Transparency Talk

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 AdmittingFailure.com 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.

Bieber_vs_gates

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

Wanna Hangout? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Use of Google Hangouts
May 21, 2014

(Eliza Smith is the Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco. She recently interviewed Erin Kelly and Susan Dentzer from the RWJF to learn about their experience with hosting Google Hangouts.)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), America's largest public Eliza Smithhealth-focused philanthropy, is using Google Hangout to hold virtual panel discussions the first Friday of every  month. The Foundation has been using this social media tool to increase transparency around its work since November of 2013 and is finding these offereings have been very well-received. The foundation treats the platform as an opportunity to open its doors to its stakeholders and the general public so they can explore one of the foundation’s current projects, efforts, or campaigns in-depth and cost-free.

RWJF logoThe most recent Hangout was held on Friday, May 2 in partnership with the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) on its latest campaign, "Choose Wisely." The Choosing Wisely effort promotes patient empowerment, encouraging doctors and leaders in healthcare to inform consumers against employing expensive, superfluous, and potentially dangerous procedures and treatments. The Hangout platform promoted collaboration with doctors, patients, and healthcare professionals; moreover it championed transparency, inviting the general public to tweet (using #RWJF1stFri and @RWFJ) or submit their questions and comments to Google+. Past Hangout themes have centered on the cost and quality of healthcare, country-wide health rankings, innovative ways of delivering healthcare, and interest in new ways of employing and analyzing health data.

We believe these Hangouts can be effective in convening experts on an issue, increasing transparency to the work and partners we have the pleasure to be engaged with, and a means to expand the discussion beyond the those ‘in the room.’
Erin Kelly Erin Kelly
RWJF social media manager Susan Dentzer Susan Dentzer
RWJF senior policy adviser

The RWJF has a strong track record with social media, using tools like Twitter and Facebook so that grantees can connect with its leaders and grantmakers. Erin Kelly, social media manager at the Foundation, says they have been using these tools “to share insight into the issues and projects we’ve invested in across our areas of investments. Oftentimes these discussions are jumping off from an in-person convening or recent research or developments in the field. We believe they can be effective in convening experts on an issue, increasing transparency to the work and partners we have the pleasure to be engaged with, and a means to expand the discussion beyond the those ‘in the room.’”

Susan Dentzer, senior policy adviser to the RWJF, likens the Hangouts to “mini conferences” and sees them as alternative ways of facilitating communication between the Foundation and the general public. “As much information as the Foundation puts out on the web site, many grantees sometimes feel like they don’t understand what’s going on at the RWJF,” Dentzer says. “The Hangouts are an opportunity for grantees to get a sense of what’s going on at the Foundation.” And the best part about these Hangouts? “They are low-cost and low-effort,” as Dentzer says; thus, staff at the Foundation don’t feel spent after conducting a Hangout as they might holding an actual conference, leaving energy and enthusiasm for the next month’s session.

While the First Friday sessions have been popular and widely attended, the RWJF is developing more metrics for measuring the impact of the Hangouts. “This is a work-in-progress,” Dentzer says, “we are finding new ways to assess how many people we reach, who we are reaching, and if any members of the audience take action afterwards.” So far, the Foundation is planning on using resources from Survey Monkey to gather more user data, but they are still looking for more ways to better understand the impact of these social media tools. All told, “this is a great technology for the RWJF,” Dentzer says.

Have you attended one of the RWJF First Friday Hangouts? Tell us about your experience at @Glasspockets on Twitter, or post a comment here on Transparency Talk. 

-- Eliza Smith

A Framework to Communicate Philanthropy
May 14, 2014

(Jeannine Corey is director of grants information management at the Foundation Center. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's Philanthropy News Digest Philantopic blog.)

JCoreyLanguage allows us to communicate complex ideas and acquire information using an agreed-on structure and process. Variations in language around the globe increase the level of effort needed to communicate with people across borders, but it's not impossible if you have a way to translate your ideas into a language others can understand.

The Foundation Center is currently undertaking the challenge of devising a language that can be used by philanthropic organizations around the world to tell the story of their work. That common language is crucial for a field as diverse as ours: not too long ago, we determined that U.S. foundations have more than two hundred and fifty ways to describe "general operating support"!

Given how much the sector has grown and evolved over the past few decades, updates to the taxonomy are critical in order for it to more accurately reflect the work of the field and serve as a relevant tool for a 21st-century global philanthropy community.

