Transparency Talk

On New Websites and Transparency
March 11, 2015

(James E. Canales is president and trustee of the Barr Foundation, based in Boston.)

Canales%2c Jim - Jan 2015 IWe recently launched a new website at the Barr Foundation. We view this as an important initial step in our efforts to be more transparent and accessible and to create more opportunities to engage with our various stakeholders.

Having initiated the project about four months ago, we opted to move swiftly, not permitting the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We’d like to share here some of the tenets that served us well during our redesign effort, anchored in a commitment to transparency:

A website redesign must be integrated with a communications strategy: For us, the decision to redesign the site is part of a broader digital communications strategy at Barr. It was important that the tactic—a website—did not become confused with the strategy. The website serves the broader strategy. The redesign was also the result of an explicit decision by Barr’s trustees to communicate with greater transparency and to utilize the many communications tools at our disposal to advance our programmatic goals. As a result, this project is not a one-off, one-time investment, but rather an initial step in a larger strategy to embrace communications at Barr.

We were sure to solicit input from outside our own four walls; after all, the website is a tool to share and engage with partners and the public.

It’s vital to engage colleagues across the organization: For a foundation website to be fully informative, engaging, and timely, it’s essential that it is co-developed with staff across the organization and not seen as just a communications team project. Vital to our success is our ability to engage colleagues as both producers of content and contributors to the redesign process. In addition, having the organization’s leadership engaged throughout signals the importance of the website. In the end, the site will succeed in remaining current and relevant only if we all own it.

There is much to learn from others: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Barr’s new website proves that maxim. We looked closely at peers whose sites we valued for their simplicity of design, ease of navigation, clarity of expression, and commitment to transparency. We hired a firm, Threespot, who had produced some of those sites we admired and whose approach to the project aligned with our aspirations. We also consulted Foundation Center’s Glasspockets website, which offered a helpful template in our aspiration to become more transparent and accountable. The various indicators used by Glasspockets explicitly informed our decisions about information and materials to share on the new site. Attentive readers will note that our Glasspockets profile is not complete—that is because we view transparency as part of an ongoing process that will and should evolve over time. Much as we tell our grantees about proposals, the Glasspockets profile marks a beginning rather than an end.

Barr Fdn Logo - Two-LineWe were also sure to solicit input from outside our own four walls; after all, the website is a tool to share and engage with partners and the public. Threespot conducted interviews with Barr stakeholders and area thought leaders to help us pinpoint the attributes we wanted visitors to experience. We also engaged external reviewers during development to make sure we were on the right track. All of this input proved invaluable.

Foundations are notoriously opaque. It was once considered a great sign of openness to publish an annual report that included a list of grants. Fortunately, in this era of digital communications, that has changed.

The redesign is a beginning, not an end: For all the effort that goes into a website redesign, the momentum cannot end at the launch. Indeed, consistent attention to refreshing and renewing content is key to the site’s success. How many of us have gone to a foundation website to discover welcome messages that are more than a year old or blog posts that haven’t been updated in months? That can convey a great deal about how relevant and fresh the site aims to be, so we have realized that the effort we are expending is not for a sprint, but rather for a marathon—a very apt metaphor given our home in Boston!

Foundations are notoriously opaque. It was once considered a great sign of openness to publish an annual report that included a list of grants. Fortunately, in this era of digital communications, that has changed. For one excellent example, I point you to this insightful 2014 blog post from our colleagues at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, entitled “What’s a Foundation Website For?”

As foundations draw on a range of tools to share more about what we are doing and what we are learning, we need to remember that we not only advance understanding of our own enterprises in doing so, but we also become part of a broader movement that helps the public to understand the role of philanthropy as investors in social change. That’s perhaps as important a contribution.

--James E. Canales 

In Pursuit of Better Outcomes Through Transparency-Fueled Adaptability
March 9, 2015

(Don S. Doering is the executive director of the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, a $45M private foundation in Seattle, WA that supports open access to biodiversity data and knowledge.)

DonSDoering Photo Mar 2015sIf you’re a small foundation aiming to greater philanthropic impact, how can transparency be a tool? At JRS, we’re using transparency as a lynchpin to greater philanthropic impact through better project management and grantee relationships: transparency for adaptability rather than accountability. Open access to biodiversity information to benefit nature and society is our foundation mission. The principle that data access enables change applies to philanthropy as well as conservation and aligns well with our foundation strategy and culture. Transparency underlies practices we employ such as customized progress and financial reports, detailed report reviews, amending grant agreements and plans, and maintaining grant web pages.

We’re using transparency as a lynchpin to greater philanthropic impact through better project management and grantee relationships: transparency for adaptability rather than accountability.

From the first steps in grant applications through final grant reports, we try to model and achieve openness and accessibility. An important moment for new grantee relationships is an orientation video-conference that introduces our approach for managing the funded project. We use the call and future communications to promote the continued refinement of thoughtful, qualitative and quantitative indicators that can lighten grantees’ reporting burden and to let us collaboratively identify areas where plans need to change. During the project, we regularly remind project directors that the plan made months or years earlier to win our funds was merely the starting point; they need to execute the best plan today to meet their stated goals, which requires flexibility on their part and on ours. When grantees are transparent about what is going wrong, we’ll help them revise budgets and plans to do what makes sense based on the current context. Rose-colored reporting and rigid grant agreements don’t help anybody and candor keeps the small challenges from becoming big problems. We try to keep a promise to our partners that we’ll match our attention to milestones and metrics with our enthusiasm to adapt to emergent challenges and opportunities.

