Transparency Talk

Category: "Philanthropy" (72 posts)

Why Evaluations Are Worth Reading – or Not
June 14, 2017

Rebekah Levin is the Director of Evaluation and Learning for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, guiding the Foundation in evaluating the impact of its philanthropic giving and its involvement in community issues. She is working both with the Foundation’s grantmaking programs, and also with the parks, gardens, and museums at Cantigny Park. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood. View more posts in the series.

Rebekah Levin photoTruth in lending statement:  I am an evaluator.  I believe strongly in the power of excellent evaluations to inform, guide, support and assess programs, strategies, initiatives, organizations and movements.  I have directed programs that were redesigned to increase their effectiveness, their cultural appropriateness and their impact based on evaluation data, helped to design and implement evaluation initiatives here at the foundation that changed the way that we understand and do our work, and have worked with many foundation colleagues and nonprofits to find ways to make evaluation serve their needs for understanding and improvement. 

“I believe strongly in the power of excellent evaluations."

One of the strongest examples that I’ve seen of excellent evaluation within philanthropy came with a child abuse prevention and treatment project.  Our foundation funded almost 30 organizations that were using 37 tools to measure treatment impact of treatment, many of which were culturally inappropriate, designed for initial screenings, or inappropriate for a host of other reasons, and staff from these organizations running similar programs had conflicting views about the tools.  Foundation program staff wanted to be able to compare program outcomes using uniform evaluation tools and to use that data to make funding, policy, and program recommendations, but they were at a loss as to how to do so in a way that honored the grantees’ knowledge and experience.   A new evaluation initiative was funded, combining the development of a "community of practice" for the nonprofits and foundation together to:

  • create a unified set of reporting tools;
  • learn together from the data about how to improve program design and implementation, and the systematic use of data to support staff/program effectiveness;
  • develop a new rubric which the foundation would use to assess programs and proposals; and
  • provide evaluation coaching for all organizations participating in the initiative.

The evaluation initiative was so successful that the nonprofits participating decided to continue their work together beyond the initial scope of the project to improve their own programs and better support the children and families that they are serving. This “Unified Project Outcomes” article describes the project and established processes in far greater detail.

But I have also seen and been a part of evaluations where:

  • the methodology was flawed or weak;
  • the input data were inaccurate and full of gaps;
  • there was limited understanding of the context of the organization;
  • there was no input from relevant participants; and
  • there was no thought to the use of the data/analysis;

so that little to no value came out of them, and the learning that took place as a result was equally inconsequential.

Mccormick-foundation-logo_2xSo now to those evaluation reports that often come at the end of a project or foundation initiative, and sometimes have interim and smaller versions throughout their life span.  Except to a program officer who has to report to their director about how a contract or foundation strategy was implemented, the changes from the plan that occurred, and the value or impact of an investment or initiative, should anyone bother reading them?  From my perch, the answer is a big “Maybe.”  What does it take for an evaluation report to be worth my time to read, given the stack of other things sitting here on my desk that I am trying to carve out time to read?  A lot.

  1. It has to be an evaluation and not a PR piece. Too often, "evaluation" reports provide a cleaned up version of what really occurred in a program, with none of the information about how and why an initiative or organization functioned as it did, and the data all point to its success.  This is not to say that initiatives/organizations can’t be successful.  But no project or organization works perfectly, and if I don’t see critical concerns/problems/caveats identified, my guess is that I’m not getting the whole story, and its value to me drops precipitously.
  2. It has to provide relevant context. To read an evaluation of a multi-organizational collaboration in Illinois without placing its fiscal challenges within the context of our state’s ongoing budget crisis, or to read about a university-sponsored community-based educational program without knowing the long history of mistrust between the school and the community, or any other of the relevant and critical contextual pieces that are effect a program, initiative or organization makes that evaluation of little value.  Placed within a nuanced set of circumstances significantly improves the possibility that the knowledge is transferable to other settings.
  3. It has to be clear and as detailed as possible about the populations that it is serving. Too often, I read evaluations that leave out critical information about who they were targeting and who participated or was served. 
  4. The evaluation’s methodology must be described with sufficient detail so that I have confidence that it used an appropriate and skillful approach to its design and implementation as well as the analysis of the data. I also pay great attention to what extent those who were the focus of the evaluation participated in the evaluation’s design, the questions being addressed, the methodology being used, and the analysis of the data.
  5. And finally, in order to get read, the evaluation has to be something I know exists, or something I can easily find. If it exists in a repository like IssueLab, my chances of finding it increase significantly.  After all, even if it’s good, it is even better if it is #OpenForGood for others, like me, to learn from it.

When these conditions are met, the answer to the question, “Are evaluations worth reading?” is an unequivocal “YES!,” if you value learning from others’ experiences and using that knowledge to inform and guide your own work.

--Rebekah Levin

The Real World is Messy. How Do You Know Your Foundation Is Making an Impact?
June 7, 2017

Aaron Lester is an experienced writer and editor in the nonprofit space. In his role as content marketing manager at Fluxx, Aaron’s goal is to collect and share meaningful stories from the world of philanthropy. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood. View more posts in the series.

AaronLesterIn a perfect world, foundations could learn from every mistake, build on every new piece of knowledge, and know with certainty what impact every effort has made.

Of course, we’re not in that world. We’re in the real, fast-paced world of nonprofits where messy human needs and unpredictable natural and political forces necessitate a more flexible course. In that world, it’s more challenging to measure the effects of our grantmaking efforts and learn from them. It turns out knowledge sharing is a tough nut to crack.

And without meaningful knowledge sharing, we’re left struggling to understand the philanthropic sector’s true impact — positive or negative — within a single organization or across many. The solution is a more transparent sector that is willing to share data — quantitative as well as qualitative — that tells stories of wins and losses, successes and failures—in other words, a sector that is #OpenForGood. But, of course, this is much easier said than done.

My role at Fluxx creates many opportunities for me to talk with others in the field and share stories the philanthropic sector can learn from. I recently had the chance to speak with grantmakers on this very issue.

Measuring Whose Success?

Even within a foundation, it can be difficult to truly understand the impact of a grant or other social investment.

“Lose the mindset defined by a fear of failure; instead, embrace one that drives you to search for opportunity.”

As Adriana Jiménez, director of grants management at the ASPCA and former grants manager at the Surdna Foundation, explains, it’s difficult for foundations to prove conclusively that it’s their slice of the grantmaking that has made a meaningful difference in the community. “When you collect grant-by-grant data, it doesn’t always roll up to your foundation’s goals or even your grant’s goals.”

The issue is that there’s no standardized way to measure grantmaking data, and it’s an inherently difficult task because there are different levels of assessment (grant, cluster, program, foundation, etc.), there is similar work being done in different contexts, and a lot of data is only available in narrative form.

