Transparency Talk

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

Foundations Must Rethink Their Ideas of Strategic Giving and Accountability
July 9, 2014

(Chris Gates is executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, and Brad Rourke is a program officer at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. This article is adapted from their organizations’ new report “Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: a Relationship of Respect and Clarity,” which will soon be available free at This blog post was originally published on The Chronicle of Philanthropy blog.)


Chris Gates


Brad Rourke

People used to defer to experts who knew things that “we” didn’t. But now, with the swipe of a finger or a keystroke, anybody can become instantly informed about nearly any topic. Citizens everywhere have demanded more voice, more inclusion, and more information in every aspect of their lives, and in many cases they have received it.

While the media, politics, government, nonprofits, and businesses all have strived to meet the new demands of these hyper-connected times, one part of society has until recently remained nearly immune from such pressure. That is organized philanthropy.

For decades, foundations have done their work with little pressure to make their operations more open and understandable. Boards have been free to make decisions behind closed doors about what areas they will focus on and what projects and organizations they will fund. These institutions have largely done their work out of the glare of public review from the time of their founding.

It was as if, because by definition philanthropy is about “doing good,” the practice of philanthropy escaped widespread public scrutiny.

But that set of assumptions has been changing. Pressures for increased accountability—the same ones that have affected so many other sectors and to which philanthropy has so far seemed immune—are increasing.

Partly as a result, more and more foundations are moving toward an approach of “strategic philanthropy,” in which their board and staff members develop a policy or agenda for desired outcomes and then a specific plan to pursue it. It seems that fewer and fewer accept unsolicited, “over the transom” proposals.

Foundations are now engaging in public problem-solving efforts in ways that Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller probably never imagined, sparking a lively debate about how “public” or “private” foundations are or should be. Grants are now sometimes detailed portfolios of work that have been developed by the foundation, with a nonprofit beneficiary serving more as a contractor than a grantee.

What all of this means is that philanthropy is increasingly under a microscope.

To better understand the pressures, our organizations—Philanthropy for Active Citizen Engagement and the Kettering Foundation—have spent a year exploring these issues with foundation and nonprofit leaders.

Here are the main findings from our forthcoming report, which will be released later this summer, and some questions suggested by the findings that we think philanthropy ought to consider.

Philanthropy is at a crossroads as it experiences increased pressure from all sides to solve public problems and to be more accountable for outcomes.

Foundations have few external pressures beyond basic requirements imposed by government, yet people in philanthropy often say they feel besieged, exhibiting almost a bunker mentality.

Grantmakers and nonprofit leaders point to many efforts at different levels of government that they see as threatening their ability to do their “good work”: federal calls to raise the payout requirement above the current 5 percent of assets; local efforts to tax foundation assets in new ways; threats of creating a “hierarchy of need” that might allow groups that serve the poor, for example, to offer better tax breaks for donors than other causes.

This is all in part because, increasingly, philanthropy is beginning to occupy a space that goes beyond the supplemental role it has traditionally played in public life. More and more, foundations are stepping in to play a role that was previously the exclusive purview of the government.

Such public activities are difficult or impossible without a working relationship with citizens. How do institutions that consider themselves “private” find ways to constructively engage with the public? The more they occupy this public space—and are seen as responsible for doing so—the more foundations must consider how to engage the public in their decision-making and priority-setting processes.

Philanthropy should ask itself: What are our responsibilities as institutions with a growing public role? 

Transparency may be a necessary component of accountability, but it is not sufficient and too often may be obfuscating.

One way institutions try to demonstrate accountability is through transparency. This is especially true in an environment of distrust in which the very motives of institutions are suspect. Sunlight is a critical disinfectant. But there are problems, too.

Relying solely on transparency places the burden of responsibility on the public. The public must spend time and effort to seek out and then make sense of the information being provided. People may rightly see these large troves of data as obfuscating, using transparency in a Machiavellian way to decrease accountability.

