Transparency Talk

Awareness of self, partners, and field essential to building organization and sector capacity
June 8, 2015

(Eliza Smith is the special projects associate for Glasspockets at Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

ElizaIn an open session held at Foundation Center in San Francisco on April 29, we explored two exciting tools to help those in the social sector get smarter about building organizational and sector capacity—through awareness. As we explored Foundation Center’s data visualization tool, Foundation Maps Professional 2.0, and the GrantCraft guide, Supporting Grantee Capacity: Strengthening Effectiveness Together, a theme emerged: leaders are at their most strategic and are empowered to build capacity when they have a strong awareness of themselves, their partners, and the field.

Awareness is pretty much the name of our game here at Foundation Center. We collect, analyze, and distribute data about philanthropy, providing various audiences—from foundations to budding nonprofits to established grants managers—a firm understanding of what’s going on in the social sector. Foundation Maps Professional 2.0 is kind of like Foundation Center’s version of Google Maps, with social sector-relevant overlays and filters. If you’ve ever wondered who is funding what and where, Foundation Maps has answers for you.

In the grantee-grantmaker relationship, the foundation is king… at least, that’s how it has been. But the folks at Packard are working hard to rectify this power imbalance and create a level playing field for foundations and their beneficiaries. How? It’s all about awareness.

Recently, my sister-in-law asked me if I knew about environmental funders in the Bay Area. Her friend is moving to Oakland and wants to work with an organization that combats climate change. I’ve lived and fundraised in the Bay Area for almost a decade, but I was drawing a blank. So I used Foundation Maps  and quickly came back to my sister-in-law with a long list of environmentally engaged local grantees and funders. Maybe her friend will gravitate towards a foundation on the list, or maybe, after discovering which organizations those funders support, she’ll want to apply to a nonprofit. By the time she gets here, she’ll have a greater awareness of this subsection of Bay Area philanthropy and can wow her interviewers with her knowledge of the field. More importantly, though, once she lands a job at a Bay Area environmental organization, she can use this knowledge to fuel her projects, creating further connections in the field.

At our event, we didn’t spend the whole afternoon geeking out about data. Jen Bokoff went on to talk about the evaluation and power dynamic angles of capacity building grants with Jamaica Maxwell, an organizational effectiveness program officer at the Packard Foundation. Jamaica is well aware of the power she has, holding the proverbial purse strings. Often, she told us, grantees will hang onto her words, taking her most casual suggestions as orders. Once, she recommended a book to a grantee; the following Friday, he had bought the book and was going to read it and report back to her on the most noteworthy chapters. Jamaica wasn’t asking for a book report—she was just making an off-hand recommendation. But in the grantee-grantmaker relationship, the foundation is king… at least, that’s how it has been.

Listening doesn’t just help grantmakers tweak their budgets or understand evaluation results better, it improves the whole grant process. By establishing trust with grantees, grantmakers can push their beneficiaries to get more out of their grants. And grantees can feel more comfortable providing much-needed feedback to their funders.

But the folks at Packard are working hard to rectify this power imbalance and create a level playing field for foundations and their beneficiaries. How? It’s all about awareness. Packard requires all program officers to cultivate a deeper understanding of the profound power they have when they’re working with grantees. Foundation leadership asks program officers to turn the tables. Why not let the grantees talk?

Jamaica said that, for her, learning to listen to her grantees was integral to her work at Packard, and not just during formal, scheduled meetings and site visits. Jamaica said that some of the best grantee–foundation relationship building happens outside the office. She suggested program officers break down power structures by joining grantees on their lunch breaks and at their staff get-togethers (yes, even happy hours!).

Listening doesn’t just help grantmakers tweak their budgets or understand evaluation results better, it improves the whole grant process. By establishing trust with grantees, grantmakers can push their beneficiaries to get more out of their grants. And grantees can feel more comfortable providing much-needed feedback to their funders. Promoting awareness—of the grantee–grantmaker dynamic and of the grantee’s needs—can increase impact sector-wide.

Which brings up an important question: What role do you think awareness plays in the philanthropy sector? For us, it’s all about smarter grantmaking and increased accountability. 