One way to combat these challenges is to make sure your foundation is transparent and in agreement around shared goals with grantees from the start of the relationship. Being too prescriptive or attempting to standardize the way your grantees work will never create the results you’re after. Part of this early alignment includes developing clear, measurable goals together and addressing how the knowledge you’re gaining can and should translate into improvements in performance.

A grantee should never have to alter their goals or objectives just to receive funding. That sends the wrong message, and it provides the wrong incentive for grantees to participate in knowledge-sharing activities. But when you work as partners from the start and provide space for grantees to collaborate on strategy, a stronger partnership will form, and the stories your data tells will begin to be much more meaningful.

The Many Languages of Human Kindness

If sharing knowledge is difficult within one organization, it’s even more challenging across organizations.

FluxxJiménez points out that a major challenge is the complexity of foundations, as they rely on different taxonomies and technologies and discuss similar issues using different language. Every foundation’s uniqueness is, in its day-to-day work, its strength, but in terms of big-picture learning across organizations, it’s a hurdle.

Producing cohesive, comprehensive data out of diverse, fragmented information across multiple organizations is a huge challenge. Mining the information and tracking it in an ongoing way is another obstacle made more difficult because the results are often more anecdotal than they are purely quantitative. And when this information is spread out over so many regions and focus areas, the types of interventions vary so widely that meaningful knowledge sharing becomes untenable.

Gwyneth Tripp, grants manager at Blue Shield of California Foundation, also cites a capacity issue. Most foundations don’t have designated roles for gathering, tracking, organizing, and exchanging shareable data, so they resort to asking staff who already have their own sizable to-do lists. Tripp says:

“They have an interest and a desire [in knowledge sharing], but also a real challenge of balancing the everyday needs, the strategic goals, the relationships with grantees, and then adding that layer of ‘let’s learn and think about it all’ is really tough to get in.

“Also, becoming more transparent about the way you work, including sharing successes as well as failures, can open your foundation up to scrutiny. This can be uncomfortable. But it’s important to delineate between ‘failure’ and ‘opportunity to learn and improve.’”

Sparking Change

But foundations know (possibly better than anyone else) that obstacles don’t make accomplishing a goal impossible.

And this goal’s rewards are great: When foundations can achieve effective knowledge sharing, they’ll have better insights into what other funding is available for the grantees within the issues they are tackling, who is being supported, which experiments are worth replicating, and where there are both gaps and opportunities. And with those insights, foundations gain the ability to iterate and improve upon their operations, even leading to stronger, more strategic collaborations and partnerships.

Creating and promoting this kind of accessible, useful knowledge sharing starts with a few steps:

  1. Begin from within. Tracking the impact of your grantmaking efforts and sharing those findings with the rest of the sector requires organizations to look internally first. Start by building a knowledge management implementation plan that involves every stakeholder, from internal teams to grantee partners to board executives.
  1. Determine and prioritize technology needs. Improvements in technology — specifically cloud-based technology — are part of what’s driving the demand for data on philanthropic impact in the first place. Your grants management system needs to provide integrated efficiency and accessibility if you want to motivate staff participation and generate usable insights from the data you’re collecting. Is your software streamlining your efforts, or is it only complicating them?
  1. Change your mindset. Knowledge sharing can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Lose the mindset defined by a fear of failure; instead, embrace one that drives you to search for opportunity. Promote a stronger culture of knowledge sharing across the sector by sharing your organizational practices and lessons learned. Uncover opportunities to collect data and share information across organizations.

There’s no denying that knowledge sharing benefits foundations everywhere, along with the programs they fund. Don’t let the challenges hold you back from aiming for educational, shareable data — you have too much to gain not to pursue that goal.  What will you #OpenForGood?

--Aaron Lester 

Because What You Know Shouldn’t Just Be About Who You Know
June 1, 2017

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center.  This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenforGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood. View more posts in the series.

Janet Camarena Photo"Knowledge is obsolete."  As a librarian, my ears perked up at this TEDx talk and articles buzzing about this in the education field.  It seems plausible.  Why memorize facts, when anything one wants to know can be readily looked up, on the go, via a smart phone? As a mom, I imagine my kids sitting down to prepare for rich, thought-provoking classroom discussions instead of laboring over endless multiple-choice tests. What an exciting time to be alive — a time when all of humanity’s knowledge is at our fingertips, leading experts are just a swipe away, the answer always literally close at hand, and we’ve been released from the drudgery of memorization and graduated to a life of active, informed debate! And how lucky are we to be working in philanthropy and able to leverage all this knowledge for good, right?

Though the active debate part may sound familiar, sadly, for those of us working in philanthropy, the ubiquity of knowledge remains more sci-fi mirage than a TED Talk rendering of our present-day reality.  As Glasspockets reported in “The Foundation Transparency Challenge” infographic, released last November, still only 10% of foundations even have a website, so even a smart phone is not smart enough to help connect you to the 90% of those that don't.

The Foundation Transparency Challenge also reveals other areas of potential improvement for institutional philanthropy, including a number of transparency practices not widely embraced by the majority of funders. Indeed, the data we’ve collected demonstrates that philanthropy is weakest when it comes to creating communities of shared learning, with fewer than half the foundations with a Glasspockets profile using their websites to share what they are learning, only 22 % percent sharing how they assess their own performance, and only 12 percent revealing details about their strategic plan.

Foundation Center data also tells us that foundations annually make an average of $5.4 billion in grants for knowledge-production activities, such as evaluations, white papers, and case studies. Yet only a small fraction of foundations actively share the knowledge assets that result from those grants -- and far fewer share them under an open license or through an open repository. For a field that is focused on investing in ideas -- and not shy about asking grantees to report on the progress of these ideas -- there is much potential here to open up our knowledge to peers and practitioners who, like so many of us, are looking for new ideas and new approaches to urgent, persistent problems.

“Sadly, for those of us working in philanthropy, the ubiquity of knowledge remains more sci-fi mirage than a TED Talk rendering of our present-day reality.”

As for having a universe of experts a swipe away to help inform our philanthropic strategies, the reality is that the body of knowledge related to philanthropic work is scattered across the thousands of institutional foundation websites that do exist. But who has time for the Sisyphean task of filtering through it all?

No coincidence, perhaps, that a main finding of a recent report commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation was that foundation professionals looking to gain and share knowledge tend to prefer to confer with trusted foundation peers and colleagues. At the same time, the field is doing a lot of soul searching related to diversity, equity, and inclusion -- and what it can do to improve its performance in those areas. But if practitioners in the field are only sourcing knowledge from their peers, doesn’t that suggest their knowledge networks may be unintentionally insular and lacking in well…diversity of opinion and perspective? And might there be a way to connect the dots and improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and inclusivity of our networks by changing the way we source, find, and share lessons learned? 

