Transparency Talk

Tracking Outcomes: The Message is “Keep it Simple”
June 25, 2014

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiEarlier this month, I attended a meeting the SF Bay Area Chapter of the Technology Affinity Group (TAG), focused on how technology tools can improve grant performance measurement, particularly if grantmakers are careful to not overcomplicate the process. Several representatives from foundations across the Bay Area convened to discuss outcomes tracking, and new technology platforms and methods that foundations are using to provide more accurate and concise data on grant activities and impact. Three speakers gave presentations on the subject: Kevin Rafter, Manager of Impact Assessment and Learning at the James Irvine Foundation; Anna Lindgren, Assistant to the President at the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment; and Rem Hoffman, Chief Executive Officer at Exponent Partners.

The Foundation has managed to scale down its entire tracking system, mixing quantitative and qualitative data examine where their grantees are in the implementation process: the end result is a clean and accessible data model.

Each speaker addressed the need for a simplification of outcomes tracking. Rafter used the phrase “simplify and smallify,” which the Irvine Foundation has used as a sort of mantra for revising their grantee performance tracking system. The Foundation has managed to scale down its entire tracking system, mixing quantitative and qualitative data examine where their grantees are in the implementation process: the end result is a clean and accessible data model. Moreover, the Foundation is doing its best to alleviate the stress that surrounds evaluation by shifting the focus from stringent observation and measurement analysis to develop a culture of learning. With this shift in focus, Rafter explained that the stigma of evaluation and the threat it presents to programs should evaporate; the Foundation will examine outcomes of various grants holistically with an emphasis on learning, betterment, and experimentation.

Lindgren relayed the Campbell Foundation’s experience developing and more recently, completely overhauling, their custom outcomes tracking model. The Foundation initially worked to create a complex taxonomy for analyzing the products of grant use. Lindgren and her colleagues quickly found that their system was clunky and unwieldy: while they had classifications for various outcomes, there were so many categories that the taxonomy ultimately proved unhelpful. Similar to Rafter and his staff at the Irvine Foundation, Lindgren and her team found that a shift to a much simpler, pared-down system provided far more usable data. Currently, the Campbell Foundation’s team is working on developing data visualizations to accompany their “smallified” outcomes tracking system.

Finally, Hoffman presented on his company, Exponent Partners. Hoffman and his team provide nonprofits with customizable databases that track outcomes and generate analyses of program impact. Much like Rafter and Lindgren, Hoffman emphasized the importance of standardization and simplification of outcomes tracking.

Following the presentations, the entire group discussed the merits of standardization for not only outcomes tracking, but the philanthropic sector at large. Jeannine Corey’s blog post about the Foundation Center’s effort to develop a new taxonomy came up: the call for standardization is increasing exponentially. As we seek out new ways to develop a common language sector-wide, we promote openness, understanding, and transparency between foundations, organizations, and the benefitting public.

How has your foundation or organization benefitted from implementing simplified, “smallified,” or standardized practices?

-- Eliza Smith

IssueLab’s Collection Offers Important Example for the Field of Philanthropy
June 17, 2014

(Ned Schaub is principal at Ned Schaub Consulting – Social Change Strategy, and has collaborated with palliative care organizations and leaders around the country for a decade. He helps organizations, including foundations and their grantees, articulate the social change they will achieve, and related sustainability, business, and strategic plans.)

1390262883Almost a decade ago I had the good fortune to be asked by a foundation to look into potential grantmaking in the fields of hospice and palliative care, which led to a master’s thesis about palliative care grantmaking and the advancement of the field. I was struck then by the relatively limited ways that foundations working in the field collaborated, and the degree to which many foundations had no idea what palliative care was.

Certainly a lot has changed in the last ten years, but after seeing IssueLab’s newly launched collection, Improving Access to Palliative Care, I had to wonder what might have happened if this collection of documents had existed then? How much faster might the foundation I worked for have investigated the possibilities, and how much more compelling might the opportunities for social change and return on grantmaking investment have been?

