Transparency Talk

A Framework to Communicate Philanthropy
May 14, 2014

(Jeannine Corey is director of grants information management at the Foundation Center. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's Philanthropy News Digest Philantopic blog.)

JCoreyLanguage allows us to communicate complex ideas and acquire information using an agreed-on structure and process. Variations in language around the globe increase the level of effort needed to communicate with people across borders, but it's not impossible if you have a way to translate your ideas into a language others can understand.

The Foundation Center is currently undertaking the challenge of devising a language that can be used by philanthropic organizations around the world to tell the story of their work. That common language is crucial for a field as diverse as ours: not too long ago, we determined that U.S. foundations have more than two hundred and fifty ways to describe "general operating support"!

Given how much the sector has grown and evolved over the past few decades, updates to the taxonomy are critical in order for it to more accurately reflect the work of the field and serve as a relevant tool for a 21st-century global philanthropy community.

In 2012, the Foundation Center began to rethink the classification system that has been at the core of our work, a system largely based on the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities structure that we helped create thirty years ago. Given how much the sector has grown and evolved over the past few decades, updates to the taxonomy are critical in order for it to more accurately reflect the work of the field and serve as a relevant tool for a 21st-century global philanthropy community. Why is this important? Because a shared taxonomy makes it easier for grantseekers to find targeted support, helps funders collaborate with each other and identify potential grantees, and assists researchers and academics who are analyzing the work of the sector.

To that end, staff at the Foundation Center have spent eighteen months evaluating our codes, mining the text of the nearly five million grants and one million philanthropic institutions in our database, and cross-referencing that information against other international standards to inform the creation of a revised taxonomic system. Our goal is not to create another standard but to develop a framework that meets the needs of the sector and can serve as a language that organizations use to communicate their work to each other. For example, we've added new subject areas related to information and media, including associated technologies. We've replaced "type of support" with two new categories: support strategy, to reflect the goal or approach behind the actual support, and transaction type, to capture the various forms of philanthropy beyond the cash grant that happen around the world.

As with the language we use in our day-to-day lives, we expect people will use the words and phrases that resonate with them and best serve their needs. Has anyone ever actually used every single word in the English language? Of course not, and the classification system we are developing is designed to function in the same way: use the words and terms that help you communicate your work. And to make sure the parts of the taxonomy that are relevant to your work make sense, we've opened up a draft of the new system for review and comment through May 23, 2014.

Your input is essential, and we invite everyone in the field to join in. Check out the draft taxonomy and then submit your feedback on both its overall structure as well as specific terms. What do you like about it? What's missing? How can we make it better? We want to know. Together, we can create a taxonomy for the field that serves as a common language we can all use to communicate our work to each other.

-- Jeannine Corey

Don’t let the “hairball effect” choke your strategic momentum
May 12, 2014

(Kate Wolford (@KateWolford) is president of The McKnight Foundation (@McKnightFdn).)

6a00e54efc2f808833019aff9f5db2970b-800wiBy design, many foundations deal with complex issues. At The McKnight Foundation, our work includes accelerating the Midwest’s transition to a low-carbon economy, improving water quality along the Mississippi River as it crosses 10 state boundaries, and promoting equitable transit-oriented development throughout the region. The systems in which we operate are often massively entangled and not designed to provide easy solutions for existing and emerging challenges.

So how do we deal with complexity without having it overwhelm us, a.k.a. succumbing to the hairball effect?

McKnightlogoHairballs, as people owned by cats will know, are tangled jumbles that your furry friend will reject and eject when they interfere with the cat’s comfort. I am not sure who first coined the phrase’s usage at McKnight, but it is now a running joke to invoke “the hairball” when our own discomfort arises from complexity and its inherent messiness.

McKnight’s Strategic Framework is predicated on adaptive leadership as a way to advance our goals amid the complexity and uncertainty in which we operate. To develop our strategies, we draw on research, field expertise, and input from stakeholders across the public, private, and civic sectors. Inherently transparent, our approach relies on an open exchange of information with grantees and field experts, informing our understanding of relevant systems and various actors within those systems. We bring discipline to this process as we make judgments about the roles and tools we are best positioned to deploy. In philanthropy-speak, this is how we develop our theory of change for each program.

