Transparency Talk

Category: "Outcomes" (15 posts)

Tips from the Tech Sector on How Philanthropy Can Scale Impact
February 15, 2017

(Shannon Farley is the Co-Founder and Executive of Fast Forward, the accelerator for tech nonprofits. Prior to Fast Forward, she was the founding Executive Director of Spark, the world's largest network of Millennial philanthropists. Earlier in her career, Shannon co-founded The W. Haywood Burns Institute, a MacArthur Award-winning juvenile justice reform organization. Reach her on Twitter: @Shannon_Farley.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Americas Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series. 

Shannon Farley - Fast ForwardThree years ago, my co-founder Kevin Barenblat asked me why there weren’t more Khan Academies and Wikipedias. He wanted to know why more nonprofits weren’t building software to create social change at scale. At the time, my answer was that the nonprofit startup universe didn’t look anything like the tech startup landscape. Tech startups have founder meetups, online training portals, and investors hankering to go all in on the next big tech solution. Meanwhile, tech nonprofits (organizations with software or hardware at the core of their impact model) were weirdos, stuck at the juncture of the tech and nonprofit worlds. Only a few existed and they operated with little support from either sector.

Kevin and I thought this was a missed opportunity. In the last 10 years, the cost of launching a tech startup dropped from millions to thousands of dollars. With cloud-computing, digital networks, and the ubiquity of mobile, the marginal cost for return on impact decreased drastically, making the business case for tech nonprofits very compelling.

“ We’ve found that one of the biggest hindrances to innovation in the nonprofit sector is restricted funding.”

Determined to empower more nonprofits to leverage tech for social impact, Kevin and I took some cues from the tech playbook and launched Fast Forward. Our accelerator program equips tech nonprofits with seed stage funding, training, mentorship, and connections to the entrepreneur and investor community. While we take a sector agnostic approach to our portfolio, we look for organizations building tech solutions for social issues like education, healthcare, human rights, and the environment. We are able to invest in these early stage tech nonprofits thanks to philanthropic funding from philanthropists familiar with tech models like Google.org, BlackRock, Omidyar Network, and AT&T. Our approach and funding model have been strongly influenced by the tech sector in four key ways:

1. Accelerator Programs

Philanthropists have used leadership programs to train emergent social entrepreneurs for decades. Technologists apply a similar model in a program called an accelerator or incubator. We combined the best of both into the Fast Forward program. We call the Fast Forward program an accelerator because it occurs over an accelerated period of time – 13 weeks. Equal parts leadership development and startup boot camp, our curriculum is built around defining and measuring impact, board development, product design, and hiring technical talent. Our cadre of over 100 mentors for our cohort come from both worlds – nonprofit leaders and philanthropists as well as engineers and leading startup founders.

2. General Support Funding

Each tech nonprofit in our cohort is granted $25,000 in unrestricted funding. We’ve found that one of the biggest hindrances to innovation in the nonprofit sector is restricted funding. Could you ever imagine a VC telling a startup they will fund a new version of the app, but not the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) and tech team required to build it? No. Sadly, that’s often the case in philanthropy. Too often, the technology for a nonprofit is thought of in terms of software licenses rather than as a staffed role integral to achieving impact. For a nonprofit to build programs and products that can impact millions, they need the same general support money considered the norm in the for-profit sector. This type of funding enables a nonprofit to hire the required tech team. As tech development becomes an essential component of impact, nonprofits need CTOs to drive this work. Foundations need to double down on general support if we want to see innovation at scale.

3. Growth Funding

Early stage funding is not a short-term partnership in venture capital. VCs typically invest a small amount in the beginning and then increase their investment when a product hits a growth inflection point. Philanthropists, however, tend to fund in terms of projects or annual timeline versus a long-term trajectory. As a result, nonprofits struggle between launch and the point at which they are ripe for mezzanine capital, larger gifts granted by foundations once a nonprofit hits an impact inflection point. The design phase is ongoing, and product launch is just the start of that journey. Donors should recognize philanthropy as the ultimate risk capital and make bets on people and teams building products with the potential to scale.

4. Timing

Philanthropy is slow paced. Tech development and product iterations progress quickly. If it takes six or more months to process a grant, the technology will have advanced beyond the proposal. At Fast Forward, follow-on funding is released as soon as the books are closed on a donation. We don’t wait, because tech doesn’t wait.

So has implementing tech methodologies helped Fast Forward and our cohorts achieve impact? Absolutely. Take our alumnus CareerVillage, a platform that crowdsources career advice from professionals for students in low-income areas. Since the Fast Forward accelerator in 2015, CareerVillage has scaled from reaching 500,000 students to over 1.5 million.

In three years, Fast Forward has accelerated 23 tech nonprofits. These organizations have impacted over 18.4 million lives and raised over $26 million in follow-on funding.

Technology has the power to achieve unprecedented impact in the social sector. Philanthropists have a lot to learn from the tech world.

--Shannon Farley

From Good Idea to Problem Solved: Funding the Innovation Means Funding the Process
February 8, 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 Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Americas Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

Mandy Ellerton

Molly Matheson Gruen

Good ideas for solving our toughest social problems come from a variety of places. But, we need more than just good ideas – we need transparent and thoughtful ways to get community buy-in and a wide variety of perspectives to make those ideas a reality.

For a cautionary case in point, take the origin story (later chronicled in the book The Prize) of the ill-fated attempt to transform the failing Newark public schools. A prominent governor, mayor and, later, an ultra-wealthy tech mogul, hatched the idea to radically transform the schools in the back of a chauffeured S.U.V. Commentary suggests that these leaders did not consult community stakeholders about the plan, only half-heartedly seeking community input much later in the process. As one community member put it to these leaders, "You have forced your plans on the Newark community, without the

measure of stakeholder input that anyone, lay or professional, would consider adequate or respectful." To some observers, it's no surprise that without initial community buy-in, nor a transparent process and over $100 million later, the plan ultimately crashed and burned.