Many in the field of palliative care are working hard to foster greater transparency between healthcare professionals and patients, making choices more obvious and decision-making easier for patients and their families. This represents a real shift from the traditional model where doctors held most, if not all, the decision-making authority.

Many in the field of palliative care are working hard to foster greater transparency between healthcare professionals and patients, making choices more obvious and decision-making easier for patients and their families. This represents a real shift from the traditional model where doctors held most, if not all, the decision-making authority. Fittingly, this new collection of palliative care documents from IssueLab also does the same for philanthropy, encouraging greater transparency about what we have learned from years of work in the field of palliative care, potentially helping to make funding choices more obvious and decision-making easier for grantmakers.

The collection includes more than eighty documents that bring together “evidence and insights about the millions of people who are denied access to palliative care and what organizations worldwide are doing to help them.” It was made possible by support from Atlantic Philanthropies, which has invested $58.5 million in palliative care over the last decade and is now considering the best ways to extend its legacy as it prepares to close its doors in 2020.

The documents included in the collection represent knowledge gained by Atlantic, other foundations, practitioners, and nonprofits – as opposed to strictly clinical or academic research entities. The documents offer a vivid demonstration of just how much hard work has gone into advancing palliative care and make obvious the different ways that foundations have contributed to creating change in this field. It is a rich collection, which groups the documents into categories indicated by three key questions about palliative care: Who is affected? What are common barriers? What are some recommended solutions?

While the collection is an asset to the field of palliative care advancement generally speaking, it also has special significance for palliative care philanthropy going forward. Because of the way it has been set up it serves as rich repository for those seeking to initiate palliative care grantmaking, as well as for foundations already working in the field that want to make deeper impact and work in more strategic and sustainable ways. By focusing on what has already been realized by philanthropy – which is represented so vividly in this collection – there is a real opportunity to beat the learning curve and ensure greater return on investment with foundation dollars.  

Just as importantly, the collection is a model for how foundations could better support the gathering of key information, related to their work. It seems that foundations are more likely to reflect, and to invest time and resources, when they are leaving a particular field or closing their doors altogether. While such reflection is valuable, foundations could be learning more from one another and advancing more highly strategic grantmaking with greater collective impact if they built such thoughtfully organized repositories well before they ended their efforts. So much information-gathering and decision-making carried out by foundations is recorded in internal documents that are never shared beyond staff, consultant, and board teams. What if more of these documents were made public through outlets like IssueLab?

-- Ned Schaub

Transparency in Family Foundations: The Strength of Glasspockets
June 9, 2014

(Jean Whitney is former executive director of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation and a current board member of Associated Grant Makers.  She has decades of experience in working with family foundations. A version of this post appeared earlier on Family Giving News.)

Jean-whitney-150x150Family foundations, by their very nature, are complex. With significant involvement of family members on the board and sometimes in operations as well, there can be layers of generations, widely divergent views, and the need to preserve positive family relationships.  This complexity is a challenge but not an excuse for avoiding transparency or openness about how family foundations do their work.

At the recent National Forum on Family Philanthropy in Cambridge, MA sponsored by the National Center for Family Philanthropy, a session on Transparency in the Family Philanthropy Context did much to illuminate the continuum of viewpoints on the issue as well as to provide valuable resources to improve practice.

With advances in technology and social media, the question today is not whether or not to be transparent, but how to be transparent – and how far to take your efforts to be fully transparent.

Why worry about transparency?  On one end of the spectrum of views is the argument that many families prefer to do their philanthropic work quietly, with some degree of privacy for their choice of interest and funding decisions.  Humility is, after all, part of the tradition of American philanthropy and too much transparency can bring interest from parties ranging from friends and business colleagues to government regulators.  On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that all foundations have an obligation to be accountable to the public and that being accountable requires some degree of openness.  The conversation about foundation accountability also includes the question of foundation impact.  Can a foundation establish trust, create partnerships, and achieve the outcomes it desires without being transparent? With advances in technology and social media, the question today is not whether or not to be transparent, but how to be transparent – and how far to take your efforts to be fully transparent. “The data is out there…,” they say, and the most effective families invest in managing how information about their giving and practice is shared.

