Transparency Talk

View Funder Transparency Session at Philanthropy New York Now
August 26, 2014

On July 21, 2014, Philanthropy New York held a panel on the benefits of funder transparency. Jen Bokoff of GrantCraft led the conversation, which included: Janet Camarena, project lead of Glasspockets; Sharon Alpert; vice president of programs and strategic initiatives at the Surdna Foundation; and Hope Lyons, director of program management at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Logo-retinaThe panelists weighed the opportunities and challenges of foundations becoming more accessible, and also shared examples of best practices, including how and why to share program and grantee assessments.

A video of this session is now available on Philanthropy New York’s website.

Let us know if your foundation has been inspired by the ideas presented in this video, or if you have effective transparency practices to share. 

WINGS Webinar now available on Global Philanthropic Transparency Trends
August 20, 2014

We often get asked if Glasspockets is just for U.S.-based foundations. The reality is that any foundation can use our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment tool to assess and improve transparency practices, and in addition to the U.S., the assessment has been used by foundations in Africa and Latin America and we hope more will consider its use. 

WINGS logoWe recently had a chance to promote this and other transparency tools at a recent global program. The Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), a global nonprofit that “brings together associations and support organizations serving philanthropy in more than 50 countries around the world,” recently called on Janet Camarena of Glasspockets to join global philanthropy colleagues to talk about foundation transparency and accountability trends as part of a webinar featuring WINGS member transparency tools and initiatives. Other featured speakers included Maria Carolina Suarez, executive director of the Association of Corporate Foundations in Colombia (AFE) and Natasha Ibbotson, legal affairs officer for the European Foundation Centre. A recording of the webinar, Global Philanthropy Transparency and Accountability—Practices and Developments, is now available for anyone to watch to become more informed about what is now a global movement to improve foundation transparency.


Grantees Speak About the Philanthropic Funding System
August 14, 2014

(Marc Maxson is an innovation consultant for GlobalGiving and FeedbackLabs.)

MarcMaxson_GG_sweaterI believe that philanthropic foundations could make major progress in serving their target groups if they paid more attention to what grantees were saying about them – but not in the cozy pat-each-other-on-the-back love fest way. I mean listening to real honest feedback. Recently, we at Feedback Labs (as a neutral third party) decided to ask a group of 1,200 organizations to publicly share stories about their experiences with funders. We adopted our community storytelling approach to this task. It emphasizes open-ended narratives with just a few follow-up questions about the story, intermediation (people are a little more likely to say something negative if the boss isn’t in the room), and confidentiality. 

Sample Feedback

I selected these particular comments because the variety of issues addressed illustrates the importance of asking open-ended questions. In this case, the question was “Talk about your experience approaching a grantmaking or funding organization that either did or did not grant you funding. What was your relationship like? Did you receive support from them?” You can add your own story to the collection if you like.  Here are some of the representative highlights from grantee stories about funding agencies and the grantseeking process:

Comments from GlobalGiving partner organizations:

  • This process leaves little room to establish a relationship with the grantmakers because we just fill in a standard form and perhaps attach a project summary and accounts.
  • It was so important for us to understand - who are the decision makers? What are their priorities - what aspects of your project are particularly appealing to this organization given their vision and mission?
  • They were cold bids and we really did not attempt to build any relations with the foundation by writing to them or calling them up to understanding where our shortcomings had been the previous year. This really affected our chance of winning the grants. 
  • We got to meet the Swiss organisation through a common friend who had been following our work for years. 
  • I was nervous when I sent the first email requesting for support to run programmes in Nairobi. They responded positively and made a trip to Nairobi to see the programme first hand.
  • We waited endlessly to get an approval. One of the basic problems in dealing with a large CSR unit is that one has to keep on following up and have one person dedicated to it.

Comments from smaller emerging orgs not yet partnered with GlobalGiving:

  • The grant makers give a lot of hope and we have approached relevant funders, they do not ascertain the real needs but look at the proposal and decide although worthwhile maybe try next time. This disrupts our plans as we have to strain parents and guardians to contribute more.
  • All our requests, in spite of the care which we grant to our documents, are always rejected. 
  • They do not even send feedback to inform you about your proposal and what you can do to improve it. So I have been frustrated as far as fund raising is concerned.
  • It was tiring, stressful having to consult with partners, including government entities where time factor was not always of great concern to them, giving us more pressure as we were pressed for time and had deadlines. We would be promised to be called back only to not hear from persons from whom we required urgent information for weeks. 