JRS_LogoTo help generate a fruitful dialogue with grantees, we adjust reporting formats to grantees’ needs with the belief that this creates greater creativity, transparency and trust. Grantees are invited to transform approved grant budgets into their own institution’s accounting codes instead of shoehorning numbers into our template. The forward-looking questions in reports about the upcoming six months carry as much weight as the backward look at the recent six months and are equally informative.  We adopted a grantee’s suggestion that they merely insert any updates right into the relevant sections of their last report. Thus, over time, each report document becomes a running log of learning, adaptation and progress. 

The first rule to making this work: read the grantees’ reports.  Follow-up questions are an opportunity to show we care both about the project and about its people.  With many partners, it takes a report or two to prove that we’ll let them re-allocate funds, refine objectives and activities and adjust the timeline.  Administrators and fundraisers often must be reassured that we are flexible in our rules, but steadfast in our overall commitment. Of 25 grants totaling $3.6M awarded in 2012, all but 3 have been amended or extended.  Our grantees tell us that detailed questions, feedback, and flexibility are a blast of fresh air and motivate good project management.

To help generate a fruitful dialogue with grantees, we adjust reporting formats to grantees’ needs with the belief that this creates greater creativity, transparency and trust.

A component of our approach is that we’ve taken on the challenge of offering a full page of web real-estate to every funded project. The grantees’ web pages feature essential project information as well as goals, updates on key outputs and outcomes, and reflections from JRS.  It can be a tricky balance to describe projects in a way that promotes their work while including enough transparency to raise the stakes for success.  Early indications are promising; we’re at the top of search engine results for funding in our niche and, for many JRS grantees, the first search hit and the direct path to discover their work is through the JRS website. We know that other donors are visiting our project pages.  

In our open calls for proposals in 2012 and 2014, we only funded 5% of applicants. That means a lot of our community wasted effort and walked away from us disappointed. The next frontier of transparency for JRS will be to be clear enough about our funding priorities and decision-making to increase our approval rates to 25% - 33% for open and targeted funding solicitations.  Maintaining an adaptive approach as described here takes a ton of effort and doesn’t always go smoothly.  While transparency as an organizational value is animating our grantee relationships and improving project performance, the transparency and adaptation that we still owe our stakeholders is simply to answer “will your foundation fund me?”

--Don S. Doering

Transparency Chat: Creative Commons Helps to Scale Social Sector Knowledge Building
March 3, 2015

(Timothy Vollmer is the public policy manager at Creative Commons, which recently 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. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Timothy about the work this grant will fund.)

Tvol headshotJanet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work? 

Timothy Vollmer: We’re excited to work with foundations to adopt open licensing policies for their grant-funded content, and even homegrown works.  I think that increased openness can promote foundation effectiveness in different ways. First, by adopting open licensing policies on the outputs of the grants they are giving out, foundations set up the conditions to maximize the impact of their giving. By adopting open licensing policies for the digital outputs of their grantees—this could include reports, original research, educational courses, data, and other sorts of content—foundations are lowering the barriers to re-use of their grant-funded content. This is not a trivial change. Typically when grantees receive funds from a foundation to create something, the grantee is not required to share those materials. Instead, they  remain under “all rights reserved” copyright, and any third party who wants to take advantage of them for use in their own work needs to ask permission from the grantee in order to do so. Under open licensing, permission is granted in advance, allowing re-use for any reason as long as a minimal set of license conditions are met—for example attribution to the author. When open licensing policies are in place, grant-funded content can be more widely distributed and used in new ways. By requiring that foundation grantees contribute grant-funded materials to the commons, it can open doors that would have normally been closed. Grantees can access and use works produced by other grantees, and incorporate already openly licensed works into their own creations to make them better. Open licensing indicates, “I’m open for collaboration.”

By adopting a policy whereby the foundation works more in the open—and provides reports, grant databases, and other materials under open licenses—the philanthropic community can become better coordinated because they’re able to understand what’s being funded and where investment needs to be made.

Second, foundations themselves can begin to share more both within and between themselves. By adopting a policy whereby the foundation works more in the open—and provides reports, grant databases, and other materials under open licenses—the philanthropic community can become better coordinated because they’re able to understand what’s being funded and where investment needs to be made.

JC: Your specific funded project is to create resources and tools to help foundations adopt open licensing policies to enable increased sharing of grantee-produced materials. Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

TV: Our efforts will be two-fold: First, we will develop a foundation-focused website for open licensing and policy information, likely to be dedicated to the open licensing needs of foundation staff and grantees. It’s important to have a set of easy to understand resources for foundations that are looking to adopt open licensing policies. The website will host various types of resources, with a specific focus for foundation staff and foundation grantees. Such things might include licensing how-to guides, best practices for marking/attribution, explanations of the benefits of open licensing, case studies of existing foundation open policies, and a database of intellectual property policy texts from existing foundation practice.

Second, we will conduct outreach to new foundations about open policy and provide open licensing adoption and support. We think that a hands-on approach is desired in order to help foundations effectively implement an open licensing policy and support grantee compliance with the foundation’s openness goals. We plan to offer support services to all relevant foundation staff to ensure a successful adoption of open policies within the foundation. Such things could include legal support with foundation general counsel or legal staff on policy text drafting/adoption on all appropriate grantee documents, technical assistance for foundation web developers or grantees in order to license and mark works correctly, communications and promotional outreach to ensure accurate presentation of open policy details, and strategic discussion with foundation program officers and leadership team regarding how to work with grantees on understanding and complying with the open licensing policies. 

By adopting open licensing policies on the outputs of the grants they are giving out, foundations set up the conditions to maximize the impact of their giving.

