Transparency Talk

Category: "Open Data" (25 posts)

Warren Buffett Has Some Excellent Advice for Foundations That They Probably Won't Take
March 16, 2017

(Marc Gunther writes about nonprofits, foundations, business and sustainability. He also writes for NonprofitChronicles.com. This post also appears in Nonprofit Chronicles.)

This post is part of a new Transparency Talk series devoted to putting the spotlight on the importance of the 990PF, 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 990PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool. 

Marc GuntherWith a collective $800 billion in assets under management, America’s big foundations spend vast sums of money to buy investment advice. They’re getting little, if anything, of value in return.

Their own investment offices, and the Wall Street banks, hedge funds, private equity firms and consultants they hire, when taken together, deliver investment returns that lag behind market indexes, all evidence indicates.

These foundations would do better to call an 800 number at Vanguard or Schwab and buy a diversified set of low-cost index funds.

So, at least, argues Warren Buffett, one of the great investors of our time. In his latest letter to investors in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett writes:

When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.

The limited data available about foundation endowments bears him out.

It’s not possible to prove that Buffett’s advice would enable foundations to improve their returns–and thus have more money to devote to their grant-making. Most foundations don’t disclose the financial performance of their endowments.

Of the 10 largest grant-making foundations in the US, only two — the MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — publish investment returns on their websites. MacArthur’s disclosure is exemplary. (So is its performance, perhaps not coincidentally.) I emailed all ten and got nowhere with the rest.

The best evidence about how foundations are managing their endowments comes from an annual study published by the Council on Foundations and Commonfund, a nonprofit asset management fund that serves foundations, colleges and nonprofits. Their most recent survey, which covers the 10-year period from 2006 through 2015, found that returns averaged 5.5 percent per year for 130 private foundations and 5.2 percent per year for 98 community foundations.

Further insight can be gleaned from Cambridge Associates, an investment firm whose clients include foundations, universities and wealthy families. Cambridge tracked the performance of 445 of its endowment and foundation clients and found they generated average annualized returns of 4.97 percent for the 10-year period ending June 30, 2016. (These returns should not be considered Cambridge’s performance track record, a spokesman told me.)

High pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns for foundations.

By contrast, Vanguard’s model portfolio for institutional investors, a mix of passively invested index funds, with 70 percent invested in stocks and the rest in fixed income securities, delivered 5.81 percent over the 10-year-period through 2015, and 6.1 percent for the 10-year period ending on June 30, 2016, according to Chris Philips, head of institutional advisory services at Vanguard. (All figures for investment returns are net of fees, meaning fees are taken into account.)

That may appear to be a small edge for Vanguard. But when institutions are investing hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars, small gains compounded over time add up to big money. Money, again, that could be better spent on programs.

Actually, it’s worse, because the figures reported by the Council on Foundations and CommonFund do not include the salaries that foundations pay to their in-house investment offices. The chief investment officers are often the highest-paid executives at foundations, and their deputies do well, too.

Why, then, do foundations continue to pay high salaries and high fees in the pursuit of market-beating returns, when so many fail?

They should know better. It’s no secret that passive approaches to investing outperform most active money managers, once fees and trading costs are taking into account. In 2005, Buffett wrote that “active investment management by professionals – in aggregate – would over a period of years underperform the returns achieved by rank amateurs who simply sat still.”

Taking aim at hedge funds, with their high expenses, Buffett then offered to bet $500,000 that no investment professional “could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees.”

Only one — one! — investment pro took the bet. Not surprisingly, Buffett will win the bet, by a very comfortable margin. And yet foundations and those who advise them are pouring more, not less, money into hedge funds.

Everyone Wants to Be Special

Buffett has a theory about why those in charge of foundations entrust their endowments to active money managers and hedge funds:

The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.

In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars.

Vanguard’s Chris Philips has a similar theory:

There is this perception that by going index you are ceding that you do not have any skill and you are going to be average in the marketplace. That doesn’t feel good. As humans, we want to be good. We don’t want to be average.

Foundation executives may be especially prone to believe that they deserve better than “average” investment advice. By dint of their position, they are often told that they are wiser, funnier and better-looking than average.

Jeffrey Hooke, a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and a former investment banker, says the trustees of foundations who serve on their investment committees are likely to favor active asset management.

The people on the boards tend to be in the business. They’re private equity executives, they’re stockbrokers or they’re in hedge funds. They’re totally biased in favor of active managing because that’s how they’ve made their living.

Hooke has researched public pension funds and found that they, too, underperform the markets by choosing active managers. Investment officers don’t want to talk themselves out of a job, he says:

They are never going to walk into the boardroom and say, ‘Hey, it just isn’t working.’ They’ve got wives, they’ve got mortgages they’ve got kids.

These investment officers aspire to be the rare bird who can consistently outperform the market, like David Swensen, the storied portfolio manager at Yale. (I profiled Swensen in 2005 for the Yale Alumni Magazine.) But Swensen, like Buffett, says that identifying the best asset managers is exceedingly difficult. In a 2009 interview, Swensen told me that investors who rely on “low-cost, passively managed index funds” and rebalance regularly will “end up beating the overwhelming majority of participants in the financial markets.” Buffett has said that in the course of his lifetime he has identified only about 10 investment professionals who can beat the markets over time; there are about 87,000 foundations in the US.

Pay for Performance?

In fairness, the foundation trustees and investment officers labor under a peculiar burden. They are obligated by law to give away five percent of their assets every year. So if they want to exist in perpetuity, they must earn in excess of five percent on their investments, which is a tall order. Of course, no foundation is entitled to live forever. If some spend down their assets, well, new foundations come along all the time.

Most foundations, though, aim to survive in perpetuity, and chase superior returns, at a cost. Consider, for example, the Ford Foundation, which, with assets of $12.2 billion (as of 12-31-2015), is the second-biggest foundation in the US, behind the behemoth Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2015, the Ford Foundation’s highest-paid employee was vice president and chief investment officer Eric Doppstadt, who was paid $2.1 million. He was followed by  director of public investment Michael Walden at $1,017,061, director of private equity Sherif Nahas at $972,362 and director of hedge funds William Artemenko at $955,479. All were paid more than Darren Walker, Ford’s president, whose compensation was $788,542, according to Ford’s Form 990-PF filing,

Then there were Ford’s outside asset managers. In 2015, they included Silchester International Equity Management which was paid $2.2 million, Wellington Energy Investment Advisor, which collected just under $2 million and Eagle Capital Management, which got $1 million.

How did they perform? “Sharing the investment returns is outside of our policy,” says Joshua Cinelli, Ford’s chief of media relations, by e-mail.

In this, Ford is typical. At the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, chief investment officer John Moehling was paid $2.3 million, and three other investment professionals earned more than $1 million. All were better paid than Packard’s chief executive, Carol Larson. Packard, too, will not disclose its returns.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and MacArthur Foundation all pay their chief investment officer more than their top executives. The argument for doing so, presumably, is that these investment professionals could make as much money or more in the private sector.

But, again, with the exception of MacArthur and Kellogg, the foundations won’t say whether their investment officers and their outside asset managers are delivering market-beating performance.

