Transparency Talk

Category: "Reporting Commitment" (16 posts)

How the Reporting Commitment Leverages Philanthropy's Efforts to Solve Pressing Social Problems
August 26, 2013

(Leila Walsh is director of communications for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a private foundation with investments in criminal justice, education, public accountability, and research integrity.)

Walsh-200When the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) evaluates its grants, we measure our success against a variety of metrics designed to answer one fundamental question: Are we actually making a difference? When the answer is "yes," we are eager to do more of what's working and share our successes. If the answer is "no," we must learn from the experience and tell others about the results so they can learn from our failures. The Reporting Commitment is an important part of that process. It provides a forum to share grant information openly, transparently, and in real time. Along with the 16 other participating foundations, we will report our grants on a regular basis. You will see the groups that we are supporting as well as the amount, duration, and purpose of the grants.

We joined the effort because we believe the Reporting Commitment is helping to accelerate and better leverage philanthropy's efforts to address some of society's most persistent problems. It makes it easier to track overlapping interests and allows us to find ways to collaborate as part of a thorough and systemic effort.

We joined the effort because we believe the Reporting Commitment is helping to accelerate and better leverage philanthropy's efforts to address some of society's most persistent problems. It makes it easier to track overlapping interests and allows us to find ways to collaborate as part of a thorough and systemic effort. The Reporting Commitment also provides an opportunity to identify funding gaps, which is also critical because it gives us a better understanding of what hasn't been tried. When we discover ideas that are untested, we examine them through a rigorous evaluation process and then scale them if they prove to be effective. By examining all angles of a problem and all possible solutions, we are able to maximize opportunities for impact.

The Wall Street Journal recently called LJAF's entrepreneurial, data-driven approach to philanthropy "The New Science of Giving." We harness data and promote open access to information through each of our initiative areas. Here are a few examples of such projects:

  • LJAF's Criminal Justice team has developed and is piloting a risk assessment tool that uses data and analytics to help predict whether an individual will come back to court, whether he or she will commit a new crime, and whether he or she will commit a new crime of violence.
  • LJAF's Public Accountability team is supporting low-cost, randomized controlled trial evaluations of social programs that help government better compare and contrast among competing policy options and concentrate resources on what works.
  • LJAF's Research Integrity initiative is improving the reliability and validity of scientific evidence by investing in organizations that are committed to improving openness, transparency, and quality of research.

Because we recognize the power of data and measurable outcomes, we support the Reporting Commitment and encourage other foundations to join it. By collectively being transparent about our work and impact, we have a greater chance of producing innovative, effective solutions that will indeed make a difference and improve the lives of individuals and society as a whole.

--Leila Walsh

Explore grants by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation
and the 16 other participating foundations»

What’s The Story, Data?
July 10, 2013

(Kyle Reis, after twenty-five years at the Ford Foundation, has just joined the nonprofit social enterprise TechSoup Global as Senior Director of Global Data Services and East Coast Representative. When not busy raising three daughters or reading Emily Dickinson poems, he spends his time thinking about the intersection of data, design, and social change.)

Reis-100Data are not sexy.

There, I’ve said it. The sentence proves the point. Data are. Data is. Data, hmm. Personally, I love data. But we all know what invariably happens when the ‘D’ word comes up in conversation other than at a hackathon or Google staff party. Our eyes glaze over, we nod that, yes, this is indeed the era of Big Data, and then excuse ourselves to freshen our drink.

But let me clarify. It’s not that I love data per se. The data point, ‘New Jersey,’ does not, thankfully, excite me. What I do love, however, is what can come of data, particularly when it gets big and varied. Often, a surprising thing happens: the data get interesting. Really interesting. Even more importantly, the data become meaningful. Individual data points begin morphing into larger concepts like, say, The Law of Large Numbers. Now we’re talking sexy. I would even go so far as to call the Law of Large Numbers awesome! See for yourself:

Law of Large Numbers

OK. So, formulas aren’t sexy either. But, in layman’s terms, what this tells us is that, as we get more and more data (e.g., rolls of a die, Google “flu” searches, grants approved by foundations), the data become more predictable and informative. Data points bond together and in so doing undergo a kind of metamorphosis in our perception. They begin to reveal previously hidden truths, to show surprising patterns and correlations, and to surface anomalies. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or studied the concept of positive deviance, you know how much we can learn from that which deviates from the norm. Here’s a quote from the Positive Deviance Initiative that touches on this topic, and sounds a lot like something that would be of interest to foundations:

“Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.”

When cultivated and well-presented, this “data metamorphosis” takes on a new resonance for one simple reason: it begins to reveal stories.