The idea that transparency by itself is just not helpful is increasingly the view of people who work in philanthropy and at nonprofits. Clarity and context must also play a role—for instance, by not just opening up raw data stores but also providing tools to make sense of what they mean.

Philanthropy should ask itself: How can we add clarity and context to transparency?

Strategic philanthropy may paradoxically tend to make philanthropic organizations seem less accountable and more risk averse.

Foundations mostly give money to organizations and people who, they hope, will achieve the changes they want to see in the world. Many foundations, seeing intractable problems in communities, are trying to structure their grantmaking to aim for clear and measurable results, or metrics. This is to the good. Why do something if it won’t achieve some impact?

But as foundations try to show more impact, their actions can appear unilateral and unaccountable. Foundations are increasingly choosing, and even implementing, solutions themselves, as opposed to responding to the ideas of others.

Philanthropy should ask itself: What is our real responsibility for showing impact? How much can or should we control?

Accountability isn’t just about data transparency. It’s also about relationships.

Research suggests that there is a gap between the institutional view of accountability and what citizens mean when they think about it. Institutions see accountability as a requirement to show effectiveness and impact. But citizens want to feel that they can trust institutions and that they are in some sort of relationship together.

It is tempting to create a binary good vs. bad framework. There’s “good” transparency and “less good” transparency. But that’s too simple and wrong. Transparency is good. Accountability is good. Impact is good. Strategy is good. They’re all just complicated.

Participants in the research for our report called for an approach to accountability that is rooted in respect for the role of the public and that seeks to provide clarity about what institutions are trying to do and why they are trying to do it.

Philanthropy should ask itself: How can we improve our working relationship with citizens and demonstrate respect?

This, then, is the conversation that philanthropy must join: How are we redefining our role in addressing the public agenda? How can we improve our working relationship with citizens and demonstrate respect? How do we work with other sectors in a collaborative way?

It is tempting to create a binary good vs. bad framework. There’s “good” transparency and “less good” transparency. But that’s too simple and wrong. Transparency is good. Accountability is good. Impact is good. Strategy is good. They’re all just complicated.

But as philanthropy responds to the changed world and its emerging new role, it would do well to look for ways to embody all those things, mindful also of the fundamental relationship of respect and clarity that the public expects.

No longer can philanthropy sit out of conversations that go to the very core of the reason it exists. It’s time to engage.

-- Chris Gates and Brad Rourke

Through The Looking Glass: The Tactics and Importance of Transparency
July 2, 2014

(Epaminondas Farmakis is the President and CEO of elpis Philanthropy Advisors and serves as Program Director of the EEA Grants NGO Programme for Greece. A version of this post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.)

HeadShot2Many in the developed world take for granted that NGOs and non-profit foundations follow the highest standards of transparency when they dispense funding. Access to data is a pre-requisite for all organizations that apply for, and receive, either public or private funding. Grantees must share their funding sources and publicize their activities and results through their websites, newsletters and social media profiles. Indeed, this reporting and sharing of results compose a large part of how those organizations solicit and secure additional funds for future work.

When considering grant requests, foundation program officers look for certain information, and the applicant’s web presence is essential to that search. Program officers must assess how active the organization is and whether donors have access to results and metrics. The level of local community engagement can also play a role depending on the nature of the applicant’s work.

Funding applicants expect scrutiny and understand the need and power of telling their stories in ways that both ensure transparency and support development goals. But what about funders? Shouldn’t they hold the same high standards of openness that they request from prospective grantees?

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword—how much should funders reveal, and is it possible to reveal too much? However, it’s only fair to ask foundations to address the same issues that grantees have to navigate. Applicants that resist transparency risk losing funding or clients. Historically in traditional philanthropy, closed off funders had nothing to lose. But the current environment of open source platforms, social media and easily accessible data and analytics urges a new model of public collaboration. Resources such as GrantCraft, an online tool provided by The Foundation Center, offer many examples of how foundations and donors may adopt full transparency in their work.