What we do know is that high pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns. Interestingly, when pension-fund critic Jeff Hooke analyzed data from 33 state pension systems, he found that the 10 states with the highest fee ratios achieved lower return rates than those that spent the least.

Transparency and Accountability

Foundation endowment returns could probably be calculated by going through years of IRS filings. Unfortunately, the Form 990-PF tax form for foundations is “seriously flawed,” “unwieldy” and “unintelligible to the many lay readers, including trustees and journalists,” according to longtime foundation executive John Craig.

In a 2011 blog post for the Foundation Center, Craig lamented the fact that investment performance is not solicited on the Form 990:

Since their endowments are the only source of income for most foundations and effective endowment management is a challenge for many foundations, this is an egregious omission—equivalent to not requiring for-profit corporations to report their earnings on tax returns and financial statements.

I asked Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, which promotes transparency through its laudable Glasspockets initiative, why foundations won’t disclose their investment returns. “They don’t report it because it’s not required,” he said, “to state the obvious.”

Smith went on to say that foundations may be “worried about perverse incentives that could be created by a ranking.” If foundations compete to generate the best investment returns, he explained, they could feel pressured to take on risky investments. During the Great Recession, some foundations that pursued aggressive investment strategies had to sell highly-leveraged, illiquid investments at a loss. 

Still, I wonder if there’s a simpler explanation for the lack of disclosure: Foundation staff and trustees don’t want to be held accountable for mediocre results.

If MacArthur and Kellogg are exemplary in their disclosure — Kellogg kindly arranged a phone interview with Joel Wittenberg, its chief investment officer —  the Gates and Bloomberg foundations are unusually opaque. Gates Foundation money is housed in a separate trust and is reportedly managed by Cascade Investments, which also manages Gates’ personal fortune. (Buffett is a trustee of the Gates Foundation, and presumably keeps an eye on the endowment.) Bloomberg’s philanthropic and personal wealth are reported to be managed by Willett Advisors. Cascade and Willett have access to some of the world’s top money managers, and may have a shot at outperforming the averages.

This isn’t a new issue. Testifying before Congress in 1952, Russell Leffingwell, the chairman of the board of the Carnegie Foundation, famously said:

We publish our investments. We have to be very careful about our investments because we know that others, some others, take investment advice from our list of investments. Well, that is all right. We think the foundation should have glass pockets.

The bottom line: America’s foundations, as a group, are taking money that could be devoted to their programs – to alleviate global poverty, to improve education, to support medical research or promote the arts — and transferring it to wealthy asset managers. They should know better, and they do.

--Marc Gunther

Apocalypse Later? Philanthropy and Transparency in an Illiberal World
March 6, 2017

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. As recently reported by Nonprofit Quarterly, the National Council of Nonprofits has launched a campaign to get nonprofits to sign a Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship that calls for preservation of the Johnson Amendment in its current form. This blog also appears in PhilanTopic.)

This post is part of a new Transparency Talk series devoted to putting the spotlight on the importance of the 990PF, 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 990PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool. 

Brad Smith PhotoHow long will it be before nonprofit transparency takes its place alongside diceros bicornis on the endangered species list? Hopefully never, but in a world that's growing more technologically sophisticated and more illiberal, I'm beginning to think that if it's not Apocalypse Now, maybe it's Apocalypse Later.

The value of transparency

Transparency has been a boon to the philanthropic sector, making it possible for organizations like Foundation Center, Guidestar, the Urban Institute, Charity Navigator, and others to create searchable databases spanning the entire nonprofit and foundation universe. Our efforts, in turn, contribute to responsible oversight, help nonprofits raise funds to pursue their missions, and fuel online platforms that enable donors to make better giving choices. Transparency also enables foundations to collaborate more effectively, leverage their resources more efficiently, and make real progress on critical issues such as black male achievement, access to safe water, and disaster response. The incredibly rich information ecosystem that undergirds the American social sector is the envy of others around the globe — not least because it gives us a clear view of what nonprofit initiative can accomplish, how it compares and contrasts with government, and how social, economic, and environmental issues are being addressed through private-public partnerships.

Where we are today

Federal law — U.S. Code, Title 26, Section 6104 — stipulates that public access to Form 990, a federal information form that tax-exempt organizations are required to file annually, must be provided promptly on request at the exempt organization's office or offices, or within thirty days of a written request. However, exempt organizations don't have to provide copies of their Forms 990 if they make these materials broadly available through the Internet, or if the IRS determines that the organization is being subject to a harassment campaign.

“ The social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts.”

In 2015, Carl Malamud, the Don Quixote of open data, dragged transparency into the digital age when he brought suit against the Internal Revenue Service to force it to make the 990s of a handful of organizations that had been filed electronically available as machine-readable open data. Malamud won, and, somewhat surprisingly, the IRS then did more rather than less to comply with the order: as of June 2016, all Forms 990 filed electronically by 501(c)(3) organizations are available as machine-readable open data through Amazon Web Services. As such, they can be downloaded directly in digital form and processed by computers with minimal human intervention. The development represents a victory not only for Malamud but for the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, which has toiled for years to make 990s more accessible. The idea, of course, is that free, open data on nonprofits will enable more innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to use the data in ways that help make the sector more effective and efficient. Since Malamud won his case, the IRS has posted some 1.7 million Forms 990 as machine-readable open data.

Philanthropy in a shifting world

The increasingly illiberal world in which we find ourselves was not made in America: it is a worldwide phenomenon born of globalization, income inequality, technology-driven unemployment, the unprecedented movement of migrants and refugees, and the specter of terrorism. The democratization of information driven by social media and the Internet also has been accompanied by distrust of traditional media, the narrowing of the space in which civil society organizations operate, and growing attempts to restrict thought and behavior. Author William Gibson (credited with inventing the term "cyberspace") presciently (if darkly) described a world we probably all recognize today in his 2003 reflections on George Orwell: "A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and quotidian degrees of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree on it any more readily." Indeed.

The bitter, divisive 2016 presidential election in the United States saw information from the 990s of the Clinton and Trump foundations used to support allegations of influence peddling, self-dealing, and the like. The resulting bad press and subsequent investigations by the New York State Attorney General's office caused both foundations to eventually announce that they planned to wind down their activities.

At the same time that foundations are being subjected to more scrutiny, we see a growing number of high-net-worth individuals turn to alternatives that require little or no transparency in exchange for the tax advantages they receive for their charitable giving. The most common of these are donor-advised funds administered by community foundations or investment firms such as Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab. Community foundations do file 990 tax returns, so information about each grant they award is reported and made available to the public, though without the identity of the donor. With the charitable gift funds sponsored by investment funds, however, information on individual grants remains invisible. Then there are newer, hybrid structures like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the LLC formed by the co-founder of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to "advance human potential and promote equal opportunity." There is no public disclosure requirement for the tax returns of LLCs, which means that any details we learn about the grants made by CZI will be what Zuckerberg, Chan, and their colleagues choose to tell us.

The first step?