There was a rather even mix of both success and failure stories because we explicitly asked organizations to tell one story of each type. In my read of these stories, success is usually associated with building personal ties with the person who signs off on the grant in the foundation. In fact, some storytellers describe the process as being primarily about “who you know.” For a sector that’s been talking a lot about “evidence-based” and “data-driven” lately, it seems that based on this feedback, the most important thing in winning grants is not evidence or data, but rather the social capital of an existing connection. 

This one comment cuts to the heart of the matter: “They funded us for 13 years! A record! Until their South-East Asian representative retired.

Evidence of a lack of respect

Most mentioned proposal content only to say that they felt a well-written proposal had been ignored. Others complained about a lack of feedback after being rejected. More than one complained about never even being told they were rejected. The funder just went silent. This is why I think the work of FeedbackLabs is so important. There are many ways to create funder transparency and accountability, but simply creating feedback loops in which the grantmaker actively listens and responds to grantees and rejected applicants would likely lead to greater change and effectiveness for all concerned.

Corporate social responsibility
It also bears mentioning that there were a few corporate social responsibility (CSR) stories about being courted when the company wanted to show an influential person that the company was being charitable, but once the meetings were over, the effort was abandoned and promises of funding dashed. We don’t often hear about this side of corporate philanthropy.  And while, of course, it is possible that the companies in question may have had valid reasons for declining support, the collective stories from the field illustrate an unfortunate but common thread of grantees who emerge from the grantseeking process feeling disrespected.  In fact, in one of the follow-up survey questions, storytellers checked the box for “respect” more often than nine other tags for what their story was about:

Ttlak graphic
 One of our story visualizing tools. Larger icons mean that this group of storytellers tagged their stories as being related to this topic (e.g. respect) more often than in tens of thousands of our benchmark stories.

But it is important to note that not everyone feels this way. Many storytellers went out of their way to talk about how wonderful it was that a funder would consult them on issues from time to time. If that kind of two-way respect was commonplace in the philanthropic sector, then there wouldn’t be so many exclamation points at the ends of sentences about it.

This is just a little taste of a much larger report in the works that will be available later this year.

You can see many of these stories at or follow this link for only the grantee stories we mentioned.

-- Marc Maxson

Metrics to Promote RWJF’s Culture of Health
August 7, 2014

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970cWhat does being healthy mean to you? Does it mean not being sick, or does it mean you’re thriving? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, America’s leading health and health care-focused philanthropy is investigating how to promote a culture of health nationwide.  In its most recent episode of the Foundation’s Pioneering Ideas podcast, Alonzo Plough, Vice President of Research-Evaluation-Learning and Chief Science Officer at RWJF, discusses the metrics he and his team are developing to measure health on the national, community, and individual levels.

As Alonzo explains in the podcast segment, finding metrics to study and ultimately change America’s culture of health is a huge challenge. “Culture is about the deepest thing one can change in society,” he says: analyzing culture, which is inherently diverse, is a complex undertaking. But Alonzo and his team were undaunted.

He wants to shift the understanding of “being healthy” from the absence of illness to something much more holistic and positive. Being healthy is, of course, not being sick, but it’s so much more: it’s being in shape, eating well, improving family dynamics, and engaging in your community.

Plough and his team are developing thirty or forty measures, which were lumped into various “buckets,” the first being, “Valuing Health and Social Cohesion.” He wants to shift the understanding of “being healthy” from the absence of illness to something much more holistic and positive. Being healthy is, of course, not being sick, but it’s so much more: it’s being in shape, eating well, improving family dynamics, and engaging in your community. That’s where the social cohesion aspect of this measure comes in: when communities work together to promote a culture of health, they thrive. By standardizing an understanding of being healthy, from the individual to the neighborhood to the state and national level, a greater percentage of the population has the opportunity to thrive.

The second “bucket” focuses on cross-sectional partnerships to improve health. Plough wanted to look at how communities were combining their assets—schools, hospitals, libraries, etc.—to thrive. For example, schools and health care centers can work together to organize free vaccination drives for students. Again, Plough is also looking at the concept of healthfulness through a broader lens: if neighborhoods concentrate on improving their well-being by building parks and preserving open space, or even ushering in green grocers and farmers markets, they will be much better off.

After listening to the Pioneering Ideas episode, my understanding of health, both in my home and in my community at large has expanded. I recognize now that having a farmer’s market blocks away from my home, where I can interact with my neighbors and local farmers is not only a civic asset, but a health benefit, as well.

How has your foundation worked to develop metrics for complex issues?  And have you considered sharing these metrics via blog or podcast?


