Transparency Talk

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

Losing the Social Anxiety
January 26, 2015

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

Sally4x6When I first suggested to our organization that we enter the social media scene a few years ago, my colleagues and I shared anxiety about it.  

Would it be worth our time to tweet? Will we open ourselves up to criticism or attack? How could we use the social outlets effectively?  

I reminded myself and my team of two of our strategic goals: “to better communicate our work and role to the community” and “to serve as a leader, convener and network builder.”

I did not want us to be thinking at the “tactical level,” which can be easy to do when it comes to communications. After serving on nonprofit boards and spending many years as a communications consultant, I was used to pulling folks out of the “tactical basement.” My peers and I have a name for the often-requested tactic-without-objective. We call it a “COULDN’TCHA JUST.”

“COULDN’TCHA JUST write a press release? COULDN’TCHA JUST do a flyer? Or a billboard?”  

Social media allows us to inexpensively promote not just our own events, activities, and programs, but also those of our grantees and community partners.

The answer is NO. Wildly created tactical communications can actually be effective, but it is RARE and based upon, pretty much, pure luck.

I am a firm believer that effective marketing communications stem from clearly defined goals and a well-thought-out communications plan. One of the first steps in developing a yearly communications plan is writing a situation analysis that includes an environmental scan, or a review of the “market,” in which one looks for best practices, benchmarks, and the newest trends.

In our scan, we found that social media has many benefits for foundations. The reach is amazing, and the promotional costs are minimal when compared to traditional paid media. The numbers we found were astounding...

  • 72% of all internet users are active on social media

  • 18-29 year olds average 89% usage with 30-49 year olds at 72%

  • 60% of 50-60 year olds and 43% of age 65+ plus are active

  • Facebook has over 1.15 billion users, with 23% logging in at least 5 times per day

  • Twitter has over 550 million registered users, 215 million of which are active

  • Pinterest has 20 million active monthly users

  • Instagram counts 150 million active monthly users

  • LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr, Vine, Slideshare and others also continue to grow in popularity

In addition, most social media is easy to track, so we can see what topics our audiences are most interested in, and what types of content and media are most effective.

Social media allows us to inexpensively promote not just our own events, activities, and programs, but also those of our grantees and community partners.

We’re reaching out to our audiences rather than simply building a website where we hope “they will come.”

Plus, we’ve created a two-way dialogue, one where anyone interested in our work and/or our community can comment and share a photo, video, or link. We’re reaching out to our audiences rather than simply building a website where we hope “they will come.” We’re using social media to drive folks to our website, maximizing our substantial investment in a content-management-driven, open source, cutting-edge website.

However, the use of social media, and any communications tactic, is most effective when used as part of a strategic, integrated, thoughtful communications plan.

If you haven't taken the "social" plunge, and it’s a tactic that comes out of your long-term plan in support of your mission, then it’s time to take the leap!

 --Sally Crowley

Transparency Chat: Exponent Philanthropy Shares Foundation Successes and Failures
January 21, 2015

Jeanne Metzger headshot September 2014Jeanne Metzger is the chief development and marketing officer at Exponent Philanthropy, 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 Jeanne Metzger about the work this grant will fund.

Janet 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?

Jeanne Metzger: We are the largest philanthropic support membership organization representing approximately 2,300 foundations and other funders who operate with few or no staff. Our mission is to empower philanthropists to leverage their resources and amplify their impact. We achieve this mission through a strategic framework that defines our activities into three areas/goals: Guide, Connect, and Champion. 

In philanthropy, going public refers to intentionally engaging publicly with the communities, causes, and conversations that matter to you and your mission. Going public for a philanthropist is also about raising and leveraging capital – philanthropic capital – or the connections, expertise, influence, and dollars that allow funders to achieve their charitable missions.

By creating a safe place for grantmakers to share information and learn from one another, they report back to us that they are more effective and fulfilled by their philanthropy. We are hoping that by getting some of our member stories on video through the Fund for Shared Insight grant we will be able to improve the effectiveness of more grantmakers.