But, let's not throw stones at glass houses. The Newark example is indicative of a larger pattern especially familiar to those of us in the field of philanthropy. We've learned that lesson the hard way, too. Many of us have been involved in (well-intentioned) backroom and ivory tower deals with prominent community leaders to magically fix community problems with some "good ideas." Sometimes, those ideas work. But a lot of times, they don't. And unfortunately, we often chalk these failures up to innovation simply being a risky endeavor, comparing our social innovation failure rates to the oft-discussed (maybe even enshrined?) business or entrepreneurship failure rates. What's more, we almost never actively, sincerely discuss and learn from these failed endeavors.

But social innovation failure often comes at a cost, leaving behind disillusioned community members, bad outcomes for some of our most vulnerable, and lots and lots of wasted dollars that could have gone to something better. Take the Newark example: the failed attempt to transform the schools created massive civic disruption, re-awakened historic hurts and injustice and will likely leave community members even more skeptical of any future efforts to improve the schools.

Through our work at the Bush Foundation, we've learned that truly good ideas–those that will really have a sustainable impact–are often created in deep partnership and trust between organizations, leaders, and–most critically–the people most affected by a problem.

But, that kind of deep community partnership and transparency takes a lot of work, time, and attention. And, most everything that takes a lot of work takes some funding.

Community-innovation

That's why we created our Community Innovation programs at the Bush Foundation in 2013: to fund and reward the process of innovation–the process of solving problems. While the emphasis in innovation funding is often on "early stage" organizations or projects, we joke that we are a "pre-early" funder or that we fund "civic R & D." We provide funding for organizations to figure out what problem to address in the first place, to get a better understanding of the problem, to generate ideas to solve the problem, and then, after all that work (and maybe having to revisit some of the earlier stages along the way), the organization might be ready to test or implement a good idea. See how we depict that "pre-early" problem solving process here.

Most importantly, throughout the innovation or problem-solving process, we also look for particular values to drive the organization's approach: Is the organization genuinely and deeply engaging the people most affected by the problem? Is the organization working in deep partnership with other organizations and leaders? Is the organization making the most of existing resources?

Let's bring it to life. Here are three examples of the 150+ organizations we've funded to engage in a process to solve problems in their communities:

  • World Wildlife Fund's Northern Great Plains initiative is bringing ranchers, conservationists, oil business developers, and government officials together to create a vision for the future of North Dakota's badlands and a shared energy development plan that protects this important landscape.
  • PACT for Families Collaborative engaged truant youth, their parents, education staff, and service providers to understand barriers to school attendance and redesign services and test strategies for positive, sustainable solutions to truancy in western Minnesota.
  • Pillsbury United Communities is using human-centered design processes to engage North Minneapolis residents to address their neighborhood's food desert and create North Market: a new grocery store managed in partnership with a local health clinic that will also be a clinic, pharmacy, and wellness education center.

"We've learned that truly good ideas–those that will really have a sustainable impact–are often created in deep partnership and trust between organizations, leaders, and...the people most affected by a problem."

Our grantees and partners are teaching us a lot about what it takes for communities to solve problems. One of the biggest things we've learned is that collaborative projects often take far more time than anyone initially expects, for a variety of reasons. Over the past few years nearly a third of our grantees have requested more time to complete their grants, which we have readily agreed to.

For example, the Northfield Promise Initiative is a highly-collaborative, cross-sector, community-wide effort to address education disparities in Northfield, Minnesota. The initiative utilizes action teams composed of diverse stakeholders to drive its work. Early on in the project they decided to stagger the rollout of the teams rather than launch them all at once. That allowed them to take more care in composing and launching each team and allowed interested stakeholders to engage in multiple teams. In addition, later teams could learn from the successes and challenges of the earlier ones. As the grantee put it, "Partners felt strongly that it is important to give the process this extra time to ensure that all the different community voices and insights have been included (thereby maintaining this as a community-owned initiative)." We gladly extended their grant term from two years to four years so that they could spend the time they believed necessary to lead the problem-solving effort thoughtfully and inclusively.

Bush-altlogo-colorFor more helpful examples, here are a couple of resources to explore:

  • One of our innovation programs is an award for organizations that have a track record of solving problems with their communities, called the Bush Prize for Community Innovation. Together with our evaluation partner Wilder Research, we created a report about some of our Bush Prize winners that digs into specific conditions, methods and techniques that appear to help organizations innovate.
  • We believe storytelling and transparency inspire innovation. Our grantees openly share what they're learning as they pursue solutions to community problems in grantee learning logs. The learning logs also include references to specific techniques and methods the organizations use to pursue innovation.

As funders, we also have a role in the innovation process that goes beyond writing the check. By virtue of our relationships and portfolios, we have a bird's eye view of the field. By opening up what we are learning, we hope to build trust with our stakeholders and help others build on our work, hopefully leading to more and better future innovations.

-- Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen

Glasspockets Find – Can the Silicon Valley Giving Code Be Cracked?
December 21, 2016

The fast and furious pace of Silicon Valley’s tech innovation culture has also given rise to burgeoning new wealth, and yes, new philanthropy.  From 2008 to 2013, total Silicon Valley-based individual giving increased 150%, from $1.9 billion to $4.8 billion, according to a new report. But how do established nonprofit groups make contact with the new philanthropic powerhouses in the neighborhood?

“Just blocks away from the region’s booming tech companies but (local nonprofits) aren’t sure how to attract Silicon Valley’s philanthropy to their causes.”

This question is at the heart of the new report, “The Giving Code: Silicon Valley Nonprofits and Philanthropy,” documenting the rising challenge local Silicon Valley nonprofits face in attracting funding from some of the world’s most generous funders – right in their own backyard.  Despite this wealth of local resources, about 30% of the community-based organizations focused on providing local safety net support – such as homelessness, poverty, troubled public schools – reported higher deficits than the national average.