JC: Your work centers on creative licensing and sharing; Creative Commons must see a great deal of compelling content all the time. With the implementation of the FSI grant, what sorts of contributions to the social sector do you anticipate from grantees? Are there any specific projects you’ve seen in the past that, because they previously could not be shared with the sector at large, would bring about more innovation and change?

TV: With open licensing policies, there’s massive potential to scale the creative reuse of content. We shouldn’t overlook how inefficient the current system is. This is true even more so in the public sector, where billions of dollars of taxpayer funded materials are not realizing their full potential because those grant recipients are not required to share their creations with the public that paid for them. What if we were able to flip the default from “closed” to “open”? One project we’ve been working on is helping grantees of the Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (yes, it’s a mouthful). The program funds community colleges to create course content for worker retraining. The innovation in this $2 billion federal grant is that the outputs of grantees must be shared online and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license for reuse by anyone, even for commercial purposes. The Department says it want “to ensure that the Federal investment of these funds has as broad an impact as possible and to encourage innovation in the development of new learning materials.” It’s still too early to see how all this content is being used and reused because it’s currently in development, but imagine the possibilities with a huge repository of openly licensed publicly funded educational resources.

Cc logoAnother thing that open licensing enables is reuse of materials in novel, unexpected ways contemplated by the original author. Take for example the PubMed Central CC BY article repository, an open access repository of scientific articles. A small group of Wikipedians developed the Open Access Media Importer, which scrapes PubMed Central CC BY-licensed articles and uploads the audio and video materials (almost 19,000 files thus far) to Wikimedia Commons so that those resources can be reused within Wikipedia articles. The reason this content can be used on Wikipedia is because it is licensed under a liberal license such as CC BY.

JC: Foundations and their grantees are sometimes reluctant to embrace open licensing because they support or manage projects that develop revenue streams for their organizations, and perceive open licensing to mean free.  Can you explain briefly what you mean by open licensing and whether it only encompasses free content?

TV: It’s true that some foundations support projects and ventures that are trying to make money, but I wouldn’t assume that the majority of them operate in this way. When we talk with foundations and other institutions contemplating adopting an open licensing policy, we urge them to match their policy with the overarching goals and missions of the foundation. For many types of foundations funding content like scientific research, educational resources, datasets, and the like—it makes a lot of sense to try to adopt the most liberal policy possible so that the materials have the best chance to be broadly reused and the impact of the foundation funding will be maximized. And foundations are in an optimal position to do this! We’ve already seen the most progressive policy for the funding of scientific research coming out of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which will require CC BY for all articles created with foundation funds.

Of course, for some types of foundation funding, open licensing doesn’t make sense—for example for general operating support or for the funding of salaries. And it should also be noted that foundation that have already passed policies setting CC BY as the default for the outputs of grantees also have written in a safety valve for releasing under a different license. For example, both the Hewlett and Ford Foundation policies say they will entertain exceptions/opt-outs if the grantee can make the case that CC BY doesn’t make sense or can’t be used for a particular publication or educational resource. This seems reasonable, especially as open licensing can be a new or confusing concept to grantees and foundation staff, at least initially.

For many types of foundations funding content like scientific research, educational resources, datasets, and the like—it makes a lot of sense to try to adopt the most liberal policy possible so that the materials have the best chance to be broadly reused and the impact of the foundation funding will be maximized. And foundations are in an optimal position to do this!

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?

TV: First, open licensing is a somewhat new topic for most of the philanthropic world. CC licenses are only 12 years old, and only recently have they been incorporated into the publishing workflows of foundation grants and foundation-created materials. And of course, most program officers at foundations have decent-sized portfolios of projects, and a lot to do! I think most program officers, legal staff, and even foundation leadership would be completely on board with open licensing policies if it could help them achieve their goals and increase the impact of the philanthropic grant making. Of course, anytime you ask them to add on even one more thing to their workload, it can be a big deal. So partly, asking foundations to change how they work is a matter of internal capacity to do so.

But it also has to do with education, and it’s incumbent upon Creative Commons and the “open” community to demonstrate the benefits of open licensing and make its adoption and  implementation as easy as possible. That’s why we want to use the support of this Fund for Shared Insight grantt to develop easy to understand open licensing guides, marking best practices, and useful policy language, and also to provide legal and technical assistance directly to foundations.

The ball is already rolling with foundation open licensing. Just in the last year we’ve seen announcements of new or expanded open policy adoptions at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Let’s keep it up!

--Timothy Vollmer

Transparency Chat: IssueLab Boosts Foundation Effectiveness through Knowledge Sharing
February 25, 2015

(Gabriela Fitz is the director of knowledge management initiatives at IssueLab, a service of Foundation Center, which recently 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. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Gabriela about the work this grant will fund.)

GfitzJanet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between knowledge sharing and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Gabriela Fitz: Thanks. We’re really grateful for the chance to focus some of our time and energy on this effort!

The relationship between knowledge sharing and effectiveness is a really basic one. It’s about our ability to learn from our collective experiences and to build on and improve the work we do as a sector. Foundations have helped to create one of the largest examples of collective insight and intelligence that exists: the thousands upon thousands of evaluations and case studies produced by nonprofit organizations on the front lines of service.

The more willing and able foundations are to share this knowledge, the better able we all are to design and deliver services that make a difference in people’s lives. One of the biggest assets foundations have is the knowledge they fund and produce. When they are intentional about sharing that knowledge as a public good, we all benefit.

One of the biggest assets foundations have is the knowledge they fund and produce. When they are intentional about sharing that knowledge as a public good, we all benefit.