No matter how thoughtful we are in the initial development of goals and strategies, “stuff happens” along the way — surprises, unexpected turns — that make it essential that our discipline doesn’t morph into dogma.

Then the fun begins. No matter how thoughtful we are in the initial development of goals and strategies, “stuff happens” along the way — surprises, unexpected turns — that make it essential that our discipline doesn’t morph into dogma. Changes in external conditions alter both opportunities and constraints. Implementation is messy in ways that twist and distort elegantly crafted constructs. As we take in and process new data, observations, and insights from grantees and stakeholders, we adapt and adjust to remain relevant and maximize impact. We need to be thoughtful and deliberative while resisting paralysis by analysis. Again transparency is critical here, ensuring grantees and partners are up to speed as our strategies inevitably evolve.

To sustain adaptive leadership through the twists and turns, McKnight draws on a mix of tools and competencies. One useful approach is to seek optimal balance among the parts, the whole, and the greater whole. For example, we have a program focus on climate and energy in our home Midwest region, where we can play key leadership and convening roles in addition to grantmaking. We also seek “climate smart” approaches in several other program areas. Across the board, our work informs and is informed by the greater whole of climate change as a global issue — and we connect all the related parts into one coherent narrative for the Foundation.

This approach allows us to break down complexity into actionable parts that might be harder to spot in the overall framework, while nonetheless honoring that there is a greater whole we shouldn’t ignore just because it’s beyond our current radius of action or bandwidth.

McKnight’s framework of adaptive leadership is supported by competencies we intentionally nurture among our staff team. We hire intelligent people with strong subject expertise. But to fully embrace adaptive leadership, it is equally important that we are intellectually curious as well as rigorous, confident yet humble in our leadership, willing to engage with stakeholders in open and honest dialogue, and comfortable with ambiguity because the world never stops changing around us.

Hairballs happen, despite all our mindfulness. The issues foundations and the nonprofit sector tackle are notoriously complex, and those complexities do sometimes feel overwhelming. But the real trick is in your recovery. Rather than choking on complexities you can’t control or avoid, take a moment to refocus and realign, clear your throat, and carry on.

-- Kate Wolford

Giving Pledge Adds 5 New Members
May 9, 2014

Eye on the Giving Pledge

A press release today announced that 4 new participants have joined the Giving Pledge, the effort launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in 2010 to encourage the world's wealthiest to commit the majority of their assets to philanthropic causes. With the previously unannounced pledge by Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa of Zimbabwe, the total number of pledge signatories now stands at 127. Tech and business services entrepreneurs predominate as does youth, with only one of the new pledgers born before World War II.

Initial profiles for the new signatories are now available as part of the Glasspockets Eye on the Giving Pledge feature. Full profiles will be posted shortly.

  • Ann Gloag OBE
    Perth, UK
  • David Goldberg and Sheryl Sandberg
    Atherton, CA
  • Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa
    Harare, Zimbabwe
  • Natalie and Paul Orfalea
    Santa Barbara, CA
  • Craig Silversten, and Mary Obelnicki
    New York, NY

Since August 2012, Glasspockets has been keeping an Eye on the Giving Pledge, providing an in-depth picture of the participants and their publicly known charitable activities.

Explore the Eye on the Giving Pledge»

-- Daniel Matz

Glasspockets Find: NCRP Launches Philamplify to Give Grantmakers Honest Feedback
May 7, 2014

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the Center's Glasspockets effort.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511ab651c970c-800wiI have been having fun today poking around Philamplify, the new NCRP web site that aims to help grantmakers get an outside perspective on how to improve their effectiveness.  It is rare for grantmakers to be able to get honest feedback, and this goal is at the heart of NCRP’s efforts, and I think that’s what makes the site fun and interesting to explore.

NCRP states that in the coming months it plans to release assessments on the top 100 grantmakers in the country and the site has launched with three in-depth assessments of: Lumina Foundation for Education, the William Penn Foundation, and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.  