So what are the implications of all this for the social sector in the Unites States? The media (traditional and social) has been on fire with stories about the Trump administration's intent to remove information on issues like climate change from government websites. In response, universities and others are rushing to download as much of that data to non-government servers as possible. In the same vein, it would not be difficult for the IRS to suddenly stop posting 990 tax returns as open data, especially given all the "trouble" they caused during the presidential campaign. This might be met by another Malamud-style legal challenge but that would take time to unfold. And if successful, this time around the IRS might comply by releasing only a handful of specific 990s rather than all those that have been digitally filed.

"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment

President Trump also has announced his intent to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision (named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson) in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Repeal of the provision could open the way for huge amounts of so-called dark money — donations from corporations, unions, and individuals aimed at influencing the outcome of elections — to find its way into 501(c)(3) organizations. Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits and foundations, the current recipients of such funds — primarily 501 (c)(4) and (c)(6) nonprofits — are not required to disclose their donors.

I am not a lawyer and may be out on a limb here, but overturning the Johnson Amendment would require an act of Congress, and would not be easy. Yet, if Congress decides to do so, it is not inconceivable that the administration, with the assent of Congress, could then remove the public disclosure requirement for Forms 990 in order (depending on your point of view) to: 1) protect donor privacy as an exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech; or 2) make it more difficult to "follow the money" when it comes to political campaigns.

If this were to happen, it is not entirely clear which constituencies would emerge to fight for the continued provision of Forms 990 as public information. Foundations, in particular, are not universally enthusiastic about having their grants and other information in the public domain for a variety of reasons (including privacy, journalistic scrutiny, and wariness of being swamped by applications for funding). What's more, in recent conversations with foundation leaders, I've heard concerns that when it comes to controversial issues such as immigration or charter schools, having their information made more visible could make them targets for harassment. And, of course, neither nonprofit organizations nor foundations enjoy filling out 990s, which like a lot of tax forms are long, time-consuming, and expensive to complete. Yes, organizations like the National Council of Nonprofits, Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations, and the Philanthropy Roundtable might rally to defend broad public access to Forms 990, but only if their members were firmly behind them.

Transparency and hope

Born in 1956 out of hostile McCarthy-era hearings accusing foundations of supporting "un-American activities," Foundation Center has worked for many years with the Internal Revenue Service and other organizations to build a public information system for philanthropy. GuideStar has done much the same for nonprofit organizations. The cornerstone of these systems has been data contained in the Forms 990. If access to these forms were reduced or eliminated, the transparency of the entire social sector — and with it the promise of greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation — would be an obvious casualty. It also would strengthen the position of those in government and the social sector, both here and abroad, who, for whatever reason, believe the need for donor privacy outweighs the value of transparency. Russell Leffingwell, a Republican banker and trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said it best in 1952 in his testimony to the Cox Commission declaring that his foundation "should have glasspockets." Leffingwell went on to say:

"I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk. If the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back and back and back so that our ignorance of ourselves and our     fellow man and of other nations is steadily reduced, there is hope for mankind, and unless those boundaries are pushed back there is no hope...."

At the end of the day, the social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts. We live in an age, illiberal or not, in which our mission to serve the public good to the best of our ability is powered by technology that allows us to share knowledge as never before. And knowledge is rooted deeply in transparency. Apocalypse later? We can't let that happen.

-- Brad Smith

The Foundation Transparency Challenge
November 2, 2016

Janet CamarenaI often get asked which foundations are the most transparent, closely followed by the more skeptical line of questioning about whether the field of philanthropy is actually becoming more transparent, or just talking more about it.  When Glasspockets launched six years ago, a little less than 7 percent of foundations had a web presence; today that has grown to a still underwhelming 10 percent.  So, the reality is that transparency remains a challenge for the majority of foundations, but some are making it a priority to open up their work. 

Our new Foundation Transparency Challenge infographic is designed to help foundations tackle the transparency challenge. It provides an at-a-glance overview of how and why foundations are prioritizing transparency, inventories common strengths and pain points across the field, and highlights good examples that can serve as inspiration for others in areas that represent particular challenges to the field. 

Trans challenge_twitter1-01

Using data gathered from the 81 foundations that have taken and shared the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment, we identified transparency trends and then displayed these trends by the benefits to philanthropy, demonstrating the field's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to working more openly.

Transparency Comfort Zone

Despite the uniqueness of each philanthropic institution, looking at the data this way does seem to reveal that the majority of foundations consider a few elements as natural starting points in their journey to transparency.  As we look across the infographic, this foundation transparency comfort zone could be identified by those elements that are shared by almost all participating foundations:

  • Contact Information
  • Mission Statement
  • Grantmaking Priorities
  • Grantmaking Process
  • Key Staff List

Transparency Pain Points

On the flip side, the infographic also reveals the toughest transparency challenges for philanthropy, those elements that are shared by the fewest participating funders:

  • Assessments of Overall Foundation Performance
  • Diversity Data
  • Executive Compensation Process
  • Grantee Feedback
  • Open Licensing Policies
  • Strategic Plans

What’s In It for Me?

Community of Shared LearningOnce we start talking about the pain points, we often get questions about why foundations should share certain elements, so the infographic identifies the primary benefit for each transparency element.  Some elements could fit in multiple categories, but for each element, we tried to identify the primary benefit as a way to assess where there is currently the most attention, and where there is room for improvement. When viewed this way, there are areas of great strength or at least balance between strengths and weaknesses in participating foundations when it comes to opening up elements that build credibility and public trust, and those that serve to strengthen grantee relationship-building.  And the infographic also illustrates that philanthropic transparency is at its weakest when it comes to opening up its knowledge to build a community of shared learning.  For a field like philanthropy that is built not just on good deeds but on the experimentation of good ideas, prioritizing knowledge sharing may well be the area in which philanthropy has the most to gain by improving openness. 

“The reality is that transparency remains a challenge of foundations, but some are making it a priority to open up their work.”

And speaking of shared learning, there is much to be learned from the foundation examples that exist by virtue of participating in the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment process. Our transparency team often receives requests for good examples of how other foundations are sharing information regarding diversity, codes of conduct, or knowledge sharing just to name a few, so based on the most frequently requested samples, the infographic links to actual foundation web pages that can serve as a model to others.

Don’t know what a good Code of Conduct looks like?  No problem, check out the samples we link to from The Commonwealth Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Don’t know how to tackle sharing your foundation’s diversity data?  Don’t reinvent the wheel, check out the good examples we flagged from The California Endowment, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. A total of 19 peer examples, across seven challenging transparency indicators are offered up to help your foundation address common transparency pain points.

Why did we pick these particular examples, you might ask?  Watch this space for a follow-up blog that dives into what makes these good examples in each category.

#GlasspocketsChallenge

And more importantly, do you have good examples to share from your foundation’s transparency efforts? Add your content to our growing Glasspockets community by completing our transparency self-assessment form or by sharing your ideas with us on Twitter @glasspockets with #GlasspocketsChallenge and you might be among those featured next time!

--Janet Camarena

 

Flooding the Locks: Philanthropy’s Knowledge Conduits
August 3, 2016

 Panama Canal Authority Photo 3

(Adriana Jimenez is grants manager at the Surdna Foundation and also serves on the board of directors of the Grants Managers Network.  She is a regular Transparency Talk contributor and discusses issues pertaining to transparency, data, and grants management.)