Throughout our 18 year history (originally as the Association of Small Foundations and now as Exponent Philanthropy) we have found that our members learn a tremendous amount from one another. By creating a safe place for them to share information and learn from one another, they report back to us that they are more effective and fulfilled by their philanthropy. We are hoping that by getting some of our member stories on video through the Fund for Shared Insight grant we will be able to improve the effectiveness of more grantmakers.

JC: Since your specific funded project is to produce videos 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?

JM: In 2015, we will be producing a series of videos that capture stories from Exponent Philanthropy members about lessons learned from their grantmaking. We will be encouraging our participants to share lessons learned through successes and failures.  The videos will all be posted to our website and we welcome other organizations to link to them and help spread the word so that the largest community of funders possible can benefit from them. We hope these videos will help to inspire dialogue on platforms such as Transparency Talks. This dialogue will lead to shared learning.

Exponent-logoJC: Greater openness in philanthropy can encompass a lot of elements--why did you choose to tackle lessons learned from both successes and failures? And also why are you choosing video as a way to tell this story over other forms of media (as opposed to podcast, webstory, blog, etc.)?

JM: People can learn a lot from their failures. And, let’s face it, not every grant and/or investment results in the outcomes that it was intended to have. Embracing failure is a unique attribute of the American culture and one that fuels our entrepreneurial spirit. Video is a powerful medium and one that is growing in use and popularity. We already tell our members’ stories through social media, our blog, our website, our publications, and in our programs. A natural progression is to leverage the power of video and it’s something we have wanted to do for several years but have not had the financial resources to do so. The grant from the Fund for Shared Insight is providing us the opportunity and we are really excited about the potential of this project.

JC: Exponent Philanthropy brings a lot of expertise in terms of working with smaller foundations, who often decide that the effectiveness and transparency conversations are better left to the larger foundations that have more staff capacity. What are your thoughts around how to best engage smaller foundations in these kinds of initiatives?

People can learn a lot from their failures. And, let’s face it, not every grant and/or investment results in the outcomes that it was intended to have. Embracing failure is a unique attribute of the American culture and one that fuels our entrepreneurial spirit.

JM: We find that our members are very much interested in effectiveness and how to amplify their impact. That is why they seek out our resources, attend our programs and are part of our community. It is true that many small foundations are private about their philanthropy but a growing number of our members see the benefit of being more open about their activities, collaborating with other funds, and convening key stakeholders around key issues. We hope that these videos will inspire more small foundations to be more open in the future.

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.

JM: One of the key findings of our recent strategic planning process was that our members unite around a unique style of philanthropy that is agile, responsive, grounded in their communities and in their key issues. Philanthropists who work with few or no staff are different in many ways from larger foundations and I think because of their agility and size tend to be more open to change than larger institutions. There is also a generational change happening in philanthropy and we are finding that the next generation of philanthropists think about their philanthropy differently than the previous generations. All that said, there is still a lot of work to be done to move more small funders to be change oriented.  Highlighting examples of how change and new approaches have resulted in increased impact will help push the needle further.

--Jeanne Metzger

Transparency and accountability: two sides of the same coin
January 14, 2015

(Dharmendra Kanani is a fellow and policy director at the European Foundation Centre. This post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

DKananiTransparency is often in the eye of the beholder. Grantees and applicants want to know the criteria for funding; NGOs want to understand the sources of funding; interested members of the public want to know why something got funded or not. Transparency is the flip side of accountability, of the same coin of trust, the guiding force as well as the central emotional force that affects so much public and private activity.

What does this mean for funders? Like any public or private body, foundations are subject to the demand to demonstrate trustworthiness. Being open about why you fund something, and the basis on which you fund it, is important. The systems and processes you set out to achieve this should be a core matter for the foundation, rather than a formula based on standards set by others. The approach a foundation takes to being transparent and accountable communicates a lot about how it sees itself and its relationship with the communities it serves.