JC:  Your specific funded project aims to enable greater openness and broader sharing of knowledge produced and funded by foundations. Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

GF: That’s right. Our project focuses on educating foundations about what we call “open publishing”, and supporting their efforts to adopt practices that better align with the very reasons they fund and publish research in the first place. Our project will focus on helping foundations of all sizes to overcome their own obstacles to greater openness, whether those obstacles are technical, legal, or cultural.

The project will combine technical elements of a social sector publishing system, such as the roll out of IssueLab’s DOI (digital object identifiers) service, which helps organizations better track readership, and the possible adoption and adaptation of a shared data vocabulary called schema, which makes it easier for search engines and repositories to find social sector research. At the same time we will be providing foundations with some of the behavioral and logistical support they might need to open up, including: the drafting of sample grant agreements that encourage open licensing (work which will be done in partnership with our fellow grantees at creative commons); and the forming of a working group of foundation professionals that can help shape these new approaches and shared practices, while also serving as potential models for what it means - and why it matters - to open up.

IssuelablogoThere are definitely opportunities for Transparency Talk’s audience to participate! We would love it. We are very much at a moment where we are all trying to figure this out, together. So we need this to be a bigger conversation, where we hear from folks about what holds them back and/or what motivates and inspires them to adopt more open publishing practices. Transparency Talk could certainly help us capture this conversation but also help us to share what we are learning along the way!

JC: What sort of technological and educational services will you implement with your FSI grant? How will they widen Issuelab’s reach? Finally, how will they expand your transparency efforts?

GF: I already talked a little about the technological and educational elements of the grant but I want to emphasize how truly committed we are to walking the talk of knowledge sharing. We will be sharing our own lessons learned throughout the two-year grant and will develop educational materials based on what we hear and learn from foundations in this first year.  This grant will be a great chance for us, as a service of  Foundation Center, to be as transparent as we can be about what we are learning, what’s working, and what’s not. We want to be as transparent as we are asking others to be.

We certainly hope that the hands-on work we will be doing in supporting foundations, the writing we will be doing about this effort, and the joint efforts of the working group, will build greater awareness about IssueLab’s service and the importance of open repositories in the sector. But we also hope that it will build greater awareness about IssueLab as a project that really belongs to the sector and which represents our collective intelligence and efforts.

JC: This may be the first time many in our audience are reading about Schema.org and digital object identifiers (DOIs).  Can you tell us a little bit more about them and why they are important to grantmakers?

GF: Sure. Both DOIs and Schema.org are “technical” solutions that are already being broadly used on the Web and which we believe foundations and nonprofits could really benefit from using.

You may not have heard of DOIs but there are hundreds of millions of them in existence today. In fact, it’s next to impossible to find a published article in a peer-reviewed journal that doesn't have a DOI. They provide a way to start moving toward more accurate knowledge management and knowledge sharing metrics by attaching a permanent, unique identifier to a resource that serves as a persistent and singular link. Essentially a DOI acts as a permanent tracking device when attached to objects—documents, web pages, videos, and other online resources—providing a direct link to details about, and access to, the object itself. 

The relationship between knowledge sharing and effectiveness is a really basic one. It’s about our ability to learn from our collective experiences and to build on and improve the work we do as a sector.

Here's an example of how a DOI can be useful. Right now anyone who wants to know how often a report is being viewed or downloaded has to cobble together analytics from every website where that document might be housed; which in the case of a report produced by four or five organizations … and funded by multiple organizations.... Well you get the point: there are a lot of analytics to synthesize. To help the sector benefit from DOIs, starting this Spring IssueLab will begin issuing DOIs for free to any social sector organization that shares its work through IssueLab.

Schema.org is also a widely mechanism that carries great potential for changing the “findability” of research and other resources online. Co-created by Google, Yahoo, Bing!, and Yandex in 2011, Schema.org is essentially a data vocabulary with the primary purpose of better describing all manner of Things on the Internet. We already see it at work when we do a search in Google and detailed search results, extracted from websites themselves, shows up in the right hand sidebar. We want to make sure that social sector resources don’t get left out of this content stream! All it takes to use Schema.org is adding a bit of familiar looking HTML code to the usual code we already include in our Web pages. Doing so can turn a Web page that could only be understood by search technologies in literal terms into, essentially, a database that search engines can mine for semantic meaning. One of the questions our working group will be grappling with is whether we want to augment this vocabulary a bit (like others in the educational sector have done) so that social sector resources carry additional, sector-specific information.

JC:  Given your work on this project is focused on openness, will there be any public-facing elements to it that has the opportunity to reach or include a broad audience of grantmakers or other influencers outside of your networks?

GF: Yes, for sure! We will be writing for blogs and other online venues (hopefully including this one if you’ll have us!) throughout the process. We will be welcoming committed individuals to participate in our working group. And we welcome anyone who is interested in helping their organization to publish and share its research and knowledge more openly to get in touch with us right away. We are eager to work with foundations that want to adopt more open publishing practices, regardless of their size, technical ability, or current level of openness. And of course we welcome any and all grantmakers to freely share their work through IssueLab!

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?

There is no one right way to do openness nor is there one right place to start. Building an infrastructure for openness will require that foundations are active at many points in the same system and in ways that best fit their organizational culture and capacity.

GF: There are several ways in which we plan to address this risk. The first and most important is to allow foundations flexibility, giving them options for how and to what extent they adopt new practices. There is no one right way to do openness nor is there one right place to start. Building an infrastructure for openness will require that foundations are active at many points in the same system and in ways that best fit their organizational culture and capacity. For instance a smaller foundation may adopt a change to its grant agreements whereas a larger and more tech savvy organization would also adopt the use of DOIs.