The authors noted the region is developing an “emerging giving code – an implicit set of strategies and approaches shared by Silicon Valley’s individual, corporate, and institutional philanthropists alike.”  This approach to giving is “widely shared among the region’s new philanthropists” and heavily influenced by technology and business. 

Giving Code Report CoverWith support from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Open Impact gathered data from more than 300 Silicon Valley stakeholders, such as wealthy residents and their advisors, nonprofit executives, corporate and private foundation giving officers, and thought partners across all sectors. 

A key issue raised in the report: Although Silicon Valley philanthropists give funds to local issues and causes, most but most are earmarked for private schools, universities and hospitals rather than for community-based organizations. 

The report stated, “These nonprofits are struggling to keep pace with exponential increases in demand for their services, lack the capacity and the funding to gain real traction, or are themselves in financial distress.  Some have offices just blocks away from the region’s booming tech companies—but they aren’t sure how to attract Silicon Valley’s philanthropy to their causes.  The support they need to have more systemic impact is often right next door, but it is not a door they know how to open.”

Silicon Valley Demographics

Although the Silicon Valley boasts a growing number of millionaires and billionaires, many of its 2.6 million residents are facing financial distress due to the high cost of living. About 29.5% or 800,000 people rely on public or private assistance.  The median sale price of a home in 2015 was $830,361, and in some neighborhoods, homes are two or three times that price.  Since 2011, rents have increased 27%, which is 227% higher than the national average.

Many of Silicon Valley’s community-based organizations operate on a small scale and are doing their best to meet the needs of a growing displaced and vulnerable population.  These organizations have little time, capacity or resources to advocate for systemic change – which appeals to many philanthropists seeking strategic impact.

Barriers to Local Giving

The report identified barriers to local giving:

  • The small size of community-based nonprofits, which have minimal capacity to partner with foundations, corporations and individual donors in the ways philanthropists expect or meet requirements that come with large grants.
  • The cultural divide between the new Silicon Valley donor and traditional nonprofits. Many Silicon Valley donors have business backgrounds and prefer a “return on investment”; they believe they will have more impact in a developing country, where costs and barriers are often low.
  • Knowledge and information gaps – local nonprofits do not know how to make contact with the new donors on the philanthropic scene; and new philanthropists lack awareness of local nonprofits and local needs.
  • Social network and experience gap – community-based nonprofit leaders and new philanthropists “don’t move in the same social circles.”
  • Mindsets and language gap – nonprofit leaders speak a kind of “moral language that emphasizes social responsibility, social justice, equity and the common good” and they use jargon like “empower,” “transformation,” and “theory of change.” Meanwhile, new philanthropists and donors speak in the language of “business, efficiency, and bottom-line profits… they talk about the ‘biggest bang for the buck’ not just in business but in their philanthropy.”

The authors noted that the combination of these gaps – knowledge and information gap, social network and experience – contribute to and reinforce an empathy gap that is felt by both sides.  Therefore, wealthy tech entrepreneurs don’t understand nonprofit leaders, and vice versa, which may lead to judgment and ultimately make it more difficult to “recognize how their work, their passions, their skills, and insights might align for the betterment of their shared local community.”

This report also captures hope amidst struggle.  This hope may be best manifested by the funder of the report, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which was one of the very first Silicon Valley philanthropies to emerge in the region.  The foundation was established in 1964 following the birth of the Hewlett-Packard Company, which was ahead of the curve, i.e. the now familiar trajectory of moving from garage shop tinkering to tech powerhouse. Today, despite being a large, global foundation, the Packard Foundation maintains an active grantmaking program that supports local communities.

The report concluded that potential opportunities to develop a more effective and collaborative Giving Code will “spark the creation of an even more powerful Silicon Valley giving code: one that works on behalf of all the region’s residents.”

--Melissa Moy

Transparency Chat: CEP On Sharing What Matters
March 2, 2016

CEP_Ellie-ButeauEllie Buteau, Ph.D., is the vice president of research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), which received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. Transparency Talk is featuring grantees in the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, Foundation Center’s director of transparency, and Ms. Buteau discussed the findings of CEP's new report, "Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency."

Janet Camarena:  I'm going to start with what jumped out at me as surprising. The report lists time and inconsistencies across staff members as the most common barriers to greater foundation transparency.  Only 6% responded to your survey that a lack of commitment to transparency was a barrier and a full 24% responded that there was nothing specific that limited their foundation's transparency. Could this be because those surveyed are already predisposed to pushing the effectiveness envelope? Can you talk a little bit about the survey sample and how representative it might be? 

Ellie Buteau:  Yes, definitely. Response bias is always a top-of-mind question when we conduct a survey. The main bias we wondered about for this study was whether or not foundations that are already working on, and care about, transparency were more likely to respond. Unfortunately, we have no way of reliably measuring that. We did have data about a few other variables that were important to compare, including assets, giving, geographic location, etc. The main difference we saw was that foundations that have used one of CEP’s assessments (such as our Grantee Perception Report) in the past were more likely to respond to the survey. This is something we find in most of our survey samples. It doesn’t mean that foundations that haven’t used our assessments aren’t responding, but they are doing so at a lower rate. It could indicate, though, that foundations interested in gathering feedback on their performance were more likely to respond. We have more information about what we tested for response bias on page 45 of the report. 

JC:  I found it a little troubling that only 45% of CEOs of independent foundations view the general public as a relevant stakeholder group for their transparency efforts, yet the premise of philanthropy is that it is dedicated to serving the public good.  Did you also find this surprising? And any thoughts on the disconnect there?  