Publicizing clear guidelines and selection processes translates to better grant requests, and sharing of internal data and reports with other funders results in a more efficient philanthropic practice. Foundations and donors need to make a choice: Will they continue to do their business behind closed doors or share their practices with the community?

And the benefits are plentiful, too. Publicizing clear guidelines and selection processes translates to better grant requests, and sharing of internal data and reports with other funders results in a more efficient philanthropic practice. Foundations and donors need to make a choice: Will they continue to do their business behind closed doors or share their practices with the community?

While transparency is the goal, there are also myriad associated benefits along the path to achieving it. Here are a few:

Building Trust

Foundations and non-profits exist in a symbiotic relationship imbued with an inherent level of trust. If one party wants to improve its work, it needs to ask for feedback from its partners as well as the community it serves. Foundations and non-profits alike seek the public’s support in their charitable endeavors. The alignment of goals and organizational objectives is a critical factor in building trust through transparency. With a full understanding of a foundation’s mission and purpose, grantees can articulate and refine their own program objectives in order to fulfill that mission. This also prevents “mission creep,” in which the grantee initiates projects just because funding is available. The philanthropic community benefits overall from this trust. Parties on both sides have a clear understanding of the issues addressed and neglected in the community.

Creating Effectiveness

Smaller foundations and family trusts often keep their priorities a secret. They avoid revealing information such as strategic goals, issues and geographic areas of interest in order to maintain flexibility in the projects they fund. However, that mystery also discourages applicants. A foundation website with clear guidelines and descriptions of the selection process should be the absolute minimum standard for transparency. Regular communications through workshops or online tutorials—with advice on what donors look for in an application—will help create a better understanding from applicants on how to navigate the often complex funding request process. Tips on what constitutes a “red flag” are also helpful in ensuring that applicants don’t waste their efforts on non-priority issues or requests. A transparent explanation of a foundation’s process and strategic goals can help both sides work toward more effective and meaningful projects and programs together.

Ensuring Collaboration

Last but certainly not least, sharing information, data, reports, practices and failures leads to better grant-making. The era when every foundation was working in isolation is long gone. In today’s interconnected world, if your goal is making an impact, then the only way forward is through collaboration. Representatives from the philanthropic community need to meet regularly, exchange views and data and create networks with other stakeholders. In a perfect world of transparent grant-making, donors would commit to give only to those organizations that are forthright with their funding sources, projects and results. Minimum standards of transparency should appear on donors’ websites and throughout the donation process. The drafting of the International NGO Accountability Charter was a great first step in setting global standards for NGO accountability. Donors around the world should embrace such initiatives and commit themselves publicly to fund organizations that comply with such standards. In addition, foundations must commit to ongoing collaboration. As the sector evolves and matures, so must our ability to work toward common best practices for all.

-- Epaminondas Farmakis

Shaking Up Our Assumptions with an Un-Survey
June 30, 2014

(Bob Pullin is the chief of digital engagement at the Ford Foundation. In his position, he is focused on using technology to help build relationships with key audiences mostly through the web site and social media.)

BobPullin_DixonFordPort112513-309We’re all inundated with information in a super-saturated media environment, so as we begin the redesign of the Ford Foundation website we have to ask ourselves: “Why would the social change makers we want to reach spend time on our site to begin with?” 

To answer that question, we decided to turn the traditional online survey model on its head and let our audiences ask us questions instead of the other way around. We called it the Un-Survey.

The Un-Survey is an experiment, one that we hoped could help us:

  • Unearth the kinds of information our audiences would find valuable
  • Deliver on our commitment to transparency in a way that’s genuinely useful to others (Transparency can’t be limited to only what we want to share—we have to share what our audiences want to know)
  • Foster a creative environment that helps break down the boundaries between those inside and outside the foundation
Since we launched the Un-Survey six weeks ago, visitors have submitted over 120 questions. These questions have changed the way we think about our audiences’ interests and needs, inspiring us to pursue new ideas about content and functionality.