It is equally important that the solutions and recommendations we are offering can co-exist or be integrated with related initiatives which foundations may have already invested in, e.g. the development of a custom e-library or the funding of a field specific information portal. In order for foundations to adopt shared practices that can benefit us all, these practices also have to work for their own organizations.

When it comes to the topic of knowledge sharing I think it’s too easy to push it to the bottom of the list of priorities. It just doesn’t seem so urgent. But the consequences of our current behaviors are real. Despite our best intentions, the program officer who is considering new areas for investment still can’t do a quick search on what’s already been learned about an issue, problem, or attempted solution. The nonprofit practitioner who is shifting towards an earned income model still can’t easily track down existing models from which to borrow. The evaluator who has been hired to understand the impact of an initiative still has no way to easily review existing evaluations of similar efforts. And the people we as a sector serve, who rely on us to build on and improve the services we deliver, still bear the brunt of our failure to learn from past mistakes and successes.

There are a lot of different things that keep us all from changing – and it’s important to recognize those realities and points of resistance. But it’s also critical that we ask ourselves again and again whether our institutional behaviors are really serving our mission and purpose. By orienting, and re-orienting, ourselves to the change we want to see it follows that we become more change-oriented.

--Gabriela Fitz

Building Your Social Skills
February 18, 2015

(Sally Crowley is the communications director for The John R. Oishei Foundation.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301b7c73f557d970b-150wiLast month, I wrote about some of the benefits of using social media as part of an integrated communications plan for foundations.

This month, I’d like to share a few of the lessons we learned, as well as our process for outlining and implementing different social media strategies, at The John R. Oishei Foundation.

Once I had buy-in from my teammates to dip our toes into “social waters,” we started by taking a look at what other foundations were doing.  We used the defined peer group that we are benchmarked against in the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report. We found that some of our peers were very active in social outlets and others had very minimal presence. Promotion of foundation, grantee and partner events was a very common practice as was the sharing of news/media releases.

Being relative social “newbies,” we kept our objectives simple: increase awareness of the foundation’s goals and activities and support and promote our grantees and partners.

We then defined objectives that supported our foundation’s mission which is to be a catalyst for change to enhance the economic vitality and quality of life for the Buffalo Niagara region through grantmaking, leadership and network building. Being relative social “newbies,” we kept our objectives simple: increase awareness of the foundation’s goals and activities and support and promote our grantees and partners. Next, we fleshed out our strategy. A well-defined strategy is key to earning strong audience engagement.  We used the old-fashioned communications framework-- the 5 W’s: who, where, what, when and why. We identified:

Timing (when): We created a rough target schedule that defines how often we post content. We shoot for at least two postings per week, every week. This is minimal by most standards, but we wanted a goal we knew we could meet given our small staff. It also helps us keep content “post worthy.”

Types of content (what): We found it critical to keep our content manageable and somewhat easy to obtain and share. We work with countless grantees, partners and leaders who host a plethora of events, seminars, luncheons…you name it. So we decided that posts in support of events and community happenings would be at the top of our content list. News about Oishei, other foundations and philanthropy in general were next on our potential content list. Photo albums and links to videos from our grantees and of our own staff and board out in the community fill out most our ongoing needs. When this type of content gets scarce, we proactively look for infographics about philanthropy and positive local happenings such as art openings and seasonal celebrations.

Who within our organization will provide/develop/post content: In order to maintain our brand identity and consistent “voice” we agreed that posting would be limited to me, the communications director, and our knowledge management officer. We are a relatively small, close-knit group, with just nine full-time staffers, so we work very closely together on many major foundation initiatives. Program officers often supply us with input about grantees, news, etc. that we morph into posts.

We found it critical to keep our content manageable and somewhat easy to obtain and share.

Where: We again stuck with basics for now: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. In order to maximize our reach and frequency, we’ve linked our Facebook page so that all of our posts are automatically “tweeted.”  We are considering hiring a social media company to take us to the next level, but hesitate to use our funds for that purpose. Our team is inherently frugal -- we’d rather use the funds for grants, mission-related investing, convening and other efforts that improve our community at this point.

“Why” circles back to the objectives we started with!

Lastly, we review the amazing analytics available from social media outlets to track our progress and tweak our strategies as we go along. We’ve seen that the most viewed posts for us are media releases, published articles and photo albums of on-site grantee tours.

What strategies have worked for you? Are you considering hiring a social media company to handle this type of communications for your organization?

--Sally Crowley

Glasspockets Find: Ford Foundation Makes an Impact with Open Licensing
February 17, 2015

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301bb07dfa3ee970d-150wiAs of February 1st, The Ford Foundation is adopting  an open licensing policy via Creative Commons, so that it can share its grantees’ innovative work, from research reports and evaluation findings, to white papers and web sites. Creative Commons is a nonprofit “that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.” Many foundations produce knowledge in the form of publications and reports, but few take the time to think beyond their own use of that knowledge.   By embracing open licensing, the Ford Foundation is encouraging others to build on its work, which has great potential to increase its impact and reach.

In the press release, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, commented, “Our organization is committed to being as transparent and open as possible, and this philosophy extends to the work we fund and the valuable materials we and our grantees produce. This policy change will help grantees and the public more easily connect with us and build upon our work, ensure our grant dollars go further and are more impactful, and—most importantly—increase our ability to advance social justice worldwide.”

Though, far from common among foundations, Ford isn’t the only foundation to adopt Creative Commons licensing to disseminate grantees’ work—by making this move, it’s joining ranks with Open Society Foundations, David and Lucile Packard, the William and Flora Hewlett and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations. Creative Commons makes a call to action in their press release, urging other foundations to “emulate the ongoing leadership of the Ford Foundation by making open licensing an essential component of their grantmaking strategy.”