In other words, shouldn’t what we know not just be about who we know?

#OpenForGood

The good news is that as more foundations professionalize their staffs and develop in-house expertise in learning, monitoring and evaluation, (as well as in grants management and communications), there are a number of developing practices out there worth highlighting. At the same time, a number of technology platforms and tools have emerged that make it easy for us to improve the way we search for and find answers to complex questions. Here at Foundation Center, for example, we are using this post to kick off a new #OpenForGood series featuring the voices of “knowledge sharing champions” from the philanthropic and social sectors. Some of these experts will be sharing their perspectives on opening up knowledge at their own foundations, while others will clue us in to tools and platforms that can improve the way philanthropy leverages the knowledge it generates (and pays for), as well as discovers new sources of knowledge. 

But before we get there, you might be wondering: What does it mean to be a social sector organization that is #OpenForGood? And how does my organization become one? Not to worry. The following suggestions are intended to help organizations demonstrate they are moving in the direction of greater openness:

  1. Grantmakers can start by assessing their own foundation’s openness by taking and sharing the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency self-assessment survey.
  2. Funders and nonprofits alike can openly share what they are learning with the rest of the field. If your organization invested in monitoring and evaluating results in 2015 or 2016, make the effort to share those evaluations in our new IssueLab: Results In exchange for sharing your recent evaluations, you will receive an #OpenforGood badge to display on your website to signal your commitment to creating a community of shared learning.
  3. If you have lessons to share but not a formal evaluation process, share them in blog format here on Transparency Talk, on PhilanTopic, or on GrantCraft, so others can still benefit from your experience.
  4. Adopt an open licensing policy so that others can more easily build on your work.

The #OpenForGood series is timed to align with the launch of a new Foundation Center platform designed to help philanthropy learn from all the collective knowledge at its disposal. Developed by the team at IssueLab, whose collection already includes more than 22,000 reports from thousands of nonprofits and foundations, IssueLab Results is dedicated in particular to the collection and sharing of evaluations.

IssueLab Topic Graphic

IssueLab Results supplies easy, open access to the lessons foundations are learning about what is and isn’t working. The site includes a growing curated collection of evaluations and a special collection containing guidance on the practice of evaluation. And it’s easy to share your knowledge through the site – just look for the orange “Upload” button. 

The basic idea here is to scale social sector knowledge so that everyone benefits and the field, collectively, grows smarter rather than more fragmented. On a very practical level, it means that a researcher need only visit one website rather than thousands to learn what is known about the issue s/he is researching. But the only way the idea can scale is if foundations and nonprofits help us grow the collection by adding their knowledge here. If they do – if you do – it also means that philanthropy will have a more inclusive and systematic way to source intelligence beyond the “phone a friend” approach.

The bottom line is that in philanthropy today, knowledge isn’t obsolete, it’s obscured. Won’t you join us in helping make it #OpenForGood.

If you have a case study related to knowledge sharing and management and/or the benefits of transparency and openness, let us know in the comments below, or find us on Twitter @glasspockets.

--Janet Camarena

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age
May 10, 2017

(Daniel Matz is manager and content developer for Foundation Center’s Glasspockets.org portal. This review was first published in Philanthropy News Digest.)

Daniel X MatzThe mega-wealthy have long been celebrated in American culture. Even in the first Gilded Age, when the likes of Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and Sage were scorned as robber barons, their wealth — and power — were much admired. In their time, these titans of America's burgeoning industrial might determined the economic destiny of millions and set the course of the nation. And their philanthropy — more than a century on — continues to echo with all the force that money can buy.

Today, as we celebrate the dynamos of a new gilded age — their fortunes, in many cases, made younger, growing faster, moving at the speed of light — we're witnessing a second philanthropic boom. And that seemingly inexhaustible river of "private wealth for public good" brings with it the ideas and voices of those who, having made vast fortunes, are now determined to put that money to use. How society responds to and channels that torrent of money while making sure the ideas it funds best serve the interests of the American people is of broad concern.

“Giving by the mega-wealthy is going to be bigger, more sophisticated, and more focused on influencing public policy debates.”

In The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, David Callahan gives us a grand tour of the philanthropic landscape in the opening decades of the twenty-first century while opening a window on how today's economic winners — having proved themselves in business — are eyeing philanthropy as the ultimate opportunity to convert wealth into power. But where a Matthew Josephson might have distrusted such a development, in Callahan's telling, these masters of the universe are thoughtful, broad-minded, and, yes, even likable. He's not interested in taking them down, criticizing their often rapacious business practices, or pointing out the role played by fiscal and tax policy in cementing their status as the .01 percent. Instead, his is a book about the giving away, not the getting, of great wealth.

Founding editor of the Inside Philanthropy website, a founder of public policy think tank Demos, and a former fellow at the Century Foundation, Callahan has a reputation as a keen observer of philanthropy and civil society and it serves him well here. Not only does he know his subject, he's also interviewed many of the people in his book — Priscilla Chan, Eli Broad, Melinda Gates, and John Arnold, to name a few — and is able to support his own judgments with their words. And what both he and they see is a future in which giving by the mega-wealthy is going to be bigger, more sophisticated, and more focused on influencing public policy debates.

David CallahanDavid Callahan

Of course, many of today's mega-wealthy, people like Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg, have indicated they have little interest in leaving much of their wealth behind. (In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Bloomberg joked with correspondent Steve Croft about "a guy on his death bed in a hospital with the rails around and his family looking down like vultures. And he looks up and says, 'I know I can't take it with me, but I can take the access code'.") Indeed, in the next decade alone, some $740 billion is likely to be distributed in the form of private philanthropy. And if the Giving Pledge — the Buffett and Gates effort to encourage the uber-rich to commit the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes — is any gauge, we could see another trillion dollars in private wealth making its way to nonprofit organizations and causes over the lifetimes of the 158 current "pledgers" who have signed on. (Learn more about that campaign and its signatories at the Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge feature.) How all that money will be used over the coming decades is what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might call a known unknown, but it undoubtedly will have important and lasting effects, and that — as well as who will decide what its impact might be — is at the center of Callahan's inquiry.