CEP_Foundation-Transparency_coverEB:  I did not find that surprising, and I’m not sure our data indicates that there is a disconnect between how foundations are thinking about certain aspects of transparency and serving the public good. If foundations are focused on being open with the nonprofits they fund and the nonprofits that may want funding from them in the future, that does seem like a pretty direct connection to serving the public good. After all, those are the organizations through which foundations are able to serve the public.

I think sometimes conversations about transparency suggest foundations should make sure they are sharing information with anyone and everyone. But that doesn’t seem like the most effective or efficient use of foundation resources. If people want to know what foundations are up to, most of the foundations of the size included in our study have websites or publicly available annual reports. Where I see real opportunity for foundations to do more is in sharing information about what does and doesn’t work in addressing the tough challenges they’re working to address. While that information itself may not be of interest to the general public, it can be applied in ways that benefit the general public.

JC:  Since the report points out that the philanthropy field is weak when it comes to sharing lessons learned and assessments of foundation performance, and since it also correlates stronger grantee-grantmaker relationships among foundations who have a tendency to be more transparent, will you be advocating that those who use your Grantee Perception Reports and other survey products share them?    Why or why not?

EB:  It’s up to foundations that use our Grantee Perception Report to decide whether to share their results publicly. Many, in fact, do, and almost all at least share a summary of what they learned. You can find on our website a list of those foundations that have made their GPRs public (scroll down on this page). I think it’s great when foundations are open in this way. But I don’t think that a foundation publicly sharing its GPR results is necessarily indicative of it doing more to respond to feedback or having strong relationships with its grantees.

JC:  Of the websites you examined, only 5% shared any information about lessons learned when things didn't go as planned.  Often this is because grantmakers fear harming the reputation of grantees or casting their work in a negative light.  Can you talk about how those grantmakers that were opening up this side of the work tackled that issue.

EB:  In the report, we share some examples of foundations being open about when things didn’t pan out as hoped. Those foundations do not name names of specific grantee organizations or tie results back to any individual organization. They seemed to share their lessons in a more general way, but still communicated enough specificity that others could learn from their experiences. I think their examples show that it’s possible to strike this balance.


JC:
 One of the struggles with the field and transparency is, of course, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, once you start looking under the hood of foundation websites, patterns of emerging and best practices often surface.  Can you point to one or two transparency examples you uncovered that you wish others in the field would emulate?

EB:  Here is where we had a finding that did surprise me. I thought that perhaps the more information foundations shared on their websites, the more transparent they’d be seen to be by grantees. It turned out that was not borne out in the data. I think this is really important to consider: that the amount of information shared isn’t directly tied to perceptions of transparency. In my own experience, that makes sense. Sometimes, even when I know that a foundation has shared information about what it’s learned, I’ve had difficulty figuring out where to find that on a foundation’s website because there is so much other information on the site. I think what I’d suggest is that a focus be on how their websites can most effectively be used as a tool for sharing information that matters.  

 JC:  The last time CEP issued a report on transparency, it led to changes in the kinds of questions you include in your Grantee Perception Survey, which now includes questions specific to assessing perceptions about foundation transparency.  How will what you learned from this report impact your own work in the future? 

EB:  This research has given us a better understanding of how foundation CEOs, themselves, are thinking about transparency. It turns out there is a lot of agreement about what transparency means, so this research really validates the importance of the questions we added to our grantee survey a few years back. Transparency, especially about the substance of foundations’ work, is considered crucial by both grantees and foundation CEOs. Foundations and grantees are more aligned than they may realize when it comes to the information they think is important for foundations to share. Now it’s about foundations implementing — and really doing it well. Our research suggests they are doing well in some areas but not in others. We will build off of the findings in this study as we continue our research on other related topics. For example, we recently fielded a survey on evaluation practices at foundations, in partnership with the Center for Evaluation Innovation, and are seeing findings in that study that further build upon what we published in this report.

#77: Transparency Talk Welcomes the VNA Foundation to Glasspockets
October 14, 2015

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.  For more information, visit Foundation Center’s Who Has Glasspockets, and learn about VNA Foundation and the other foundations.)

Vna-foundationIn late September, the VNA Foundation joined our growing collection of “Who Has Glass Pockets?” (WHGP) profiles, which serve as both an assessment tool and a demonstration of a foundation’s commitment to transparency.  VNA became the 77th foundation to join WHGP. 

We thought it would be helpful to use our Transparency Talk blog as a way to introduce our audience to the newest foundation participant, and point out some of the interesting ways in which this Chicago-based foundation that supports healthcare for the underserved is employing innovative methods in how they communicate grantmaking and open up the work of philanthropy.

VNA Foundation, established in 1890 as the Visiting Nurse Association of Chicago, supports nonprofit organizations offering home- and community-based health care to the medically underserved.

About its Glasspockets participation, VNA states on its website: “We believe that foundations need to understand the value of transparency, be more open and clear in our communications, and highlight how the philanthropic sector partners with its grantees to serve the public good.”

"We believe that foundations need to understand the value of transparency, (and) be more open and clear in our communications."

The grantmaking process, from what a successful proposal looks like to what to expect when a funder says they want to meet with you, is often shrouded in mystery—but not at VNA.  The website features an informative prospective grantee area that not only shares the grantmaking process but reaches a high bar in transparency by sharing complete grant applications of successful proposals in addition to providing helpful insights into the foundation’s grantmaking process and its expectations from a site visit.  VNA also has an open invitation for grantees to highlight their work via the VNA Foundation’s YouTube channel.

VNA also shares contextual and historical information about its current and past special initiatives, and includes links to 14 years of its annual reports, an unusually comprehensive report collection.    

Additionally, VNA provides a unique and interactive infographic that discloses a great variety of grantmaking information in a very user-friendly format.  In the infographic, VNA openly shares geographic and financial information, as well as diversity data about its grantmaking in Chicago, from the city to the suburbs. 