--Eliza Smith

The Clinton Foundation Reveals Its Donors: Should You?
June 1, 2015

(Steven Lawrence is the director of research at Foundation Center.)

[Steven Lawrence]A fundraising foundation has two world famous founders, a global network of generous donors, and a track record of grantmaking success. One of the founders plans to run for higher office, and the foundation makes the decision to be highly transparent about its donor base to ensure that there can be no suspicion of undue influence on the potential candidate. End of story.

Unless your founders happen to be Bill and Hillary Clinton.

In this marketplace, an organization’s major donors and the amounts they’ve contributed may be considered akin to a “trade secret.”

Over the past several weeks, Foundation Center has been approached by numerous reporters asking—in some cases literally—“There’s smoke, right? What about a fire?” Our response has been an immediate “No” followed by an explanation as to why the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation in fact represents a model of transparency when compared to other grantmaking public charities. (Unlike private foundations endowed by a single donor or donor family—think Ford Foundation—grantmaking public charities like the Clinton Foundation sustain their work by raising funds from a variety of donors.)

So, let’s start with why a fundraising organization might not want to share information on its donors—especially its largest donors. The answer: competition. While public benefit organizations are focused on serving the needs of their constituents, they need to raise money to do so and indirectly compete with one another for support. In this marketplace, an organization’s major donors and the amounts they’ve contributed may be considered akin to a “trade secret.”

Of course, organizations lacking former President Clinton as chief fundraiser may feel less confident about the impact of making this type of information public. But the Clinton Foundation should be commended for its donor transparency, particularly in a field in which anonymous giving is often the norm.

Does it have to be this way? Clearly, the Clinton Foundation believes that its work will not come to a halt because its donors have been voluntarily made public. And the high profile of some of these donors may well encourage their well-heeled peers to also consider supporting the foundation. Of course, organizations lacking former President Clinton as chief fundraiser may feel less confident about the impact of making this type of information public. But the Clinton Foundation should be commended for its donor transparency, particularly in a field in which anonymous giving is often the norm.

And this leads to another question: why do some donors choose anonymity? It’s important to consider in any discussion of disclosing donors that not every donor wants to be recognized for their generosity. Some donors may have personal or religious beliefs that announcing their gifts is a form of unseemly self-aggrandizement. Others may come from cultural contexts where announcing donations is considered distasteful. And some donors live in countries where any show of wealth, including their generosity to others, could increase the threat of kidnapping and harm for themselves and their families.

These valid concerns notwithstanding, the digital age is bringing ever more voluntary and involuntary transparency to all aspects of our lives. Public benefit organizations and their donors would be well served by considering how they can be models of transparency who take the lead in telling their own stories, rather than having them told by others. The Clinton Foundation may be on to something. 

--Steven Lawrence

Funder's Forum: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
May 26, 2015

(Funder's Forum interviews of foundation leaders by Foundation Center staff are featured in our monthly E-Updates for Grantmakers newsletter. These interviews enable funders to exchange ideas and connect with their peers to increase their effectiveness. If you are interested in learning more about Funder's Forum, please contact R. Nancy Albilal at (212) 807-3624, or rna@foundationcenter.org.)

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation honors the commitment to philanthropy and ethos established by its founders through its work in education, global development and population, conservation and energy, performing arts, philanthropy, and more. Foundation Center's Vice President for Development, Nancy Albilal, asked Larry Kramer, the foundation's president:

QuestionWhat contributed to your decision to make transparency a priority at Hewlett, and what results has your increased openness produced?

To other funders who ask why they should be transparent, my response is: Why shouldn't you be?

“Having come from outside philanthropy, my first task was to learn. That proved difficult when I discovered how hard it was to find information, even about my own organization. I couldn't find what I was looking for on the Hewlett site, or on most other foundations' websites for that matter. It was while following up to understand why this was so difficult that I first realized how transparency was an issue. I had come to Hewlett from academia, a world in which transparency is taken for granted, so I was surprised to discover it was even a question, much less something that needed a lot of emphasis.