What do you think about open licensing? If more foundations made the move to share their grantees’ work, how much more impactful would the philanthropic sector be?

--Eliza Smith

Doing Good Is About to Get Better
February 11, 2015

Maggie Gunther Osborn is president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, an association of grantmakers committed to promoting and supporting effective philanthropy for the public good. This post was originally featured on the Philanthropy News Digest blog.)

Headshot_maggie_osborneAs the president of a regional association, I regularly need to know what funders in my region are supporting and where they are working. Usually, to get that information, my colleagues and I need to make a series of calls, send out emails and surveys, schedule meetings, and do some real sleuthing. And what we continue to end up with is representative of only a small portion of what is really happening around us. Sound familiar?

This lack of data to inform our work is even more problematic when coupled with all the questions and challenges raised by organizations that want to force their interpretation and agendas on that work. Unfortunately, we can't adequately respond because we don't really know who our collective dollars are serving and whether our grantees mirror the communities we are trying to serve. Because we don't have the data that supports the story we want to tell, others continue to write our story for us.

Philanthropy needs to be able to demonstrate its commitment to the public good by showing that its investments in community development, civic engagement, and social innovation reach across demographic and economic barriers.

This is particularly important as we struggle with conversations around equity and justice in our communities and as we prepare for a looming conversation around charitable regulation. Philanthropy needs to be able to demonstrate its commitment to the public good by showing that its investments in community development, civic engagement, and social innovation reach across demographic and economic barriers. Given our special status as a tax-advantaged sector, we need to demonstrate that we are accountable and serve the public good.

In an earlier post, you heard from Joyce White, president of Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington, who shared details of her journey to collect more complete and meaningful data from funders in her region. When the Forum for Regional Associations of Grantmakers and Foundation Center formed a strategic alliance to improve the quality and effectiveness of grantmaking nationwide via data, research, and tools, the successful pilot in Oregon and southwest Washington served as a model for the rest of the country. The first focus of that partnership is a joint campaign to "Get on the Map."

Map LogoBeginning this week, twenty regional associations representing over 2,700 organizations and more than $38 billion in grantmaking will work with funders across the country to harness the data that supports our individual and collective work and enables all of us to tell a more accurate version of the story of philanthropy.

The Get on the Map campaign encourages funders to share grants data using Foundation Center's eReporting standard, which is easy to export in most grants management systems. Organizations that participate by submitting their data electronically will receive a free interactive map of their own grants to use as they wish. In addition, regional associations participating in the campaign will be able to provide, as a member service, access to a map of their members' giving data behind their firewalls. Delivered via Foundation Center's powerful Foundation Maps platform, the maps will provide funders with "anytime access" to timely information about the activities of their peers, regional funding gaps, and potential collaborations.

One of our greatest assets is our ability to learn from each other and work as a community on behalf of the public good. As you have no doubt experienced, that is difficult without good information.

Just imagine: rather than making dozens of calls, you'll be able to sit at your desk and, in just a few clicks, access an interactive mapping tool that gives you current information on who is funding what and where in your community. Now imagine being able to target populations and key elements of the actual grant — not just a list of recipient institutions and organizations. That's right: you'll finally have the data you've long needed to tell a more complete and accurate story of local philanthropy to policy makers and other interested parties. And your members will have access to the information they need to connect with one another, engage in collaborations, and explore public-private partnerships. This is about useful, real-time information that helps connect us all in our work.

Get on the Map launches this week, and I encourage everyone to see for themselves the power of what the campaign can mean for philanthropy. Whether you are a small, unstaffed funder or a large, professionally managed foundation, this is an opportunity you can't afford to pass up. One of our greatest assets is our ability to learn from each other and work as a community on behalf of the public good. As you have no doubt experienced, that is difficult without good information. This is your chance – our chance – to do something about it.

--Maggie Gunther Osborn

Does Your Process Invite ‘Em In or Keep ‘Em Out? Streamlining’s Connection to Diversity and Inclusion
February 5, 2015

(Jessica Bearman works with foundations and other mission-based organizations, focusing on organization development, facilitation, and R&D to help them become more intentional, effective, and responsive to the communities that they serve. She is also known as Dr. Streamline. Follow her on Twitter @jbearwoman. This blog post was originally posted on the Grants Managers Network blog. Project Streamline is a service of the Grants Managers Network focuses on helping grantmakers get the information they need, while reducing the burden of application and reporting practices on nonprofit grantseekers.)

Jessica-bearmanA grantmaker had an inspiring conversation with an African American community leader who was unaffiliated with any particular organization. Based on that conversation, the Program Officer worked with that leader to develop a proposal for submission, which led to a grant. Without the conversation, this community leader would never have applied for a grant, or would have done so in a way that would not have gained attention, and the good work that followed would have languished.

A Program Officer attended an event celebrating nonprofit leaders funded by her foundation, which had articulated a goal to fund organizations serving and led by people of color. Once at the event, she realized that the majority of the nonprofit executives were white and middle-upper class.

I heard these stories last year at a Streamlining Workshop, during a conversation about how communication and application practices can enable or create an invisible barrier to entry. The question on the table was: How is streamlining connected to funders’ goals around diversity and inclusion in grantmaking? Your application practices may keep some groups* out – even when they are efforts and communities that your organization says it wants to fund. What can you do about it?

