories. The grant descriptions in our 990s rarely disclose details about the intended beneficiaries of the grants—even if we know them.

The result: We embarked on a long journey to address both issues. While GOSW and CCC hosted a forum to raise awareness of the reports and their attendant policy recommendations, foundations committed to look more closely at their giving practices as well as their data collection efforts, especially emphasizing collecting better beneficiary data, and reporting relationship with Foundation Center.

This prompted us at the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation to examine our own giving and how we could describe its reach. We fund in the areas of arts and K-12 education. We have a small staff. Our application process did not require a detailed analysis of demographic data from arts applicants or schools, nor an understanding of the diverse nature of nonprofit leadership among our grantees. We realized that we did not know if the grants we made were reaching the populations we hoped to serve.

As part of this effort, I chaired a GOSW-led Data Work Group to explore how to obtain more meaningful data sets without adding to the length and complexity of our application processes. We invited nonprofit partners to the table. We studied Foundation's Center's processes and invited their staff to meet with and advise us. We tried, tested, and began to encourage nonprofits to help us learn more about how and who we were reaching with our philanthropic dollars. Eventually, we encouraged many of our Oregon foundations to become eReporters to Foundation Center, providing more detailed descriptions of what the grant was for, and who was reached with the funding. Our reports to the Foundation Center and to the IRS have improved, and we make an effort to report detailed demographic information.

Before and After Chart

However, we discovered that it can be difficult for some types of organizations to capture specific demographic data. In the arts, for instance, outside of audience surveys, one generally does not complete a demographic survey to buy a ticket. At the Miller Foundation, we chose to partner with DataArts to collect financial and audience data on our arts grantees. Arts organizations annually complete the profile and it can be used for several arts funders in the state. Their demographic profile is still being developed, but it will encourage better data information and capture in the future. Unfortunately, this platform does not exist for other nonprofits.

Get on the Map

Get on the Map encourages foundations to share current and complete details about their grantmaking with Foundation Center. The interactive map, databases and reports allow foundations to have a better understanding of grantee funding and demographics.

We didn't know it then, but as a result of our committee's efforts, a new data improvement movement was born, called Get on the Map (GOTM). GOTM encourages foundations to share current and complete details about their grantmaking with Foundation Center, so the Maps, databases, and reports it issues are as accurate as possible. The grants we share also populate an interactive map that members of GOSW have access to, which means that we have a better idea of the ecosystem in which we work. It has since scaled nationally with other regions also committing to improve the data they collect and share about their grantmaking so we can all be less in the dark about what efforts are underway and who is working on them.

As a result, today our foundation has a better understanding of who our grantees are serving and reaching today, than we did seven years ago, and I think we are also doing a better job of sharing that story with the IRS, Foundation Center, and the many sets of eyes I now know view those platforms.

We are still learning what we do not know. But at least, now we know what we do not know.

-- Martha Richards


Coming to Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington: To learn more about what story your 990PF tells about your foundation, register to attend Once Upon a 990PF. Visit the GOSW website for more information and to register.

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

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

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

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

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

Making Knowledge Usable

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

Hawaii Community Foundation Graphic

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

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

From Information to Influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Tom Kelly

How to Make Grantee Reports #OpenForGood
July 20, 2017

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

Ellertonmandy20152
Mandy Ellerton

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

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

MMG 2015 Headshot1
Molly Matheson Gruen

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

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

Learning Logs Emerge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Sees the Light of Day

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

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

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

Learning from the Learning Logs

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

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

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

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

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

--Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen

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About Transparency Talk

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

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