Wfhflogo“I approached it by issuing a challenge to the staff. "Start by assuming that we are going to make 100 percent of everything we do publicly available," I said. "Now go back through and tell me if there are good reasons not to disclose something. If so, we'll consider holding it back. But otherwise, we should share."

I approached transparency by issuing a challenge to the staff. "Start by assuming that we are going to make 100 percent of everything we do publicly available," I said. "Tell me if there are good reasons not to disclose something. If so, we'll consider holding it back. But otherwise, we should share."

“It's important to note that Hewlett never had a practice of withholding information; we always provided anything we were asked for. We simply had not been proactive about it and so didn't have procedures in place to ensure that everything possible would be made available publicly. A lot of work produced for internal use — things like the grant descriptions we prepare for the board, or memoranda and summaries explaining our programs, or evaluations of strategies — were not as a rule being made public. Occasionally, either because someone asked or because we really wanted to raise awareness regarding a particular issue, we would share something. For the most part, however, we just weren't reaching out. Now we are.

“The reasons to do so are obvious. Both potential grantees and other funders need to know what we're doing so they can build on our successes and learn from our failures. To the extent one deems it important to collaborate — and I deem it very important — people need to know what we are doing (and vice versa) so we can find each other. Finally, and this is more unique to the foundation world, the fact that we are formally unaccountable makes it imperative to share what we are doing and invite people who may be affected by it to tell us what they think.

“It sounds simple, but making an organization transparent is actually pretty complicated, and our effort is still a work in progress. Identifying what to make public turned out to be the easy part. The next step is to create processes to make that happen, which is harder than you think. And after that, we still need to build a website that enables people easily to find what we're sharing. There is already a lot more on our website than in the past, but we have a lot of work still to do to make sure everything is fully accessible.

“We have also extended the general notion of openness to our grantees. When we support a project that results in the creation of some kind of work or data, we're requiring that, as a condition of the grant, the material be open-licensed and made easily available on a public website whenever possible.

Occasionally, either because someone asked or because we really wanted to raise awareness regarding a particular issue, we would share something. For the most part, however, we just weren't reaching out. Now we are.

“Already, some of the information we've shared has produced reactions. We recently wrote about our reasons for ending a strategy called the Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative (NMI), which in turn generated a quite productive public debate. NMI was intended to help donors give more effectively by providing information about which nonprofits were performing well and which were not, thus creating a competitive marketplace for funding. Unfortunately, it didn't work as we had hoped. Our grantees — all high performing organizations themselves — did exactly what we asked, but donors did not respond as we had hoped and assumed. The ensuing public debate drew a lot of attention to the general question of how to encourage donors to base their giving on the effectiveness of the organizations they're supporting. At some point, members of the staff commented wryly about how this increased transparency stuff was time-consuming. I replied that we need to view this as part of our regular work: it's time well spent to better convey our message and what we're learning.

“To other funders who ask why they should be transparent, my response is: Why shouldn't you be? It can't be that you're afraid of criticism because, first, you're unaccountable, and, second, criticism is often useful. Not always, of course, but you'll never know unless and until you invite it. Take care not to unfairly hurt others while being transparent, of course, but once you've done that, there's no reason not to share.”

--Nancy Albilal

Transparency Tips: Foundation By-Laws, In-Laws, and Outlaws
May 20, 2015

(Mary Gregory is vice president and director of program at Pacific Foundation Services, a San Francisco Bay Area-based company that provides customized and strategic management services to private foundations.)

Mary-Gregory-150As a philanthropic advisor who has a portfolio of six family foundations, I have become a great fan of foundation by-laws, and in particular, of well written by-laws.  So I was particularly pleased to discover that by-laws are included on Glasspockets, since they tend to be either misunderstood or only considered at the founding stage and then forgotten. 

So, what are by-laws and why do they matter?  They are the basic operating instructions for any nonprofit organization including all foundations.  By-laws define an organization and how it does its business: who may serve on the board (for instance, are in-laws eligible or only descendants?), how many people sit on the board and their terms of service, what officers need to be elected and how often and what their roles are.  By-laws can tell you when and how members of the board can be removed (“outlaws”?). They specify how decisions are made, and they even inform trustees about how they can change the by-laws in the future.

