Transparency Talk

“Plugging In” to the Power of Philanthropy’s Big Data: Building a path for foundations to join the Reporting Commitment
September 30, 2014

(Suki O'Kane is the director of administration at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.)

Okane-150The Walter & Elise Haas Fund (W&EHF)  clocks in as the 19th member of Foundation Center’s Reporting Commitment. The journey there was filled with creativity, innovation, collaboration, and some clever lines of code. Along the way, we reaffirmed our commitment to philanthropic transparency, began reporting  real-time grants data, raised the profile of our grantmaking with communication to big data initiatives, and — now — want to make the same possible for  our peers: the technology we developed to accomplish these good things has been published as a free, open source plug-in for WordPress called Open hGrant. This source code provides a way for foundations to share their grantmaking activity with the world, in real time, while also allowing the funder to publish it in searchable form on its own web site.  That’s right, you can have a searchable database of your grants activity, and a reporting mechanism all in one.

What motivated our foundation to do these things?

We reaffirmed our commitment to philanthropic transparency, began reporting real-time grants data, raised the profile of our grantmaking with communication to big data initiatives, and — now — want to make the same possible for our peers.

To a large degree, sharing what we do and know while learning from others is simply a habit of mind at W&EHF. Our executive director Pam David champions cross-sector work and community cooperation. Our grantmaking leverages public-private partnerships and collaborations to produce results that no single actor could accomplish alone.

Initiatives like the Reporting Commitment attract us for their ability to help us make sense of the philanthropic landscape. They help us answer perennial questions about who is doing what, where. We coupled this habit with our intent to increase the transparency of our work — among our teams and trustees, with the communities we serve, and with our peers.

Hearts and minds we had. All we were missing were bits and bytes. Oh, that.

How did we get it done?

It might not be a surprise to hear that the technological solutions for publishing grant data to the web are, to put it mildly, diverse. Even when we find a searchable grants index on the web, we can be fairly sure it’s not presented in an easily accessed format. Our taxonomies differ from those of our peers. Our websites are developed on different platforms. We focus on different data outcomes. These factors made a common, off-the-shelf solution seem out of reach.

When we sat down with our long-term partners at Mission Minded to brainstorm how to grapple with this, one thing became clear: whatever we found to crack the techno-nut of real-time grants data reporting should be simple and shareable.  We were well aware of the tendency in our field to develop solutions to common challenges in isolation, with proprietary tools. Brad Smith’s post to the PhilanTopic blog takes this on directly, a “data dilemma” by his reckoning, with some bold recommendations for philanthropy.

Foundation Center also had a critical resource to share with us: the hGrant microformat. One of the critical engines of Foundation Center’s data initiatives, this way of marking up grants data on the web is open to any individual or institution seeking to collect, catalog, map, and analyze giving. We welcomed Foundation Center to the project team and set about creating a technology tool that allowed any other grantmaker of any size to openly publish giving data to the web in a searchable, standardized way.  

The result is Open hGrant for WordPress, a simple plug-in for philanthropy’s Big Data that is spurring a new community of funders to participate in transparency and open data initiatives. We encourage our peers to investigate this free tool or to watch a recent demo from the Grants Managers Network.

To learn how your organization can help build a richer data set that drives effective collaboration, strategic decision making, and a more engaged philanthropy sector, contact Foundation Center for more information about the Reporting Commitment or reach out to the growing community of hGrant users for support.

-- Suki O'Kane

Lessons in Foundation Transparency from Philamplify
September 22, 2014

(Caitlin Duffy is the project assistant for Philamplify at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @DuffyInDC on Twitter and join the #Philamplify conversation. This post was originally published on the GrantCraft blog.)

Duffy2_180_180_s_c1If a foundation sees itself as accountable to the communities it serves, how can it be as transparent as possible about key decisions that affect those communities? While voluntary disclosure of financial information online is commendable and sorely needed in philanthropy, funders must expand their mindset of openness. There is a need for a comprehensive approach to transparency that goes beyond figures on a website; foundation leadership, from board members to staff, need to think critically about how to communicate their approaches and solicit feedback.