We all love stories. Stories resonate. Stories delight. Stories move us. For foundations, stories are vital to our work. Stories of need or injustice, of action or inaction. Not only can stories help us decide who to fund, but also what results from our funding. However, for philanthropy’s stories to move others to action, they must have data.

Data help us unearth facts that, in turn, help us learn about organizations and the impact their work has on the communities they serve.

Why data, you might ask. Isn’t the folksy anecdote that moves us to action good enough? In the past, the answer might have been yes because supporting an organization that’s doing good is better than not supporting one. But this is no longer sufficient. The needs are too big for us to be funding all but the best organizations. So how do we find these organizations? Using data. Data matter. Data help us unearth facts that, in turn, help us learn about organizations and the impact their work has on the communities they serve.

And that’s why initiatives like the Reporting Commitment are so important. Though it might seem small that sixteen foundations – including some of the largest in the country – have begun publishing their grants data in an open, accessible fashion - the truth is this is big news. Here’s what these records look like:

In just nine months these 16 foundations have made available to the public more than 10,000 grants totaling $9 billion. Now imagine what this data set could look like in two or three years’ time, with several hundred foundations contributing tens of thousands of grants totaling tens of billions of dollars. Then imagine these same foundations and others working to improve people’s lives downloading this data and mashing it up with Census, World Bank, or other information. Or using word clouds and other visual tools to reveal beautiful patterns. Or mapping the geographic-area-served data to see if funding is reaching the places of greatest need. And then, if you will, imagine this data being used in ways we can’t yet dream. This metamorphosis of data could be spectacular, and the impact of what we do with this knowledge would be tangible.

So here is my call to all funders: join the Reporting Commitment. Send in your data so that you and others can use it to tell the stories that are out there waiting for the data to find them. Do this and you, too, will come to love data as I do.

How Data Can Help Create Better Communities: A Re-Cap
May 16, 2013

(Natasha Isajlovic-Terry is the Reference Librarian at the Foundation Center-San Francisco)

Nit-100Data is everywhere these days, spilling out over the sides of its containers, and busting out at every seam. The world is literally teeming with it. At the BayNet Libraries Annual Meeting, we learned from Dr. Jonathan Reichental, why this is: “We are grappling with the volume of data in the world because we now collect the same amount of data every three days as we did throughout the entire year in 2003.” This was just one thing I learned from Dr. Reichental’s talk “How Data Can Help Create Better Communities.” Reichental is no stranger to data: He currently serves as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the city of Palo Alto. It sounds like they’re doing some pretty nifty tricks with big, open-data down there. If you’re interested, it’s happening up here too as San Francisco just hired its first CIO.

Data espouses positive effects when it is shared, or, to put it in more familiar terms, when we are transparent with it.

Dr. Reichental’s talk focused on how government data can be used to improve communities. Data mined from government sources is often mashed-up with data from other free sources, such as Google, to strengthen the quality of data. For example, Palo Alto mashed its data on street quality ratings with Google Street View to create Palo Alto StreetViewer; a tool used to visualize ratings to make decisions about infrastructure improvement.

Data is used in many different ways in the social sector. We know that nonprofits collect and analyze their data to measure the effectiveness of their services, and that strategic nonprofits use open data to better position their outreach and services. The same is true for foundations, but these applications are often conducted within the silos of the organizations. Data espouses positive effects when it is shared, or, to put it in more familiar terms, when we are transparent with it.

Reichental mentioned the following six things about government use of open data (outlined in a summary by Sarah Rich):

  • It  is the liberation of peoples’ data
  • To be useful, data needs to be consumable by machines
  • Data has a derivative value
  • Data eliminates the middleman
  • Data creates deeper accountability
  • Open data builds trust

Three of these things stood out to me in a major way as beneficial for foundations too: derivative value, accountability, and trust.

When data is made available to the public, other organizations can use the same data in interesting and powerful ways. Think about all those fantastic mashups they do on Glee, but with data sets! An example Dr. Reichental shared is the use of public health ratings in Yelp reviews to strengthen the overall value of reviews. I don’t need to repeat the fact that foundations sit on a “treasure trove” of information as they require nonprofits to report all sorts of useful data. Can you imagine the derivative benefits if they shared this information with the world?

When government shares data publicly it creates deeper accountability. Dr. Reichental used the example of how the government is sharing their data through, which in turn creates greater accountability as the public can now see where and how their money is spent. The same is true for foundations. This is why we have form 990/990-PF. Some foundations are now going beyond the 990-PF and opening up their grants data via the new Glasspockets Reporting Commitment.