Recently the president of one of our client foundations said to me, “We want to change our by-laws to adapt to new leadership by the next generation. What should we include?”

But, true to the old saying, “You’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen ONE foundation,” there can be many varieties of by-laws.  I work for a small company that manages 23 family foundations, and recently the president of one of our client foundations said to me, “We want to change our by-laws to adapt to new leadership by the next generation. What should we include?” I was able to send them straight to Glasspockets to view the sample by-laws that are available through the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” feature.  I suggested that foundations that have smaller asset sizes might be the best place to look, since those would likely be family foundations and not independent foundations, and thus more relevant to the vision these trustees have for their own small family foundation.  And I knew that the information that the trustees would find on Glasspockets had been freely placed there by foundations willing to share their experience and their ideas (including three of the six foundations with which I work directly).

Whether you are creating a first set of by-laws for a new foundation, or you are re-visiting by-laws to reflect current circumstances, looking at examples may help you think about aspects of stewarding a foundation that you haven’t considered before:

  • Should trustees be compensated?
  • What standing committees should there be?
  • Can decisions be made without a meeting, and if so, how?
  • What are the duties of each officer?
  • What happens in the future if a successive generation wants to partition the foundation?
  • When and where should the annual meeting be held?
True to the old saying, “You’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen ONE foundation,” there can be many varieties of by-laws.

Some by-laws are more detailed than others, so although you can learn a great deal from examples that relate to other foundations, it is always a good idea to have a lawyer look at your by-laws in order to make sure that they are complete.  Once you have your by-laws (and it is a good idea to read them every year to make sure that they still seem relevant to the current trustees), consider adding them to the growing knowledge base on Glasspockets.  Although by-laws may communicate some of the priorities of a family, they are not personal documents, and your example may help other foundations in the future. 

Foundations often think that they need to be highly original, but I would urge you to use your imagination for developing new ways to collaborate to solve social problems, not for creating new phrasing of by-laws. Use Glasspockets as the great resource it is, and contribute your information to Glasspockets to make it even more useful.

--Mary Gregory

Capacity Building Session Livestream Available for Viewing
May 19, 2015

On April 29, we held a session at our San Francisco office on Capacity Building and Foundation Maps Professional 2.0. Our presenters included Foundation Center’s own Lisa Philp, vice president for strategic philanthropy, and Jen Bokoff, director of GrantCraft. Lisa gave a demo of Foundation Maps, taking us on a cross-country road trip in philanthropy. Jen presented on GrantCraft’s most recent publication, Supporting Grantee Capacity: Strengthening Effectiveness Together. She also spoke with Jamaica Maxwell, a program officer at the Packard Foundation about best practices in capacity building grantmaking.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend the session in person or as part of our virtual audience--even if you did join us and you want to rewatch it--we’ve got you covered. We recorded and edited the session, which you can view here

Are foundations using feedback loops? The Fund for Shared Insight has answers
May 14, 2015

(Eliza Smith is the special projects associate at Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiThe Fund for Shared Insight (FSI) is all about opening up philanthropy. You might remember, we published blog posts earlier this year from its 2015 openness grantees--organizations that are working hard at making our sector more transparent. But FSI isn’t just encouraging their beneficiaries to promote openness: they aim to walk the talk themselves. Recently, they published a report, Feedback Loops and Openness: A Snapshot of the Field that looks at how (and if) foundations are using beneficiary feedback to improve their grantmaking.

FSI teamed up with ORS Impact, an evaluation firm, to do a landscape analysis across the philanthropy sector.  ORS’ current analysis focused on openness and beneficiary feedback loops and here is a summary of the key findings:

  • Foundations understand conceptually what beneficiary feedback loops mean, but few have strong internal practices for intentionally collecting and putting to use feedback that comes from "the people they seek to help";
  • The three most common barriers to implementing feedback loops into foundation practice are organizational capacity, organizational culture and technical challenges;
  • Prior to the launch of Fund for Shared Insight, ORS Impact found some instances of feedback-focused content in a broad based review of sector-related blogs, reports and publications but there is definite room for more voices discussing this work;
  • The two most common barriers to foundation openness are organizational culture, including a fear of sharing failures, followed by time and resources.