Best practices for foundations aiming for greater transparency include basics like having a web site, posting guidelines and listing grants. As someone who has worked in the field of family philanthropy for many years, I think my colleagues in the field will find the Foundation Center and its Glasspockets web site to be a great resource.  Glasspockets resources include a helpfullist of 23 indicators of transparency and accountability for foundations and also a wealth of practical resources to assist any foundation in becoming more transparent.  The site even includes a “Foundation Web Builder” service to help foundations get started if they lack a web presence.  The name of the web site comes from a quote by Russell Leffingwell, a banker and Carnegie Foundation board member, testifying in 1952 before a Congressional Committee investigating foundations for the support of un-American activities.  He said, “So far as there is a justification -- and I am sure there is -- for the existence of these institutions, it is that they serve the public good. If they are not willing to tell what they do to serve the public good, then as far as I am concerned they ought to be closed down.” And one of his most quoted statements is that "We think that the foundation should have glass pockets."  

A key distinction discussed by the session participants was  between transparency about the “product” of a foundation’s work (e.g., grants, results against strategies, etc) and the “process” it uses (meeting deliberations, criteria for funding, internal planning documents, board selection and terms). Many family foundations would agree that sharing much of the process publicly can be difficult.  And that it’s unnecessary.  While younger family members who are used to sharing everything in their lives on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram may disagree, more experienced family members say that intentional dialogues and training can help tap the best of both perspectives and encourage a practice that lies somewhere in between.

Whether or not a foundation makes an effort to share information publicly about its work, there is already plenty of information out there. The 990s have been accessible to the public for some time, but the next few years will bring the advent of mandatory online tax filing.  In addition, new web sites have sprung up that invite public ratings of foundations and invite feedback from stakeholders to assess foundations

Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, advises that the best way for the field of philanthropy to be responsible and to protect itself is to be proactive and to frame its work. For a family foundation, this starts with developing a web site where it can tell its story, talk about its interests and share its aspirations.  The unique stories of families are often both compelling and inspirational. Why leave information about the family’s history, passions and work for others to interpret when you can communicate this most clearly yourselves?  This takes some work, but so many resources exist and a lot can be accomplished in short order.

Many foundations may find that the path to being more open leads to thoughtful discussions on present efforts and future directions.  This can only translate into becoming more effective and spur greater collaboration.  Who knew that having glass pockets could add such strength?

-- Jean Whitney

Mission: Critical Transparency in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
June 4, 2014

(G. Albert Ruesga is the president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.)

Ruesga-150Next year we mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I can’t say it will be a defining moment for our city or for our foundation—so many of these occurred shortly after the storm. But it will be an important time to reflect on what’s changed and what hasn’t changed over the past decade.

Katrina’s landfall in August of 2005 was a wake-up call for the city’s leadership. Clearly, whatever the Foundation had done to serve New Orleans and the region before Katrina needed to be re-imagined.

Early in the aftermath of the storm, the Greater New Orleans Foundation worked in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to help lead a planning process for the city called the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). This planning process, which sought input from as many residents and neighborhoods as possible, identified affordable housing as a top priority. This was not surprising in light of the colossal destruction of the storm.

This was a big step for the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an opening up, the beginning of a commitment to draw our knowledge and strength from outside our walls.

The Foundation got to work. Not long after the UNOP plan, the Foundation designed and implemented a $25 million initiative to support the creation of mixed-income, mixed-used affordable housing and also, initially, to help city government, community development corporations, and other agencies get back on their feet. Twenty-one local and national foundations contributed to the fund and worked together to share data, knowledge, and expertise. The initiative was enormously successful, helping over 9,000 residents find affordable homes and strengthening key housing organizations in the city.

Since that time, the Foundation has remained committed to ever-greater community engagement in its work. We’ve done this in small steps.

We began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines.