In 2012, the Foundation Center began to rethink the classification system that has been at the core of our work, a system largely based on the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities structure that we helped create thirty years ago. Given how much the sector has grown and evolved over the past few decades, updates to the taxonomy are critical in order for it to more accurately reflect the work of the field and serve as a relevant tool for a 21st-century global philanthropy community. Why is this important? Because a shared taxonomy makes it easier for grantseekers to find targeted support, helps funders collaborate with each other and identify potential grantees, and assists researchers and academics who are analyzing the work of the sector.

To that end, staff at the Foundation Center have spent eighteen months evaluating our codes, mining the text of the nearly five million grants and one million philanthropic institutions in our database, and cross-referencing that information against other international standards to inform the creation of a revised taxonomic system. Our goal is not to create another standard but to develop a framework that meets the needs of the sector and can serve as a language that organizations use to communicate their work to each other. For example, we've added new subject areas related to information and media, including associated technologies. We've replaced "type of support" with two new categories: support strategy, to reflect the goal or approach behind the actual support, and transaction type, to capture the various forms of philanthropy beyond the cash grant that happen around the world.

As with the language we use in our day-to-day lives, we expect people will use the words and phrases that resonate with them and best serve their needs. Has anyone ever actually used every single word in the English language? Of course not, and the classification system we are developing is designed to function in the same way: use the words and terms that help you communicate your work. And to make sure the parts of the taxonomy that are relevant to your work make sense, we've opened up a draft of the new system for review and comment through May 23, 2014.

Your input is essential, and we invite everyone in the field to join in. Check out the draft taxonomy and then submit your feedback on both its overall structure as well as specific terms. What do you like about it? What's missing? How can we make it better? We want to know. Together, we can create a taxonomy for the field that serves as a common language we can all use to communicate our work to each other.

-- Jeannine Corey

Don’t let the “hairball effect” choke your strategic momentum
May 12, 2014

(Kate Wolford (@KateWolford) is president of The McKnight Foundation (@McKnightFdn).)

6a00e54efc2f808833019aff9f5db2970b-800wiBy design, many foundations deal with complex issues. At The McKnight Foundation, our work includes accelerating the Midwest’s transition to a low-carbon economy, improving water quality along the Mississippi River as it crosses 10 state boundaries, and promoting equitable transit-oriented development throughout the region. The systems in which we operate are often massively entangled and not designed to provide easy solutions for existing and emerging challenges.

So how do we deal with complexity without having it overwhelm us, a.k.a. succumbing to the hairball effect?

McKnightlogoHairballs, as people owned by cats will know, are tangled jumbles that your furry friend will reject and eject when they interfere with the cat’s comfort. I am not sure who first coined the phrase’s usage at McKnight, but it is now a running joke to invoke “the hairball” when our own discomfort arises from complexity and its inherent messiness.

McKnight’s Strategic Framework is predicated on adaptive leadership as a way to advance our goals amid the complexity and uncertainty in which we operate. To develop our strategies, we draw on research, field expertise, and input from stakeholders across the public, private, and civic sectors. Inherently transparent, our approach relies on an open exchange of information with grantees and field experts, informing our understanding of relevant systems and various actors within those systems. We bring discipline to this process as we make judgments about the roles and tools we are best positioned to deploy. In philanthropy-speak, this is how we develop our theory of change for each program.

No matter how thoughtful we are in the initial development of goals and strategies, “stuff happens” along the way — surprises, unexpected turns — that make it essential that our discipline doesn’t morph into dogma.

Then the fun begins. No matter how thoughtful we are in the initial development of goals and strategies, “stuff happens” along the way — surprises, unexpected turns — that make it essential that our discipline doesn’t morph into dogma. Changes in external conditions alter both opportunities and constraints. Implementation is messy in ways that twist and distort elegantly crafted constructs. As we take in and process new data, observations, and insights from grantees and stakeholders, we adapt and adjust to remain relevant and maximize impact. We need to be thoughtful and deliberative while resisting paralysis by analysis. Again transparency is critical here, ensuring grantees and partners are up to speed as our strategies inevitably evolve.