FSI_logoFSI reviewed the evaluation findings, and found that “while the baseline report indicates that nonprofits and foundations seem to be talking about feedback loops, there isn’t a widespread understanding of how to do it well, how to integrate it into practice, and how to take action based on the feedback.”

As FSI found, it can be scary for foundations to adopt a culture of openness. Sharing anecdotes about positive impact and success is always much easier since it feels good to share news when things are going well. But broadcasting defeats, failures, and tough lessons learned can be intimidating and gives many foundation leaders pause. But with FSI’s help, we’re excited to see a greater culture of willingness and courage develop around transparency and accountability. 

--Eliza Smith

“Get on the Map”: Technology Fostering Collaboration and Shared Knowledge
May 4, 2015

(Sara Davis is the director of grants management at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California. She can be reach at sdavis@hewlett.org or on Twitter @SaraLeeeDeee.)

Sara will continue the conversation about foundations and collaboration on May 13, in the Visualizing the Past, Present, and Future of California Philanthropy session at our San Francisco office. If you can't attend in person, you can join virtually via live stream.

SaradavisWhy don’t Foundations collaborate more? Why isn’t philanthropy more “we’re all in this together” and less “we’ll do it our own way”? I’ve heard these questions and discussed possible answers many times during my years working in our sector. The literature pointing to the need for, and positive results arising from, effective collaboration is abundant. Yet too often, funder collaboration still remains a hope rather than a reality, and we default to going it alone. Things are beginning to shift, however, and I'm optimistic that a “collaboration-first” mindset can take hold. Over time, we’ve seen collaboration, sharing, and transparency increase in philanthropic practice. One thing fueling this shift, among many other factors, is the way technology makes sharing and interconnection more attainable, and helps swiftly cut through barriers to collaboration.

Over time, we’ve seen collaboration, sharing, and transparency increase in philanthropic practice. One thing fueling this shift is the way technology makes sharing and interconnection more attainable.

Technology’s capacity to enable collaboration makes me excited about the nationwide campaign for philanthropic organizations to “Get on the Map” and participate in collective data sharing and visualization about our grantmaking. Once we've all shared our grant data through the Foundation Center's eReporting Program and it pushes the data to the Foundation Maps tool, not only will we be able to see the flow of philanthropic dollars within the state’s social sector, we’ll also be able to put that information to work. With this new tool, we’ll finally be able to answer within a reasonable time frame some key questions that have thus far eluded us: who else funds a specific organization, what other organizations are doing, where gaps exist, and how our work fits within the full philanthropic context for our regions. This technology will give each of us the ability to see our work in a broader context, explore giving trends over time, reveal connections, see gaps, and discover new partners. It will make collaboration and impact more possible and more visible—things we all want.

As the Director of Grants Management at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, I’ve experienced first-hand the power that high-quality, timely data can bring to improve decision-making, monitoring, and overall grant practice. We frequently use and discuss data internally about our own grant practice—a good example is the project our President, Larry Kramer, described in his Annual Letter last year. Because data can inform and create change, sharing and availability of relevant data is a key strategic goal for many of our programs. The Hewlett Foundation was an inaugural participant in the Reporting Commitment, managed by the Foundation Center, and we participate in the International Aid Transparency Initiative by sharing our data. We do these things because we know that data can fuel insight and support greater impact, not only for Hewlett but for all of us. Sharing our grantmaking data as part of the “Get on the Map” campaign is just the logical next step in acting on this knowledge.

This technology will give each of us the ability to see our work in a broader context. It will make collaboration and impact more possible and more visible—things we all want.

The “Get on the Map” campaign is itself an example of effective collaboration in action. The campaign is a joint effort led by the regional associations across the country in partnership with the Foundation Center and the Forum for Regional Association of Grantmakers.  As a member of the committee working on the California-wide effort through our regional associations - Northern California Grantmakers, Southern California Grantmakers and San Diego Grantmakers and supported by the James Irvine Foundation- I’ve already experienced effective collaboration across the state of California. As a supporter of the campaign it’s been heartening to see, and support, a true spirit of excitement, encouragement, and optimism for this project across the state. It’s a great example of how building in infrastructure together makes better grantmaking and more sharing possible. The campaign tagline, “Doing Good, Done Better,” rings true for me, and I encourage all of us in our various regions to participate and "Get on the Map." We can do better together.