Infographic data highlights include:

  • Grant overview & total grantmaking
  • Grant demographics by population, gender and ethnicity
  • Types of medical services and service settings among grantees
  • Types of grant support

Additionally, VNA’s infographic details what its grantees have learned, which may be helpful for other service organizations wanting to build on the work, while also providing other healthcare funders and grantees with helpful knowledge about their shared field.  For example, one grantee shared new and unforeseen challenges in light of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion.  Although the expansion has provided more people with insurance, the number of clinics and providers has not grown to meet the demand.

Does your foundation have glass pockets?  Please take our "Who Has Glass Pockets" assessment.  Your foundation could be #78!

--Melissa Moy

Redefining and Sharing Outcomes at the Campbell Foundation
July 15, 2014

(Anna Lindgren is the assistant to the president at The Campbell Foundation.)

AnnaSamantha-26The Campbell Foundation is comprised of two offices (Annapolis and San Francisco) with six staff managing an annual grants budget of approximately $10 million.  We’re unique in the grant making landscape – nearly 100% of our grant dollars go to environmental work, funding projects that focus on improving the water quality and ecosystem health of the Chesapeake Bay and the Pacific Coast.

As a Foundation, we are always interested in learning what impact our grant dollars, and more importantly, the work of our grantees are having on the environment.  We also realize that there must be a balance between seeking those answers and being too rigid or burdensome to grantees.

Our process to develop more clear outcomes and indicators began in 2010 when we joined the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) and were introduced to the Open Standards.  CMP and others have developed an extensive taxonomy for all things conservation-related – anything from invasive species to aquaculture.  This taxonomy classifies this work into several categories, such as Threat, Strategy, Target, and Scope.  We used this structure to do what we affectionately nicknamed “The Great Sticky Project.”  Essentially, we put each of our grants on a sticky note, and visually organized them into the Open Standards framework.  We didn’t make this public, and are still only using these categories internally, as we didn’t want grantees to feel like they had to conform to this outline. 

We then took a look at our proposal form - and realized it didn’t tie at all to this new internal language we’d started using.  So we completely overhauled our forms, and coordinated it with the launch of our first online grants management system. We used the baseline that we had developed from the Great Sticky Project, and now that both us and the grantees were speaking the same language, we could start exploring questions like “This is what we think we’re doing, now let’s see if that’s what the grantees are actually saying they’re doing, and it’s OK if they’re not the same thing."

This brought us to the stage of being able to export sets of data for our grants.  As an experiment, we took a subset of grants that focused on pollution in California, and exported all the narrative answers about indicators the grantees had provided.  We then took that list, and tried to organize and synthesize it down to a handful of simple indicators.  No such luck – we realized that the answers we were getting, while an improvement, still needed some work.  They were often missing current levels for those indicators, or the indicators didn’t tie to the outcomes, or they weren’t really indicators. And the list was 20 pages long – for only 22 grants.

For the past year, we’ve been working closely with select grantees to refine these measures. To be clear, we’re not sending them complicated pre-populated tables and saying “These are the indicators we are looking for, where do you fit in?” Instead, we’re taking the answers they are giving us and just fine-tuning them.

For the past year, we’ve been working closely with select grantees to refine these measures. To be clear, we’re not sending them complicated pre-populated tables and saying “These are the indicators we are looking for, where do you fit in?”  Instead, we’re taking the answers they are giving us and just fine-tuning them.  As an example, the grantee will write “Increased wetland restoration” as an indicator of success, and we’ll turn it back to them and ask “What is the current # of wetlands restoration projects, or # of acres restored?”  We’ve also developed some simple ways to track policy work, such as rating the strength of a particular policy on a scale of 1-5. 

So after all this work – what have we accomplished, and what’s next?  We’ve already been able to refine our outcomes to a few basic categories, and are now in a position to tie indicators to those.  We’re also piloting a project to visually map these outcomes and indicators, which we’ll share freely with our funder colleagues and our grantees.   We’re hoping this will give us a sense of the depth and geographic reach of the impact our grantees are having on the environment, as well as increase transparency into our grantkmaking.  Our ultimate goal is to have data like this spur conversations and collaborations between grantees, further advancing the vital work they are doing in conservation.

-- Anna Lindgren

Tracking Outcomes: The Message is “Keep it Simple”
June 25, 2014

(Eliza Smith is the Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiEarlier this month, I attended a meeting the SF Bay Area Chapter of the Technology Affinity Group (TAG), focused on how technology tools can improve grant performance measurement, particularly if grantmakers are careful to not overcomplicate the process. Several representatives from foundations across the Bay Area convened to discuss outcomes tracking, and new technology platforms and methods that foundations are using to provide more accurate and concise data on grant activities and impact. Three speakers gave presentations on the subject: Kevin Rafter, Manager of Impact Assessment and Learning at the James Irvine Foundation; Anna Lindgren, Assistant to the President at the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment; and Rem Hoffman, Chief Executive Officer at Exponent Partners.

The Foundation has managed to scale down its entire tracking system, mixing quantitative and qualitative data examine where their grantees are in the implementation process: the end result is a clean and accessible data model.

Each speaker addressed the need for a simplification of outcomes tracking. Rafter used the phrase “simplify and smallify,” which the Irvine Foundation has used as a sort of mantra for revising their grantee performance tracking system. The Foundation has managed to scale down its entire tracking system, mixing quantitative and qualitative data examine where their grantees are in the implementation process: the end result is a clean and accessible data model. Moreover, the Foundation is doing its best to alleviate the stress that surrounds evaluation by shifting the focus from stringent observation and measurement analysis to develop a culture of learning. With this shift in focus, Rafter explained that the stigma of evaluation and the threat it presents to programs should evaporate; the Foundation will examine outcomes of various grants holistically with an emphasis on learning, betterment, and experimentation.