To sustain adaptive leadership through the twists and turns, McKnight draws on a mix of tools and competencies. One useful approach is to seek optimal balance among the parts, the whole, and the greater whole. For example, we have a program focus on climate and energy in our home Midwest region, where we can play key leadership and convening roles in addition to grantmaking. We also seek “climate smart” approaches in several other program areas. Across the board, our work informs and is informed by the greater whole of climate change as a global issue — and we connect all the related parts into one coherent narrative for the Foundation.

This approach allows us to break down complexity into actionable parts that might be harder to spot in the overall framework, while nonetheless honoring that there is a greater whole we shouldn’t ignore just because it’s beyond our current radius of action or bandwidth.

McKnight’s framework of adaptive leadership is supported by competencies we intentionally nurture among our staff team. We hire intelligent people with strong subject expertise. But to fully embrace adaptive leadership, it is equally important that we are intellectually curious as well as rigorous, confident yet humble in our leadership, willing to engage with stakeholders in open and honest dialogue, and comfortable with ambiguity because the world never stops changing around us.

Hairballs happen, despite all our mindfulness. The issues foundations and the nonprofit sector tackle are notoriously complex, and those complexities do sometimes feel overwhelming. But the real trick is in your recovery. Rather than choking on complexities you can’t control or avoid, take a moment to refocus and realign, clear your throat, and carry on.

-- Kate Wolford

Giving Pledge Adds 5 New Members
May 9, 2014

Eye on the Giving Pledge

A press release today announced that 4 new participants have joined the Giving Pledge, the effort launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in 2010 to encourage the world's wealthiest to commit the majority of their assets to philanthropic causes. With the previously unannounced pledge by Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa of Zimbabwe, the total number of pledge signatories now stands at 127. Tech and business services entrepreneurs predominate as does youth, with only one of the new pledgers born before World War II.

Initial profiles for the new signatories are now available as part of the Glasspockets Eye on the Giving Pledge feature. Full profiles will be posted shortly.

  • Ann Gloag OBE
    Perth, UK
  • David Goldberg and Sheryl Sandberg
    Atherton, CA
 
  • Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa
    Harare, Zimbabwe
  • Natalie and Paul Orfalea
    Santa Barbara, CA
  • Craig Silversten, and Mary Obelnicki
    New York, NY
 

Since August 2012, Glasspockets has been keeping an Eye on the Giving Pledge, providing an in-depth picture of the participants and their publicly known charitable activities.

Explore the Eye on the Giving Pledge»

-- Daniel Matz

Glasspockets Find: NCRP Launches Philamplify to Give Grantmakers Honest Feedback
May 7, 2014

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the Center's Glasspockets effort.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511ab651c970c-800wiI have been having fun today poking around Philamplify, the new NCRP web site that aims to help grantmakers get an outside perspective on how to improve their effectiveness.  It is rare for grantmakers to be able to get honest feedback, and this goal is at the heart of NCRP’s efforts, and I think that’s what makes the site fun and interesting to explore.

NCRP states that in the coming months it plans to release assessments on the top 100 grantmakers in the country and the site has launched with three in-depth assessments of: Lumina Foundation for Education, the William Penn Foundation, and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.  

Logo-tabletThough I could not easily find reference as to why these three foundations were selected, an exciting aspect seems to be that foundations do not opt in, but rather are selected to participate.  I imagine some funders welcome this like they welcome an IRS audit, but that’s also what makes it an important exercise, since for some it might be the only avenue through which they will get out of what NCRP sees as their “isolation bubble.”  But that’s where I would have appreciated more detail about why these three were selected, and how others can be nominated.  Since the site is set-up for audience interaction, making public which foundations the audience wants to nominate to be assessed next could be a welcome addition.

Philamplify’s assessments combine research and analysis on the work of foundations with the voices of stakeholders.  Assessments include key findings and recommendations, along with in-depth analysis of foundations’ funding strategies.  And given my work on Glasspockets and my belief in the power of transparency to change philanthropy for the better, I was heartened to see ample space and thought devoted to recommendations around improving foundation transparency.

Of course grantmakers frequently hire firms to give them this kind of feedback, but often that knowledge and feedback remain internal and if shared, only in summary form, and the foundation as the client controls the process.  In this case the entire assessment is publicly shared and visitors to the web site can actually vote on whether or not they agree with the recommendations, and send a direct message to the executives at the foundation in question.

...foundations can often be inflexible with their grantees, so perhaps it’s a positive thing to let foundations have the experience of being at the mercy of a bureaucracy they don’t control?