--Sara Davis

TAG and GMN: State of foundation transparency may simply be due to lack of technological know-how
April 30, 2015

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiThe Technology Affinity Group (TAG) and the Grant Makers Network (GMN) partnered to create a report that assesses how well foundations are using technology. Lisa Pool, executive director of TAG found that, "While many foundations are very progressive with respect to their grantmaking programs, they are not nearly as forward-thinking with respect to the strategic use of technology in their business practices.”

Since online information resources are the first place people look these days when they want to learn more about an issue or institution, clearly the weaknesses in technology know-how are slowing the adoption of tools that could lead to greater foundation transparency. 

Though this puts some foundations at a transparency disadvantage, it doesn’t have to.  Glasspockets and Foundation Center have plenty of resources designed to help usher foundations into the digital age. Our Foundation Websites service helps foundations build websites for free. The hGrant Format is a cloud-based grants data sharing platform. Transparency 2.0 shows which foundations are using which social media and online communications tools, from Vimeo and Twitter, to RSS Grants Feed and Wiki. The Who Has Glass Pockets? application checklist gives a list of elements foundations should consider adding to their websites, including audited financial statements and governance policies and information. 

--Eliza Smith

The Purpose of a Foundation's Website
April 27, 2015

(Jay Genske is the director of digital, communications at The Rockefeller Foundation. Marc Mertens is the CEO of A Hundred Years. This post originally appeared on The Rockefeller Foundation's blog.)  


What’s a foundation website for?

””

Jay Genske

””

Marc Mertens

We aren’t the only ones who have asked this question. After all, foundations are not in the business of raising money or selling products or services. So what good can a foundation website do?

The Rockefeller Foundation has over one hundred years of experience promoting the well-being of humanity around the world, we have a significant amount of knowledge that can be leveraged to influence every sector to help us achieve our mission. We also recognize digital media’s transformative power to find and accelerate new ideas and networks to solve some of the world’s greatest social problems.

To reimagine the purpose of the Foundation’s website, we knew we needed to find a partner to step outside a traditional vendor relationship. This would mean becoming an extension of each other’s team, and establishing a deeply collaborative, transparent and open process. The Foundation’s partnership with A Hundred Years resulted in a new depth of insight and understanding of the Foundation’s knowledge, content and systems-level approach to philanthropy. Dozens of staff, grantees, and partners helped to co-design the experience and purpose of the site, which we’re thrilled to launch today.

Here’s a look at what you’ll find:

What solutions are hiding in our PDFs?

A few months ago, the World Bank published a noble and important report noting that nearly 50 percent of their policy reports have the goal to inform and influence the social impact sector, yet more than 31 percent of these reports are never downloaded, and 87 percent are never cited. Like so many organizations, the Foundation produces a number of informal and formal reports, publications, blog posts, stories from the field, thoughts shared on social media, and even drafts of “in-process” work. In a busy and crowded Internet, how can we be sure that our audience is discovering the information they need to make important business and policy decisions?

Rockefeller3

You might call this knowledge management in the world of digital media, and definitely a work in progress. To start, we’ve pulled out the key facts and figures on each initiative page, paired with recent tweets from our grantees and partners. The numbers represent statistically important numbers surrounding the work, such as a staggering fact about the problem we’re trying to solve, or a key learning from our research that could be leveraged by others. We’ve also affixed a topical and geographical tagging structure to all knowledge to enable dozens of entry points to our learning. Finally, we’ve installed a best-in-class Search tool to scan and surface intelligence, hopefully providing a little serendipity along the way.

Rockefeller11

Building on the success of our blog, the new Insights and Ideas section surfaces the thoughts and theories of some of the world’s brightest and boldest social innovators. We’ve posed questions around topics the Foundation is investing in–such as building urban resilience or advancing health–and curated ideas and options from our network of staff, grantees, and partners. These ideas are at once diverse and interrelated, and we believe they’ll spark new thinking and connections in our global audience.