Making a lot of data public may assuage the desire to be transparent, but does it actually amount to anything in terms of improving trust, or a better understanding of how decisions are made, or the strategic intent of a foundation, or even how people and communities might engage with a funder?

There will be occasions when there are legitimate reasons for not sharing publicly the nature of a foundation’s income and its investment practices. Similarly, publicizing the activity being funded by foundations – funding in certain countries or certain causes that might be deemed controversial by governments – might at times do more harm than good. Therein lies the dilemma for some foundations.

The notion of glass pockets is important but it has to be balanced with authenticity of purpose. Making a lot of data public may assuage the desire to be transparent, but does it actually amount to anything in terms of improving trust, or a better understanding of how decisions are made, or the strategic intent of a foundation, or even how people and communities might engage with a funder?

Sometimes, we go full tilt into responding to a trend without taking time to be clear about the why and how. It pays to be thoughtful on this issue as it will improve trust. Most people can sniff out gesture from authentic engagement.

A development that puts transparency on to a different level is the digital revolution. Everything is public in the 21st century. Digital communities will know or find a way of knowing. Foundations and independent funders should embrace this challenge. In the next ten years, the foundation world will become as transparent as any other aspect of life. It’s best not to sleepwalk into this emerging reality.

-- Dharmendra Kanani

Big Ideas That Matter for 2015: Are Philanthropic Organizations Ready?
January 12, 2015

(Sara Davis is the Director of Grants Management at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California. She can be followed on Twitter @SaraLeeeDeee or reached via e-mail at sdavis@hewlett.org. This post was originally featured on the Grant Craft blog.)

Sara davisOne way I mark the passage of another year is the welcome arrival of the latest Blueprint — the annual industry forecast report written by Lucy Bernholz and published by GrantCraft, a service of Foundation Center. This year’s report, Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2015, provides us once again with a rich opportunity to look back at the past year and to ponder what’s to come in the year ahead. The Blueprint is a great marker of time and creates a moment to pause for reflection. As I read this year’s report, I found much to digest, understand, and learn. Like the five previous editions, Blueprint 2015 is provocative, and — as I settled in to read — I was humbled to discover that it brought up many more questions than answers. The report piqued my curiosity about the state of the social economy and more explicitly about organized philanthropy and how we do our work. Specifically:

Are we agile and flexible enough? Are our philanthropic organizations ready?

The words “dynamic” and “dynamism” show up throughout the Blueprint 2015, and the pervasive thought I had while reading was that this is an exciting, creative, and expansive time for the social economy. Given this, I couldn’t help but wonder if philanthropic organizations are ready — will we be able to flex, bend, and adapt at the same pace as the change around us? Our ecosystem is evolving, moving, and reorganizing. In this time of globalization, disruptive technology, digital activism, new organizational forms, and even new language, are philanthropic organizations keeping pace? Do we have a picture of what “keeping pace” would really mean?

In this time of globalization, disruptive technology, digital activism, new organizational forms, and even new language, are philanthropic organizations keeping pace? Do we have a picture of what “keeping pace” would really mean?

My experience is that folks doing the work of philanthropy take their role very seriously. It’s a tremendous responsibility to be entrusted with private resources in order to create public benefit. That we take that trust seriously is a good thing. In practice, this means that we tend to be careful, we analyze everything thoroughly, and we remain deliberate, trying hard not to make mistakes. This subtle — or not so subtle — perfectionism creates a tension against our desire to also be nimble, innovative, creative, and dynamic. I wonder: how can we talk about and manage that tension? Are there times we should be using philanthropy as true risk capital, maybe leaping more and looking less? Can we be nimble enough to fail, learn, and course-correct quickly, and have that process be okay, even celebrated? It’s clear that many of the newer entrants in the social economy are working from this spirit of moment-to-moment dynamism. How can we collaborate with openness, adaptability, and readiness for change? Are we learning how to be more agile and flexible along the way?