Logo-tabletThough I could not easily find reference as to why these three foundations were selected, an exciting aspect seems to be that foundations do not opt in, but rather are selected to participate.  I imagine some funders welcome this like they welcome an IRS audit, but that’s also what makes it an important exercise, since for some it might be the only avenue through which they will get out of what NCRP sees as their “isolation bubble.”  But that’s where I would have appreciated more detail about why these three were selected, and how others can be nominated.  Since the site is set-up for audience interaction, making public which foundations the audience wants to nominate to be assessed next could be a welcome addition.

Philamplify’s assessments combine research and analysis on the work of foundations with the voices of stakeholders.  Assessments include key findings and recommendations, along with in-depth analysis of foundations’ funding strategies.  And given my work on Glasspockets and my belief in the power of transparency to change philanthropy for the better, I was heartened to see ample space and thought devoted to recommendations around improving foundation transparency.

Of course grantmakers frequently hire firms to give them this kind of feedback, but often that knowledge and feedback remain internal and if shared, only in summary form, and the foundation as the client controls the process.  In this case the entire assessment is publicly shared and visitors to the web site can actually vote on whether or not they agree with the recommendations, and send a direct message to the executives at the foundation in question.

...foundations can often be inflexible with their grantees, so perhaps it’s a positive thing to let foundations have the experience of being at the mercy of a bureaucracy they don’t control?

And in terms of control, from what I can tell of reading the methodology for the William Penn Foundation’s assessments, it seems once selected by NCRP, a foundation cannot opt out.  Apparently the William Penn Foundation was going through a leadership transition at the time NCRP was to conduct the audit, so the foundation requested that the process be postponed until the transition was complete.  “But to provide timely, actionable feedback in the interests of the communities the foundation seeks to benefit, NCRP decided to proceed.”

If the aim of the assessment is to influence the leadership of the foundation to change for the better, this seems a little inflexible to me.  And it does raise the question of how much change can one effect if the subject of one’s assessment is an unwilling subject? Then again, foundations can often be inflexible with their grantees, so perhaps it’s a positive thing to let foundations have the experience of being at the mercy of a bureaucracy they don’t control? Take a look and let Transparency Talk know what you think in the space below or directly on the Philamplify site.

-- Janet Camarena

Sharing What We've Learned: Evaluation Spending
May 5, 2014

(Fay Twersky is Director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.)

Twersky-150“We are conducting a scan of foundation practices so that we can inform our own efforts about… Would you be willing to talk with us about your foundation practices?” Fill in the blank. It might be about foundation strategy development, due diligence practices, grant monitoring, grantee relationships, board materials, evaluation practices, organizational learning approaches, and the list goes on. Several times each week, I receive this kind of request from other foundation colleagues or from the consultants they hire. I have also made these calls myself and commissioned many such scans from consultants. The results of these efforts can be useful and informative. They can give us new ideas and useful benchmarks.

The problem is that these scans are rarely shared. There are lots of reasons given for why—“it was just a quick scan,” “it was just for internal purposes,” “It would take too much time to verify all of the information and we just wanted to get a directional sense of the field.” And so forth. All of these are real reasons. I’ve even used a few of them myself over the years. But I’ve come to think that it is a bad habit we have developed in the foundation world and that we all lose out because of this bad habit. We lose the ability for accumulated knowledge, for benchmarking practices, and for catalyzing dialogue about how foundations work and why.

I am trying to break the habit. I am going to try to share the information I gather in the scans I conduct or commission at the Hewlett Foundation, beginning with this brief scan we conducted to benchmark spending on evaluation. Last year, our Board asked how much should we be spending on evaluation. It was a reasonable question. As I was preparing to answer the question, I wanted to draw on the latest benchmarking data for evaluation spending. Only there was none. The last published spending benchmark was several years old, published by the Evaluation Roundtable in 2010 using data from 2009. And the evaluation world was changing rapidly. Many more foundations were building evaluation functions and I wanted more recent data.