In the book, Callahan examines the collision of two fundamental American values — freedom and equality — and how the wealthiest Americans have been able to leverage their money (for better or worse) to gain advantage in the marketplace of ideas. Sure, money in politics is as American as apple pie: for proof, look no further than the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, the flood of cash swirling around political campaigns, and K Street lobbyists and super PACs. But much less is heard about the ways in which the mega-wealthy are using their philanthropy to influence public policy and (intentionally or not) drown out the voices of average Americans. We're not talking about eight-figure gifts for museums and the like; we're talking about philanthropy that shapes national agendas and priorities and promotes policies that affect Americans where they live — from promoting school vouchers, to hobbling the Johnson Amendment, to pushing for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

It's one thing, for instance, for the average American to make a $100 donation to a cause she believes in, and it's certainly noteworthy when a wealthy donor trumps that with a gift a hundred thousand times larger; it's something else entirely when a donor puts up the money for a think tank to develop a public policy recommendation, hire researchers to provide intellectual cover for the policy, and disseminate the results through a report and a media campaign. The Brookings Institute has been around since the 1910s, the American Enterprise Institute since the 1930s, the Heritage Foundation since the 1970s. All are tax exempt, and all have been the beneficiaries of substantial philanthropic largesse over the years. What's different in 2017 is the full-throttled way in which such bounty has become another weapon in the ideological clash that defines our time: Left vs. Right, liberal vs. conservative, cosmopolitan vs. populist. What we are seeing, Callahan notes, is the mega-wealthy using their philanthropic dollars to define the terms of the debate and dominate the public square in areas and on issues that a generation ago were the purview of academics, technocrats, and policy makers.

The Givers - Book JacketSome might argue that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Callahan is quick to note that the mega-wealthy have no agreed-to set of interests and, as a group, are as ideologically and politically pluralistic as the country itself. If at times they can seem like gods throwing thunderbolts at one another, the diversity of ideas and approaches they represent seems to balance out: for every wealthy advocate of school vouchers and charter schools, there's an equally wealthy and committed advocate eager to double down on public education.

In a perfect world where government is more or less trusted to do the right thing, that might be okay, argues Callahan. But in an era of widening inequality and growing political polarization (exacerbated by our addiction to social media), government and traditional institutions are losing their ability to absorb those thunderbolts and forge compromises that satisfy the majority of Americans. It's not that the public square is empty; it's that the platforms from which the plural voices of American democracy typically are heard have been roped off and posted with "Do Not Enter" signs. For Callahan, it's no coincidence that the outsized influence on public policy of the mega-wealthy comes just at the moment when both institutional and government effectiveness appear to be in terminal decline.

With a nod to French economist Thomas Piketty, Callahan sees this decline as a by-product of mounting economic anxiety, driving broad disaffection with both major political parties and a loss of faith in the ability of government to materially affect the lives of those who have lost their livelihoods to globalization, automation, and de-industrialization. Into that vacuum has stepped the wealthy, with states and local governments increasingly looking to foundations and nonprofits to join forces in public/private partnership, and fund everything from education initiatives to homeless services to public parks. Every time a philanthropist gives $100 million to bankroll a new reform effort in a struggling school district, or convinces a city to spend a portion of its parks budget on a whimsical project, or provides millions for a campaign to convince the public to support/oppose an international climate agreement, writes Callahan, we are seeing a new kind of philanthropy in action. And there's no reason to believe the trend won't continue, or that it won't happen in ways largely beyond the ability of the public to control.

As much as The Givers pulls back the curtain on this reality, it's also a call to change how philanthropy in America is regulated. Readers of Callahan's posts on Inside Philanthropy will not be surprised by his prescriptions — chief among them a call for greater transparency and accountability in the sector (principles Foundation Center has long championed through our Glasspockets initiative). Here, though, Callahan has something more specific in mind: changing the rules to require wealthy individual donors, donor-advised funds, private foundations, and nonprofits to disclose more information about their giving, more quickly. He also calls for the creation of an independent Federal Reserve-style commission to oversee the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors; the establishment of formal metrics to assess charities' effectiveness; and for the IRS to be given more resources — and greater latitude — to audit more than the tiny fraction of nonprofits and foundations it currently reviews. Callahan also favors limiting the tax-deductibility of contributions to nonprofits that are not working to alleviate poverty or address other urgent social problems, and he wants to see foundation boards be more independent and representative of the communities they are charged with serving.

For Callahan, these are small changes — a somewhat Pollyannaish take that seems to ignore our current political climate and the treasured prerogatives of many large, important foundations and nonprofits. Yes, philanthropy needs more transparency and accountability, it probably needs new rules, and the public needs more and better information about how foundations and individual donors are spending their tax-advantaged resources.

But we also need to find the will, and a way, to restore the public square to something like its imagined heyday so that the voices of the rich and powerful are not the only ones heard in statehouses and the halls of Congress. As Callahan puts it, Alexis de Tocqueville didn't esteem America for its robust nonprofit sector; he admired it for its egalitarian ideals. Nurturing and sustaining those ideas over the coming decades should be something we can all agree on.

-- Daniel Matz

Eye On: Airbnb Co-Founders Joe Gebbia, Nathan Blecharczyk, and Brian Chesky
April 26, 2017

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

Two friends were struggling to pay their rent when they realized they could earn much-needed funds from travelers.  In 2007, they charged their first three customers $80 a night to sleep on an air mattress in their San Francisco apartment when local hotels sold out during a conference.

And the rest is history.

Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, friends and former Rhode Island School of Design classmates, expanded their enterprising idea.  With Gebbia’s former roommate, Nathan Blecharczyk, the trio founded Airbnb in 2008 and revolutionized the art of renting home space.  As Gebbia explained in a TED talk, Airbnb designs for trust to create a “culture of sharing… that brings us community and connection instead of isolation and separation.”

Within 10 years, the trio has groomed Airbnb into a $30 billion tech giant, a disruptive and controversial force that has transformed the travel and tech industry and popularized the idea of the “sharing economy.”  As Airbnb has grown, so have controversies and debates over its impact in already tight rental markets.  Criticism that the company has contributed to community displacement and a reduction in available long-term rentals have led to ongoing legal battles. Yet, despite the regulatory struggles, even hotels are rallying to find ways to imitate the trendsetting Airbnb.

 

Entrepreneur - Airbnb Trio
The Airbnb co-founders are among the youngest to join Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in the Giving Pledge. It also marked the first time all of a company’s co-founders committed at the same time. Credit: Entrepreneur


Now the entrepreneurial trio – who are each worth an estimated $3.3 billion and among the youngest on the 2016 Forbes 400 billionaires list – have started making visible strides in the original sharing economy by engaging in philanthropy. 

The Airbnb co-founders are among the youngest to join Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in the Giving Pledge, whereby wealthy individuals pledge to give away the majority of their wealth within their lifetime.  When they joined the Giving Pledge last year, it also marked the first time all of a company’s co-founders committed at the same time.

In a Fortune interview, the entrepreneurs credit Warren Buffett and Bill Gates with their decision to join the Giving Pledge.  Gebbia touted Buffett as a “Jedi master of philanthropy.”  And Chesky said Buffett’s argument resonated with him – wealth beyond a certain point has zero utility, and such wealth could have a greater social impact.