Are the right people/skills at the table?

The other thing that struck me as I read the report is the variety of new skills and voices needed to work well within the changing social economy. We know, for example, that new technologies and digital data are emerging as important sources and byproducts for learning, innovation, and achieving results. It follows, then, that we need to make sure technology and data capacity are being fostered, used, and advanced within philanthropic organizations and across the sector. Together, we need to gain expertise as we take on challenging topics like intellectual property, open licensing, transparency, and privacy. Further, working in a digital world during this time of rapid change requires operational savvy. We need to build and maintain necessary infrastructure to execute well today, while also forging the space so we can adapt and shift easily in the future. Collectively, this is a tall order. Are we listening to the right experts to make this happen? Are we building the necessary capacity and knowledge?

We need to make sure technology and data capacity are being fostered, used, and advanced within philanthropic organizations and across the sector. Together, we need to gain expertise as we take on challenging topics like intellectual property, open licensing, transparency, and privacy.

As “pervasive digitization” has become the new normal, have we changed the way we think about technology and data expertise in our grantmaking? It doesn’t seem reasonable that all program officers now also need to be technology experts (though some are.) How do we make sure the technologists are being included at the right times? How can our daily work be informed by data expertise and digital best practices, and how do we successfully integrate these into our grantmaking? Bernholz notes that “technologists are becoming part of the sectors that they serve” and imagines a future where “data analysis and sensemaking skills” are integrated into strategy and grantmaking. What new understandings do we need in order to know how we will do this? And, who do we need to include in the conversation to live this out fully?

The 2015 Blueprint marks a time that is vibrant, rich, and exciting for us to be working in this sector. It also invites us to adapt, flex, and change — more than ever before. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but sometimes I find myself thinking about the proverb of the shoemaker whose children have no shoes. Those of us who work in philanthropy understand that our grantees need to adapt within changing circumstances and must constantly evolve. We know that executing well is the challenging standard we place upon grantees as we give them resources. I’m not sure we always hold ourselves to the same standard, or that we take the time to know what executing well might mean within our own changing context. Just as we offer capacity building support and technical assistance to the organizations we fund, it’s also important that we do our own capacity building work, making the necessary changes within our organizations to be effective, real-time participants in the social economy. Are we checking ourselves to make sure we have the skills, roles, knowledge, and processes needed to do that?

Our changing ecosystem will certainly require that we become comfortable with the continued blurring of lines and re-imagining of everything around us. As we strive to achieve impact and social benefit, it may mean we need to bring new people to the table, while developing new skills and new ways of working ourselves. My hope is that all of our good intentions and hard work continue to fuel the adaptability, learning, and dynamism that Bernholz points to so brilliantly.

--Sara Davis

A pragmatic approach to transparency
January 7, 2015

(Fran Perrin is the founder and director of The Indigo Trust, and a founding member of 360givingThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

FranPerrin‘Transparency for funders is a helpful idea, but it’s not a panacea. If private foundations and grantmakers think it is, then their attempts to bring a measure of sunlight to a sector shrouded in mist are likely to fail or, much worse, do damage.’

We welcome Jo Andrew’s article ‘When is transparency a really bad idea?’ as an important contribution to the debate on transparency, open data and philanthropy.

Jo lists some obvious cases: for example, transparency is a bad idea when it subverts your basic grantmaking purpose. We can all agree with that. In fact, we can add other examples from outside the human rights field. For example, it wouldn’t be appropriate to publish the details of a grant if it referred to the location of a vulnerable women’s shelter. In the vast majority of cases, though, transparency can offer many benefits to grantmakers and those whose lives we aim to improve. We should be careful not to generalize from exceptions.

In the vast majority of cases, though, transparency can offer many benefits to grantmakers and those whose lives we aim to improve. We should be careful not to generalize from exceptions.