Adriana ImageThe Panama Canal expansion project opened last June following several delays and controversies. It was a risky bet with promising outcomes.

While the expansion aimed to improve global trade by doubling the canal’s capacity, it now runs the risk of failure from faulty design. The project was wrought with conflicts of interest, imprecise data, and dubious processes; its stakeholders consider critiques of the canal “unpatriotic,” reluctant to learn from mistakes.

Uniquely positioned to embrace risk, foundations should tread outside their comfort zone to achieve large-scale, systemic change; but they should also learn from the Panama Canal’s massive gamble. When making big bets, transparency, data-informed decisions, accountability, and clarity of process lead to better outcomes. “Success” means having honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not, rather than aiming for perfection.

As foundations move to take on more risk — including increased knowledge-sharing and openness, advocacy funding, financial risk, and impact investing — they will need to operate with greater transparency and accountability. Their staffing functions will evolve to support them in this process. The field of grants management is already shifting in this direction. At many organizations, grants managers are pushing for increased innovation, transparency, collaboration, and improved systems that will lead to more impact.

“Uniquely positioned to embrace risk, foundations should tread outside their comfort zone to achieve large-scale, systemic change.”

From Data Processing to Knowledge Management

Grants management is changing from a process and compliance role to one that focuses on data analysis, information sharing, and knowledge management. According to the 2016 Grants Managers Network Salary & Jobs Survey, grants managers now spend approximately 25% of their time on functions of information/knowledge, evaluation, and strategy (with an additional 14% on data management), and only 10% on compliance and 11% on administrative support.

This evolution has occurred naturally as grants managers work with larger amounts of data, fueled by increasingly powerful technological platforms and processing power. Within this change, we are moving up the ladder on the Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom Pyramid from merely processing data, to helping foundations analyze it and convert it into valuable, meaningful information and knowledge. As grants managers, we now play a key role in strategy by facilitating smarter, data-informed grantmaking.

GMNsalarysurveycover-768x994Like the locks of a canal, grants managers ensure that the right data flows out of our organizations at the right time. We are on the frontlines of providing data and information for external surveys; 990 tax returns; mapping tools; annual reports; foundation websites and searchable public databases; etc. We may also participate in collaborative efforts such as the Foundation Center’s e-Reporting and hGrant, or help implement the principles of IssueLab’s Open Knowlege (for example, by appropriately coding and tagging data, and linking our grants management systems with open repositories for knowledge-sharing, analysis and learning; or by adding open-licensing requirements to our grant contracts). The data and information we deliver allows foundations to deepen impact through collaboration with the field.

Supporting Instinct: Data-Driven Grantmaking Policies

Grants managers can also help foundations set internal policies and procedures that are driven by data, not just habit or inertia. For example, statistics showing a low percentage of grants to new organizations might trigger a change in a funder’s letter of inquiry process to promote more openness through Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Other data might be used to assuage fear of change or generate internal buy-in at the board and/or staff levels. In many cases such data supports — not contradicts — staff and boards’ instinct for change, and leads to increased openness and trust by demonstrating that policy decisions are not arbitrary.

“‘Success’ means having honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not, rather than aiming for perfection.”

At the Surdna Foundation, three years of grantmaking data were used to show that transitioning a portion of the grants approval process from quarterly board approvals to monthly delegated grant approvals would streamline operations, liberate time for “bigger-picture” learning, and benefit grantees by eliminating five weeks from the proposal review process.

In 2014, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation internally reviewed ten years of grantmaking data and discovered a drop in the average duration of its overall grants. To offset this trend, the Foundation’s grants management team used this data point to advocate with their board for the creation of a “Duration Fund” that would renew Hewlett’s commitment to multi-year support, reduce grantee uncertainty, and lessen administrative burdens. Likewise, statistics showing a lower-than-expected percentage of general operating support grants triggered a conversation around increasing unrestricted support --- when used appropriately to advance strategy --- in accordance with the Foundation’s values. Since embarking on its initial ten-year review, Hewlett’s grants management team has been spearheading the assessment of its grantmaking data each year to identify areas for foundation-wide policy improvements.

Tracking Diversity Data

Grants managers are playing a key role in the movement to increase transparency around diversity in philanthropy. By collecting demographic data (including race, ethnicity and gender) about the staff and board composition of their grantees, foundations can hold themselves accountable to values of diversity, equity and inclusion in their grantmaking portfolios, and make progress towards mission and goals.

Trends tweetC 1024x512Many grants managers are leading the process of collecting, structuring, and sharing this aggregate data (often based on D5 Coalition principles) with organizations such as GuideStar and Foundation Center, bringing greater transparency and understanding of diversity in foundation giving. Diversity data can also help funders track how organizations and fields evolve over time, and contribute to the broader body of public information about trends among nonprofits.   

Glasspockets includes Diversity Policies and Diversity Data indicators in its Transparency Trends tool. According to these indicators, 46% of participating foundations make their diversity policies publically available, and 7% share information on the demographics of their own staff and boards (The James Irvine Foundation, for instance, includes this information as an infographic on its annual report).

Legal and Financial Compliance: Pushing the Boundaries of Risk

Transitioning to a more strategic, knowledge management-based role has helped grants managers keep sight of the end goal of their compliance functions, i.e., to create greater impact. Contrary to the perception of compliance as a “risk-averse” function, many grants managers are using the due diligence process to maximize their foundations’ boldest efforts, pushing for greater risk-taking and transparency. In this context, our role is to assess, communicate, and document risk --- not avoid it --- to help foundations make informed decisions about potential rewards and trade-offs.  This shift has occurred as grants managers are increasingly included in strategic conversations “upstream” with program staff and senior leadership.

Advocacy funding is one example. Due to common fears and misconceptions around 501(c)3 lobbying limitations (and certain funders’ hesitation to support these expenses), grantseekers sometimes conceal activities linked to the dreaded “L” word in their proposals.  Foundations should encourage the opposite. With a nuanced understanding of the rules of nonprofit lobbying and advocacy funding, grants managers can foster honesty and openness with applicants about their proposed activities, clarify legal limitations, and encourage lobbying where appropriate as a critical tool towards achieving positive systemic change.

Throughout the due diligence process, grants managers can also advise grantees and program staff on financial issues, and lead constructive discussions with grantseekers to build trust and set expectations from the onset.

Rather than reducing organizations to a set of ratios or denying funding based on numbers, we can advise on alternate ways to structure a grant to provide greater impact (such as providing a capacity-building grant or using a fiscal sponsor). Many of these scenarios require creativity and flexibility to make the grant viable despite all obstacles; some funding may also be riskier in nature (such as exercising expenditure responsibility in countries opposed to civil society, or supporting new entities with no financial track record), but nonetheless more effective.