Since we launched the Un-Survey six weeks ago, visitors have submitted over 120 questions. These questions have changed the way we think about our audiences’ interests and needs, inspiring us to pursue new ideas about content and functionality. What’s been great about the engagement is the questions are astute and ask very specific details about Ford’s approach to social change and the practice of philanthropy. (They were also remarkably on topic, which is not always the case when you open up to a wide community.) What’s more, many of the questions go beyond how and what we communicate on the website and focus instead on our institutional and programmatic strategy. We’ve shared those higher-level questions with our leadership team, and they’ve found them illuminating as well. 

Blogging about the launch of the Un-Survey, Janet Camarena summed up our intention well: “We are all being invited to be thought partners of the Ford Foundation.” We knew we were crowdsourcing to a very smart audience, but the quality of that thought partnership exceeded our expectations, with some questions building on earlier ones and making the sum greater than the parts. And because the questions are available for any other interested foundations to read, we can all tap into the creative and diverse thinking of the social change makers who participated. 

What We’ve Learned

The Un-Survey helped us deepen our empathy for our audience. We can now put ourselves more fully into our visitors’ shoes and—even more exciting—we now have a clearer sense of their aspirations for us: 

  • They would like to see greater collaboration within the funder and grantee communities around shared goals, with Ford helping to facilitate
  • Our community is asking us to more fully explain how we conceive of and execute our role as a philanthropic institution
  • They are eager for us to share more about our progress—not only about our successes but also about what is not working

We hope our social change audiences see the Un-Survey as an opportunity to have a meaningful influence on the next version of the website. Of course we know what the real measure of this experiment is: whether we deliver on what our audiences asked for. That’s our next big challenge—and it’s one we’re excited to take on.

-- Bob Pullin

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

IssueLab’s Collection Offers Important Example for the Field of Philanthropy
June 17, 2014

(Ned Schaub is principal at Ned Schaub Consulting – Social Change Strategy, and has collaborated with palliative care organizations and leaders around the country for a decade. He helps organizations, including foundations and their grantees, articulate the social change they will achieve, and related sustainability, business, and strategic plans.)

1390262883Almost a decade ago I had the good fortune to be asked by a foundation to look into potential grantmaking in the fields of hospice and palliative care, which led to a master’s thesis about palliative care grantmaking and the advancement of the field. I was struck then by the relatively limited ways that foundations working in the field collaborated, and the degree to which many foundations had no idea what palliative care was.

Certainly a lot has changed in the last ten years, but after seeing IssueLab’s newly launched collection, Improving Access to Palliative Care, I had to wonder what might have happened if this collection of documents had existed then? How much faster might the foundation I worked for have investigated the possibilities, and how much more compelling might the opportunities for social change and return on grantmaking investment have been?

Many in the field of palliative care are working hard to foster greater transparency between healthcare professionals and patients, making choices more obvious and decision-making easier for patients and their families. This represents a real shift from the traditional model where doctors held most, if not all, the decision-making authority.

Many in the field of palliative care are working hard to foster greater transparency between healthcare professionals and patients, making choices more obvious and decision-making easier for patients and their families. This represents a real shift from the traditional model where doctors held most, if not all, the decision-making authority. Fittingly, this new collection of palliative care documents from IssueLab also does the same for philanthropy, encouraging greater transparency about what we have learned from years of work in the field of palliative care, potentially helping to make funding choices more obvious and decision-making easier for grantmakers.

The collection includes more than eighty documents that bring together “evidence and insights about the millions of people who are denied access to palliative care and what organizations worldwide are doing to help them.” It was made possible by support from Atlantic Philanthropies, which has invested $58.5 million in palliative care over the last decade and is now considering the best ways to extend its legacy as it prepares to close its doors in 2020.