“Sometimes we don’t ask about the diversity of our grantees because we’re afraid to talk about race. People need to reduce their anxiety and fear around these issues and just ask the question.” -Kelly Brown, director of the D5 Coalition

1. Articulate your intention. There’s power in clearly stating what you’re trying to do. What does success look like? What percentage of funding will go toward diverse organizations? Sometimes organizations say things like: “Caring about diversity and inclusion is in our DNA – we don’t really need to put a number on it.” But this often results in a gradual slide – or sometimes a precipitous drop – away from original intentions as staff change or other compelling issues come up. Putting some numbers to your deeply held values means that you care enough about them to track and monitor your progress. If you have a vague desire to fund across your community, give it more definition.

2. Ask the question. According to Kelly Brown, Director of the D5 Coalition, a time-limited initiative focused on building philanthropy’s diversity, equity, and inclusive practice, “Sometimes we don’t ask about the diversity of our grantees because we’re afraid to talk about race. People need to reduce their anxiety and fear around these issues and just ask the question.” The most helpful question to ask: Are we actually funding the types of organizations we say we want to fund?

2015-01-26-diversity-and-inclusion-610x3303. Get the data. You don’t know if you don’t ask, and you can’t answer if you don’t have some way of getting data about the diversity of your grantees’ staff, board, and constituents. This is a tricky one! After all, laborious data collection is one of the things that flies in the face of streamlining. The D5 Coalition and GuideStar have been working on a repository for standard diversity information, which is now available through guidestar.org. Data can be entered through the GuideStar Exchange and viewed by logging in and searching organization profiles in GuideStar’s database. At the same time, Simplify has been building and launching a tool that will allow grantmakers to pull the standardized demographic data about nonprofits from the GuideStar Exchange. Nonprofits can enter their information at their convenience—once a year or as frequently as information in their organization changes and they choose to update the information—in one format, rather than accommodating idiosyncratic requests from each of their potential funders. You can read all about it in this press release.

4. Check your image. Applicants and community members will probably see your website and materials before they know anything more about your organization. Do the images, language, and examples align with your commitment to funding diverse, minority-led, minority-serving organizations? What happens when they call or email to learn more? Do those interactions mirror your commitment to connecting with diverse organizations?

5. Revisit Process and Requirements. As grantmakers, we have a lot of latitude when it comes to how we solicit applicants and what we require of them. There are good arguments for various approaches to grantmaking, but you should select your process with an eye toward its impact on potential grantees.

    • Do you have an open-RFP process that requires a detailed full proposal? Think about the organizations with the wherewithal to devote several days’ worth of time to an application process that requires the laborious construction of a full proposal in response to an open process or an open RFP. If you have an open RFP, consider ways to invite ideas and conversation first, so that all organizations can be at their best. In-person or phone conversations, Letters of Inquiry, and even brief “tell us your idea” surveys will reduce the barrier to entry for organizations that might need more help or encouragement to tackle the full proposal.
    • On the other hand, open RFP processes have the advantage of being, well, open. Funders that move to invitation-only processes – in which organizations are invited to apply after careful vetting – may be eliminating groups that aren’t yet on their radar screens. If you have an invitation-only process, think about how you are methodically scanning the landscape for new prospective grantees who might not yet have a high profile.
    • Do your basic requirements even make sense for small organizations? Some due-diligence staples, such as audited financial statements, are prohibitively expensive and not legally required for organizations with budgets under $500,000. Other requests, like logic models or strategic plans, may require more capacity than these organizations currently have**. These aren’t bad practices, but they may not be appropriate for the types of organizations you are trying to get in the door. Take a fresh look at your information requirements and ask yourself whether they may be presenting a barrier that you don’t intend.
Streamlining doesn’t mean that you need to have low expectations of the proposals you receive, but it does mean that you should get to know the capacities and constraints of your targeted grantseekers, and make sure that your process allows them to be most successful.

6. Consider Your Expectations. Brilliant leaders, thinkers, and writers work for small organizations just as they do for big ones – there’s nothing inherently *unsophisticated* about proposals you’re likely to get from grassroots organizations. At the same time, there’s probably a lack of time for planning and reflection, a dearth of support for research, very little money for graphic design, and no nice camera for fancy images. There may not be an experienced grant writer on staff who knows the words that ring most brightly in a funder’s ear. Streamlining doesn’t mean that you need to have low expectations of the proposals you receive, but it does mean that you should get to know the capacities and constraints of your targeted grantseekers, and make sure that your process allows them to be most successful. So my answer to that critical question, “How is streamlining connected to funders’ goals around diversity and inclusion in grantmaking?” is that streamlined grantmaking can be a core tool in making sure that all organizations have a fair shot at funding. And streamlining is an important consideration when you add questions about organizational demographics to your requirements. But most of all, ask the question about how your process works for the organizations you want to engage. For me, that’s the most important streamlining habit of all.

*Words like diverse, community-based, grassroots, can be code. In this blog, I’m talking about organizations that focus on low-income and traditionally marginalized communities, often communities of color. The organizations are led by folks who reflect or come from these communities. The organizations themselves are often small-staffed and small-budget.

**Some funders have told me that they “build capacity” in grantseekers by requiring these items. I am all for helping grantees build capacity, but I think that grantmakers should do it in the context of a relationship, in response to an earnest conversation about needs, and in combination with funding – not as a unfunded mandateopportunity in which funding is the dangled, elusive carrot.

--Jessica Bearman

Transparency Chat: GiveWell Promotes Transparency through Open Philanthropy
February 3, 2015

(Eliza Scheffler is a research analyst at GiveWell, which recently 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. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Eliza Scheffler about the work this grant will fund.)

ElizaSchefflerphotoJanet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Eliza Scheffler: Thanks, we're really grateful for the support of the Fund for Shared Insight. We believe philanthropy could be more impactful by becoming more transparent. Very often, key discussions and decisions happen behind closed doors, and it's difficult for outsiders to learn from and productively critique philanthropists' work. We envision a world in which philanthropists increasingly document and share their research, reasoning, results, and mistakes to help each other learn more quickly and serve the world more effectively.