And in terms of control, from what I can tell of reading the methodology for the William Penn Foundation’s assessments, it seems once selected by NCRP, a foundation cannot opt out.  Apparently the William Penn Foundation was going through a leadership transition at the time NCRP was to conduct the audit, so the foundation requested that the process be postponed until the transition was complete.  “But to provide timely, actionable feedback in the interests of the communities the foundation seeks to benefit, NCRP decided to proceed.”

If the aim of the assessment is to influence the leadership of the foundation to change for the better, this seems a little inflexible to me.  And it does raise the question of how much change can one effect if the subject of one’s assessment is an unwilling subject? Then again, foundations can often be inflexible with their grantees, so perhaps it’s a positive thing to let foundations have the experience of being at the mercy of a bureaucracy they don’t control? Take a look and let Transparency Talk know what you think in the space below or directly on the Philamplify site.

-- Janet Camarena

Sharing What We've Learned: Evaluation Spending
May 5, 2014

(Fay Twersky is Director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.)

Twersky-150“We are conducting a scan of foundation practices so that we can inform our own efforts about… Would you be willing to talk with us about your foundation practices?” Fill in the blank. It might be about foundation strategy development, due diligence practices, grant monitoring, grantee relationships, board materials, evaluation practices, organizational learning approaches, and the list goes on. Several times each week, I receive this kind of request from other foundation colleagues or from the consultants they hire. I have also made these calls myself and commissioned many such scans from consultants. The results of these efforts can be useful and informative. They can give us new ideas and useful benchmarks.

The problem is that these scans are rarely shared. There are lots of reasons given for why—“it was just a quick scan,” “it was just for internal purposes,” “It would take too much time to verify all of the information and we just wanted to get a directional sense of the field.” And so forth. All of these are real reasons. I’ve even used a few of them myself over the years. But I’ve come to think that it is a bad habit we have developed in the foundation world and that we all lose out because of this bad habit. We lose the ability for accumulated knowledge, for benchmarking practices, and for catalyzing dialogue about how foundations work and why.

I am trying to break the habit. I am going to try to share the information I gather in the scans I conduct or commission at the Hewlett Foundation, beginning with this brief scan we conducted to benchmark spending on evaluation. Last year, our Board asked how much should we be spending on evaluation. It was a reasonable question. As I was preparing to answer the question, I wanted to draw on the latest benchmarking data for evaluation spending. Only there was none. The last published spending benchmark was several years old, published by the Evaluation Roundtable in 2010 using data from 2009. And the evaluation world was changing rapidly. Many more foundations were building evaluation functions and I wanted more recent data.

So I conducted my own brief scan, contacting colleagues who lead strong evaluation functions and asked them about their spending levels. I incorporated those benchmarks as points of comparison and folded it into additional analysis that we conducted with the Hewlett Foundation’s own data, and prepared a memo to answer our Board’s question. As part of our November 2013 board meeting, we had a discussion about how much we should be spending on evaluation, and the Board endorsed our recommendations.

I am sharing a distillation of this memo. The memo is not perfect. The scan is not comprehensive. My colleagues offered all sorts of caveats about the information they provided. But it was useful for us. And I share it now in case it is useful for others.

-- Fay Twersky

Webinar and podcast on foundation transparency available
May 2, 2014

Opening Up CoverRecently, Glasspockets and GrantCraft held a webinar in partnership with Community Foundations of Canada, on the how and why of increased foundation transparency. Jen Bokoff, director of GrantCraft, and Janet Camarena, director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and head of the Glasspockets effort, outlined highlights from each chapter of the new guide, Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency. Also featured were clips from GrantCraft's podcast mini-series on transparency, which was designed as an online companion to the guide. 

Opening Up encourages foundations to implement transparency strategies, including increased web presence, clarifying and posting grantee guidelines and qualifications, and making internal reports (including performance and program assessments) accessible to the public. Why transparency? According to Opening Up, "Transparency can help foundations build and strengthen relationships that can ultimately help them make a bigger and stronger impact." Strategies, as well as an overview of the guide and portions of the podcast are available in the recording of the webinar here

Be sure to check out the Transparency Chat mini-series on GrantCraft for more transparency tips and strategies.

-- Eliza Smith

About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, the 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, San Francisco Office
    The Foundation Center

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