So I conducted my own brief scan, contacting colleagues who lead strong evaluation functions and asked them about their spending levels. I incorporated those benchmarks as points of comparison and folded it into additional analysis that we conducted with the Hewlett Foundation’s own data, and prepared a memo to answer our Board’s question. As part of our November 2013 board meeting, we had a discussion about how much we should be spending on evaluation, and the Board endorsed our recommendations.

I am sharing a distillation of this memo. The memo is not perfect. The scan is not comprehensive. My colleagues offered all sorts of caveats about the information they provided. But it was useful for us. And I share it now in case it is useful for others.

-- Fay Twersky

Webinar and podcast on foundation transparency available
May 2, 2014

Opening Up CoverRecently, Glasspockets and GrantCraft held a webinar in partnership with Community Foundations of Canada, on the how and why of increased foundation transparency. Jen Bokoff, director of GrantCraft, and Janet Camarena, director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and head of the Glasspockets effort, outlined highlights from each chapter of the new guide, Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency. Also featured were clips from GrantCraft's podcast mini-series on transparency, which was designed as an online companion to the guide. 

Opening Up encourages foundations to implement transparency strategies, including increased web presence, clarifying and posting grantee guidelines and qualifications, and making internal reports (including performance and program assessments) accessible to the public. Why transparency? According to Opening Up, "Transparency can help foundations build and strengthen relationships that can ultimately help them make a bigger and stronger impact." Strategies, as well as an overview of the guide and portions of the podcast are available in the recording of the webinar here

Be sure to check out the Transparency Chat mini-series on GrantCraft for more transparency tips and strategies.

-- Eliza Smith

Read All About It: “Foundation Plans to Stay In Business Forever!”
April 30, 2014

(Bruce Trachtenberg was executive director of the Communications Network  from 2006-2013. He currently serves as an advisor to the Network. This post originally appeared on the Communications Network blog.)

6a00e54efc2f808833014e8887ecc4970d-800wiI recently sat in on a Philanthropy New York panel discussion that asked a very simple question, “Why do foundations choose to go on forever?”

That question, which was prompted by attention being paid to the recent uptick in the number of foundations that intend to spend themselves out of business, got me thinking.

When a foundation makes the decision to close down, that’s considered news. But what about foundations that plan to keep going forever, don’t they have some obligation to publicly explain why?

Again, take the case of foundations spending down, and the considerable effort expended to make sure others know the thinking behind the decision.

When a foundation makes the decision to close down, that’s considered news. But what about foundations that plan to keep going forever, don’t they have some obligation to publicly explain why?

For example, the Atlantic Philanthropies, a “limited life foundation” planning to distribute its entire endowment and close its doors by 2020, states on its website:

In keeping with the founder’s Giving While Living philosophy, we believe in making large investments to capitalise on significant opportunities to solve urgent problems now, so they are less likely to become larger, more entrenched and more expensive challenges later.

Another example is the Quixote Foundation, which also plans to go out of business in the next few years, by “spending up”–an event which, they also describe as something to celebrate:

Current events point to a landmark chance to make the most of our assets, and we can’t wait. Between now and 2017, Quixote Foundation will spend all of its money into progressive work, using the entire endowment.

But what about foundations that plan to keep going and going and going? How much time or attention, if any, do they devote to publicly discussing their reasons for doing so?

In the Philanthropy New York session, the rationale panelists gave for their foundations choosing perpetuity over limited life seemed to rest on a belief that they can do more good over the long haul than in the immediate. Or as Jane O’Connell, president,Altman Foundation, said, “Spending down provides quick fix, but we’ve decided to stay at the table for hopefully the next 100 years.”

Regardless of the reason foundations opt for perpetuity, by sharing their reasons publicly they can also further understanding of the role of philanthropy in society and the good it aims to do, whether now or later.

Also, if staying in business forever is a question that gets revisited every so often–one expert suggests it’s a conversation trustees have at least once a decade–again, the fact the conversation took place seems like something to disclose.

What do you think? Do foundations need to explain why they plan to be around forever?