Early on, for example, we began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines. We used a design team composed of grantees to determine the form and content of our emerging work in organizational effectiveness (a.k.a. “capacity building”). Now in its fourth year, our organizational effectiveness work often uses “communities of practice,” cohorts of grantees who act as co-designers and co-leaders of these learning communities. We were one of the first foundations to open key pages of our website to comments and criticism from community members, committing to respond to these in no less than 48 hours.

Our commitment to increased community engagement extended to our donors as well. For several years we hosted a program called “Circle Talks” in which members of our donor community were invited to learn about our work and to push back, suggesting new approaches for rebuilding the region and holding us accountable to our mission.

We’ve also done something I believe few other foundations have: in our discretionary grantmaking guidelines we describe not only what we fund, but why; we provide a rationale for what we include in our guidelines as well as what we exclude. This is an invitation for grantees and others to challenge and thereby improve our thinking.

We’re still learning how to make our organization more transparent, more porous, more open to the influence of our stakeholders. We aim for what we call “mission-appropriate” transparency, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because without it our work would clearly suffer.

 -- G. Albert Ruesga

Why Grantmakers Need Intelligent Failure
May 29, 2014

(Ashley Good is the CEO and Founder of Fail Forward, which supports organizations to learn, innovate and build resilience. On July 9th, 2014 in Toronto she will host Fail Forward 2014, a full day of thought-provoking ideas, useful tools and practices, and truly novel experiences to help us redefine our relationship with failure.)

Good-150Four years ago, while working with a UN-funded agriculture project in northern Ghana, the team and I started to see flaws in the way the project had been designed: farmer registration requirements took farmers out of their fields during harvest season; procuring local contractors for construction was more time intensive than expected; and funding mechanisms had been designed before the 2008 crash so didn’t reflect current realities.

When the UN evaluator flew in from Rome to assess the project, he asked all the right questions. But instead of speaking up about the shortcomings of the project, our team kept quiet, not wanting to rock the boat.  After all, my colleagues and I were pretty good at our jobs and had found ways of working around the design failures. If we spoke up, we may get fired and be replaced by someone who wouldn’t bother to find ways around the challenges. Besides, we justified to ourselves, nothing would change anyway. 

So nothing did change and the design failures we didn’t share are doomed to be repeated.

Everything changed when I returned to Canada. I took a position at Engineers Without Borders Canada, leading their annual Failure Report. I saw first-hand that a dialogue about failures was incredibly powerful for building agility and resilience into the DNA of an organization.

I wanted to spread the practice of speaking openly about failure in the for-purpose sector and so built the website where anyone could submit stories of failure and learning. I built a sector wide failure report.

Ironically, the site was a failure and only thirty stories have been submitted. That said, I have done dozens of media interviews, countless blogs have written about the site, and academic after academic still call me hoping to study it.

It failed to be the database for learning I had envisioned, but it has started to flip the idea of failure on its head for funders and their grantees. You’re not underperforming if you fail, you’re underperforming if you don’t discuss and learn from that failure.  The site was different from what came before because it wasn’t about pointing fingers or finding someone to “hold accountable”, but rather it was about driving that critical self-reflection of what can you do better. It represented the mindset I needed to speak up when I was in Ghana.

 The failure of Admitting Failure showed me how hard it was to bridge that gap between knowing we should discuss failures openly and actually doing it in practice.  This insight led me to start the organization I now run, Fail Forward, which works directly with organizations to create a more productive relationship with failure so that learning and innovation can thrive.

The shift toward a transparent, learning culture in the for-purpose sector - one where failures are treated as teachable moments, and aren’t repeated - is possible and it starts with funders acting as role models for the entire sector.

I’ve now been a full-time failure for over three years and I can confidently say I have seen huge steps in the willingness and ability of for-purpose people and organizations to be open about their challenges, missteps and failures. The shift toward a transparent, learning culture in the for-purpose sector - one where failures are treated as teachable moments, and aren’t repeated - is possible and it starts with funders acting as role models for the entire sector.