The Foundation’s grantees are tackling pressing problems, and they have the stories and knowledge to prove it. We want the website to be a medium and mouthpiece that promotes their work to the important funders, influencers, and policy-makers who visit our site. Each grantee now has their own page, showcasing the publications, reports, and storyline of our shared journey.

Rockefeller2

Finally, a new section on the Foundation’s strategic approach to philanthropy. This section illustrates our broad view of systems and how we identify spaces where there is momentum for innovation that makes change likely to take hold. We also to seek to intervene where our “risk capital” can usher in new actors and larger flows of capital that have a shared interest in solving these problems.

Just like the Foundation, our website will continue to evolve and refocus. So take a look today and let us know of any feedback in the comments below.

--Jay Genske and Marc Mertens

True Board Engagement: How openness and access to board conversations has changed Creating the Future
April 23, 2015

(Karl Wilding is the director of public policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the umbrella body for charities and the volunteer movement in England. Justin Pollock the principal and founder of Orgforward, a community-focused consultancy working with organizations and their leadership to build the capacity to sustain thriving communities. Both Karl and Justin are Creating the Future board members.)

””

Karl Wilding

””

Justin Pollock

It’s a widely held maxim that sunlight, read as transparency and openness for the purpose of this post, is the best disinfectant. While true, we feel this view has an unfortunate undertone of emphasising the negative: greater transparency is needed in order to prevent and/or catch wrongdoing. It focuses attention on what we hope to avoid rather than what we hope is possible.

At Creating the Future, rather than thinking of sunlight as that thing that disinfects, we embrace the photosynthetic view that letting the light in allows for growth and transformation. We recognize our role in supporting thriving communities and believe that the community should have a role in creating our success at all levels of the organization. Though Creating the Future is not a grantmaking foundation, we believe that all organizations, including foundations, gain by opening up to and actively engaging the communities we are passionate about and that we profess we serve.

In a conversation about boards and governance recently, someone remarked to one of us that “transparency can be transformational,” and it’s this sort of thinking that powers Creating the Future’s approach to leadership, trusteeship, and governance. Beyond just being transparent – allowing people to see us, we are open – people can actually interact with us and influence our growth in real time.  This approach to governance is open, not just in the sense of visibility, but open to challenge, praise, and, since board members live stream from various places around the world, the occasional ribbing for the state of our living rooms and barking dogs (how much more “real life” can it get than that?).

We use Twitter, monitoring our hashtag during the meeting, to encourage people to share their curiosity and brilliance so we can respond in real time to the ideas that break us out of the group-think commonly found when people of like passions gather.

All well and good in theory. But what does this really look like in practice and what does it make possible for us as trustees and anyone else interested in the work of the organization we serve?

In practice, our board meetings are entirely open, end to end. We leverage Creating the Future’s presence online. Prior to every monthly board meeting, our board chair posts a blog providing the context and agenda for our upcoming meeting, our operational leaders post video progress reports, and you can find a link to our upcoming meeting which are all live-broadcast using Google Hangouts.

We use Twitter, monitoring our hashtag during the meeting, to encourage people to share their curiosity and brilliance so we can respond in real time to the ideas that break us out of the group-think commonly found when people of like passions gather. But it doesn’t stop there: most board meetings, we invite a guest to take part in the broadcast in the anticipation that they might just lead us to change the questions that we’re asking ourselves. And if you missed something and want to know what happened next, or would like to check back on something we did, we’re in plain sight - all the meetings are archived and available on the website.

And  anyone can see this. In fact, the world gets to see it at the same time as we can, and it’s the internet, so they can share their opinions and thoughts freely. Now, we understand that this might be heresy to a foundation, in which board meetings often include sensitive topics such as grantee deliberations, however, board meetings also include strategy, planning, and policy discussions, which are exactly the conversations that thrive at Creating the Future through this open model. Thankfully the web makes it easy to segment out each part.

You might be wondering what is the value of this approach and how does it ultimately help us?What does all this effort make possible?