The documents included in the collection represent knowledge gained by Atlantic, other foundations, practitioners, and nonprofits – as opposed to strictly clinical or academic research entities. The documents offer a vivid demonstration of just how much hard work has gone into advancing palliative care and make obvious the different ways that foundations have contributed to creating change in this field. It is a rich collection, which groups the documents into categories indicated by three key questions about palliative care: Who is affected? What are common barriers? What are some recommended solutions?

While the collection is an asset to the field of palliative care advancement generally speaking, it also has special significance for palliative care philanthropy going forward. Because of the way it has been set up it serves as rich repository for those seeking to initiate palliative care grantmaking, as well as for foundations already working in the field that want to make deeper impact and work in more strategic and sustainable ways. By focusing on what has already been realized by philanthropy – which is represented so vividly in this collection – there is a real opportunity to beat the learning curve and ensure greater return on investment with foundation dollars.  

Just as importantly, the collection is a model for how foundations could better support the gathering of key information, related to their work. It seems that foundations are more likely to reflect, and to invest time and resources, when they are leaving a particular field or closing their doors altogether. While such reflection is valuable, foundations could be learning more from one another and advancing more highly strategic grantmaking with greater collective impact if they built such thoughtfully organized repositories well before they ended their efforts. So much information-gathering and decision-making carried out by foundations is recorded in internal documents that are never shared beyond staff, consultant, and board teams. What if more of these documents were made public through outlets like IssueLab?

-- Ned Schaub

Transparency in Family Foundations: The Strength of Glasspockets
June 9, 2014

(Jean Whitney is former executive director of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation and a current board member of Associated Grant Makers.  She has decades of experience in working with family foundations. A version of this post appeared earlier on Family Giving News.)

Jean-whitney-150x150Family foundations, by their very nature, are complex. With significant involvement of family members on the board and sometimes in operations as well, there can be layers of generations, widely divergent views, and the need to preserve positive family relationships.  This complexity is a challenge but not an excuse for avoiding transparency or openness about how family foundations do their work.

At the recent National Forum on Family Philanthropy in Cambridge, MA sponsored by the National Center for Family Philanthropy, a session on Transparency in the Family Philanthropy Context did much to illuminate the continuum of viewpoints on the issue as well as to provide valuable resources to improve practice.

With advances in technology and social media, the question today is not whether or not to be transparent, but how to be transparent – and how far to take your efforts to be fully transparent.

Why worry about transparency?  On one end of the spectrum of views is the argument that many families prefer to do their philanthropic work quietly, with some degree of privacy for their choice of interest and funding decisions.  Humility is, after all, part of the tradition of American philanthropy and too much transparency can bring interest from parties ranging from friends and business colleagues to government regulators.  On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that all foundations have an obligation to be accountable to the public and that being accountable requires some degree of openness.  The conversation about foundation accountability also includes the question of foundation impact.  Can a foundation establish trust, create partnerships, and achieve the outcomes it desires without being transparent? With advances in technology and social media, the question today is not whether or not to be transparent, but how to be transparent – and how far to take your efforts to be fully transparent. “The data is out there…,” they say, and the most effective families invest in managing how information about their giving and practice is shared.

Best practices for foundations aiming for greater transparency include basics like having a web site, posting guidelines and listing grants. As someone who has worked in the field of family philanthropy for many years, I think my colleagues in the field will find the Foundation Center and its Glasspockets web site to be a great resource.  Glasspockets resources include a helpfullist of 23 indicators of transparency and accountability for foundations and also a wealth of practical resources to assist any foundation in becoming more transparent.  The site even includes a “Foundation Web Builder” service to help foundations get started if they lack a web presence.  The name of the web site comes from a quote by Russell Leffingwell, a banker and Carnegie Foundation board member, testifying in 1952 before a Congressional Committee investigating foundations for the support of un-American activities.  He said, “So far as there is a justification -- and I am sure there is -- for the existence of these institutions, it is that they serve the public good. If they are not willing to tell what they do to serve the public good, then as far as I am concerned they ought to be closed down.” And one of his most quoted statements is that "We think that the foundation should have glass pockets."  