Laura Dowling was one of the first academics who got in touch with me years ago. She was studying if admitting mistakes in development and humanitarian aid effected public trust in the organization which admitted to the mistake. Her research is now complete and she found “admitting failure makes no difference to public trust or indeed willingness to donate money.”  More important, she also “found strong evidence to suggest that public trust is strongly correlated with public perceptions of transparency.”

Funders need to create a space where failures, your own and those of your grantees, can be discussed productively, with humility and curiosity for what was learned and a willingness to adapt. Time your reflection and evaluation to when you can use that learning to inform future investments. And make sure failures are shared, not repeated.

Some questions for reflection:

  • What’s stopping you?
  • What does “right-sized” transparency look like at your organization?  As in, not everything needs a full post-mortem and Failure Report – what is the appropriate level of transparency that is ideal for learning and impact?
  • How will you make sure any reporting you ask for is what is useful for learning?
  • How will you and your grantees learn through the project, not just after it? As Marilyn Darling says, “We over-emphasize learning from a past event and totally under-emphasize the importance of learning through current events.”
  • What would it look like to engage your board in a discussion that builds up their tolerance and understanding for the value of taking risks (and thus seeing some grants fail) in the interest of innovation?

-- Ashley Good

Justin Bieber vs. the Gates Foundation
May 27, 2014

(Brad Smith is president of the Foundation Center. To learn more about what's trending with foundations and social media, click here.)

Bks-150When it comes to social media and "crowds," the largest philanthropic foundation in the world is no match for Justin Bieber. Not even close. As the graphic below shows, over the thirty-day period from November 3 to December 3,"Justin Bieber" was mentioned in 40,596,304 tweets while the "Gates Foundation" appeared in just 4,765.


This somewhat crazy comparison offers some important lessons for philanthropy as foundations struggle to measure their grantees' (and their own) online impact.

Lesson #1 — "Crowdsourcing" requires a CROWD

The professionals that really understand crowdsourcing work for companies like eBay, not for philanthropic foundations. But like most of us, foundation program officers have learned enough about all this stuff to be dangerous and increasingly pepper their grantees with questions and suggestions about crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing works best when knowledge can be built on the clicks of very large numbers of people involved in relatively simple market-based activities such as shopping and travel, or where new markets can be created, as we are beginning to see with crowdfunding. Crowdsourcing in the philanthropic space, on the other hand, has by and large been a failure, and there is a trail of dead wikis to prove it.

Lesson #2 — Scale is a relative concept

Justin Bieber has scale, and so does the Gates Foundation. The crucial difference is that young Bieber's is driven by the mass-market appeal of the entertainment industry, while the Gates Foundation operates in a niche market. As important as the issues — agricultural development, malaria prevention, vaccine delivery — that drive the Gates Foundation are, they will never attract the kind of attention that a successful pop singer does. And as much as I might like to live in a world in which the 900 million people who do not have access to safe water are as important to the Twitterverse as the latest boy band, I do not. It has nothing to do with "fair" or "right"; it just "is." Philanthropy as a whole has achieved scale online: collectively, America's foundations have 4.5 million followers on Twitter. But philanthropy's scale is relative, and even though its reach is far greater than it was just a decade ago — and continues to grow — it will always lag mass social media trends. Meanwhile, Justin Bieber alone has nearly 49 million Twitter followers!

Lesson #3 — Foundations' (limited) online traffic is commensurate with their unique offline role

The niche market that is philanthropy exists precisely because there are still too many important needs in the world that markets and governments cannot (or will not) meet. Government, when working well, can be effective at delivering vital services such as education and sanitation and in holding up standards that cross boundaries and span the globe. Foundations, however, have a more nuanced, offstage role to play, using their relatively limited resources to address problems that fall between the cracks, test new ideas, and take an occasional risk. Foundations' predilection for acting in a low-key way also has roots in the oft-professed humility of wealthy donors who create foundations. The result? Offstage + humbleness = offline. Fewer than 7 percent of America's foundations have websites, so it should come as no surprise that we are not exactly the talk of the town on Twitter.