Glasspockets Find: The Kaiser Family Foundation and JAMA use infographics to inform about the complex world of healthcare
July 31, 2014

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511e79ac4970c-150wiAs health policy debates rage, have you ever wondered what story the data actually tells?  How many people are now covered as a result of the Affordable Care Act? Or what data is available about the health needs of recent war veterans? Or how about a non-partisan legal analysis of the Hobby Lobby ruling?  The Kaiser Family Foundation serves as a non-partisan source of facts, analysis and journalism for policymakers, the media, the health policy community and the public. As part of its mission it provides many reports, analysis, and more recently infographics to help make complex health policy more easily understandable and simply more transparent. Currently, in partnership with the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the Foundation is issuing a monthly infographic as part of their "Visualizing Health Policy" series.

The world of healthcare, from policy and insurance to access and beyond, is confusing and complex. But the Visualizing Health Policy series overcomes the obstacles the content presents.

Infographics have become increasingly popular in the last few years, both in the media at large and the philanthropic sector in particular. They combine information and graphics to create an easy-to-understand visual representation of a set of data. In the case of the Kaiser Foundation and JAMA project, the infographics tackle a different topic each month, from the physical and emotional health of Iraqi war active duty soldiers and veterans, to the impact of the Affordable Care Act on women.


View the infographic»

Infographics inherently make the data they represent more accessible, and this is essential for understanding the work of the Kaiser Foundation and JAMA. The world of healthcare, from policy and insurance to access and beyond, is confusing and complex. But the Visualizing Health Policy series overcomes the obstacles the content presents. A fantastic example of this is the April, 2014 infographic, "A Snapshot of the US Global Health Funding." It shows not only what percentage of the overall US budget is allocated for Global Health, but also to which countries this money is given. Additionally, there is a breakdown of how much funding is given to various healthcare areas, from maternal and child health to malaria and tuberculosis.

On the homepage of the Visualizing Health Policy project, there are several filters available for finding infographics that cover specific sets of information. For example, you can search a myriad of topics, including HIV/AIDS, Medicaid, and Private Insurance. These infographics are excellent resources for those wishing to educate themselves on any healthcare-related topic; and provide a great example of how the use of data visualizations can help foundations make complex ideas more accessible to the outside world.

-- Eliza Smith

Glasspockets Find: The Lumina Foundation's Annual Report
July 23, 2014

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970cThe Lumina Foundation, an educational achievement-focused philanthropy, has set an ambitious goal: they want to leverage their "outcomes-based approach" to increase "the proportion of Americans with high quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025."

Thanks to the clarity and specificity of the goal, as I read through the Foundation's annual report, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education, I started to see Goal 2025 as a truly achievable milestone. The Foundation has been issuing Stronger Nation since 2009. While it presents a great number of statistics, it's surprisingly accessible. This is due in great part to its design:  which manages to be data-rich yet still retain a feeling of accessibility and flow.  

The Foundation has been issuing Stronger Nation since 2009. While it presents a great number of statistics, it's surprisingly accessible. This is due in great part to its design:  which manages to be data-rich yet still retain a feeling of accessibility and flow.

Rather than begin with a letter from leadership, the introduction begins with a compelling graphic "tracking the trend" of the rising percentage of the population that has earned at least an associate's degree. The graphic charts the upswing here, rising from  37.9 percent of the population that met this achievement level in 2008  to 2012, with 39.4 percent of the population  attaining a degree. Yes, the increments are small, but the increase each year is constant and encouraging.

Read the report»
What may be most helpful to those interested in regional trends and community needs is that the report then outlines each state's progress in the area of higher education attainment. There is a summary, followed by  graphics that demonstrate the state's progress towards Goal 2025. Pie charts offer percentages of the population with educational levels ranging from "less than ninth grade" to "graduate or professional degree." There's a breakdown of these statistics across specific population groups.. There's also a graph illustrating the path to Goal 2025 attainment. They even breakdown degree achievement by county. Everything is clear, concise, and quite convincing.

Yes, Goal 2025 is ambitious. But the Lumina Foundation is demonstrating a commitment to transparency practices by openly sharing the progress of its goal, as well as its obstacles, incremental achievements, and  next steps. Lumina's annual report is the gateway to understanding how they intend to achieve Goal 2025 and provides a framework for others to consider when grappling with how to measure progress toward philanthropic goals.​

-- Eliza Smith

You are Invited to Attend Demystifying Funder Transparency: Sharing Assessments at New York Philanthropy
July 18, 2014

On Monday, July 21, Philanthropy New York is holding a discussion for funders interested in increasing their transparency. While many foundations have discovered the multitudinous benefits of increasing what they share with the social sector, some still fear negative repercussions. Sharon Alpert, Vice President of Programs and Strategic Initiatives at Surdna Foundation, Hope Lyons, Director of Program Management at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Janet Camarena of Glasspockets at the Foundation Center will discuss all that foundations can gain from increasing their transparency efforts. Jen Bokoff of GrantCraft will lead the conversation.