A key distinction discussed by the session participants was  between transparency about the “product” of a foundation’s work (e.g., grants, results against strategies, etc) and the “process” it uses (meeting deliberations, criteria for funding, internal planning documents, board selection and terms). Many family foundations would agree that sharing much of the process publicly can be difficult.  And that it’s unnecessary.  While younger family members who are used to sharing everything in their lives on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram may disagree, more experienced family members say that intentional dialogues and training can help tap the best of both perspectives and encourage a practice that lies somewhere in between.

Whether or not a foundation makes an effort to share information publicly about its work, there is already plenty of information out there. The 990s have been accessible to the public for some time, but the next few years will bring the advent of mandatory online tax filing.  In addition, new web sites have sprung up that invite public ratings of foundations and invite feedback from stakeholders to assess foundations

Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, advises that the best way for the field of philanthropy to be responsible and to protect itself is to be proactive and to frame its work. For a family foundation, this starts with developing a web site where it can tell its story, talk about its interests and share its aspirations.  The unique stories of families are often both compelling and inspirational. Why leave information about the family’s history, passions and work for others to interpret when you can communicate this most clearly yourselves?  This takes some work, but so many resources exist and a lot can be accomplished in short order.

Many foundations may find that the path to being more open leads to thoughtful discussions on present efforts and future directions.  This can only translate into becoming more effective and spur greater collaboration.  Who knew that having glass pockets could add such strength?

-- Jean Whitney

Mission: Critical Transparency in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
June 4, 2014

(G. Albert Ruesga is the president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.)

Ruesga-150Next year we mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I can’t say it will be a defining moment for our city or for our foundation—so many of these occurred shortly after the storm. But it will be an important time to reflect on what’s changed and what hasn’t changed over the past decade.

Katrina’s landfall in August of 2005 was a wake-up call for the city’s leadership. Clearly, whatever the Foundation had done to serve New Orleans and the region before Katrina needed to be re-imagined.

Early in the aftermath of the storm, the Greater New Orleans Foundation worked in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to help lead a planning process for the city called the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). This planning process, which sought input from as many residents and neighborhoods as possible, identified affordable housing as a top priority. This was not surprising in light of the colossal destruction of the storm.

This was a big step for the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an opening up, the beginning of a commitment to draw our knowledge and strength from outside our walls.

The Foundation got to work. Not long after the UNOP plan, the Foundation designed and implemented a $25 million initiative to support the creation of mixed-income, mixed-used affordable housing and also, initially, to help city government, community development corporations, and other agencies get back on their feet. Twenty-one local and national foundations contributed to the fund and worked together to share data, knowledge, and expertise. The initiative was enormously successful, helping over 9,000 residents find affordable homes and strengthening key housing organizations in the city.

Since that time, the Foundation has remained committed to ever-greater community engagement in its work. We’ve done this in small steps.

We began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines.

Early on, for example, we began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines. We used a design team composed of grantees to determine the form and content of our emerging work in organizational effectiveness (a.k.a. “capacity building”). Now in its fourth year, our organizational effectiveness work often uses “communities of practice,” cohorts of grantees who act as co-designers and co-leaders of these learning communities. We were one of the first foundations to open key pages of our website to comments and criticism from community members, committing to respond to these in no less than 48 hours.

Our commitment to increased community engagement extended to our donors as well. For several years we hosted a program called “Circle Talks” in which members of our donor community were invited to learn about our work and to push back, suggesting new approaches for rebuilding the region and holding us accountable to our mission.

We’ve also done something I believe few other foundations have: in our discretionary grantmaking guidelines we describe not only what we fund, but why; we provide a rationale for what we include in our guidelines as well as what we exclude. This is an invitation for grantees and others to challenge and thereby improve our thinking.