Lindgren relayed the Campbell Foundation’s experience developing and more recently, completely overhauling, their custom outcomes tracking model. The Foundation initially worked to create a complex taxonomy for analyzing the products of grant use. Lindgren and her colleagues quickly found that their system was clunky and unwieldy: while they had classifications for various outcomes, there were so many categories that the taxonomy ultimately proved unhelpful. Similar to Rafter and his staff at the Irvine Foundation, Lindgren and her team found that a shift to a much simpler, pared-down system provided far more usable data. Currently, the Campbell Foundation’s team is working on developing data visualizations to accompany their “smallified” outcomes tracking system.

Finally, Hoffman presented on his company, Exponent Partners. Hoffman and his team provide nonprofits with customizable databases that track outcomes and generate analyses of program impact. Much like Rafter and Lindgren, Hoffman emphasized the importance of standardization and simplification of outcomes tracking.

Following the presentations, the entire group discussed the merits of standardization for not only outcomes tracking, but the philanthropic sector at large. Jeannine Corey’s blog post about the Foundation Center’s effort to develop a new taxonomy came up: the call for standardization is increasing exponentially. As we seek out new ways to develop a common language sector-wide, we promote openness, understanding, and transparency between foundations, organizations, and the benefitting public.

How has your foundation or organization benefitted from implementing simplified, “smallified,” or standardized practices?

-- Eliza Smith

How the Reporting Commitment Leverages Philanthropy's Efforts to Solve Pressing Social Problems
August 26, 2013

(Leila Walsh is director of communications for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a private foundation with investments in criminal justice, education, public accountability, and research integrity.)

Walsh-200When the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) evaluates its grants, we measure our success against a variety of metrics designed to answer one fundamental question: Are we actually making a difference? When the answer is "yes," we are eager to do more of what's working and share our successes. If the answer is "no," we must learn from the experience and tell others about the results so they can learn from our failures. The Reporting Commitment is an important part of that process. It provides a forum to share grant information openly, transparently, and in real time. Along with the 16 other participating foundations, we will report our grants on a regular basis. You will see the groups that we are supporting as well as the amount, duration, and purpose of the grants.

We joined the effort because we believe the Reporting Commitment is helping to accelerate and better leverage philanthropy's efforts to address some of society's most persistent problems. It makes it easier to track overlapping interests and allows us to find ways to collaborate as part of a thorough and systemic effort.

We joined the effort because we believe the Reporting Commitment is helping to accelerate and better leverage philanthropy's efforts to address some of society's most persistent problems. It makes it easier to track overlapping interests and allows us to find ways to collaborate as part of a thorough and systemic effort. The Reporting Commitment also provides an opportunity to identify funding gaps, which is also critical because it gives us a better understanding of what hasn't been tried. When we discover ideas that are untested, we examine them through a rigorous evaluation process and then scale them if they prove to be effective. By examining all angles of a problem and all possible solutions, we are able to maximize opportunities for impact.

The Wall Street Journal recently called LJAF's entrepreneurial, data-driven approach to philanthropy "The New Science of Giving." We harness data and promote open access to information through each of our initiative areas. Here are a few examples of such projects:

  • LJAF's Criminal Justice team has developed and is piloting a risk assessment tool that uses data and analytics to help predict whether an individual will come back to court, whether he or she will commit a new crime, and whether he or she will commit a new crime of violence.
  • LJAF's Public Accountability team is supporting low-cost, randomized controlled trial evaluations of social programs that help government better compare and contrast among competing policy options and concentrate resources on what works.
  • LJAF's Research Integrity initiative is improving the reliability and validity of scientific evidence by investing in organizations that are committed to improving openness, transparency, and quality of research.

Because we recognize the power of data and measurable outcomes, we support the Reporting Commitment and encourage other foundations to join it. By collectively being transparent about our work and impact, we have a greater chance of producing innovative, effective solutions that will indeed make a difference and improve the lives of individuals and society as a whole.

--Leila Walsh

Explore grants by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation
and the 16 other participating foundations»

Part 2: Top 10 Lessons Learned on the Path to Community Change
June 25, 2013

(Robert K. Ross, M.D. is President and CEO of The California Endowment. Yesterday he shared three aha moments from the Endowment’s first two years of work in its Building Healthy Communities plan.)

Ross-100Okay, at times I step back and look at the BHC initiative and wonder—could we have made it more complicated? 14 sites. Multiple grantees in each site. A core set of multiple health issues. Multiple state-level grantees. And the expectation that the parts will add up to something greater and catalyze a convergence that builds more power and leads to greater impact.

But then again, supporting an agenda for social and community change does require multiple strategies, operating in alignment: the use of data, message framing and story-telling; innovative models; a variety of influential messengers; convening and facilitating champions; “grassroots and treetops” and coordination; meaningful community engagement. Power-building requires multiple, aligned investments.

Our Top Ten Lessons for Philanthropy

Finally, I want to share some lessons with partners in philanthropy regarding planning and implementing a community-change initiative. As we engaged in the planning process of BHC, we tried in earnest to stick by a key aphorism, one I learned from colleague and mentor Ralph Smith at the Annie E. Casey Foundation: make new mistakes.

The track record of community change work by philanthropy is not a work of art. Tapping into the wisdom of institutions such as the Aspen Institute, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Skillman Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and the Northwest Area Foundation, we incorporated the lessons of success and struggle from our colleagues in the field. Learning from these and other colleagues, we were able to avoid hitting major rocks as our BHC ship sailed out of harbor. So, we learned the following:

Community engagement in planning processes will be simultaneously exhilarating and messy.

1. Take time to plan, and plan to take the time. We embarked on a 9 month community engagement process in the 14 BHC sites, and we ended up taking 12-15 months. Nobody died, and nobody got fired. Community engagement in planning processes will be simultaneously exhilarating and messy. If it is going too smoothly and too well, then something may be terribly wrong – like the possibility that a foundation is not receiving candid, meaningful input from local leaders. If it is bumpy and messy and getting to consensus, and clarity is taking much longer than originally planned, it may very well mean that you are gaining the trust of leaders to raise thorny, difficult issues. As a general rule, we just took the time that was needed for local leaders to develop their local BHC plans, and we did not pit BHC sites against one another to race by the foundation’s clock. Community leaders want a compass more than they want a clock.