The last thing Dr. Reichental mentioned about data, the fact that it builds trust, is the most compelling thing for foundation transparency, and it goes hand-in-hand with accountability. Being transparent means you have nothing to hide, so conversely, when we aren’t transparent, the public assumes that we do have something to hide. The trust component is perhaps the biggest reason why the government decided to share data publicly. The government was collecting it all along, but it wasn’t until recently that they decided to free it. Now, five years into the Obama administration we have over 400,000 data sets available via

Data isn’t going anywhere except up and out. We are heading in a direction where sharing data publicly will be expected and touted as part of the common good. In the case of foundations, sharing data may actually increase the value of the work.

--Natasha Isajlovic-Terry

The Power of Sharing: Why VNA Foundation Joined the Reporting Commitment
January 23, 2013

Rob DiLeonardi is Executive Director of the VNA Foundation in Chicago, where he manages its grantmaking program and daily operations. He is co-founder and former Chair of the Board of the Association of Small Foundations (ASF), a national organization of 2,900 grantmaking foundations holding over $60 billion in assets. He has a longstanding interest in foundation transparency and outcome sharing; VNA's website and annual reports have eight times received a Council on Foundations' Wilmer Shields Rich Award for Excellence in Communications.

Rob DileonardiDuring the two decades I've worked for and with small grantmaking foundations, I've addressed problems ranging from healthcare access to domestic violence to homelessness. One of the most vexing problems I've faced over the years, however, relates not to the subject matter of my grantmaking, but rather to the results of it. Time and again, I've helped develop a grantmaking program to address a particular problem, only to find out after the fact that another foundation was funding the identical issue, often with a remarkably similar approach, in the same or a nearby area. We were addressing the same need, often via the same method, but doing so in blissful isolation. In short, we were reinventing the wheel, sometimes only a few miles apart.

Similarly, our foundation's board and staff have often wondered about latest funding trends. With only a limited number of dollars in our coffers, we want to spend them in the most effective possible way. It would be helpful for us to know exactly where other philanthropic dollars were being directed, both geographically and programmatically, as this knowledge would aid us in filling a gap or funding a complimentary niche -- a favorite strategy to maximize the impact of our grantmaking.

For these reasons, over the years I've tried many different approaches to ensure that the staff of the VNA Foundation is aware of other funders' work and that they are aware of ours. We subscribe to many electronic and hard copy newsletters, periodicals, and reports. We attend local, regional, and national conferences and networking groups. We convene grantmakers and grantees around common challenges, and encourage dialogues about successes -- and failures -- in addressing them. And we work hard to make our website an interactive, timely, and appealing resource. Yet, despite these various efforts, both the grantmaking data we share and that which we receive is often either stale (months or sometimes even years old by the time it reaches end users) or lacking the key details to make it useful.

My interest, therefore, was quickly piqued when I learned of the Foundation Center-supported Reporting Commitment, and the opportunity for the VNA Foundation to become a participant in it. The Reporting Commitment finally allows foundations the opportunity, and the mechanism, to release grant information in a consistent, open, and frequent manner. Although the Commitment's founding participants were large foundations, as soon as I became aware of the initiative I knew there would be value in participation by foundations of VNA's size. Small to medium-sized foundations are far more common in number, size and grantmaking level than their larger brethren. In fact, small foundations account for approximately half of America's total foundation grant dollars, and often provide the kind of essential local support that impacts lives on a daily basis.

In addition, most observers judge foundations by their effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency, not their asset size. Participation by smaller foundations like VNA (foundation philanthropy being one of the few settings in which a $50 million bank account is considered "small") is key, in my opinion, to making the Reporting Commitment's impact felt in more than a handful of sectors.

I am delighted to say that the VNA board of directors immediately saw the value in our participation in the Reporting Commitment, and my colleagues at peer foundations are seeing the light as well. All across the country, every day, foundations large and small are working to bring about small miracles or serve as catalysts for systemic innovation. With the help of the Reporting Commitment, perhaps our field finally has a mechanism by which that work can effectively be shared with colleagues and the public alike.

-- Rob DiLeonardi

For Impact’s Sake: The Need for Transparency on Diversity & Equity in Philanthropy
November 7, 2012

(Kelly Brown is Director of the D5 Coalition, a five-year, effort to advance philanthropy’s diversity, equity and inclusiveness.)

Brown-100Philanthropy exists for the common good, and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion helps us live up to that value. In particular, thinking about equity in our grantmaking helps ensure that we are having the greatest impact on the issues identified in our unique missions—by targeting resources to the people in our constituencies with the greatest need.

