Transparency Talk

Capacity Building for the Greater Good
April 13, 2015

Come on a journey to build your own strategic capacity and learn to support grantees' capacity, too. 

On Wednesday, April 29, Foundation Center vice president for strategic philanthropy Lisa Philp will demo the new Foundation Maps Professional 2.0 and show how data can inspire smarter learning and decision making.

Then director of GrantCraft at Foundation Center Jen Bokoff and David and Lucille Packard Foundation organizational effectiveness and philanthropy director Kathy Reich will discuss aspects of the recent GrantCraft publication Supporting Grantee Capacity: Strengthening Effectiveness Together to explore how foundations can be thoughtful about capacity building investments with grantees. 

Attend in-person in our San Francisco office, or via LiveStream. 

Knowledge Services for Smarter Philanthropy
April 6, 2015

(Lisa Philp is the vice president for strategic philanthropy at Foundation Center. Find her on Twitter @howtogive. This post was originally featured on the GrantCraft blog.)

Lisa_Philp_180_180_s_c1I had some visitors to my Foundation Center office the other day, and I gave them a quick, behind-the-scenes tour.

In one corner, there was a stand-up “scrum” of our application development and strategic philanthropy staff checking in about a custom map showing early childhood funding for East Africa. Passing by an enclave, we overheard a Skype discussion with our knowledge management directors about sharing what funders have learned about effective immigration reform. Around another table, our researchers and data indexers used guidance from an advisory committee to figure out better ways to monitor philanthropy’s response to disasters.

Knowledge Services are data-driven tools and content-rich platforms developed by Foundation Center for funders and their networks, consultants, advisors, and grantees.

As a former philanthropic advisor and program officer (and affinity group board member and regional association staffer—yes, I’ve been working in philanthropy for a while!), I can’t help but get excited about the incredibly useful tools and platforms that emerge from this teamwork. At Foundation Center, we’ve started to refer to these types of projects as Knowledge Services.

In the past, I relied on my personal network, practical experience, and issue expertise to do my work. Believe me, there’s no replacing that. In the back of my mind, I sort of knew there had to be easier, less-redundant ways to find, create, and update what I needed to know. But I was constantly pressed for time, so I pushed those nagging thoughts aside and kept forging ahead. I’m psyched because I really think these Knowledge Services can transform the way that funders approach their work.

Data-Driven Tools and Content-Rich Platforms

Knowledge Services are data-driven tools and content-rich platforms developed by Foundation Center for funders and their networks, consultants, advisors, and grantees. Examples include:

  • Foundation Maps: a data visualization platform through which users can explore the world of philanthropy and that allows us to create custom options to further leverage its functionality and data;
  • Foundation Ideas: shareable collections of reports, evaluations, and case studies that can help a foundation understand what all foundations already know—saving time and money; and
  • Foundation Landscapes: issue-based web portals for scanning and collaboration that combine funding information, research, news, and stories in one place to enable funders and practitioners to make the most of what they are learning.

Freely Accessible

Research3Most of what falls under our Knowledge Services is accessible to the public at no charge. Foundations with passionate interests in specific issues, strategies, and geographies provide us with grants or contracts so we can create resources useful to them, fellow funders, grantees, and others working in the field. These interests include black male achievementcapacity buildingdisaster philanthropyfisherieshuman rightsLGBTQ fundingmediapalliative careU.S. democracywater, and youth philanthropy.

Some Knowledge Services are custom projects developed for partners and made available as a benefit exclusively to their constituents. A few are subscription-based.

A new section of Foundation Center’s website, foundationcenter.org/knowledgeservices, makes it easy to learn about our full set of offerings and explore specific components that pique your interest.

GrantCraft and Knowledge Services

Last week’s visitor tour revealed examples of our work in progress. A series of earlier scrums, Skypes, and cross-departmental work led to the latest round of Knowledge Services launches.

Over the past two weeks, Foundation Center released Foundation Maps Professional 2.0with a free trial offer, a Foundation Research analysis on funding for nonprofit and philanthropic infrastructure, a Foundation Landscapes portal filled with U.S. education-related reports, stats, lists, resources, and news, and a Foundation Ideas collection onAfrican giving.

Landscapes3In the next few weeks, we will complete three custom versions of Foundation Maps, publish two additional Foundation Research reports, wrap up another Foundation Ideascollection, and launch a new Foundation Landscapes portal.

We know that sorting through tools and platforms to find what’s useful in your work can be challenging. GrantCraft already provides convenient access through its strategy, issue, and content type (“Foundation Center Features”) tags; RSS feed; and e-newsletter. But with an increasing array of new projects coming online every week, we’re going to add additional coverage of Knowledge Services to GrantCraft to help you more easily engage with these resources.

Knowledge Services in Action

I love working with funders who don’t suppress their nagging thoughts about how philanthropy can work smarter. These folks recognize that information, analysis, and technology hold great promise for transforming a sector that talks about impact and effectiveness, but too often defaults to business as usual. We’re experimenting with several foundations on ways to infuse Knowledge Services into the daily routines of their staff, as vital supplements to whom and what they already know.