CEP-Investing-and-Social-ImpactImpact Investments: The Riskiest Bet

The move toward impact investments has arguably been one of philanthropy’s biggest bets as foundations struggle to maintain the balance between purpose and perpetuity (or timely spend-down). According to the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2015 Investing and Social Impact report, 41% of foundations now engage in impact investing (including Mission-Related Investments and Program-Related Investments), and another 6% plan to do so in the future. This shift has substantial implications for the staffing of foundations, and some are tapping into the skills of grants management to fill the gaps.

In particular, grants managers are playing a key role in the due diligence process for Program-Related Investments (PRIs), transferring our knowledge and skills from the financial compliance processes. We are also building out systems to track and monitor loan repayments and reporting. Through these functions we act as a bridge between finance and programs, contributing towards organizational learning and mission.

As a leader in the impact investment space, the Kresge Foundation was the first to develop a PRI module in Fluxx (now available to all Fluxx users) to better capture the nuances and complexities of PRIs.  The build out was led by the Foundation’s Program Operations and Information Management department (formerly known as its grants management department, but recently renamed to reflect the totality of its strategic functions).

Transferring PRIs into Kresge’s grants management system has made the Foundation’s processes more transparent, says Marcus McGrew, Director of Program Operations and Information Management: “All of the Foundation’s work that lived in people’s heads has now been consolidated into one data management platform.”

Transparency of PRIs and other impact investments will become increasingly critical as 990 tax returns are now available as machine-readable, open data, and as the line between endowment and program strategies continues to blur.

Like the philanthropic sector, success of the Panama Canal will depend on leaders’ humility and willingness to learn from failure. This will require implementing best practices to ensure the locks flow as intended. If transparency and accountability matter for the world’s greatest engineering feat, they matter for philanthropy.

--Adriana Jimenez

Building the Social Sector's Collective Brain Trust: Redesigned IssueLab Launched
June 23, 2016

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena

Recently when I was helping my son cultivate his ant farm, I learned that a lone ant is a dead ant.  Ants are the ultimate collective, working in teams, and by doing so, they accomplish amazing feats that no lone ant alone could do. 

Do Ants Know Something Foundations Don’t?

As you may know from unwelcome encounters in your home, ants tend to move very effectively by moving in swarms.  They operate with what scientists call a “collective brain” or “swarm intelligence” that helps them share knowledge, move quickly over great distances, build bridges and highways, organize, and make collective decisions that accomplish tasks that they couldn’t do alone. 

"IssueLab’s relaunched website has almost 20,000 knowledge resources, covering 38 different issue areas, from 7,000+ organizations around the world."

Philanthropy by contrast is increasingly fragmented, with individual foundations developing and often holding lessons learned, strategic direction, and operating plans close to their vests. Yet, like ants, they are often trying to move proverbial mountains and accomplish goals that a single institution can’t do alone. So, is there something we can learn from the insect world, much like how observing bird flight informed and inspired the development of aircraft?  Can we observe insects to inform the development of collective intelligence?

There is hope here in that increasingly, philanthropy articles and conferences are turning to the theme of collective impact, and knowledge sharing, which are in many ways a departure from the current practice in philanthropy in which fragmentation - or the “lone ant” phenomenon - tends to be the prevailing norm. And there is also hope in the form of new tools that are available to you to help us all work smarter, provided we commit to take advantage of them.

Moving Toward a Collective Brain Trust

New tools recently launched by IssueLab may give us all a roadmap to how to go from struggling, lone ants to mighty ants. IssueLab’s relaunched website has almost 20,000 knowledge resources, covering 38 different issue areas, from 7,000+ organizations around the world. Each resource includes links to the full report, and helpful data, such as article abstracts, related articles, and author information. 

Many of these resources include lessons learned and were funded directly by foundations. Together, IssueLab resources represent one of the greatest assets of the social sector, provided they remain easily findable and usable by others.

The Path to Open Knowledge

Toward that end, IssueLab's relaunched website also includes helpful resources aimed at helping the social sector commit to creating a culture of open knowledge. The website includes recommended principles and also tactical practices that organizations can adopt to move toward this vision of a collective brain trust, from which we can all mutually benefit.

Given the critical connection between transparency and shared learning, earlier this year Glasspockets added Open Licensing to the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency self-assessment profile. Since this is one of our newest elements, and it is an emerging practice among foundations, we want to draw particular attention to a set of tools now available on IssueLab's redesigned site that aim to demystify the path to open knowledge.

IssueLab breaks it down into the following practices:

  • Articulating an open knowledge policy; 
  • Using open licensing on all knowledge products; 
  • Using open knowledge repositories like IssueLab to catalog and better share your work; and 
  • Using a shared descriptive vocabulary, such as schema.org, on your organization’s website to make it easier to discover and index knowledge products.

To learn more about each practice, visit IssueLab's Open Knowledge area.

How Can We Know What Others Know?

And to continue building a bigger and bigger brain trust that truly represents the shared knowledge of our labors, the redesigned IssueLab also makes it easier for anyone to upload, find, and freely share research by providing metadata and links to original documents on publishers' websites.

New features include:

  • An improved interface that makes it easier and faster to upload research to IssueLab and share items via a website, blog, or on social media.
  • Filtered search, the ability to curate user libraries, and "what to read next" suggestions for related research.
  • The ability to use Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) to increase a document's long-term accessibility across the Internet and on archival sites like WorldCat, the world's largest library catalog.
  • Metadata such as keyword search, date published, geography, and language to facilitate powerful searching and browsing capabilities.

Visit IssueLab to start collecting, connecting, and sharing knowledge, and just maybe collectively moving mountains.

--Janet Camarena

IRS Releases 990 Forms as Machine-Readable Data
June 16, 2016

Editor's Note: Last month, Transparency Talk featured a blog post by Foundation Center president, Brad Smith on the coming of open 990 data and its implications for philanthropy. Read here for additional perspective on the news story below that the IRS has now formally started its release of 990 Forms, including 990-PFs, as machine-readable, open data.

Irs-logo-250 Amazon Web Services has announced that the Internal Revenue Service has made more than a million electronic 990 tax forms available as machine-readable data through its Amazon Simple Storage Service.

Released Wednesday, the public data set includes certain Forms 990 filed by nonprofit organizations with the IRS since 2011, Forms 990-EZ filed by smaller nonprofits, and Forms 990-PF filed by private foundations. The data from each 990 is provided in an XML file that includes the main 990 form, other filed forms and schedules, and any information detailing how the document was filed; some non-disclosable information is excluded.

The release of 990 filings as machine-readable data by the IRS, which plans to add new 990 data on a monthly basis, will make it easier for anyone to search the forms digitally for information about an organization's finances, trustees, lobbying activities, and salaries. Even when nonprofits or foundations filed them electronically, the IRS previously had stripped the forms of confidential information, converted them to TIFF (image) files, and released them as PDF documents. But in response to a lawsuit filed by open-records activist Carl Malamud in 2015, a federal judge ordered the IRS to release machine-readable Forms 990 from nine nonprofits. The IRS's Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities subsequently called for the agency to require nonprofits to file their financial data electronically, and the agency announced that it would begin releasing electronic versions of the forms this year.

This post originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.

Foundation Transparency: Game Over?
May 23, 2016

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center).