-- Bruce Trachtenberg

Glasspockets Find: The Ford Foundation’s Un-Survey Invites Inquiring Minds
April 28, 2014

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the Center's Glasspockets effort.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511634173970c-800wiEveryone who has ever raised funds from foundations quickly learns that grantmaking professionals excel at asking questions—lots of them.  From the submission of the letter of inquiry to the completion of an online grants application form, to the face-to-face meeting with a funder, a grantseeker can face a seemingly endless series of questions.  In a refreshing change of pace, the Ford Foundation’s new Un-Survey puts its users in the interviewer’s chair, and invites its community to publicly ask the questions they wish the foundation would use its web site to answer.  In addition to posing a query, one can also view all of the questions that have already been asked, and then vote on the submitted questions to let the foundation know which ones are of most interest to its audience.

BrandmarkThe goal of the Un-Survey is to help inform the Ford Foundation’s web redesign process, and hopefully to unearth suggestions through this process that a traditional survey might have missed.  The thinking behind this is that in a traditional survey model, the questions asked have built-in assumptions and are shaped by the thinking of the survey writers themselves, and that the Un-Survey will serve to eliminate those assumptions and avoid leading its audience in a particular direction framed by the foundation.  It will be interesting to see if the Un-Survey lives up to this expectation, but at this early stage it seems a great example of an effort to expand participation, transparency, and accountability since anyone can ask a question, vote on those questions already asked, and help inform the direction of not just the web design, but ultimately of answers and knowledge to be shared.

In preparation for the Un-Survey Launch, Ford invited some well-known inquiring minds to get the inquiry started, and as a result some questions have already been submitted from Lucy Bernholz, Ben Hecht and Jillian York and others.  But in my view, the really important thing about the Un-Survey is that it is not only for thought leaders or a select few.  We are all being invited to be thought partners of the Ford Foundation.  What kind of transparency do you want to see on the Ford Foundation’s redesigned site?  Go ahead and ask. Maybe we will discover the path to an Un-Grant Application in the process!

-- Janet Camarena

Leadership and the Lessons of Change
April 21, 2014

(Grant Coates is President and CEO of The Miles Foundation, a Fort Worth-based foundation seeking to foster a thriving local community through innovative investments in education, economic opportunity, and leadership development. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's GrantCraft blog.)

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” - W. Edwards Deming

Grant_Coates_headshotI love this quote, because it reflects the necessity of change to stay relevant, but also our inherent reluctance to take that step forward. At The Miles Foundation this past year, we’ve certainly pushed ourselves to implement changes we believe will help propel us forward and build stronger partnerships – even when it has felt a little uncomfortable.

The great part of change, though, is what you learn through the process of transformation. With our first-ever Annual Report, a fresh website and new grantee stories published (along with an inaugural social media presence), our intentional focus on transparency and connectivity has been an exciting and informative journey.

One of the areas in which we have concentrated much of our efforts and gained significant insight is our grantee selection process – a key focus area noted in the GrantCraft and Glasspockets guide “Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency.”

What we received through the exercise of revising our grantee selection process – in addition to a more efficient, effective, and transparent approach – was a welcome revelation about the important role of leadership in our grantee partnerships.

This discovery began as we examined each of our grantee selection phases, so that we could clearly delineate (for our grantee candidates and ourselves) the specific evaluative criteria for each. Our three distinct phases included:

  • An on-site evaluation, which allows us to see, feel, and touch the grantee organization – observing how it functions on a daily basis, experiencing what the environment is like, and interacting one-on-one with its staff members;
  • A letter of interest, which enables us to efficiently sort through initial grant inquiries based on a set number of criteria, and select those that fit with our mission and funding profiles; and
  • A full application evaluation, which prompts us to ask detailed questions about the organization, its proposed program, and how it will measure success, to determine whether the grantee is an ideal partnership candidate.

For each of these selection phases, we identified qualification criteria, and ensured that certain evaluative factors carried more weight than others. Heavily weighted criteria, such as a nonprofit’s track record of achievement, an innovative program idea, or a well-designed plan could influence our likelihood of funding a particular program.

But we quickly began to see that one critical factor continued to rise above the rest. We found that effective leadership was the one element that was consistently present in successful programs, and thus, we concluded, would be one of the most significant indicators of a program’s potential for success and therefore our likelihood of funding.