At the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), the complex relationship between transparency and accountability is at the center of Philamplify. Philamplify is a new initiative that brings honest feedback to grantmakers by conducting rigorous assessments of some of the country’s top foundations. To prepare these reviews, our team combs through publications, searches online databases, reviews publicly available foundation documents, surveys hundreds of grantees, and interviews a wide array of stakeholders. In evaluating whether a foundation operates transparently, we look for disclosure of key information on the funder’s website and through other avenues, such as Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative. We publish the final assessments on, where readers can engage in a discussion about the findings and recommendations, thus opening the conversation beyond the confines of a typical foundation assessment to everyone whose lives are touched by grantmakers.

LogoDuring the first round of assessments, many surveyed grantees spoke of how much they appreciate transparent communication with funders. Grant recipients consistently requested “three C’s” relevant to transparency: convene, collaborate, and communicate. Such calls for increased contact with foundation staff are evidence of grantee interest in a partnership that goes beyond financial support. Transparency plays an important role in such a relationship. As shown by the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent report, Foundation Transparency: What Nonprofits Want, nonprofits want more transparent communication about learning, assessment, and impact.

When a funder engages in meaningful transparency, grantees and other philanthropic stakeholders benefit by better understanding the foundation’s mission, operations, strategies, activities, and performance.

For example, grantees of the Philamplify-assessed Daniels Fund often spoke of the actual and potential value of site visits, e-mails, and phone calls with program officers and opportunities to speak with executive leadership. In regards to positive aspects of the partnership, one grantee wrote, “The Daniels Fund is one of the few funders that make an effort to visit with us, communicate with us on a regular basis, and maintain a relationship based on mutual concern for the populations we serve.” However, some grantees conveyed concern about the apparent disconnect between program officers and executive leadership, particularly regarding the grant renewal process.

In our assessment of the William Penn Foundation, grantees and stakeholders expressed confusion over recent changes in leadership and strategic direction about which the foundation communicated ineffectively. Sample feedback included comments such as, “The status of the Foundation's recent strategic planning process could have been better communicated” and “The recent leadership transitions have raised question for the future of funding in this sector.” In July, Nonprofit Quarterly reported that the foundation’s managing director resigned, marking another major leadership change in less than six months. In such instances, the lack of transparency about what drove these major decisions unsettled grantees and influenced the perceptions of other important stakeholders, including peers.

In philanthropy, robust, authentic discussion and constructive debate challenge us all to improve and help ensure that we hold each other accountable to the public good. Grantees are vested in the success of their funders, and as evidenced by Philamplify’s findings, they offer valuable lessons for the sector. When a funder engages in meaningful transparency, grantees and other philanthropic stakeholders benefit by better understanding the foundation’s mission, operations, strategies, activities, and performance.

How does your foundation maintain transparent, two-way communication with grantees and the communities they serve?

-- Caitlin Duffy

Rethinking Transparency – It’s Not a Dirty Word
September 15, 2014

(Krystian Seibert is the policy and research manager with Philanthropy Australia. This post was originally featured on the ProBono Australia news website.)

Seibert-150At Philanthropy Australia’s 2014 National Conference last week, one of the most favourably received presentations was that of Brad Smith, President of the Foundation Center.

The Foundation Center is an US organisation whose mission involves advancing knowledge about philanthropy in the US and around the world.

Much of its work focuses on consolidating and analysing data, and it maintains a very comprehensive database on US and, increasingly, global grantmakers and their granting activity.

One of its key initiatives is ‘Glasspockets’ – which champions philanthropic transparency, and provides the data and resources which foundations need to understand the value of transparency, be more open in their own communications, and help shed more light on how private wealth is serving the public good.

Having met with Brad prior to his presentation, we knew in general terms what he would be speaking about. What we didn’t know was how the audience would respond. Would they be captivated by his message about the benefits of an open philanthropic sector which proactively shares information about what it does? Or would they be concerned by his challenge to some of the norms under which philanthropy has traditionally operated in Australia?

Brad’s message was that transparency is a good thing and should be facilitated and encouraged. But often the philanthropic sector doesn’t respond that well to the word ‘transparency’ – you could say that it’s a bit of a dirty word. To be honest, since I started with Philanthropy Australia, I have been a bit hesitant to use the word for fear of being misunderstood.

One reason for this is that for too long we have let transparency be defined for us, by others.

Transparency has been viewed through the paradigm of regulation and compliance, and associated with unwanted intrusion on the privacy of donors... But this is only one paradigm through which to view transparency, and it’s not the paradigm we should be focusing on. Put bluntly – it’s time to take back transparency.