BradfordKSmithThe tranquil world of America's foundations is about to be shaken, but if you read the Center for Effective Philanthropy's (CEP) new study -- Sharing What Matters, Foundation Transparency -- you would never know it.

Don't get me wrong. That study, like everything CEP produces, is carefully researched, insightful and thoroughly professional. But it misses the single biggest change in foundation transparency in decades: the imminent release by the Internal Revenue Service of foundation 990-PF (and 990) tax returns as machine-readable open data.

Clara Miller, President of the Heron Foundation, writes eloquently in her manifesto, Building a Foundation for the 21St Century: "…the private foundation model was designed to be protective and separate, much like a terrarium."

Terrarium photo 2Terrariums, of course, are highly "curated" environments over which their creators have complete control. The CEP study, proves that point, to the extent that much of the study consists of interviews with foundation leaders and reviews of their websites as if transparency were a kind of optional endeavor in which foundations may choose to participate, if at all, and to what degree.

To be fair, CEP also interviewed the grantees of various foundations (sometimes referred to as "partners"), which helps convey the reality that foundations have stakeholders beyond their four walls. However, the terrarium metaphor is about to become far more relevant as the release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within.

What Is Open Data?

It is safe to say that most foundation leaders and a fair majority of their staff do not understand what open data really is. Open data is free, yes, but more importantly it is digital and machine-readable. This means it can be consumed in enormous volumes at lightning speed, directly by computers.

"The release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within."

Once consumed, open data can be tagged, sorted, indexed and searched using statistical methods to make obvious comparisons while discovering previously undetected correlations. Anyone with a computer, some coding skills and a hard drive or cloud storage can access open data. In today's world, a lot of people meet those requirements, and they are free to do whatever they please with your information once it is, as open data enthusiasts like to say, "in the wild."

Today, much government data is completely open. Go to data.gov or its equivalent in many countries around the world and see for yourself.

The theory behind open data, increasingly born out in practice, is that making information available leads to significant innovation for the public good while the demand for and use of such data also improves its accuracy and quality over time. And some open data is just fun: one of my personal favorites is the White House visitors list!

What is the Internal Revenue Service Releasing?

Irs-logo-250Thanks to the Aspen Institute's leadership of a joint effort - funded by foundations and including Foundation Center, GuideStar, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, and others - the IRS has started to make some 1,000,000 Form 990s and 40,000 Form 990PF available as machine-readable open data.

Previously, all Form 990s had been released as image (TIFF) files, essentially a picture, making it both time-consuming and expensive to extract useful data from them. Credit where credit is due; a kick in the butt in the form of a lawsuit from open data crusader Carl Malamud helped speed the process along.

The current test phase includes only those tax returns that were digitally filed by nonprofits and community foundations (990s) and private foundations (990PFs). Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data. In other words, that which is born digital will be opened up to the public in digital form. Because of variations in the 990 forms, getting the information from them into a database will still require some technical expertise, but will be far more feasible and faster than ever before.

"Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data."

The Good

The work of organizations like Foundation Center-- who have built expensive infrastructure in order to turn years of 990 tax returns into information that can be used by nonprofits looking for funding, researchers trying to understand the role of foundations and foundations, themselves, seeking to benchmark themselves against peers—will be transformed.

Work will shift away from the mechanics of capturing and processing the data to higher level analysis and visualization to stimulate the generation and sharing of new insights and knowledge. This will fuel greater collaboration between peer organizations, innovation, the merging of previous disparate bodies of data, better philanthropy, and a stronger social sector.

The (Potentially) Bad

The world of foundations and nonprofits is highly segmented, idiosyncratic and difficult to understand and interpret. GuideStar and Foundation Center know this.

But many of the new entrants who are attracted by the advent of open 990 data will not. They will most likely come in two forms: start-ups claiming their new tools will revolutionize the business of giving, and established, private sector companies, seeking new market opportunities. Neither of these is intrinsically bad and could lead to some degree of positive disruption and true innovation.

The negative potential could be two-fold. Funders will inevitably be intrigued by the start-ups, their genius and their newness and divert funding towards them. Foundations are free to take risks and that is one of their virtues. But while needs grow, funding for the data and information infrastructure of philanthropy is limited, technology literacy among foundations relatively low, and many of these start-ups will prove to be shooting stars (anybody remember Jumo?).

"Once the 990 data is 'in the wild,' conclusions may be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair."

The second category of new entrants is far more complex and will come in the form of for-profit data analytics companies. Some of these have business models and immensely sophisticated black box technologies that rely heavily on government contracts for defense and national security. They will be lured by the promise of lucrative contracts from big foundations and mega-nonprofits and the opportunity to demonstrate social responsibility by doing good in the world.

But these for-profit analytics companies will quickly discover that there is only one Gates Foundation among the 87,000 private foundations and only a handful of richly-resourced nonprofits among the 1.3 million on the IRS registers. And those who choose to contract the services of "Big Analytics" will need to consider the potential reputational consequences of aligning their "brands" with the companies behind them.

Sound defensive? Not at all: Foundation Center welcomes the competition, has been building for it since 2010, and knows the challenge can only make us and the social sector better.

The Ugly

Once the 990 data is "in the wild," it is possible if not probable, conclusions will be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair. Those who are new to the field and relatively uninformed (or uninterested) in its complexity, may make claims about executive compensation based on comparisons of foundations of wildly disparate size and scope.

The same could be done with overhead rates, payout, or any other figure or calculation that can be made based on information found in the 990-PF. Some foundations already chafe when responsible sector advocates like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) use Foundation Center data to rank foundations according to their Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. Imagine claims coming over the transom from individuals and organizations whose core values do not include a belief in the practice of philanthropy and a normative vision for how it could be better.

"Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing."

Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing. This was the spirit in which Clara Miller introduced her terrarium analogy to highlight what she sees as the artificial disconnect between the controlled, strategic, and curated world constructed by the grants side of foundations and the sometimes contradictory forces at work in the larger economy in which their assets are invested.

Foundations like Heron are striving to put 100% of their assets toward mission, while others like Rockefeller Brothers Fund are divesting their investment portfolios from fossil fuels and re-investing those assets in ways that further the goals of their climate change grantmaking, rather than exacerbate the problem.

A recent (and as of yet unpublished) Foundation Center survey found that 60% of foundations were not engaged in impact investing and had no plans to do so. That is their choice, but open 990 data may well put them in a position of having to publicly explain it.

For example, using Foundation Center databases, I searched across several hundred thousand foundation 990-PF tax returns and found 37 foundations that held Corrections Corporation of America stock in their investment portfolios. These foundations may well believe, as the majority of foundations insist, that the purpose of the investment arm of the foundation is to generate the highest sustainable return possible in order to fund the mission through grants. But if a foundation holding that stock is striving to work on juvenile justice or improve the lives of black men and boys, an investigative reporter or activist might well ask why they are investing in a corporation that runs private, for-profit prisons

It's 10:00pm, Do You Know Where Your 990 Is?

With the game over for foundation transparency, the big takeaway is to know your 990-PF (or 990 for community foundations). Suddenly, it will be transformed from a bureaucratic compliance document into one of your foundation's key communications vehicles.

"Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable."