Still relatively new to philanthropy, the trio acknowledge they are taking their time to give away their wealth.  However, openness is at the heart of the sharing economy, and the Airbnb co-founders understand a public expectation of openness in philanthropy exists.

“I’ve always believed that you should [be public about giving], such that you can be very public about your values and what you stand for,” Chesky said in a Fortune interview.

Corporate Philanthropy

As the Airbnb co-founders design their philanthropic strategy, the company is experimenting with different ways to use its platform for good. 

The San Francisco-based company has created a disaster response platform that brings together hosts and community groups to provide free temporary housing for individuals and families displaced by disasters, as well as relief workers.  When a disaster occurs, Airbnb contacts local hosts who may volunteer to provide free housing; if no hosts are available, Airbnb will subsidize the housing cost.

“I’ve always believed that you should [be public about giving], such that you can be very public about your values and what you stand for.”

Airbnb connects hosts to help support local and national disaster relief efforts, and arranges disaster preparedness training.  Airbnb also contributes travel vouchers to support advance teams and large groups of relief workers for major national and international disasters.

More recently, the company has pledged to use its disaster response platform to aid refugees affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order. Over the next five years, Airbnb has committed to provide short-term housing for 100,000 refugees and those barred from entering the United States.  Airbnb also pledged $4 million to the International Rescue Committee over the next four years to support the most critical needs of displaced people worldwide.

Airbnb also recently announced a scheduled launch of a humanitarian division next month focusing on global issues such as displaced populations, rural flight and bias against strangers.

Given that building community is one Airbnb’s central philosophies, the company’s platform supports a number of opportunities for Airbnb hosts to make a positive social impact via global volunteerism and “Open Homes,” which provides housing at free or reduced costs for medical treatments, college visits, or family gatherings.

Through a “social impact experiences” program, Airbnb guests enjoy culture and learn about local causes in the cities they are visiting.  Local community leaders and volunteers are invited to create an opportunity that brings people closer to their work.  Nonprofit leaders and Airbnb hosts lead the experience, and the nonprofits receive 100% of the social impact experience fees. 

Airbnb hopes this will connect guests to issues they care about or introduce them to new causes.  The social impact experiences run the gamut, from visiting a local artist or animal shelter to attending a dinner and theater event, or spending a day with an urban gardener to create green space in Los Angeles. 

Airbnb has committed to fighting homelessness in New York City, where the company recently settled a lawsuit involving legislation that would fine Airbnb hosts up to $7,500 for renting out certain types of apartments and homes for less than 30 days.  Last year, the company donated $100,000 to WIN (formerly Women In Need), a group that helps homeless women and their children.  Additionally, Airbnb pledged to recruit volunteer hosts and guests to assist WIN clients with professional skills training, such as resume building and interviewing for jobs, and increasing children’s literacy.

Personal Giving 

The trio’s individual giving appears to be driven by a spirit of entrepreneurship; they want to give others the opportunity to achieve their dreams and support “future creatives and entrepreneurs.” 

Joe Gebbia

Joe GebbiaIn Joe Gebbia’s Giving Pledge letter, he described his hope to help other entrepreneurs: “I want to enable as many people as possible, especially in underprivileged communities, to experience this magic firsthand… and achieve their dreams.”

The 35-year-old Georgia native added, “I want to devote my resources to bring the moment of instantiation, when someone who has an idea sees it become real, to as many people as I can.  It can unlock the understanding that they can make things happen, that they can shape the world around them.”

Gebbia serves on the Board of Trustees at his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).  In 2014, he pledged $300,000 to RISD for a $50,000 term scholarship and an endowed fund for talented students in need of financial aid.

Nathan and Elizabeth Blecharczyk

Nathan and Elizabeth BlecharczykIn Nathan and Elizabeth Blecharczyk’s Giving Pledge letter, the couple said they are in a “unique position to have significant positive impact” by giving away their wealth.  “We feel a responsibility to share our good fortune, and we pledge to dedicate the majority of our wealth over time to philanthropy,” the Blecharczyks said.

Nathan Blecharczyk, 33, who developed Airbnb’s website, demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit early on.  When he was 12 years old, Blecharczyk learned how to code and wrote customized programs for clients; he developed popular programs for e-mail marketing.  By age 14, he founded an Internet software business and funded his Harvard University tuition with the sale of his business. 

The San Francisco residents cited their upbringing – his parents taught him to be inquisitive, confident and motivated, and her parents and teachers taught her to be self-aware and use her strengths to help others – as the reason to direct their philanthropy toward the “potential of children” and “transformative ideas.”

“Airbnb went from an off-the-wall idea to a transformative company as a result of assembling the right team – cofounders, mentors, investors, and later employees – and now we want to help others pursue unconventional ideas that can make the world a better place,” the Blecharczyks said in their letter.

The couple said their interests are in the areas of education, scientific research, medicine, space exploration, environment and effective governance.  “Our philanthropic approach will be reflected through the lens of our own passions and experiences but rooted in analysis to ensure we are choosing wisely,” the couple said.

Brian Chesky

Brian CheskyBrian Chesky, 35, wants his philanthropy to spur youth entrepreneurship.  “We all live with unknown potential.  The younger you are, the more unknown it is,” Chesky said in his Giving Pledge letter.  “But the clock ticks by each day of your life.  And each day someone young isn’t exposed to what is possible, their potential slowly dims.”

The New York native credited a high school teacher and RISD professors for helping him to dream and see that he could “design the kind of world I want to live in.”

“You can have a lot of impact on someone just by showing them what is possible,” Chesky said.  “With this pledge, I want to help more kids realize the kind of journey I have had.  I want to show them that their dreams are not bounded by what they can see in front of them.  Their limits are not so limited.  Walt Disney once said, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’  I would like to help them dream.”

To learn more, visit Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge feature and check out individual profiles for Joe Gebbia, Nathan and Elizabeth Blecharczyk, and Brian Chesky.

-- Melissa Moy

New Online Portal Opens Up Ocean Conservation Philanthropy
April 20, 2017

(Amanda Dillon is Knowledge Services Manager for Foundation Center. A version of this article was first written for Alliance magazine.)

Amandadillon-150x150_125_125_s_c1Ocean conservationists and their supporters can now easily track funding for marine protection activities through a new online portal, FundingtheOcean.org.

The site aims to break down knowledge barriers and democratize access to critical information needed to drive ocean conservation philanthropy worldwide by centralizing access to essential data, resources, and tools.

With funding support from six major foundations, Foundation Center unveiled the portal this month. It offers free access to data on philanthropic, U.S. federal, bi/multilateral aid grants, and crowdsourced information about grassroots marine conservation organizations, enabling users to see data on who is working on ocean conservation around the world.