We’re still learning how to make our organization more transparent, more porous, more open to the influence of our stakeholders. We aim for what we call “mission-appropriate” transparency, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because without it our work would clearly suffer.

 -- G. Albert Ruesga

Why Grantmakers Need Intelligent Failure
May 29, 2014

(Ashley Good is the CEO and Founder of Fail Forward, which supports organizations to learn, innovate and build resilience. On July 9th, 2014 in Toronto she will host Fail Forward 2014, a full day of thought-provoking ideas, useful tools and practices, and truly novel experiences to help us redefine our relationship with failure.)

Good-150Four years ago, while working with a UN-funded agriculture project in northern Ghana, the team and I started to see flaws in the way the project had been designed: farmer registration requirements took farmers out of their fields during harvest season; procuring local contractors for construction was more time intensive than expected; and funding mechanisms had been designed before the 2008 crash so didn’t reflect current realities.

When the UN evaluator flew in from Rome to assess the project, he asked all the right questions. But instead of speaking up about the shortcomings of the project, our team kept quiet, not wanting to rock the boat.  After all, my colleagues and I were pretty good at our jobs and had found ways of working around the design failures. If we spoke up, we may get fired and be replaced by someone who wouldn’t bother to find ways around the challenges. Besides, we justified to ourselves, nothing would change anyway. 

So nothing did change and the design failures we didn’t share are doomed to be repeated.

Everything changed when I returned to Canada. I took a position at Engineers Without Borders Canada, leading their annual Failure Report. I saw first-hand that a dialogue about failures was incredibly powerful for building agility and resilience into the DNA of an organization.

I wanted to spread the practice of speaking openly about failure in the for-purpose sector and so built the website where anyone could submit stories of failure and learning. I built a sector wide failure report.

Ironically, the site was a failure and only thirty stories have been submitted. That said, I have done dozens of media interviews, countless blogs have written about the site, and academic after academic still call me hoping to study it.

It failed to be the database for learning I had envisioned, but it has started to flip the idea of failure on its head for funders and their grantees. You’re not underperforming if you fail, you’re underperforming if you don’t discuss and learn from that failure.  The site was different from what came before because it wasn’t about pointing fingers or finding someone to “hold accountable”, but rather it was about driving that critical self-reflection of what can you do better. It represented the mindset I needed to speak up when I was in Ghana.

 The failure of Admitting Failure showed me how hard it was to bridge that gap between knowing we should discuss failures openly and actually doing it in practice.  This insight led me to start the organization I now run, Fail Forward, which works directly with organizations to create a more productive relationship with failure so that learning and innovation can thrive.

The shift toward a transparent, learning culture in the for-purpose sector - one where failures are treated as teachable moments, and aren’t repeated - is possible and it starts with funders acting as role models for the entire sector.

I’ve now been a full-time failure for over three years and I can confidently say I have seen huge steps in the willingness and ability of for-purpose people and organizations to be open about their challenges, missteps and failures. The shift toward a transparent, learning culture in the for-purpose sector - one where failures are treated as teachable moments, and aren’t repeated - is possible and it starts with funders acting as role models for the entire sector.

Laura Dowling was one of the first academics who got in touch with me years ago. She was studying if admitting mistakes in development and humanitarian aid effected public trust in the organization which admitted to the mistake. Her research is now complete and she found “admitting failure makes no difference to public trust or indeed willingness to donate money.”  More important, she also “found strong evidence to suggest that public trust is strongly correlated with public perceptions of transparency.”

Funders need to create a space where failures, your own and those of your grantees, can be discussed productively, with humility and curiosity for what was learned and a willingness to adapt. Time your reflection and evaluation to when you can use that learning to inform future investments. And make sure failures are shared, not repeated.