For more information, see the Philanthropy New York website. Free admission is offered for guests of Glasspockets or GrantCraft. Please email with your name, title, organizational affiliation, business mailing address, and phone number.  Remote audiences are welcome to join the event via webcast. Please indicate if you will be participating virtually when you sign up.

-- Eliza Smith

Redefining and Sharing Outcomes at the Campbell Foundation
July 15, 2014

(Anna Lindgren is the assistant to the president at The Campbell Foundation.)

AnnaSamantha-26The Campbell Foundation is comprised of two offices (Annapolis and San Francisco) with six staff managing an annual grants budget of approximately $10 million.  We’re unique in the grant making landscape – nearly 100% of our grant dollars go to environmental work, funding projects that focus on improving the water quality and ecosystem health of the Chesapeake Bay and the Pacific Coast.

As a Foundation, we are always interested in learning what impact our grant dollars, and more importantly, the work of our grantees are having on the environment.  We also realize that there must be a balance between seeking those answers and being too rigid or burdensome to grantees.

Our process to develop more clear outcomes and indicators began in 2010 when we joined the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) and were introduced to the Open Standards.  CMP and others have developed an extensive taxonomy for all things conservation-related – anything from invasive species to aquaculture.  This taxonomy classifies this work into several categories, such as Threat, Strategy, Target, and Scope.  We used this structure to do what we affectionately nicknamed “The Great Sticky Project.”  Essentially, we put each of our grants on a sticky note, and visually organized them into the Open Standards framework.  We didn’t make this public, and are still only using these categories internally, as we didn’t want grantees to feel like they had to conform to this outline. 

We then took a look at our proposal form - and realized it didn’t tie at all to this new internal language we’d started using.  So we completely overhauled our forms, and coordinated it with the launch of our first online grants management system. We used the baseline that we had developed from the Great Sticky Project, and now that both us and the grantees were speaking the same language, we could start exploring questions like “This is what we think we’re doing, now let’s see if that’s what the grantees are actually saying they’re doing, and it’s OK if they’re not the same thing."

This brought us to the stage of being able to export sets of data for our grants.  As an experiment, we took a subset of grants that focused on pollution in California, and exported all the narrative answers about indicators the grantees had provided.  We then took that list, and tried to organize and synthesize it down to a handful of simple indicators.  No such luck – we realized that the answers we were getting, while an improvement, still needed some work.  They were often missing current levels for those indicators, or the indicators didn’t tie to the outcomes, or they weren’t really indicators. And the list was 20 pages long – for only 22 grants.

For the past year, we’ve been working closely with select grantees to refine these measures. To be clear, we’re not sending them complicated pre-populated tables and saying “These are the indicators we are looking for, where do you fit in?” Instead, we’re taking the answers they are giving us and just fine-tuning them.

For the past year, we’ve been working closely with select grantees to refine these measures. To be clear, we’re not sending them complicated pre-populated tables and saying “These are the indicators we are looking for, where do you fit in?”  Instead, we’re taking the answers they are giving us and just fine-tuning them.  As an example, the grantee will write “Increased wetland restoration” as an indicator of success, and we’ll turn it back to them and ask “What is the current # of wetlands restoration projects, or # of acres restored?”  We’ve also developed some simple ways to track policy work, such as rating the strength of a particular policy on a scale of 1-5. 

So after all this work – what have we accomplished, and what’s next?  We’ve already been able to refine our outcomes to a few basic categories, and are now in a position to tie indicators to those.  We’re also piloting a project to visually map these outcomes and indicators, which we’ll share freely with our funder colleagues and our grantees.   We’re hoping this will give us a sense of the depth and geographic reach of the impact our grantees are having on the environment, as well as increase transparency into our grantkmaking.  Our ultimate goal is to have data like this spur conversations and collaborations between grantees, further advancing the vital work they are doing in conservation.

-- Anna Lindgren

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

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


Chris Gates


Brad Rourke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Chris Gates and Brad Rourke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Trust

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

Creating Effectiveness

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

Ensuring Collaboration

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

-- Epaminondas Farmakis

About Transparency Talk

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

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, San Francisco Office
    The Foundation Center

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