TW_General_440x220_v4Current figures indicate that while the ocean covers 71 percent of the earth's surface, less than one percent of all philanthropic funding has gone to support it since 2009. 

“This is a critical moment for the ocean,” said Bradford K. Smith, president of Foundation Center. “The decisions we make now will shape the ocean’s future, and the future of the lives and livelihoods of those that depend on it.”

With FundingtheOcean.org, users will be able to find funders, recipients and grants conveniently displayed by geographic area.  This data can help spur collaboration and maximize conservation efforts.  For example, users could potentially benchmark open data on marine protection funding to help them learn from the successes and failures of their peers; identify new ideas and approaches; and increase access to and awareness of conservation efforts.

Additionally, the website features eight case studies and a curated report collection featuring major conservation funders, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Packard Foundation, so that users can learn more about what’s working and what we’re learning about funding the ocean.

For more information: www.fundingtheocean.org

--Amanda Dillon

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions
April 5, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(Christie George is the director of New Media Ventures, a mission-driven venture firm and donor collaborative supporting progressive startups.  New Media Ventures supports companies and organizations that – through the use of new media and technology – build advocacy movements, tell new stories and drive civic engagement.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation.  The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

Christie-George1-163x164

If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants.

“...If you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects.”

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities. 

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches:

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous
impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to
reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have New Media Ventures logoat least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: CoWorker.org hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; Vote.org got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us.

--Christie George

 

Transparency Talk Welcomes Arcus Foundation to Glasspockets
March 29, 2017

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.) 

Arcus foundation logoWe are pleased to welcome Arcus Foundation to our community of foundations that have publicly commited to working transparently. By taking and sharing the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” (WHGP) self-assessment, Arcus is contributing to a growing collection of profiles that serve as a knowledge bank and transparency benchmarking mechanism.

Arcus, with its offices in New York and Cambridge, United Kingdom, advocates for global human rights and conservation movements: “Together, we learn from each other and take bold risks on groundbreaking ideas that drive progress toward a future of respect and dignity for all.”

“We strive to apply a high level of transparency in our operations and in our relationships with grantees, partners and other stakeholders.’”

This month, Arcus became the 87th foundation to join WHGP.  As a way of welcoming Arcus to the Glasspockets community, we’d like to highlight some of the ways in which this foundation openly shares its environmental and social justice work.

First, Arcus has pledged a rare commitment to openness in its transparency statement that is part of the website’s introduction to Arcus’ work.

The foundation uses its website to explain its grantmaking process,  shares expectations for grantees, and offers a searchable grantee map and database.  A short video invites and informs prospective grant applicants.

Other ways that Arcus lives up to its transparency statement is by opening up its knowledge via  grantee impact stories, reports, and a foundation blog.  Additionally, the foundation discloses more than a decade of its financial information

Enjoy exploring the work that Arcus is doing for social justice and the environment.  Perhaps it will inspire your foundation to become #88!  Does your foundation have glass pockets?  Find out

 --Melissa Moy

Warren Buffett Has Some Excellent Advice for Foundations That They Probably Won't Take
March 16, 2017

(Marc Gunther writes about nonprofits, foundations, business and sustainability. He also writes for NonprofitChronicles.com. This post also appears in Nonprofit Chronicles.)

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

Marc GuntherWith a collective $800 billion in assets under management, America’s big foundations spend vast sums of money to buy investment advice. They’re getting little, if anything, of value in return.

Their own investment offices, and the Wall Street banks, hedge funds, private equity firms and consultants they hire, when taken together, deliver investment returns that lag behind market indexes, all evidence indicates.

These foundations would do better to call an 800 number at Vanguard or Schwab and buy a diversified set of low-cost index funds.

So, at least, argues Warren Buffett, one of the great investors of our time. In his latest letter to investors in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett writes:

When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.

The limited data available about foundation endowments bears him out.

It’s not possible to prove that Buffett’s advice would enable foundations to improve their returns–and thus have more money to devote to their grant-making. Most foundations don’t disclose the financial performance of their endowments.

Of the 10 largest grant-making foundations in the US, only two — the MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — publish investment returns on their websites. MacArthur’s disclosure is exemplary. (So is its performance, perhaps not coincidentally.) I emailed all ten and got nowhere with the rest.

The best evidence about how foundations are managing their endowments comes from an annual study published by the Council on Foundations and Commonfund, a nonprofit asset management fund that serves foundations, colleges and nonprofits. Their most recent survey, which covers the 10-year period from 2006 through 2015, found that returns averaged 5.5 percent per year for 130 private foundations and 5.2 percent per year for 98 community foundations.

Further insight can be gleaned from Cambridge Associates, an investment firm whose clients include foundations, universities and wealthy families. Cambridge tracked the performance of 445 of its endowment and foundation clients and found they generated average annualized returns of 4.97 percent for the 10-year period ending June 30, 2016. (These returns should not be considered Cambridge’s performance track record, a spokesman told me.)

High pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns for foundations.

By contrast, Vanguard’s model portfolio for institutional investors, a mix of passively invested index funds, with 70 percent invested in stocks and the rest in fixed income securities, delivered 5.81 percent over the 10-year-period through 2015, and 6.1 percent for the 10-year period ending on June 30, 2016, according to Chris Philips, head of institutional advisory services at Vanguard. (All figures for investment returns are net of fees, meaning fees are taken into account.)

That may appear to be a small edge for Vanguard. But when institutions are investing hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars, small gains compounded over time add up to big money. Money, again, that could be better spent on programs.

Actually, it’s worse, because the figures reported by the Council on Foundations and CommonFund do not include the salaries that foundations pay to their in-house investment offices. The chief investment officers are often the highest-paid executives at foundations, and their deputies do well, too.

Why, then, do foundations continue to pay high salaries and high fees in the pursuit of market-beating returns, when so many fail?

They should know better. It’s no secret that passive approaches to investing outperform most active money managers, once fees and trading costs are taking into account. In 2005, Buffett wrote that “active investment management by professionals – in aggregate – would over a period of years underperform the returns achieved by rank amateurs who simply sat still.”

Taking aim at hedge funds, with their high expenses, Buffett then offered to bet $500,000 that no investment professional “could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees.”

Only one — one! — investment pro took the bet. Not surprisingly, Buffett will win the bet, by a very comfortable margin. And yet foundations and those who advise them are pouring more, not less, money into hedge funds.

Everyone Wants to Be Special

Buffett has a theory about why those in charge of foundations entrust their endowments to active money managers and hedge funds:

The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.

In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars.

Vanguard’s Chris Philips has a similar theory:

There is this perception that by going index you are ceding that you do not have any skill and you are going to be average in the marketplace. That doesn’t feel good. As humans, we want to be good. We don’t want to be average.