Some questions for reflection:

  • What’s stopping you?
  • What does “right-sized” transparency look like at your organization?  As in, not everything needs a full post-mortem and Failure Report – what is the appropriate level of transparency that is ideal for learning and impact?
  • How will you make sure any reporting you ask for is what is useful for learning?
  • How will you and your grantees learn through the project, not just after it? As Marilyn Darling says, “We over-emphasize learning from a past event and totally under-emphasize the importance of learning through current events.”
  • What would it look like to engage your board in a discussion that builds up their tolerance and understanding for the value of taking risks (and thus seeing some grants fail) in the interest of innovation?

-- Ashley Good

Justin Bieber vs. the Gates Foundation
May 27, 2014

(Brad Smith is president of the Foundation Center. To learn more about what's trending with foundations and social media, click here.)

Bks-150When it comes to social media and "crowds," the largest philanthropic foundation in the world is no match for Justin Bieber. Not even close. As the graphic below shows, over the thirty-day period from November 3 to December 3,"Justin Bieber" was mentioned in 40,596,304 tweets while the "Gates Foundation" appeared in just 4,765.


This somewhat crazy comparison offers some important lessons for philanthropy as foundations struggle to measure their grantees' (and their own) online impact.

Lesson #1 — "Crowdsourcing" requires a CROWD

The professionals that really understand crowdsourcing work for companies like eBay, not for philanthropic foundations. But like most of us, foundation program officers have learned enough about all this stuff to be dangerous and increasingly pepper their grantees with questions and suggestions about crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing works best when knowledge can be built on the clicks of very large numbers of people involved in relatively simple market-based activities such as shopping and travel, or where new markets can be created, as we are beginning to see with crowdfunding. Crowdsourcing in the philanthropic space, on the other hand, has by and large been a failure, and there is a trail of dead wikis to prove it.

Lesson #2 — Scale is a relative concept

Justin Bieber has scale, and so does the Gates Foundation. The crucial difference is that young Bieber's is driven by the mass-market appeal of the entertainment industry, while the Gates Foundation operates in a niche market. As important as the issues — agricultural development, malaria prevention, vaccine delivery — that drive the Gates Foundation are, they will never attract the kind of attention that a successful pop singer does. And as much as I might like to live in a world in which the 900 million people who do not have access to safe water are as important to the Twitterverse as the latest boy band, I do not. It has nothing to do with "fair" or "right"; it just "is." Philanthropy as a whole has achieved scale online: collectively, America's foundations have 4.5 million followers on Twitter. But philanthropy's scale is relative, and even though its reach is far greater than it was just a decade ago — and continues to grow — it will always lag mass social media trends. Meanwhile, Justin Bieber alone has nearly 49 million Twitter followers!

Lesson #3 — Foundations' (limited) online traffic is commensurate with their unique offline role

The niche market that is philanthropy exists precisely because there are still too many important needs in the world that markets and governments cannot (or will not) meet. Government, when working well, can be effective at delivering vital services such as education and sanitation and in holding up standards that cross boundaries and span the globe. Foundations, however, have a more nuanced, offstage role to play, using their relatively limited resources to address problems that fall between the cracks, test new ideas, and take an occasional risk. Foundations' predilection for acting in a low-key way also has roots in the oft-professed humility of wealthy donors who create foundations. The result? Offstage + humbleness = offline. Fewer than 7 percent of America's foundations have websites, so it should come as no surprise that we are not exactly the talk of the town on Twitter.

I suppose this post, in the end, is a call for philanthropy to get real when it comes to social media. We have long since resigned ourself to the fact that our tweets won't spur mass movements around our most cherished ideas and programs. Which doesn't mean we should give up. Now is the time to build a meaningful, lasting relationship with social media and whatever form of frictionless communication lurks just offstage. Foundations need to have realistic expectations about their grantees' reach, as well as their own, and accept that we will never be truly competitive in a medium that increasingly is dominated by entertainment, sports, and global brands. At the same time, philanthropy has to get better at communications, much better, and social media is an essential tool for doing that. Justin Bieber may be off the charts in terms of followers, but when it comes to message quality, the Gates Foundation rules.

-- Brad Smith

About Transparency Talk

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