Transparency has been viewed through the paradigm of regulation and compliance, and associated with unwanted intrusion on the privacy of donors. Applying this paradigm, transparency is viewed as necessary because it may improve ‘integrity’, prevent wrong doing and therefore maintain public confidence. It has a very negative connotation.

But this is only one paradigm through which to view transparency, and it’s not the paradigm we should be focusing on. Put bluntly – it’s time to take back transparency.

One key message which I took out from Brad’s presentation was that improving transparency in Australian philanthropy is an opportunity and not a threat.

In my view, there are three particularly important benefits from improving transparency.

Firstly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy makes it much harder to plan and coordinate giving – it stands in the way of the effective allocation of limited philanthropic resources, so they tackle the issues and areas of real need.

Imagine if there was detailed information available that mapped granting across different cause areas and locations, over time? This would be a valuable tool which philanthropic organisations could use to inform their granting strategy.

Better information will enable a more strategic approach to philanthropy, helping ensure that there is less duplication and more coordination and collaboration between philanthropic organisations.

This will increase philanthropy’s impact.

Secondly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy makes it much harder to understand, measure and improve performance. Whilst not yet widespread, philanthropic organisations can and do undertake evaluations of the programs and initiatives they support, with a view to seeing how things have worked or haven’t worked, and to learn from experiences.

In another presentation at our National Conference, Dr Diana Leat focused on some recent research undertaken with colleagues at the Queensland University of Technology, commenting that many of the evaluations which are done are just sitting in foundation offices around Australia – they aren’t disseminated and so nobody else is getting the opportunity to learn from them. This made me think of Brad referring to US foundations as ‘islands of information’ in his presentation the day before – a very good analogy.

Imagine if we built bridges between these islands of information? This would involve making evaluations more accessible, with philanthropic organisations sharing their evaluations more widely so that others can learn from their experiences, both good and bad. That kind of knowledge exchange could help philanthropic organisations build on the work of others. Again, this will increase philanthropy’s impact.

Thirdly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy means that we aren’t sharing stories of philanthropy that show how private wealth is serving the public good as much as we could be. Therefore, the broader public but also government and media don’t fully understand the transformative work philanthropy does every day in our communities.

It’s not simply a question of ensuring appropriate recognition for philanthropy. Rather, if we want to increase giving in Australia, we need to ensure there is broader awareness about why giving is important and how it can and does lead to positive change.

Imagine if you could visit a website, and zoom in on a map showing the grants made in your local area? That would be an amazing way of demonstrating the impact of philanthropy.

When I look at the benefits from improving transparency, I think that it’s an opportunity that’s not to be missed. It’s not about regulation and compliance. It’s not about losing privacy for donors – some donors will understandably want to be discreet about their giving, and should be allowed to do so.

Rather it’s about Australian philanthropy making a decision to be more open about sharing data and information, to learn from one another and achieve better collective outcomes, and to develop the systems and frameworks to facilitate and enable this voluntary knowledge exchange.

It’s certainly an area Philanthropy Australia is actively exploring – because it’s critical to growing philanthropy’s impact across our communities. Watch this space.

-- Krystian Seibert

Foundation Transparency: Are Foundations and Nonprofits Seeing Eye to Eye?
September 4, 2014

(Ellie Buteau is the Vice President of Research, and Ramya Gopal is the Associate Manager of Research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. This post shares CEP's latest research from "Transparency, Performance Assessment, and Awareness of Nonprofit Challenges: Are Foundations and Nonprofits Seeing Eye to Eye?")

Ellie Buteau

Ramya Gopal

Nonprofit CEOs value foundation transparency and believe it contributes to their effectiveness. "Openness, which [foundations] require of us, would be very helpful in creating a good working relationship,"

Nonprofit and foundation leaders have starkly different views about the importance of foundations being transparent. That's what we learned when we surveyed nonprofit and foundation CEOs about their attitudes on this issue. Nonprofit CEOs value foundation transparency and believe it contributes to their effectiveness. "Openness, which [foundations] require of us, would be very helpful in creating a good working relationship," says one nonprofit CEO. But the majority of foundation CEOs don't see transparency as crucial to impact.

We found that 91 percent of nonprofits agree that "Foundations that are more transparent are more helpful to my organization's ability to work effectively" but only 47 percent of foundation CEOs agree that "Foundations would be able to create more impact if they were more transparent with the nonprofits they fund."