Grantmaking in the UK remains astonishingly opaque – for funders and grantseekers alike. Not knowing who funds what creates huge inefficiencies that affect how well we can work to distribute funds; and how grantseekers apply for them. Lack of information makes it harder for those starting out as philanthropists or trying to fund in new areas.

Our own work on the 360giving open funding initiative (while in its very early stages) encourages a pragmatic, needs-led approach to transparency about grantmaking. We provide funders with an easy way to publish their grant data for others to re-use. We would never, ever suggest that people publish grant information that could reasonably be foreseen to undermine their grantmaking purpose. As grantmakers we know that funders need to make an informed choice about which of their grants they publish, and 360giving has deliberately not pursued a regulatory-led approach so as to enable these decisions to be taken with care by funders.

Opacity and secrecy make it hard for those doing the right thing to argue and defend their position. It was striking that, when the government made policy noises about changing the tax status of donations to charities, the sector could not easily point to a comprehensive body of evidence of its good work.

There are sometimes good reasons not to be wholly transparent, but if we generalize from exceptions we can miss the opportunity to help inform grantmaking and improve impact for the whole sector.

The Indigo Trust publish all their grants both on their blog and in an open data format. They have withheld information about a grant which concerned anti-corruption activists in a developing country where transparency could have jeopardized their lives. They handled this by publishing the fact that a grant of ‘x’ amount had been made, but detail wasn’t being published for security reasons. When the situation changed, with the permission of the grantee they published the full information, and were encouraged to blog about the project by the grantee.

There are sometimes good reasons not to be wholly transparent, but if we generalize from exceptions we can miss the opportunity to help inform grantmaking and improve impact for the whole sector. Is transparency a panacea for funders? Absolutely not – but it can improve our decision making. Could more information really make our decisions any worse?

Signed by:

Fran Perrin  Indigo Trust, founding member of 360giving

William Perrin  TalkaboutLocal, Indigo Trust

Alice Casey  NESTA

Ed Anderton  Nominet Trust

Tim Davies  Practical Participation

Transparency, yes, with governance and excellence
December 29, 2014

(Ronald van der Giessen is the CEO of Oranje FondsThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

RVDGiessenJo Andrews argues that increased transparency may not always be a good thing, and gives two examples where she sees dangers. With her examples she inadvertently highlights the importance of continued attention towards increasing transparency.

Her first argument is that handing out data and information also gives ammunition to ‘those passionately opposed to our ideals’. That is exactly the way democracies work: if we cannot find better arguments against the crossfire of ‘those passionately opposed’, you might conclude that our actions were not best in class.

Second, she points out the risks that recipients of our grants in a potentially hostile political climate (she gives the examples of Hungary and Uganda) might run when opponents get wind of our openly advertised, well-meant gifts. The problem is that they run potentially even more risks when receiving our monies secretly because open relations with parties abroad provide better shelter than nothing.

In 2004, when we founded Oranje Fonds (the national foundation for social development in the Netherlands), we took transparency as one of three values for our foundation, the others being governance and excellence. And, as is the way with values, they have no limits.

If we cannot find better arguments against the crossfire of ‘those passionately opposed’, you might conclude that our actions were not best in class.

No matter how well you run your foundation, it can always be run better. However good your governance standards, society forces you to continuously review your governance principles and assumptions and to adapt and improve accordingly.

Transparency has proved to be the most accessible value for everybody inside and outside our foundation; governance and excellence are part of the professional domain, but transparency rings a bell for everyone, regardless of education and intellectual capacities.

For our colleagues it means that they have access to all the information in our system (apart from the personal files, which fall under the Law on Privacy). Every week we invest half an hour of everybody’s time in an information session in which we evaluate and present our plans, decisions and actions.

For our applicants it means that they have full access to decisions concerning their grant application, and that they may contest grant decisions. For all others outside the foundation, it means they can inform themselves about our policies and our grants.

It has made us at Oranje Fonds aware of the need for consistent argumentation, a reliably fast application procedure, and in-depth analysis of every possible consequence of our grants – for us as grantmakers, not wishing to create unwanted precedents; for our grantees, not wanting to burden them with unrealistic expectations or unachievable aims.