It is easy to assume that every successful organization has it, but leadership often is what separates the “good” from the “great.”

Leadership is somewhat of an obvious success metric, but it’s hard to quantify, outside of past performance and experience. It is easy to assume that every successful organization has it, but leadership often is what separates the “good” from the “great.” The presence of powerful leadership is almost tangible – it’s a spirit that employees exude, a confidence that the organization embodies, and an impact that’s measurable – true leadership is, in short, a game-changer in the grantee selection process.

What can leadership do? It can drive a program agenda, inspire better results, and maintain accountability to a standard of excellence. Surely, we have seen that without strong leadership at the executive or management levels, even the best-laid plans can be thwarted. And so, leadership is now one of the key criteria we use when evaluating our potential partners.

Perhaps this discovery should not have been as much of a surprise. At The Miles Foundation, we believe in the power of leadership, as it’s one of our three core funding profiles. And as we move forward, our emphasis on leadership, both in our funding and our grantee selection process, will undoubtedly continue to grow.

Regardless, this past year has taught us that change is a good thing. For The Miles Foundation, we’ll embrace our continued path of transformation and discovery, with the hope that each revelation along the way will help guide us, and make us stronger, for the future.

-- Grant Coates

Gripes and Grievances: How having an applicant and grantee “complaint” policy improves relationships
April 14, 2014

(Rebecca H. Donham is senior program officer at the MetroWest Health Foundation, an independent health philanthropy addressing the unmet health needs of the 25-town MetroWest region of Massachusetts.)

Rebecca Donham headshotThe MetroWest Health Foundation was created from the sale of a community asset – a two-campus suburban hospital.  As such, we feel a tremendous responsibility to the residents of the 25 towns we serve.  We’ve been entrusted with funds and seek to invest them wisely, both in terms of revenue generation as well as the grant distribution side.

We also embrace best practices. As a health funder, we understand there are programs and interventions that are evidence based, and therefore known to work. Since our founding 15 years ago, we’ve worked to encourage applicants to embrace best practices.

We welcome potential applicants and community members to meet with staff at any time, either before or after grant decisions. Our board meetings are even open to the public, including free dinner!

There are best practices for funders in terms of transparency and we have incorporated those into our work. We have a searchable grant database that allows anyone to see all the grants we’ve made and for what purposes. We post our financials, board and committee members, performance dashboards, strategic plans and other information on our website. We welcome potential applicants and community members to meet with staff at any time, either before or after grant decisions. Our board meetings are even open to the public, including free dinner!

Given the organization’s historical commitment to transparency, it makes sense that in 2007 the foundation’s board of trustees adopted a policy for handling complaints by applicants and grantees. The trustees viewed it as a way of walking the walk and fostering good community relations. The policy makes clear that grant and scholarship decisions are final and not subject to appeal, but that if there are complaints about the foundation’s grant process or work, we have a formal procedure to address them.

We post this policy on our website (, along with ones addressing conflicts of interest, compensation, whistle blowing, site visits and sustainability. The last two go even further than what Glasspockets recommends and they speak to our strong commitment to transparency. Foundations can be seen as secretive and arbitrary, and we frequently are praised for being so up-front about how we do our work.

The foundation recently completed its third iteration of the Grantee Perception Report, the results of which (not surprisingly) are published on our web site. I think it is no coincidence that the foundation was rated higher than 90% of foundations in terms of our relationship with grantees. The results were similar in terms of how fairly grantees felt we treated them (>92%) and how comfortable they felt approaching us if a problem arose (>97%).

I would argue that there is zero downside to having a complaint policy. We’ve never had a complaint filed and having the policy publicly available on our website sends a message to the community that we care about fairness and transparency. Some might think this means grantee complaint and response mechanisms are not worth the investment, but quite to the contrary we find it supports and complements our organizational culture that prizes treating everyone respectfully and professionally. Maybe it’s because we’re a health funder, but we think it holds true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

-- Rebecca H. Donham

About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, San Francisco Office
    The Foundation Center

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