47% of foundation CEOs believe increased foundation transparency has positive consequences for nonprofits.

Why might nonprofit and foundation CEOs have such different attitudes toward foundation transparency?

First, foundations may not share nonprofits' understanding of transparency. To nonprofit CEOs, foundations are transparent when they are "clear, open, and honest about the processes and decisions that are relevant to nonprofits' work." Transparency is not only about what information foundations share - which Glasspockets helps to track through its transparency indicators - but how effectively foundations have communicated that information to nonprofits.

Foundations may also think they are transparent enough. But nonprofit leaders' assessment of foundations' transparency suggests they could do better: on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 indicates "not at all transparent" and 7 indicates "extremely transparent," nonprofit CEO respondents on average rate the overall transparency of their foundation funders a 4.7. One nonprofit CEO says, "I don't think there is intent to be less transparent, but often times Foundations may assume we know things about their programs, opportunities and goals we don't really know."

Nonprofit CEOs also tend to think foundations are not transparent enough about what has not worked in foundations' experiences - but fewer foundation CEOs see it that way. We found that 88 percent of nonprofit CEOs believe foundations should be more transparent about this, but only 61 percent of foundation CEOs disagree that, "Foundations do a good job of publicly sharing what has not been successful in their experiences." Perhaps nonprofits see this issue differently because they clearly understand how they could use such knowledge. "One of the best learning tools is to see what has not worked. Learning from foundations and their other grantees would be very instructive," says one nonprofit CEO.

61% of foundation CEOs believe foundations could be more transparent about what has not worked in their experiences.

While there are some examples of foundations actively working to be more open - notably The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation with its "Work in Progress" blog and Darren Walker's efforts to build a culture at the Ford Foundation where "openness is held in as high regard as our intellectual curiosity, our rigor and our commitment to the values we share" - too few foundation leaders seem to recognize the need, from nonprofits' perspective, for greater transparency.

-- Ellie Buteau and Ramya Gopal

Transparency Chat: An Interview on Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability
August 27, 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. Transparency Talk conducted an online interview with them based on their organizations’ new report “Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: a Relationship of Respect and Clarity,” which was released this summer.)


Chris Gates


Brad Rourke

Glasspockets: Thanks to the Kettering Foundation and PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) for hosting and sharing this timely discussion on the needs and pressures of greater foundation transparency and accountability.  The report does a very thorough job of detailing the debate around transparency and accountability and the pain points foundations face around these issues.  But I noticed the report stops short of taking a position.  Does PACE itself have a position on whether increased transparency and accountability are good for philanthropy, or does it plan to issue one at a later date?  Why or why not?

Chris Gates: Our goal was to catalyze a conversation about a complex, textured, and potentially controversial, topic, and we think the paper does that. There is no clean answer here about what the field ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do, but we feel that the time has come for a fresh conversation. Technology has created fundamentally new society-wide expectations about transparency and accountability and philanthropy will have no choice but to think through what this means for our field, how ‘public’ are we?, and how ‘private’ are we?

The fact is that we manifestly live in a world with increased calls for accountability and transparency. Philanthropy needs to respond to this (in the same way any sector needs to respond). It can do so by denying or ignoring it is happening, or it can address the phenomenon directly.

Brad Rourke: Agreed, and I would argue that whether increased transparency and accountability are good for philanthropy sidesteps the point. The fact is that we manifestly live in a world with increased calls for accountability and transparency. Philanthropy needs to respond to this (in the same way any sector needs to respond). It can do so by denying or ignoring it is happening, or it can address the phenomenon directly. The purpose of holding these conversations, and of developing the report, was to try to stimulate the field to address the issue.

: The paper refers to accountability throughout.  Can you explain how you are defining accountability and how is responsibility different from accountability, and what role does transparency have in facilitating either?

Brad Rourke: I think the fundamental point that the paper makes about this is that what people mean by "accountability" varies widely. There's a big gap between an institutional response to the term and what the public means. Organizational leaders typically see "accountability" as a requirement to prove effectiveness: here are the numbers. The point the paper makes is that this is not the only thing that people are asking for when they ask their institutions to be accountable. People want to know that an institution is responsive to them: is there someone there who will answer my questions, or pick up the phone when I call? In a Public Agenda report referred to in the paper, the frustration that the public expresses toward voice mail systems is emblematic. There is literally no one there to answer, and it is infuriating. The gap between an institutional view of accountability (what are the numbers?) and a public one (do they care about me?) is important because the harder an institutional approach works to be accountable, the more it is likely to frustrate a public sensibility. In this respect, transparency can become a complicating factor. Yes transparency is important but in itself it does not add up to accountability – and in fact may work counter to it.

