Transparency Talk

Category: "Partners" (14 posts)

Beyond Money: Foundations Can Create Change by Building Communities
December 3, 2015

(Mark Schmitt directs the political reform program and is director of studies at New America, an independent think tank and civic enterprise. He is a former editor of The American Prospect and has been a program director at the Open Society Foundations and worked on Capitol Hill. Follow him on Twitter at @mschmitt9. This post originally appeared on Philantopic. It is the 10th and final post in a series about U.S. democracy and civil society.)

Schmitt headshotThe world of foundations and the work they fund has for too long been shrouded in obscurity. While many foundations boast a commitment to transparency and release lists of their own grants, it has been far too difficult to see who funds an entire field, or understand how a foundation-backed policy idea made it onto the agenda. Given that foundations can be at least as influential as big political donors, driving policy initiatives such as charter schools and health reform, there should be resources that open up the sector to journalists and activists, as well as grantseekers interested in understanding the often mysterious question of who got what.

But that’s only part of the question. Even the most complete list of grantees and grant dollar amounts tells us only so much about the work and the vision: What does restoring American democracy mean, in practice? Can this mapping resource help answer that question?

Foundations do more than just give money to worthy projects. At their best, they make at least two other vital contributions: They help build a community — that is, the whole network of sustainable, adaptive organizations, from research projects to grassroots activists, that can further a cause — and they create connections, across issues and communities, in order to make each one stronger and more vibrant. So in looking at the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool, I wanted to ask those questions: Where have foundations built strong communities around democracy issues? And have they created the kinds of connections — between, for example, nonprofit journalism and efforts to reduce the role of money in politics — that strengthen these communities and the cause?

Schmitt_blog_image
The “constellations” section of the tool doesn’t fully answer these questions — to do so would require much deeper analysis and for foundations to provide more complete and plain-English descriptions of the “why” of their grantmaking — but it provides some useful clues. For example, one can see a distinct community of organizations working on election administration and access-to-the-ballot issues — a relatively small number of sizable organizations, with reliable support over several years, often in the form of general-support grants. Closely aligned to these core groups is a larger group of smaller organizations focused on a single state or a particular constituency. (This community would be even larger if the substantial and central contribution to the field made by the Pew Charitable Trusts were included. While grants to its elections project from other foundations are listed, its self-financed work is not.) It is probably no accident that despite the partisan acrimony over voting and significant setbacks to the voting rights movement, there has been significant progress and consensus on ideas such as early voting, online voter registration, and other aspects of election reform.

In a 2013 article in Democracy, Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons argued that the $45 million a year that foundations and other donors were investing in efforts to reform the role of money in politics was too little, and that if they wanted to advance progress on the causes they care about, individual and institutional philanthropists ought to commit one percent of total private giving, or $3 billion annually, to causes such as fixing the corrosive role of money in politics. This tool extends the point made by Penniman and Simmons to show that not only is total funding for campaign reform inadequate to the challenge, the community engaged in that effort is diffuse, the core organizations comprising that community are hard to identify, and the grants awarded in support of that cause are relatively small and often for specific projects rather than general support.

Moreover, in neither case does there seem to be much connection to other issues of democracy or to efforts such as improving journalism or civic education. Each of these issues, such as funding for innovations in public service journalism or for the Newseum in Washington, DC, seems to attract a unique set of funders who do little or no giving for other democracy issues.

Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is not the definitive answer to the questions about how funding works and whether it has built effective communities around democracy issues. To really see foundation funding for democracy and how it has worked requires a deeper investigation and the kind of real journalistic scrutiny that foundations rarely get. But much like the databases we rely on to understand the influence of money in democracy, this tool is a start and provides valuable clues and an outline for those who want to follow the money.

--Mark Schmitt

Capacity Building Session Livestream Available for Viewing
May 19, 2015

On April 29, we held a session at our San Francisco office on Capacity Building and Foundation Maps Professional 2.0. Our presenters included Foundation Center’s own Lisa Philp, vice president for strategic philanthropy, and Jen Bokoff, director of GrantCraft. Lisa gave a demo of Foundation Maps, taking us on a cross-country road trip in philanthropy. Jen presented on GrantCraft’s most recent publication, Supporting Grantee Capacity: Strengthening Effectiveness Together. She also spoke with Jamaica Maxwell, a program officer at the Packard Foundation about best practices in capacity building grantmaking.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend the session in person or as part of our virtual audience--even if you did join us and you want to rewatch it--we’ve got you covered. We recorded and edited the session, which you can view here

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

Webinar TOMORROW: The PDF is the Enemy
December 1, 2014

Pdf-enemy-icon1Join us tomorrow—Tuesday, December 2, 1:00pm EST—for the Communication Network’s webinar, The PDF Is the Enemy. Speakers include Amy Ngai, partnership and training director at the Sunlight Foundation, and Foundation Center presenters,  Janet Camarena, director of  the Center's San Francisco regional office and leader of the Glasspockets initiative, and Gabi Fitz, director of the Center’s knowledge management initiatives and co-founder of IssueLab.

Presenters will weigh in on the shortcomings of this file format, which because it “locks” content, is not conducive to data sharing or usability. The program will also demonstrate how to make PDFs more usable and reasons why we should share, make open, and reuse data in the social sector.

This webinar is the second in the Communication Network’s Open Data for the Social Sector series. Please register here. The webinar will last an hour and is free. 

About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, 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.

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