These donors—and like-minded philanthropy network staff, consultants, advisors, and grantees—aren’t Pollyannas; they know that behavioral change is hard and slow. But all of them, like those of us at Foundation Center, keep at it because the potential is so great.

--Lisa Philp

Glasspockets Find: GEO Funders is using grantee feedback to reshape philanthropy
March 30, 2015

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiAt the  end of 2014, GEO Funders, a network of grantmakers that works to reshape the way philanthropy operates, released a report, Strengthening Relationships with Grantees. In the report, GEO Funders examines how grantmaking has improved over the last few years, and how it can continue to improve in the years to come.

GEO Funders gathered data from 637 nonprofits in order to determine best practices in building more effective relationships with grantees.; According to the report, clear feedback mechanisms, and listening to grantee feedback, are core practices that set the stage for effective collaboration between  grantmakers and grantees to ensure a better future for philanthropy.

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • 53% of funders now ask grantees for feedback. This number is up from 36% six years ago.An increasing number of grantmakers now regularly seek feedback from grantees and are creating more opportunities for grantee input to inform grantmaker strategy and practice.
  • A median of 25% of grant dollars now goes to general operating support. This number is up from 20% six years ago. Grantmakers increased the types of support most commonly associated with boosting nonprofit success, including general operating, multiyear and capacity-building support.
  • 76% of funders evaluate their work. Grantmakers evaluate their work, but most are not getting all that they could out of these efforts because the focus remains on internal uses.
  • 80% of funders say collaboration is important. Although grantmakers believe it is important to coordinate resources and actions with other funders to achieve greater impact, they are unlikely to support grantees to do the same.

You can read the report in its entirety here. But one of the best ways to dive in is the summary, which GEO Funders has published as an infographic, making the data-heavy report much easier to digest.

With this data in mind, how has your foundation helped to reimagine and reshape philanthropy? Have you enlisted feedback from your grantees to better your grantmaking process? Share with us in the space below.

--Eliza Smith

The McKnight Foundation’s Strategic Framework, Updated for 2015-2017
March 27, 2015

(Kate Wolford is the president of the Mcknight Foundation, and Meghan Brown is the board chair of the Foundation.) 
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Kate Wolford

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Meghan Brown

With 2015 now in full swing, we are pleased to share with you The McKnight Foundation’snew Strategic Framework, updated and refreshed for 2015-2017. This is the second iteration of this important document, the first of which was developed in 2011 and implemented for 2012-2014. We got good mileage out of our inaugural framework during the first three years; we are excited to put the new one — a slightly streamlined model which retains the parts that worked well and revises those that needed some tuning up — to use during the next three.

McKnight’s Strategic Framework is very much a living document, which — like our work — must evolve in response to a changing environment if it is going to remain useful and relevant. We intentionally took an open and collaborative approach to the framework update process, inviting input from stakeholders connected to McKnight’s mission at all levels. Naturally, our board and staff were highly engaged; but we took a further step this time around, turning to our network of grantees, peers, and other partners for ideas on mapping our strategic course based ontheir unique contexts.

We intentionally took an open and collaborative approach to the framework update process, inviting input from stakeholders connected to McKnight’s mission at all levels.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my earlier blog post inviting input as we updated the previous framework. It was gratifying to hear affirmations of McKnight’s embrace of adaptive action in addressing complex challenges and changing external conditions. There were also comments specific to individual program areas and suggestions for new issues we should consider, all of which were shared with relevant staff. I also heard from several foundation and nonprofit colleagues that they had used the framework format for their own reflection and planning efforts. Thank you for contributing to our process; your input helped make the final product relevant and useful to us, our peers, and our partners.

McKnight-Foundation-LogoMcKnight’s Strategic Framework 2015-2017 commits the Foundation to optimize the use of all of our resources to advance our mission. It reflects continuity in our conviction that our ability to achieve deep impact depends not only on what we do, but also how we do our work. It is intentionally broad, reflecting the diverse set of program interests and goals which we pursue. (More detailed information about specific program goals, strategies, and guidelines is available here.) Importantly, this iteration also embraces the Foundation’s recent full and robust implementation of impact investing.

As board and staff developed this document, we followed an adaptive action process framed by the questions:

  • What? What is the external context in which we pursue our mission and goals? What data, trends, and patterns do we see?
  • So What? What are the implications of these trends and patterns for our work as a Foundation and across our diverse program areas and operations?
  • Now What? How do we best deploy our resources to optimize our impact?
Naturally, our board and staff were highly engaged; but we took a further step this time around, turning to our network of grantees, peers, and other partners for ideas on mapping our strategic course based ontheir unique contexts.