Right about now, you may be thinking: "What about the website re-design we spent all that money on, with our new logo, carefully crafted initiative names, and compelling photos??" It's still important, and you can follow the lead of those foundations guided by the online transparency criteria found on Foundation Center's Glasspockets website.

But for the sector as a whole, while fewer than 10% of all foundations have websites, they all file 990 tax returns. As the IRS open data release unfolds and mandatory digital filing kicks in, the 990-PF will become one of the primary sources of information by which your individual foundation will be known and compared to others.

I recently asked a group of foundation CEOs whether they ever had an in-depth discussion about their 990-PFs among their board members and was met with blank stares. In a world of digital transparency, this will have to change. As 990s become a data source and communications vehicle, the information on them will need to be clear, accurate and above all, a faithful representation of how each individual foundation makes use of the precious tax exemption it has been granted to serve the public good.

A few simple tips for starters:

  • Take advantage of Section 15 (block 2) to talk about your priorities, grant process, limitations, and restrictions.
  • In Section 15 (block 3) write the correct, legal name for each grantee organization and add its EIN or BRIDGE ID
  • In the same section, write clear and compelling descriptions for the purpose of each grant (more than you might think, people look at foundations by what they fund).
  • Make sure all numbers on the form add up correctly (you'd be surprised!).

Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable. Philanthropy is essential to American society and a positive source for good in a challenging world.

As the terrarium walls insulating individual foundations fall, we will surely face a few moments of anxiety and discomfort. But greater transparency, fueled by open IRS data, can only make us more conscientious stewards of our resources, more effective decision-makers, and better collaborators on our way to achieving greater and greater impact in the world.

Game over? It's just beginning!

-- Brad Smith

Walking the Talk on Foundation Openness: Behind the Scenes in the Making of an RFP
April 19, 2016

(Chris Cardona is program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation.)

Chris Cardona Photo

When the latest Star Wars movie came out on DVD, Disney made a big deal about its inclusion of deleted scenes. Director J.J. Abrams announced the deleted scenes on social media and mentioned them in magazine interviews.

While we haven’t just directed a billion-dollar-grossing movie, the Fund for Shared Insight (“Shared Insight”) is taking a page from Abrams’ playbook and offering the following commentary on our own deleted scenes. In our case, they’re from our recently published request for proposals for projects that advance foundation openness.

Come take a look behind the scenes of how a philanthropic initiative evolves….

"Compared to what nonprofits do on the front lines, foundations talking about failure is not particularly courageous."

Shared Insight is a funder collaborative working to improve philanthropy by increasing foundation openness – i.e. sharing our goals, strategies and failures; listening and engaging in dialogue with others; acting on what we hear; and, sharing what we have learned.  We made our first round of grants in 2014, and have been learning a lot alongside the grantees with whom we’re privileged to work. And as my colleague Melinda Tuan wrote about on the CEP blog, one of the things we’ve learned from our evaluation partners at ORS Impact, who are looking at the impact of our grants as well as that of our own collaboration, is that we’re not making as much progress as we’d hoped on foundation openness. (To download the full report, please see Fund for Shared Insight: Theory of Change Progress and Lessons.)

In an effort to do better, we sought the advice of our philanthropy infrastructure colleagues and had a number of productive conversations among members of the collaborative. Based on those discussions, we developed a draft request for proposals (RFP), and decided that we should model the behavior we hope other funders will adopt by publishing the draft online, and inviting anyone to comment.

If you compare the draft and the final version, they’re pretty different.

So what changed, and why did we take certain things out in response to feedback?

We were honored to receive 18 pages worth (!) of feedback on the draft request for proposals. Here’s what we took away from the comments:

  • Don’t impose a framework where it doesn’t belong. At the core of the draft RFP was a three-part model distinguishing among “closed organizations,” which don’t practice any openness; “fundamental openness,” in which foundations broadcast information in a one-way manner; and “courageous openness,” in which they engage in two-way dialogue with outside parties. This framework went through much iteration in our internal discussions. Somewhere there’s a PowerPoint slide with an image of a mountain, with “courageous” at the summit, “fundamental” at the basecamp near the foot of the mountain, and “closed” in a cave underneath the mountain. We talked about it as a spiral. We talked about multiple points of entry. Gosh, foundation folks sure do love our frameworks. But this one just didn’t work. No matter how we tried to frame it, people told us, it’s not a spectrum. All three levels are valid and have their benefits, and all three require changes in practices and/or culture. So, we dropped the idea of a spectrum with judgments about more or less desirable kinds of openness.
  • “Courageous” we’re not. That specific label was VERY unpopular. We were inspired by one of our colleagues who used that term to describe (we thought) things like foundations talking openly about failure. Yet that very person wrote to us to say that we’d gotten it wrong! Compared to what nonprofits do on the front lines, and what the people we seek to help face in their daily lives, foundations talking about failure is not particularly courageous. Whatever risk a funder might face in engaging in dialogue about what works and what doesn’t pales compared to the risks our partners and beneficiaries take all the time. So we dropped that label.
  • Listen to the sounds of silence. Our category of “closed foundation” didn’t take into account funders that deliberately remain anonymous for personal or ethical reasons. Anonymous giving is a tradition with deep cultural and faith-based roots, and is very different than the case we had in mind, of a foundation just neglecting to share information it has ready at hand. So we dropped “closed foundation” as a category or point of contrast, and focused instead on the positive or affirmative elements of openness that we seek to foster.
  • Don’t assume you have control over your message. This is the flip side of anonymity. One commenter pointed out that because of the increasingly public nature of foundation tax returns (known as 990-PFs), which are starting to become machine-readable, foundations do not have the luxury of remaining anonymous. As this commenter observed, soon, two kids in a garage in Ohio could be able to write a program that searches machine-readable 990-PFs and produces analyses of giving patterns. Another commenter made a related point; we shouldn’t assume that foundations have control over their communications and information, because in an increasingly social-media-saturated and surveilled world, they don’t. To assume that a base level of openness is a choice may not turn out to be true. This is another reason we dropped the “closed foundation” as a point of contrast.
  • What will it take to make this real? Finally, we heard from commenters who asked about the implications of foundation openness for decision-making. Under the kinds of practices we’re encouraging, will foundations retain control over decision-making about resources? In “courageous” openness, how much decision-making power are you giving stakeholders? While it only came from a couple of people, this was a particularly interesting piece of feedback, because it gets to a core issue in foundation openness: the desire for control, and the fear of giving it up. Foundation openness does usually mean real change in organizational practices and culture. That’s not something we took out in response to feedback; if anything, we’re doubling down on that notion. We are betting it will take real commitment by CEOs and boards to change their culture and become more open.

The upshot of this feedback is we’ve produced an RFP that we hope is more streamlined, more straightforward, and more direct. We added several more examples of the types of projects we’re interested in funding, and we made our definition of openness much simpler, without a framework. The process of gathering the feedback was tremendously informative, and we deeply appreciate all those who contributed their time and wisdom to this effort. We hope the result was worth it – and that in the end, we’re able to fund even better projects that advance foundation openness.