For us as board members, the most powerful thing about openness is that it fosters conversations where there is nothing to hide and therefore nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed by (we are sure that there is some social science that helps explain this – but we just feel it in our bones).

At the top of our list: better conversations that lead to better decisions. We think this might be one of the most compelling reasons for foundations to consider, since foundations are in the business of decision-making and idea generation. What does that look like? We actually dialog with one another, asking better informed questions, hearing different perspectives and reflections, getting positive affirmation, and gaining more confidence in the decisions we make. The last bit is important: we’re all human, taking on leadership as a trustee isn’t always easy, so it’s nice to get a bit of praise for a decision we’ve made.

For us as board members, the most powerful thing about openness is that it fosters conversations where there is nothing to hide and therefore nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed by (we are sure that there is some social science that helps explain this – but we just feel it in our bones). Any decision we make has been vetted and thought through. The assumptions that can often go unidentified when making decisions are all brought into the open so that we, in our leadership roles, deeply understand the implications and rationale behind the actions and decisions we make. Personally, we love this aspect as it encourages our own growth and strengthens our resolve around the beliefs and values we hold.

Next is the thing we often hear is missing - better engagement. We’re all in one way or another seeking to better engage board members, beneficiaries, and stakeholders. For us, this is at the foundation of our work. We know we are “better together” when we can draw on the abundant wisdom that is out there. So involving stakeholders and other interested people in the leadership and governance of Creating the Future is pretty much saying to them that they are as important as us – it’s not about the people in the room, but rather about the ideas, plans, and actions that result from the gathering.

CreatingtheFutureLogoB&W492x104Finally, we find openness raises trust – among each other as trustees, with the community that supports us, and with the staff that work tirelessly to facilitate the execution of our strategy. Everyone has an opportunity to shape decisions and everyone can see we’re just ordinary people, not some nonprofit rock stars or even mysterious alchemists who work in dark smoky rooms. And we reckon ultimately that engagement and trust build capacity: people want to join us on the journey because they realize they can be part of it in meaningful ways.

The skeptics at this point are probably wondering: what could go wrong? What about sensitive issues, confidentiality, or errant voices? This is straightforward: there’s always going to be stuff we want to think or talk about without the world watching, and for that we allow for closed sessions. And we  do this transparently as well, acknowledging the rationale each time it is needed. We think people appreciate us for being honest and up front about that. And for those  who may fear negative comments or hijacked conversations, all we can say is that it just doesn’t happen. Rather than taking us in a direction we don’t want to go, external voices elucidate new paths that we excitedly travel down and may not have seen because of the inherent nature of “group think.”

We honestly have not experienced anything scary: openness has become mundane, with many of us shedding the nervousness that comes from thinking about the fact that the world could be watching. This is a good thing, unless you are offended by seeing an untidy living room or a person eating their lunch.

Things have occasionally gone wrong: the technology is the obvious candidate, with broadband connections dropping out. But this is part of the warp and weave of normal life, and we’ve found people stick with us. In fact, the biggest risk is that no one cares, no one’s watching. And if that’s the case you may well have some bigger issues to contend with, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Our aim is to tip the scales from the common practice of making openness rare and exclusivity common (think of most every board meeting you’ve been to), to making exclusivity that rare bird that is hard to find. In fact, we honestly have not experienced anything scary: openness has become mundane, with many of us shedding the nervousness that comes from thinking about the fact that the world could be watching. This is a good thing, unless you are offended by seeing an untidy living room or a person eating their lunch.

Openness is our “not-so-secret sauce.” Maybe it’s just the people around the virtual table, maybe it’s keeping the meetings open to guests, or just the sense that we’re visible, but the meetings are highly enjoyable and stimulating; plus, we get business done. We think opening up gives boards more vitality, richer conversations, and better engagement.  And we reckon fear of failure, of “getting found out,” is the biggest barrier to opening up. So foundations: be brave, join us for one of our board meetings to see how we roll, then hopefully try this format for yourself. You have nothing to lose but your broadband connection. 

--Karl Wilding and Justin Pollock 

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

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

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

Categories