The principles of adaptive action support an approach we use across the Foundation and within each program area to adjust our strategies over time in response to changes in cultural, economic, environmental, political, scientific, and technological landscapes. For example, trends relevant to multiple program strategies range from the continuing rise of greenhouse gas emissions and growing pressures on life-sustaining natural resources globally, to changing demographics and persistent disparities across race and ethnicity in our home state of Minnesota. In subsequent posts on our blog throughout this year, I anticipate that McKnight staff colleagues will examine in greater detail key trends that are influencing directions and shifts within specific program areas and how we are responding. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, please don’t hesitate to share any thoughts or questions as you read through the document, which you might think of as a pocket guidebook for McKnight’s upcoming three years. And, as always, we are grateful to grantees and partners for the work we do together on our shared journey to improve the quality of life for present and future generations.

--Kate Wolford and Meghan Brown

Glasspockets Find: Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Talks About Philanthropic Transparency
March 24, 2015

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wi“Giving away money is easy — doing so effectively is much harder,” says Silicon Valley philanthropist Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen in a recent article from the Washington Post. So often, transparency focuses on where foundations are making gifts. But Arrillaga-Andreessen argues foundations and individual donors should also be open about why they give: knowledge sharing boosts impact and effectiveness of foundations sector-wide.

“By sharing why we’re making those decisions, we’re enabling other people to direct their resources in a more informed way as well. By having glass skulls, we’re breaking down the intellectual silos in which philanthropy has traditionally operated.”

Arrillaga-Andreessen believes foundations and donors shouldn’t just have glass pockets, but glass skulls as well. “Every time we make a gift to one organization, we’re simultaneously deciding not to give, indirectly, to countless other organizations,” Arrillaga-Andreessen says. “By sharing why we’re making those decisions, we’re enabling other people to direct their resources in a more informed way as well. By having glass skulls, we’re breaking down the intellectual silos in which philanthropy has traditionally operated.”

Arrillaga-Andreessen helps the up-and-coming crop of philanthropists—like Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Meg Whitman, and Brian Chesky—make smart social investments. She’s observed that transparency around giving is not only appealing to wealthy millennials, but it also comes naturally. “It’s a generation that has grown up with a sense of global community and awareness that transcends traditional geographic boundaries and also a group that has become grown-ups with data as a key driver of decision-making,” she says. “Those two external influences naturally lead many individuals to sharing that particular philanthropic approach.” With millennials at the helm of philanthropy, the future for foundation transparency looks bright.

You can read the full article and interview with Arrillaga-Andreessen here

--Eliza Smith

Getting Down to Social Media Brass Tacks
March 18, 2015

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

Sally Crowley HeadshotIn my two previous posts, I wrote about the importance of using social media as part of an integrated communications plan and how to build a solid strategy.

This week, it’s time to talk tactics. One of the things I love about social media is that there’s always something new to try. Here are a few relatively current tricks of the trade.

Post or send at peak viewing times, based on the outlet. 

Twitter usage is highest on weekends and on weekdays between 12 -3 pm. Facebook is stronger on weekdays, mainly from 6-8 am and 2-5 pm.

Email blasts are said to be best sent at 9:30am or 2:30pm on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. We found our open rates were highest at 9:30am on Wednesday. Test what works best for you and stick with it.

During weekdays, post or send about 5-10 minutes before or after the hour, when people are just back or just heading off to a meeting.

Sally Crowley's Blog Post ArtAdd a photo or video to every post.

You can actually double the reach of your posts by including a picture or video.  If you need visuals, try Freepik or make a visual of your own, like I did here using Canva. In fact, the list of sites providing no or low-cost graphics and photos is as long as Rip Van Winkle’s beard. BufferSocial lists 53 viable options on its blog. Don’t be shy. I used to think you could only tweet one picture at a time, but you can add up to four pictures per tweet. And, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, cut your text and say more with less.

You can actually double the reach of your posts by including a picture or video... And, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, cut your text and say more with less.

“It’s not about you.”

Keep people’s interest by mixing up your content. Don’t just talk about your own activities. Sprinkle in links to articles about what’s new in philanthropy, what’s new in your community and how to find out more about the hottest fundraiser of the year. Share others’ posts that relate to your work and your funding. The result: more engagement and wider reach for your organization!

Don’t get in over your head.

If you’re like us here at The John R. Oishei Foundation, you have limited communications staff. It’s tough to join every new social media outlet that pops up. Focus on the best matches for your organization and your staff’s capacity. It’s better to choose a few outlets and maintain them well than to stretch yourself too thin across 20 sites.

Remember to Be Human.

Some of our most highly-read posts are about our staff members or about people that we have helped in some way with our funding or our philanthropic support. we all want to relate to others in a personal way. After all, even though we work in the “business” of philanthropy, isn’t it all really meant to help people live better lives?

What have you tried that’s worked well in the social media scene? 

--Sally Crowley

On New Websites and Transparency
March 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--James E. Canales 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Don S. Doering

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

(Timothy Vollmer is the public policy manager at Creative Commons, which recently received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Timothy about the work this grant will fund.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Timothy Vollmer

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

(Gabriela Fitz is the director of knowledge management initiatives at IssueLab, a service of Foundation Center, which recently received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Gabriela about the work this grant will fund.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Gabriela Fitz

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
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    Director, San Francisco Office
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