Foundation executives may be especially prone to believe that they deserve better than “average” investment advice. By dint of their position, they are often told that they are wiser, funnier and better-looking than average.

Jeffrey Hooke, a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and a former investment banker, says the trustees of foundations who serve on their investment committees are likely to favor active asset management.

The people on the boards tend to be in the business. They’re private equity executives, they’re stockbrokers or they’re in hedge funds. They’re totally biased in favor of active managing because that’s how they’ve made their living.

Hooke has researched public pension funds and found that they, too, underperform the markets by choosing active managers. Investment officers don’t want to talk themselves out of a job, he says:

They are never going to walk into the boardroom and say, ‘Hey, it just isn’t working.’ They’ve got wives, they’ve got mortgages they’ve got kids.

These investment officers aspire to be the rare bird who can consistently outperform the market, like David Swensen, the storied portfolio manager at Yale. (I profiled Swensen in 2005 for the Yale Alumni Magazine.) But Swensen, like Buffett, says that identifying the best asset managers is exceedingly difficult. In a 2009 interview, Swensen told me that investors who rely on “low-cost, passively managed index funds” and rebalance regularly will “end up beating the overwhelming majority of participants in the financial markets.” Buffett has said that in the course of his lifetime he has identified only about 10 investment professionals who can beat the markets over time; there are about 87,000 foundations in the US.

Pay for Performance?

In fairness, the foundation trustees and investment officers labor under a peculiar burden. They are obligated by law to give away five percent of their assets every year. So if they want to exist in perpetuity, they must earn in excess of five percent on their investments, which is a tall order. Of course, no foundation is entitled to live forever. If some spend down their assets, well, new foundations come along all the time.

Most foundations, though, aim to survive in perpetuity, and chase superior returns, at a cost. Consider, for example, the Ford Foundation, which, with assets of $12.2 billion (as of 12-31-2015), is the second-biggest foundation in the US, behind the behemoth Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2015, the Ford Foundation’s highest-paid employee was vice president and chief investment officer Eric Doppstadt, who was paid $2.1 million. He was followed by  director of public investment Michael Walden at $1,017,061, director of private equity Sherif Nahas at $972,362 and director of hedge funds William Artemenko at $955,479. All were paid more than Darren Walker, Ford’s president, whose compensation was $788,542, according to Ford’s Form 990-PF filing,

Then there were Ford’s outside asset managers. In 2015, they included Silchester International Equity Management which was paid $2.2 million, Wellington Energy Investment Advisor, which collected just under $2 million and Eagle Capital Management, which got $1 million.

How did they perform? “Sharing the investment returns is outside of our policy,” says Joshua Cinelli, Ford’s chief of media relations, by e-mail.

In this, Ford is typical. At the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, chief investment officer John Moehling was paid $2.3 million, and three other investment professionals earned more than $1 million. All were better paid than Packard’s chief executive, Carol Larson. Packard, too, will not disclose its returns.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and MacArthur Foundation all pay their chief investment officer more than their top executives. The argument for doing so, presumably, is that these investment professionals could make as much money or more in the private sector.

But, again, with the exception of MacArthur and Kellogg, the foundations won’t say whether their investment officers and their outside asset managers are delivering market-beating performance.

What we do know is that high pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns. Interestingly, when pension-fund critic Jeff Hooke analyzed data from 33 state pension systems, he found that the 10 states with the highest fee ratios achieved lower return rates than those that spent the least.

Transparency and Accountability

Foundation endowment returns could probably be calculated by going through years of IRS filings. Unfortunately, the Form 990-PF tax form for foundations is “seriously flawed,” “unwieldy” and “unintelligible to the many lay readers, including trustees and journalists,” according to longtime foundation executive John Craig.

In a 2011 blog post for the Foundation Center, Craig lamented the fact that investment performance is not solicited on the Form 990:

Since their endowments are the only source of income for most foundations and effective endowment management is a challenge for many foundations, this is an egregious omission—equivalent to not requiring for-profit corporations to report their earnings on tax returns and financial statements.

I asked Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, which promotes transparency through its laudable Glasspockets initiative, why foundations won’t disclose their investment returns. “They don’t report it because it’s not required,” he said, “to state the obvious.”

Smith went on to say that foundations may be “worried about perverse incentives that could be created by a ranking.” If foundations compete to generate the best investment returns, he explained, they could feel pressured to take on risky investments. During the Great Recession, some foundations that pursued aggressive investment strategies had to sell highly-leveraged, illiquid investments at a loss. 

Still, I wonder if there’s a simpler explanation for the lack of disclosure: Foundation staff and trustees don’t want to be held accountable for mediocre results.

If MacArthur and Kellogg are exemplary in their disclosure — Kellogg kindly arranged a phone interview with Joel Wittenberg, its chief investment officer —  the Gates and Bloomberg foundations are unusually opaque. Gates Foundation money is housed in a separate trust and is reportedly managed by Cascade Investments, which also manages Gates’ personal fortune. (Buffett is a trustee of the Gates Foundation, and presumably keeps an eye on the endowment.) Bloomberg’s philanthropic and personal wealth are reported to be managed by Willett Advisors. Cascade and Willett have access to some of the world’s top money managers, and may have a shot at outperforming the averages.

This isn’t a new issue. Testifying before Congress in 1952, Russell Leffingwell, the chairman of the board of the Carnegie Foundation, famously said:

We publish our investments. We have to be very careful about our investments because we know that others, some others, take investment advice from our list of investments. Well, that is all right. We think the foundation should have glass pockets.

The bottom line: America’s foundations, as a group, are taking money that could be devoted to their programs – to alleviate global poverty, to improve education, to support medical research or promote the arts — and transferring it to wealthy asset managers. They should know better, and they do.

--Marc Gunther

Apocalypse Later? Philanthropy and Transparency in an Illiberal World
March 6, 2017

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. As recently reported by Nonprofit Quarterly, the National Council of Nonprofits has launched a campaign to get nonprofits to sign a Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship that calls for preservation of the Johnson Amendment in its current form. This blog also appears in PhilanTopic.)

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

Brad Smith PhotoHow long will it be before nonprofit transparency takes its place alongside diceros bicornis on the endangered species list? Hopefully never, but in a world that's growing more technologically sophisticated and more illiberal, I'm beginning to think that if it's not Apocalypse Now, maybe it's Apocalypse Later.