JC: Your specific funded project is The Open Philanthropy Project. Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

GiveWell has expertise in charity research and evaluation, but the funding for our recommended charities has historically come from individual donors.

ES: The motivating question behind this work is, "How can we accomplish as much good as possible with our giving?" Our mission is to give as effectively as we can and share our findings openly so that anyone can build on our work. Through research and grantmaking, we hope to learn how to make philanthropy go especially far in terms of improving lives.

One of the key innovations of the Open Philanthropy Project is that we didn't arrive at focus areas based on any of our particular passions. Rather, we want to improve the world as much as we can, and our level of excitement about an issue depends on how much good we believe we’ll accomplish by working on it. We've conducted dozens of cause investigations in order to answer that question and help us strategically select focus areas. These cause investigations are available on our site, and we hope that they will also serve as a resource for other funders.

Though we continue to investigate new causes, we are also moving forward with some highly promising ones. We've made early grants in criminal justice reform, labor mobility, global health, and other areas.

To stay up to date on this work,  Transparency Talk readers can visit the Open Philanthropy Project website, follow the GiveWell blog, and read about the grants that Good Ventures has made as a part of the Project If you’re a philanthropist who’s interested in co-funding alongside the Open Philanthropy Project, please contact us at info@openphilanthropy.org.

GWLogoJC: GiveWell is partnering with the Good Ventures Foundation on The Open Philanthropy Project. What will Good Ventures bring to the project in addition to GiveWell’s expertise?

ES: GiveWell has expertise in charity research and evaluation, but the funding for our recommended charities has historically come from individual donors. Working with a foundation enables us to consider new types of giving opportunities that may be more suited to an institutional donor. Good Ventures and GiveWell share common core values: global humanitarianism, risk tolerance and patience, action in the face of uncertainty, and a desire, as Good Ventures puts it, "to help humanity thrive."

JC: Given your work on this project is focused on openness, will there be any public-facing elements to it that has the opportunity to reach or include a broad audience of grantmakers or other influencers outside of your networks?

Transparency about our work also facilitates change, because our reasoning is subject to outside critique, and we publicly recognize our mistakes along with our successes. These attitudes and practices keep us always working to improve.

ES: We will continue to make public our research and reasoning, including summaries of information-gathering conversations and our full cause investigations. We will also publish reports about the grants we make and detailed follow up on those projects. GiveWell hosts regular conference calls on our work for the Open Philanthropy Project and publishes recordings and transcripts of those meetings.

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?

ES: GiveWell has been evolving since the day it was founded. We place a lot of importance on being reflective and self-critical. Every year, we publish a retrospective self-evaluation and a plan for the upcoming year. Transparency about our work also facilitates change, because our reasoning is subject to outside critique, and we publicly recognize our mistakes along with our successes. These attitudes and practices keep us always working to improve. One vehicle for change in philanthropy is new foundations, which are continually arising. We see future foundations as a major part of our target audience.

--Eliza Scheffler

Glasspockets Find: 2015 Gates Annual Letter Makes a “Big Bet”
January 29, 2015

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a3fd038242970b-800wiEvery year around this time our attention here at Glasspockets shifts to a super-scale analysis of goals, touchdowns, wagers, and keeping the ball moving down the field.  That’s right—it’s time for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Annual Letter!  The Super Bowl metaphor is an apt one, as this letter makes transparent the thinking and strategies behind the world’s largest philanthropy, so the stakes are high as the letter, in a very visible way, outlines the foundation’s playbook, what it’s tackling, and progress toward its ultimate goals. And the letter comes from the donors themselves, which contributes to breaking down barriers between its global stakeholders and the people behind the philanthropic institution.  

In past letters, one of the things I have particularly appreciated was the Gates’ reflections on lessons learned, which often included both successes and missteps. In many ways, this letter is a departure from that model as instead of using the letter as an opportunity to make the recent past transparent, the letter instead uses the experience and lessons the foundation has been learning to open our eyes to the possible future of the developing world.  

Icon_small_bill_melinda_gates_foundation_logoIt’s a risk to try and see into the future, so it’s fitting that the letter is titled Our Big Bet for the Future, and outlines how they are “doubling down” on the wager that they took when they started the foundation 15 years ago and, based on the progress made so far, making ambitious goals for what is possible 15 years from now. The “Big Bet” specifically is that “the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else's.” And the specific outcomes they predict will result are:

  • Child deaths will go down, and more diseases will be wiped out.
  • Africa will be able to feed itself.
  • Mobile banking will help the poor transform their lives.
  • Better software will revolutionize learning.
This is a reminder that when donors are transparent it helps them influence others and serves to create a movement for change.

The letter also departs from previous ones by acting as a call to action for others to get involved.  This is a reminder that when donors are transparent it helps them influence others and serves to create a movement for change. In fact, the Gates’ letter concludes with directing readers to join the Global Citizen initiative, which offers people the chance to take action to end injustice and inequality in the world.  

“Becoming a global citizen doesn’t mean you have to dedicate your life to helping the poor. It does mean you follow an issue of global importance…You take a few minutes once in a while to learn about the lives of people who are worse off than you are…You’re willing to act on your compassion, whether it’s raising awareness, volunteering your time, or giving a little money.”

Philanthropy is a team sport, and this year’s letter make it clear that the problems and solutions they are working toward are larger than any foundation alone can tackle.  But by making transparent a future in which the end to extreme poverty is within our reach, they are contributing to building a team and a final score for which we all can root.

--Janet Camarena

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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