2. Don’t lead with the money. The issue of whether to announce “how much” the dollar commitment is in a foundation initiative is a tricky path. On the one hand, a major dollar-commitment announcement by a foundation can provide excitement, anticipation, and mobilize civic and community support. On the other hand, “leading with the money” can instigate all manner of posturing, control issues, manipulation, and political grantsmanship among potential grantees. We decided to quietly announce the breadth and scope of our commitment -- $1 Billion over a ten-year period in local and statewide policy funding – but veered away from formally announcing precise budget commitments in each site. In other words, we wanted to send a message that our commitment was serious without leading the conversations with grant dollar puppetry.

3. Date logic models, but get married to learning. There is no doubt that engaging in the disciplined exercise of how you think – and how community leaders believe – positive change and results will happen is a sound practice. But it is also important to recognize that community change and positive results in the context of complex social and political systems often defy tidy, linear models. If you want to get married, it is wiser to commit to the process of active, dynamic, real-time learning. We provided logic model training for leaders in the 14 BHC sites, with varying levels of effectiveness across the sites; we have been clear, however that learning is not optional, either for grantees or our own program staff.  

4. Be transparent about desired results. There are written and unwritten axioms about the need for philanthropy to be completely community driven in community-change work. Our experience is that this thinking is a truism without being entirely true. For starters, our foundation is legally chartered as a health foundation, and although we employ a broad definition of the word “health”, there are limitations and constraints about what we can and cannot fund. This issue led to some considerable tensions within the foundation (at the board and staff level), as well as with grantees and stakeholders, about prioritized community needs that were outside the scope of our health mission. The most obvious and recurrent tension-generating themes, in the context of a pervasive economic recession, were issues of economic development, job creation, and mortgage foreclosure across the sites. The battles over if and how we should enter “the space” of economic development as a health foundation were intense and emotional. We ultimately landed on a framework (utilizing mission-investing in our investment portfolio) for how to move forward without “mission drift”, and have been communicating our approach to our own program staff and stakeholders, but it has not been easy. But the worst of all worlds would have been to promise community leaders a course of action that we would either abandon or renege upon later on. We decided to stick to our mission and results (the right move, however discomforting for foundation-community relations).  

5. Be dogmatic about the results, but flexible about the strategies. The work of community change is noble, but funders cannot afford to fall in love with the process of the work at the expense of meaningful results and impact. Once community leaders and funders agree on a set of outcomes, objectives, or results, these must represent the “true north” on the compass. In the BHC planning and early implementation, we gave community leaders and organizations in the BHC planning process a blank slate on strategies, but insisted on being results driven and logic-model supported. The good news is that across our 14 BHC sites, there is community and resident ownership about the priorities and the strategies to achieve healthier community environments for young people. While these strategies vary, we are seeing growing convergence as the sites engage and learn from one another.

6. Listening is a form of leadership. Irish poet David Whyte underscores the importance of “leadership through conversation.” We have been quite intentional about active listening at all stages of the planning and implementation, and being mindful of closing the feedback loop with community leaders and grantees. We utilized a fairly simple “what we said, what they said, what we heard, what we’ll do” format. At the conclusion of the one-year planning process, our past Board Chair (Tessie Guillermo) and I co-authored and co-videotaped messages to the 14 sites summarizing the key themes and priorities we heard from community leaders in the sites, and what to expect in support from our foundation in the months ahead. We have now begun to bring site leaders together twice annually with foundation staff, so that leaders and staff can share stories of progress, struggles, and inspiration. All of this in service of the all-too critical “t-word”: trust. Trust is the mother’s milk of community change efforts by philanthropy, and active, engaged listening is the foundation.

7. Make “patient” grants, and “urgent” grants. Investors engaged in place-based, community change efforts encounter several tensions to manage. Among them is the tension of patience versus urgency. As efforts such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, Market Creek Plaza in Southeast San Diego, the Skillman Foundation’s work in Detroit, and the Dudley Street Initiative in Boston have demonstrated, positive community change takes time. A two- or three-year grant just won’t do it, and most successful efforts require 7, 10, or 12 years of “patient money.” The most thoughtful investments on this front involve leadership development, organizational capacity building, and collaborative efficacy; but “impact” yield from these investments will typically take years to bear fruit. “Urgent” money involves investing in short-term campaigns or capital projects where tangible results are realized within 12-18 months. Community change, place-based philanthropy will require both types of investments, and too heavy a bias or tilt towards “patient” investments will leave the investor and the partnership vulnerable to allegations that some money has been spent, some meetings have occurred, but nothing “tangible” has been produced. As a result, confidence in the effort will dissipate. Our BHC effort in the early going has been appreciative of the need to simultaneously make “patient” and “urgent” (which we also call “early wins”) grants.

8. Story-telling is part of the doing. The two-most under-appreciated and under-invested themes in social-change philanthropy are power-building and story-telling. Having been at the helm of a large-asset foundation for more than a decade, I am guilty-as-charged on this front; in retrospect, I would gladly trade in half of the (often expensive) academic and research-oriented reports we have commissioned in my twelve years as CEO for more compelling, interesting, and impactful “stories” of community-level change that illuminate the path towards a healthy, more vibrant community. Story-telling by community leaders, youth, or community-based organizations can be powerful tools on multiple fronts: local residents and youth experience the power and passion of their own voice; local media are inspired to re-tell the story in a way that scales up the audience; policymakers pay greater heed and attention to the issue being raised; civic engagement and participation is served; cynicism, disengagement, and disempowerment are reduced. Utilizing multiple forms of story-telling, from social media to flip-cam videos to traditional approaches, we have been assertive in support of community leaders and youth on this front, and it has been inspiring to witness.