Glasspockets: Much of the debate you outline around transparency and accountability swirls around public vs. private money and foundation leaders expressing concerns about not wanting to be turned into mini-governments and why that isn’t appropriate.  But what about the notion of leading by example by putting a foundation through the same set of standards it expect of its grantees?  Did the idea of a transparency and accountability double standard come up during your discussion? 

Brad Rourke: There was a real concern expressed by almost all participants about this difficulty – that of an increasingly burdensome set of grantmaking standards. Nonprofit leaders were especially vocal about it, but I don't think there was any foundation leader who was blind to the issue. But to be honest, the level of self-awareness in the field really varies, some folks were quite aware that they regularly asked for things like clear goals and specific metrics from their grantees but didn’t hold themselves to the same standard, and others seemed comfortable living by what the field sometimes calls ‘the golden rule’.

Glasspockets: Glasspockets recently reported that only 7.5% of all U.S. foundations have a web site.  And the report begins with the very eloquent statement from an unnamed tech executive that “…inside every device and every piece of software is the DNA of both democracy and transparency.” Can you talk about the role of technology in creating the “accountability society” the report describes and whether there were any discussions around philanthropy needing to adapt to new technologies to fulfill increasing public expectations?

Brad Rourke: By "accountability society" I think what is meant is the growing public call for accountability that the paper discusses. In this respect, talking about "technology" sharply limits the scope of what are much more sweeping attitudinal changes that have taken hold in society. Technology (which is really just a vague way of saying "the Internet") has accelerated this but the roots of the shift go back at least to the 1970's. After the social revolution that enabled the Civil Rights movement, women's rights, and the antiwar movement, and on the heels of Watergate and other scandals, the long-stable authoritarian was upended. Trust in institutions (all institutions) has fallen steadily since then. So we defer less. Technology (the Internet) has enabled a quicker, more robust lack of deference, especially to "experts." And it has enabled ordinary people to organize more quickly and with less friction.  The conversations that formed the basis of this report did indeed touch on technology, but more by way of critique. It is hard to find an organization leader who would disagree with the idea that "philanthropy needs to adapt to new technologies" but I would argue that this can become a smokescreen as I alluded to in my response to your second questions above.

Glasspockets: In recent years, a number of high profile individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, whom you feature in the report, have taken the Giving Pledge, which publicly declares that they plan to give away more than half of their wealth during their lifetime.  Do you think those who have taken the Giving Pledge should be subject to some kind of transparency and accountability around this promise?

Brad Rourke: I'm not sure I would go so far as to say donors "should be subject." That implies that there's an overarching entity determining what is good and what is not good philanthropy. That said, I see nothing wrong with an individual donor (or any donor) "subjecting themselves to" some outside accountability regime. Indeed, taking such a pledge publicly serves as a kind of accountability device.  Here again we may be looking at a kind of gap between differing views of accountability. It comes back to how people view philanthropic dollars. Some people consider them fundamentally private assets that are being repurposed to provide public good, but they believe in the notion of private nonprofit activity. Others think that once a philanthropic dollar has been created, and a tax advantage realized, that dollar then becomes a quasi-public dollar that should be held to some of the same standards that we hold government spending.

Glasspockets: What are the next steps for PACE and Kettering around this work?

We are holding a webinar on this topic on Thursday, September 4th and funders can sign up for it by visiting the PACE website.

Chris Gates: We are encouraging philanthropic conferences and regional associations of grantmakers to do programming around this topic to promote a safe and civil conversation around a difficult topic. We don’t think that ‘demands’ from the outside will catalyze much change, the field first needs to have a conversation with itself about how we view our work and how we view our role in society. We are holding a webinar on this topic on Thursday, September 4th and funders can sign up for it by visiting the PACE website.

Brad Rourke: In a very real way, this interview is an important next step. The point of the report is to stimulate conversation and so far we have been pleased to see that beginning. I hope the webinar Chris mentions will also be a part of that conversation. 

-- Chris Gates and Brad Rourke

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

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