Apparently, a feature of the new Star Wars DVD is that if you already have a toy of the robot* BB-8, it can react to what’s playing on the screen. While we can’t promise anything as cute or compelling as that, we hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the scenes of how a philanthropic initiative evolves. We look forward to the projects that will result, and to the impact that they’ll generate.

*Yes, I know it’s technically a droid!

--Chris Cardona

Size Doesn't Matter
March 28, 2016

(Molly Talbot-Metz is vice president of programs at the Mary Black Foundation.)

Molly Talbot-MetzWhat does the Mary Black Foundation, a small private foundation in Spartanburg, SC, have in common with some of the country's biggest and most well-known foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation?

The Mary Black Foundation is pleased to announce that we have joined 19 other U.S. foundations that have each joined the "Reporting Commitment," an initiative managed by Foundation Center. The Reporting Commitment is intended to shed light on the flow of philanthropic dollars. Housed at Foundation Center's Glasspockets, the Reporting Commitment calls for foundations to make grant information available to each other and the public at least quarterly in a common reporting format that shares the kinds of grants we fund, including the amount, duration, and purpose.

Mary Black FoundationOur decision to participate in the Reporting Commitment is a reflection of our desire to be a transparent community partner. According to Merriam-Webster, to be transparent is to be "easy to notice or understand; honest and open; and not secretive." Having been in philanthropy for almost 15 years, I know that transparency is not a word many use to describe foundations. For most people, the work of philanthropy is a mystery. There is often confusion and uncertainty about how foundations work and what they fund. They are often disconnected and isolated from the communities they serve. Slowly, this may be changing.

The Mary Black Foundation strives to be transparent in all that we do, and our participation in the Reporting Commitment was a logical addition to our existing efforts to be open and transparent with our community partners, the nonprofit sector, other foundations, and the general public. Since its inception, the Mary Black Foundation has published its grants in an annual report in print or on our website. In 2014, we redesigned our website to more clearly communicate our grantmaking process and guidelines.

"Openness requires a culture of transparency."

Now, in addition to our annual report and listing of funded organizations, you will also find on the Foundation's website its bylaws, code of ethics, financial statements for the past five years, listing of staff and board members, strategic plan, and funding logic model. It is important to the Foundation's board and staff that we go above and beyond the required IRS disclosure of funded grants. This kind of openness is not difficult for foundations of any size, but it does require a culture of transparency. 

Our commitment to transparency goes beyond openly reporting our policies and procedures and the grants we fund. The Foundation strives to be actively involved in the community and to be equal partners in community initiatives. Our public commitment to partnership is one of the reasons we were selected to lead Spartanburg's involvement in a national competition to improve health outcomes in our community. We will ensure that lessons learned and changes in health outcomes are tracked and reported. In that way, our successes and challenges both can help others as they embark on similar efforts.

We hope other foundations - big and small - will see the importance of being more transparent and engaged in the communities they serve and make the Reporting Commitment pledge. By collectively being transparent about our work, we strengthen our credibility and increase public trust, improve grantee and community relationships, facilitate collaboration among each other and reduce duplication of efforts, and build a shared community of learning.

-- Molly Talbot-Metz

A Dash of Diversity and a Cup of Reality
December 15, 2015

(Dolores Estrada is director of grant operations at The California Endowment, a health foundation established in 1996 to address the health needs of Californians.)

Editor’s Note: In the near future, our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment will include an additional data element related to diversity. We will continue to track which foundations have values statements related to diversity and inclusion, and we will also be adding a transparency element indicating which foundations openly share diversity data about their staff and board.  Currently, relatively few foundations provide diversity head counts, with only 5 out of 77 profiled foundations sharing that data publicly.  The California Endowment recently completed and posted its annual Diversity Audit, so we invited its team to draft a series of posts explaining why and how they share this information. This is the second post in the series, and the first post appears here.

Estrada-150At The California Endowment (TCE), our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is strong.  It is driven by a fundamental belief that we cannot achieve our mission of improved health for Californians unless every segment of our community participates in advancing solutions.  This commitment to diversity created a guiding framework for our organization.  It also set the stage for what we now call an authorizing environment, which means permission to talk about and engage in diversity-related work with the Foundation as leverage.   This space also allows us to gather information on the governance, management, and staff composition of our community partners which, in turn, helps to ensure that TCE holds itself accountable to our diversity and inclusion goals. 

Timing, as they say, is everything. In 2010, TCE transitioned to our 10-year Building Healthy Communities (BHC) strategy.  The planning and implementation of BHC was the perfect time to embrace our values through meaningful collection and use of diversity data.  Our recipe for moving forward had a pinch of confidence, a dash of diversity, doused with a cup of reality. 

Over the course of the last five years, as the manager of grants administration, I have had the task of operationalizing our institutional values of diversity, equity and inclusion into our paperless grantmaking and grant administration.  Although The California Endowment has held to these values since inception, we needed clarity on the mechanics of how collecting data would help us with our mission.  We have the resources and technology to collect the data, but when diversity principles and values meet reality, it gets a little complicated.  We discovered that when it came to incorporating DEI practice in our grantmaking and grant administration, we knew the outcomes we wanted, but had no clear, easy recipe to get there.

Being an advocate of diversity, equity and inclusion has meant being prepared to embrace failure as a pathway for future success.  Promoting and practicing DEI is not simple.  It requires planning, patience, and a willingness to openly share and learn from our failures.  And boy have we shared a lot!

We started with voluntary applicant diversity data questionnaires attached to our online applications.  Our diversity questionnaire was crafted with care to ensure that we were using the correct terminology to capture the information we needed.  We asked for diversity information on the board of directors, executives, and staff of our grantee organizations and stored it in our grants database. 

Being an advocate of diversity, equity and inclusion has meant being prepared to embrace failure as a pathway for future success.

Bam!  Our first clue that something wasn’t working?  In a grouping of over 600 applications submitted less than 400 provided diversity data.  More importantly, the data points submitted didn’t make sense given what we knew about the grantees.  We decided to give the data collection process more time and see what happened. 

We considered the phrasing of the various questions, terminologies used, and online format as possible culprits.  Were those the reason for this data desert?  No, what we failed to do was to explain to our grantee organizations and community stakeholders why we were asking for diversity data and what we intended to do with this information.  In addition, we realized that we had assumed “everyone” had the data and did not factor in barriers or challenges that applicants might have in collecting this information themselves. 

Our team convened, determined to clearly communicate our values and goals and the importance of the data.  Our CEO, Dr. Robert Ross, then penned a message for our online applications and communicated our intent for collecting diversity data, stating: 

"The data collected will serve multiple purposes: to help us understand how we reflect the communities we serve, equip our staff with critical data to assistant nonprofits to better serve the needs of California's diverse communities and to track our progress with our Board and our grantees and communities."

For the next couple of months, our goal will be to create opportunities to learn, share and have open dialogue about DEI data pertaining to the foundation and that of our grantees organization wide.  Our benchmark for success is not about collecting data from everyone, but rather an understanding of how diversity data is incorporated into our grantmaking and allow us to engage our communities and partners in meaningful ways. 

A dash of diversity and a cup of reality make the best recipe for success.

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