Why build, preserve, and protect our respective brands and reputations if we are not going to spend it? Spend that damn brand.

9. Spend the damn brand. Institutional philanthropy is risk-averse. We tend to worry and fret about how our institutional brand, reputation, and civic standing might be sullied by associating with potentially controversial efforts or organizations, and as a general rule, we keep our heads and our profile low. But we have discovered, in the early years of the BHC effort, that thoughtful, surgical application of our civic standing and reputation matters to community leaders – and that they want us to spend “it” on their behalf. Sometimes it comes in the form of convening a meeting, writing and placing an op-ed, placing a phone call to a civic leader, or taking out a full-page ad on an issue in the local newspaper. We have done this with regards to healthy food options for youth and families, health insurance coverage for the uninsured, gang prevention and intervention strategies, and school health efforts. There is a school of thought among philanthropy that our job as funders is “to make the grant and get out of the way.” We would argue that our job is to achieve our respective missions, and by any means necessary. On occasion, this requires stepping out of character on behalf of grantees, and utilizing our voice as well. Why build, preserve, and protect our respective brands and reputations if we are not going to spend it? Spend that damn brand.

10. A Highly Engaged Board. In the earliest planning stages of BHC with our Board of Directors, the Board made it clear that they understood the value and importance of a ten-year commitment, but they also made three points clear. The first was the importance of honesty, candor, and trust about the progress of the effort. The second was a complete commitment to an evaluation approach framed by “learning through impact.” And thirdly, they wanted to be engaged for the purposes of learning, and governance, but not micromanagement. We accomplished the latter by organizing our quarterly Board meetings in or near a BHC community site at least three times a year, and each Board member accepted an assignment of one community site for more in-depth and richer learning. Board members share their observations over dinner at our Board meetings.

In closing, we have found the work of community change to be an exhilarating journey in pursuit of our health mission. We have gained an appreciation of the importance of the “right brain-left brain balance” in this work: having a Theory of Change, and Logic Models, and metrics are important, but trust-building, power-building, and the spiritual dimension of the work constitutes the real glue to hold partners and relationships together over the long haul. And finally, a special note of thanks and appreciation to those foundations who have traversed this path before us, sharing tidbits of lessons and wisdom so that we can “make new mistakes” in the battle for community improvement and health justice.

--Robert K. Ross, M.D.

The Journey from Practice to Theory: Developing a Foundation’s Theory of Change
February 7, 2013

Mary Gregory is the executive director of the Bella Vista Foundation, one of twenty-two foundations managed by Pacific Foundation Services (PFS). She has been with the company for fourteen years and enjoys the variety of philanthropic styles demonstrated by PFS’s clients.

Gregory-100I have the privilege of managing a number of grantmaking portfolios for PFS foundations, and each has taught me important lessons about the art and science of grantmaking. Most recently, as a result of many years of work with the Bella Vista Foundation (BVF), I had the opportunity to learn first-hand what it takes to develop a foundation’s theory of change. But first, let me give you some background. The Bella Vista Foundation (BVF) was started in 1999, and within a few years of making general grants to benefit children/youth, the board decided that one of its purposes should be to make a difference in the lives of children prenatal to three years old from low-income families in four Bay Area counties.

In 2007, after reviewing data, reading studies on infant development, and talking to experts in the field, BVF decided to fund programs that help parents and caregivers cope with stress and anxiety in order to prevent more serious mental health issues from arising which might negatively affect the health social and emotional development of their infants and toddlers. The foundation looks for high quality, culturally aware programs for parents and caregivers that may use any of a number of strategies to create well-being and community, including exercise, classes (such as parenting education), community activism, and peer counseling. These programs can be initiated by nonprofit organizations, county departments, or joint efforts between counties and independent organizations.

In 2012, with a grantmaking capability for this program area that currently amounts to about $1.2M per year, Bella Vista Foundation began to think about whether it could measure its impact. How could the foundation tell if parents and caregivers of very young children were actually better able to cope with anxiety and stress? BVF now encourages its grantees to set goals for their programs. Some programs already measure impact on their clients, using any of a variety of measurement tools that are easily available, to see if levels of stress and anxiety decrease in a meaningful way as a result of participation. Collection of this data also helps grantees to see if they need to revise their programs to get better results.

We realize impact measurement is tricky for foundations, as our investments are just part of a whole ecosystem of funding. BVF’s thinking is that if we aggregate the results of our grantees, we will at least know how many individuals were positively affected by these programs, and what percentage of the participants that represents. Through grantmaking, we are also getting a picture of how many agencies and/or nonprofits in each of our four counties are addressing parental stress and anxiety in families with young children. When Bella Vista Foundation is able to aggregate the programs’ results, we will have a sense of whether our grants are making a difference, and can also create a body of shared learning that will benefit our grantees beyond the grant investment.

Logic Model

View the logic model»

During the past year, in order to lead the way and to better understand the process, the foundation created and publicly shared its own Theory of Change (TOC). As board and staff crafted the TOC, we decided that this might also be a useful tool for our grantees, so we worked with a consultant to help us standardize our language, to review the foundation’s draft version, and to lead a workshop for grantees to get them started on creating their own TOCs. BVF then offered small technical assistance grants to six organizations that wanted to continue and refine their work, which is ongoing—the work will take place between now and early summer. We now know how difficult it is to create a Theory of Change! Foundation staff members are creating customized versions of our TOC for each of the four counties in which BVF makes grants because each county is different, so our activities and funding in each county will need to be customized. Bella Vista Foundation hopes that we can use this new set of tools to measure our progress towards our goals and our vision, and make our own course corrections when needed.

--Mary Gregory

About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

Categories