Over the last ten years we have seen that transparency is time and again the key to improving governance and excellence. The three together provide us with a most sound foundation for our foundation!

-- Ronald van der Giessen

When is transparency a really good idea?
December 23, 2014

(Brad Smith is the president of Foundation CenterThis post was originally published as a letter to the editor in Alliance Magazine in response to Jo Andrews' article.)

Brad SmithWhen it comes to philanthropy, the answer to this question is a simple one: almost always. This may seem to put me at odds with Jo Andrews’ well-reasoned argument against transparency in all circumstances, but it doesn’t.

Jo is not really talking about philanthropy writ large, but rather a small group of funders with which she has had the privilege to work directly or collaboratively through her leadership of Ariadne (European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights). In her sphere she has indeed been a data warrior. But her sphere is specific and modestly sized: the funders she works with number in the low hundreds, whereas there are over 200,000 public benefit foundations in the US and Europe alone.

Jo rightly points to foundations’ unique independence as precisely what makes them so appropriate for supporting high-risk activities dealing with human rights. But the reality is that the vast majority of funders do not get anywhere near these issues.

The reality is that the vast majority of work done by funders, be it through grants or operating programmes, is in areas that are rarely controversial. In the US, where Foundation Center has access to comprehensive and detailed data on the grants of all foundations – thanks to regulatory oversight that requires baseline transparency – we know that more than 60 per cent of all foundation philanthropy goes to health and education. Survey data from other parts of the world shows similar priorities. Jo rightly points to foundations’ unique independence as precisely what makes them so appropriate for supporting high-risk activities dealing with human rights. But the reality is that the vast majority of funders do not get anywhere near these issues.

I couldn’t agree more that funders who do take risks have a responsibility to minimize potential danger for their grantee partners. This principle is embodied in the Global Philanthropy Data Charter, developed by the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), which states: ‘Data should be public in principle, but clear policies and procedures should be implemented to ensure an adequate balance between openness and privacy and security.’ This can be easily accomplished by making the recipient of a grant, or even the donor if necessary, appear as ‘anonymous’. But even among funders who do work on human rights issues, many of their grants are not particularly controversial. The Sigrid Rausing Trust sees no need to make its £9.6 million support for Human Rights Watch anonymous. Why should it?

So while I agree with Jo on many of her core points, I am worried that, much like the Hungarian government that she criticizes for using ‘left-leaning’ NGOs as an excuse for a blanket crackdown on foreign funding, foundations will too easily use the exception to justify the rule. Too many times I have heard funders talk about their work being so sensitive that data about it cannot be shared, when in fact the vast majority of their work is not sensitive at all.

While I agree with Jo on many of her core points, I am worried that... foundations will too easily use the exception to justify the rule. Too many times I have heard funders talk about their work being so sensitive that data about it cannot be shared, when in fact the vast majority of their work is not sensitive at all.

As president of Foundation Center – an organization created by foundations that saw transparency as the best way to respond to McCarthy-era hearings accusing them of supporting communism – I believe in the concept very deeply. Transparency is entirely appropriate for organizations that receive some kind of tax benefit in exchange for providing public benefit. It is a valuable means of informing the public while also supporting foundation collaboration and sharing the kind of knowledge and lessons learned that alone can make funding more effective in the future.

As I write, I am also plagued by the nagging feeling that we may be caught up in yesterday’s debate. In an era of Big Data, in which governments either abuse or struggle to protect citizens’ information while those same citizens open up their lives on mobile phones and through Facebook, secrets of any kind are getting harder to hold. The idea that a foundation could fund something that no one would know about seems increasingly unrealistic in our digital world – and perhaps a bit dangerous.

Transparency is inevitable. Being wise and proactive about how philanthropy uses its information is imperative; believing that we can continue to fly beneath the radar is impractical.

-- Brad Smith

About Transparency Talk

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

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