I suppose this post, in the end, is a call for philanthropy to get real when it comes to social media. We have long since resigned ourself to the fact that our tweets won't spur mass movements around our most cherished ideas and programs. Which doesn't mean we should give up. Now is the time to build a meaningful, lasting relationship with social media and whatever form of frictionless communication lurks just offstage. Foundations need to have realistic expectations about their grantees' reach, as well as their own, and accept that we will never be truly competitive in a medium that increasingly is dominated by entertainment, sports, and global brands. At the same time, philanthropy has to get better at communications, much better, and social media is an essential tool for doing that. Justin Bieber may be off the charts in terms of followers, but when it comes to message quality, the Gates Foundation rules.

-- Brad Smith

Wanna Hangout? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Use of Google Hangouts
May 21, 2014

(Eliza Smith is the Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco. She recently interviewed Erin Kelly and Susan Dentzer from the RWJF to learn about their experience with hosting Google Hangouts.)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), America's largest public Eliza Smithhealth-focused philanthropy, is using Google Hangout to hold virtual panel discussions the first Friday of every  month. The Foundation has been using this social media tool to increase transparency around its work since November of 2013 and is finding these offereings have been very well-received. The foundation treats the platform as an opportunity to open its doors to its stakeholders and the general public so they can explore one of the foundation’s current projects, efforts, or campaigns in-depth and cost-free.

RWJF logoThe most recent Hangout was held on Friday, May 2 in partnership with the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) on its latest campaign, "Choose Wisely." The Choosing Wisely effort promotes patient empowerment, encouraging doctors and leaders in healthcare to inform consumers against employing expensive, superfluous, and potentially dangerous procedures and treatments. The Hangout platform promoted collaboration with doctors, patients, and healthcare professionals; moreover it championed transparency, inviting the general public to tweet (using #RWJF1stFri and @RWFJ) or submit their questions and comments to Google+. Past Hangout themes have centered on the cost and quality of healthcare, country-wide health rankings, innovative ways of delivering healthcare, and interest in new ways of employing and analyzing health data.

We believe these Hangouts can be effective in convening experts on an issue, increasing transparency to the work and partners we have the pleasure to be engaged with, and a means to expand the discussion beyond the those ‘in the room.’
Erin Kelly Erin Kelly
RWJF social media manager Susan Dentzer Susan Dentzer
RWJF senior policy adviser

The RWJF has a strong track record with social media, using tools like Twitter and Facebook so that grantees can connect with its leaders and grantmakers. Erin Kelly, social media manager at the Foundation, says they have been using these tools “to share insight into the issues and projects we’ve invested in across our areas of investments. Oftentimes these discussions are jumping off from an in-person convening or recent research or developments in the field. We believe they can be effective in convening experts on an issue, increasing transparency to the work and partners we have the pleasure to be engaged with, and a means to expand the discussion beyond the those ‘in the room.’”

Susan Dentzer, senior policy adviser to the RWJF, likens the Hangouts to “mini conferences” and sees them as alternative ways of facilitating communication between the Foundation and the general public. “As much information as the Foundation puts out on the web site, many grantees sometimes feel like they don’t understand what’s going on at the RWJF,” Dentzer says. “The Hangouts are an opportunity for grantees to get a sense of what’s going on at the Foundation.” And the best part about these Hangouts? “They are low-cost and low-effort,” as Dentzer says; thus, staff at the Foundation don’t feel spent after conducting a Hangout as they might holding an actual conference, leaving energy and enthusiasm for the next month’s session.

While the First Friday sessions have been popular and widely attended, the RWJF is developing more metrics for measuring the impact of the Hangouts. “This is a work-in-progress,” Dentzer says, “we are finding new ways to assess how many people we reach, who we are reaching, and if any members of the audience take action afterwards.” So far, the Foundation is planning on using resources from Survey Monkey to gather more user data, but they are still looking for more ways to better understand the impact of these social media tools. All told, “this is a great technology for the RWJF,” Dentzer says.

Have you attended one of the RWJF First Friday Hangouts? Tell us about your experience at @Glasspockets on Twitter, or post a comment here on Transparency Talk. 

-- Eliza Smith

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

About Transparency Talk

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

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