The value of transparency

Transparency has been a boon to the philanthropic sector, making it possible for organizations like Foundation Center, Guidestar, the Urban Institute, Charity Navigator, and others to create searchable databases spanning the entire nonprofit and foundation universe. Our efforts, in turn, contribute to responsible oversight, help nonprofits raise funds to pursue their missions, and fuel online platforms that enable donors to make better giving choices. Transparency also enables foundations to collaborate more effectively, leverage their resources more efficiently, and make real progress on critical issues such as black male achievement, access to safe water, and disaster response. The incredibly rich information ecosystem that undergirds the American social sector is the envy of others around the globe — not least because it gives us a clear view of what nonprofit initiative can accomplish, how it compares and contrasts with government, and how social, economic, and environmental issues are being addressed through private-public partnerships.

Where we are today

Federal law — U.S. Code, Title 26, Section 6104 — stipulates that public access to Form 990, a federal information form that tax-exempt organizations are required to file annually, must be provided promptly on request at the exempt organization's office or offices, or within thirty days of a written request. However, exempt organizations don't have to provide copies of their Forms 990 if they make these materials broadly available through the Internet, or if the IRS determines that the organization is being subject to a harassment campaign.

“ The social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts.”

In 2015, Carl Malamud, the Don Quixote of open data, dragged transparency into the digital age when he brought suit against the Internal Revenue Service to force it to make the 990s of a handful of organizations that had been filed electronically available as machine-readable open data. Malamud won, and, somewhat surprisingly, the IRS then did more rather than less to comply with the order: as of June 2016, all Forms 990 filed electronically by 501(c)(3) organizations are available as machine-readable open data through Amazon Web Services. As such, they can be downloaded directly in digital form and processed by computers with minimal human intervention. The development represents a victory not only for Malamud but for the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, which has toiled for years to make 990s more accessible. The idea, of course, is that free, open data on nonprofits will enable more innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to use the data in ways that help make the sector more effective and efficient. Since Malamud won his case, the IRS has posted some 1.7 million Forms 990 as machine-readable open data.

Philanthropy in a shifting world

The increasingly illiberal world in which we find ourselves was not made in America: it is a worldwide phenomenon born of globalization, income inequality, technology-driven unemployment, the unprecedented movement of migrants and refugees, and the specter of terrorism. The democratization of information driven by social media and the Internet also has been accompanied by distrust of traditional media, the narrowing of the space in which civil society organizations operate, and growing attempts to restrict thought and behavior. Author William Gibson (credited with inventing the term "cyberspace") presciently (if darkly) described a world we probably all recognize today in his 2003 reflections on George Orwell: "A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and quotidian degrees of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree on it any more readily." Indeed.

The bitter, divisive 2016 presidential election in the United States saw information from the 990s of the Clinton and Trump foundations used to support allegations of influence peddling, self-dealing, and the like. The resulting bad press and subsequent investigations by the New York State Attorney General's office caused both foundations to eventually announce that they planned to wind down their activities.

At the same time that foundations are being subjected to more scrutiny, we see a growing number of high-net-worth individuals turn to alternatives that require little or no transparency in exchange for the tax advantages they receive for their charitable giving. The most common of these are donor-advised funds administered by community foundations or investment firms such as Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab. Community foundations do file 990 tax returns, so information about each grant they award is reported and made available to the public, though without the identity of the donor. With the charitable gift funds sponsored by investment funds, however, information on individual grants remains invisible. Then there are newer, hybrid structures like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the LLC formed by the co-founder of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to "advance human potential and promote equal opportunity." There is no public disclosure requirement for the tax returns of LLCs, which means that any details we learn about the grants made by CZI will be what Zuckerberg, Chan, and their colleagues choose to tell us.

The first step?

So what are the implications of all this for the social sector in the Unites States? The media (traditional and social) has been on fire with stories about the Trump administration's intent to remove information on issues like climate change from government websites. In response, universities and others are rushing to download as much of that data to non-government servers as possible. In the same vein, it would not be difficult for the IRS to suddenly stop posting 990 tax returns as open data, especially given all the "trouble" they caused during the presidential campaign. This might be met by another Malamud-style legal challenge but that would take time to unfold. And if successful, this time around the IRS might comply by releasing only a handful of specific 990s rather than all those that have been digitally filed.

"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment

President Trump also has announced his intent to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision (named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson) in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Repeal of the provision could open the way for huge amounts of so-called dark money — donations from corporations, unions, and individuals aimed at influencing the outcome of elections — to find its way into 501(c)(3) organizations. Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits and foundations, the current recipients of such funds — primarily 501 (c)(4) and (c)(6) nonprofits — are not required to disclose their donors.

I am not a lawyer and may be out on a limb here, but overturning the Johnson Amendment would require an act of Congress, and would not be easy. Yet, if Congress decides to do so, it is not inconceivable that the administration, with the assent of Congress, could then remove the public disclosure requirement for Forms 990 in order (depending on your point of view) to: 1) protect donor privacy as an exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech; or 2) make it more difficult to "follow the money" when it comes to political campaigns.

If this were to happen, it is not entirely clear which constituencies would emerge to fight for the continued provision of Forms 990 as public information. Foundations, in particular, are not universally enthusiastic about having their grants and other information in the public domain for a variety of reasons (including privacy, journalistic scrutiny, and wariness of being swamped by applications for funding). What's more, in recent conversations with foundation leaders, I've heard concerns that when it comes to controversial issues such as immigration or charter schools, having their information made more visible could make them targets for harassment. And, of course, neither nonprofit organizations nor foundations enjoy filling out 990s, which like a lot of tax forms are long, time-consuming, and expensive to complete. Yes, organizations like the National Council of Nonprofits, Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations, and the Philanthropy Roundtable might rally to defend broad public access to Forms 990, but only if their members were firmly behind them.

Transparency and hope

Born in 1956 out of hostile McCarthy-era hearings accusing foundations of supporting "un-American activities," Foundation Center has worked for many years with the Internal Revenue Service and other organizations to build a public information system for philanthropy. GuideStar has done much the same for nonprofit organizations. The cornerstone of these systems has been data contained in the Forms 990. If access to these forms were reduced or eliminated, the transparency of the entire social sector — and with it the promise of greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation — would be an obvious casualty. It also would strengthen the position of those in government and the social sector, both here and abroad, who, for whatever reason, believe the need for donor privacy outweighs the value of transparency. Russell Leffingwell, a Republican banker and trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said it best in 1952 in his testimony to the Cox Commission declaring that his foundation "should have glasspockets." Leffingwell went on to say:

"I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk. If the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back and back and back so that our ignorance of ourselves and our     fellow man and of other nations is steadily reduced, there is hope for mankind, and unless those boundaries are pushed back there is no hope...."

At the end of the day, the social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts. We live in an age, illiberal or not, in which our mission to serve the public good to the best of our ability is powered by technology that allows us to share knowledge as never before. And knowledge is rooted deeply in transparency. Apocalypse later? We can't let that happen.

-- Brad Smith

Share This Blog

  • Share This

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.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

Categories