But to really maximize our impact and hold ourselves accountable to our values, our constituencies, and each other, we also have to track who benefits from our grantmaking and be transparent about the results. If we can do that successfully, we can: 1) better understand whom we are reaching and whom we are missing—and adjust strategies accordingly; 2) leverage public policy or public dollars to fill gaps or create synergy; and 3) connect our work to the work of other foundations that focus on common issues or common consistencies.

As a field, we have a dual problem with both collecting and sharing data on diversity and equity.

Realizing that kind of success, though, is a real challenge. As a field, we have a dual problem with both collecting and sharing data on diversity and equity. Foundations measure internal diversity and the impact of their grantmaking in many different ways—or not at all. And the foundations that do collect this kind of data share it to varying degrees—or not at all. These challenges make it difficult to assess the year-over-year progress of individual foundations, or to draw comparisons among foundations, or between philanthropy and the public sector.  

So what do we do about it? We have to establish a uniform data collection and reporting system, and encourage the whole field to use it. We’re excited by the renewed energy in the field to take on this challenge—the Reporting Commitment is a great recent example.

A key goal of D5 is to improve data collection and transparency as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Last month, we helped convene 15 leaders on this topic in philanthropy and academia to discuss a pilot project to pioneer a collection and reporting system. As this promising work continues—and expands—we will be able to share more information about how to participate.  

In the meantime, the field also has to do the research to figure out what policies and practices are, in fact, the most effective at fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s hard for us to call on foundations to track and be transparent about diversity and equity when we can’t say in the same breath: And if you aren’t happy with where you stand, here are the most effective steps you can take to address it.

To help on that front, D5 just commissioned three organizations to conduct research that will help identify the most effective policies and tools philanthropic leaders can draw upon to help drive meaningful change and also lay the groundwork for gathering the data needed to help track the field’s progress. For more information about the Insights on Diversity research, check out the press release here.

Being transparent about diversity and equity can be intimidating. But I hope the need for it will increasingly be viewed as a pathway to impact—not as an onerous task that could result in scolding if a foundation is behind where it would like to be. This is an opportunity to learn from each other, to find ways to better work together to serve common constituencies, and to better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse world.

--Kelly Brown

A New Reporting Commitment
October 9, 2012

Darin McKeever is a deputy director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leading the foundation’s Charitable Sector work as a member of the Global Policy & Advocacy division. He serves as an ambassador and primary point of contact within the philanthropic community, monitoring and helping develop foundation positions on policy and regulatory issues affecting the nonprofit sector, and managing relationships and grants with major nonprofit/philanthropic trade associations and research institutions.

Darin-McKeever-100At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we firmly believe transparency is a key ingredient in maximizing impact because it inspires new innovations and leads to opportunities for collaboration.

That's why we are pleased to join 14 other U.S. foundations today in announcing a new "Reporting Commitment" to better share information about our grants in an open format on the Foundation Center's web site.

We are going through exciting times - when “Big Data,” “Open Data,” and social media are revealing a path to new ways of working together in the social sector.

For many years, private foundations in the U.S. have been required to include lists of grants made in their annual filings to the Internal Revenue Service. However, because of filing deadlines as well as return preparation and digitization timelines, the lag between when a grant is approved and when the general public finds out about it can sometimes stretch to 18 months or more. In the annual filings, descriptions are also brief, often without key information like the location where funded activities take place. As a result, the purpose behind the grants can be opaque and making comparisons across foundations and over the course of years is challenging.

Over the last two years, the 15 participating foundations -- together with the Foundation Center -- have worked together to tackle these problems. Each organization has needed to reexamine policies, business processes, coding procedures, technical capabilities, and even culture. This is only a first step; we hope this effort lays the groundwork for further improvements in the precision and availability of information about grantmaking in the U.S.

Of course, widening the availability of grant data doesn't supplant the value of robust web sites, blogs, or the use of social media. The pressures to collect, organize, and publish information also bring additional costs and burdens -- for foundations, but also our grantees and partners. These are important considerations. The relative absence of standard ways of reporting grants or the results of activities makes all this especially challenging.

That's why last week we were also excited to announce our new "Markets for Good" effort , with our partners at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and the progressive financial firm LiquidNet. In many ways, the new Reporting Commitment is a great illustration of what the Markets for Good initiative seeks to accelerate: easier and better ways for social sector organizations to get, share, and use information that contributes to improving lives and communities. Check out the video and join the conversation.

We are going through exciting times - when “Big Data,” “Open Data,” and social media are revealing a path to new ways of working together in the social sector. With the Reporting Commitment announced today, we are taking one more step down that path.

--Darin McKeever

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