Transparency Talk

Category: "Reporting" (35 posts)

Foundations and Endowments: Smart People, Dumb Choices
August 3, 2017

(Marc Gunther writes about nonprofits, foundations, business and sustainability. He also writes for NonprofitChronicles.com. A version of 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 Gunther photoAmerica’s foundations spend many millions of dollars every year on investment advice. In return, they get sub-par performance.

You read that right: Money that could be spent on charitable programs — to alleviate global poverty, help cure disease, improve education, support research or promote the arts — instead flows into the pockets of well-to-do investment advisors and asset managers who, as a group, generate returns on their endowment investments that are below average.

This is redistribution in the wrong direction, on a grand scale: Foundation endowments hold about $800 billion in investments. It hasn’t attracted a lot of attention, but that could change as foundations make their IRS tax filings open, digital and searchable. That should create competitive pressures on foundation investment officers to do better, and for foundation executives and trustees to rethink business as usual investing.

The latest evidence that they aren’t doing very well arrived recently with the news that two energy funds managed by a Houston-based private equity firm called EnerVest are on the verge of going bust. Once worth $2 billion, the funds will leave investors “with, at most, pennies for every dollar they invested,” the Wall Street Journal reports. To add insult to injury, the funds in question were invested in oil and natural gas during 2012 and 2013, just as Bill McKibben, 350.org and a handful of their allies were urging institutional investors to divest from fossil fuels.

Foundations that invested in the failing Enervest funds include the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the California-based Fletcher Jones Foundation, according to their most recent IRS filings. Stranded assets, anyone?

“Endowed private foundations are unaccountable to anyone other than their own trustees.”

Of course, no investment strategy can prevent losses. But the collapse of the Enervest funds points to a broader and deeper problem–the fact that most foundations trust their endowment to investment offices and/or outside portfolio managers who pursue active and expensive investment strategies that, as a group, have underperformed the broader markets.

How costly has this underperformance been? That’s impossible to know because most foundations do not disclose their investment returns. This, by itself, is a troubling; it’s a reminder that endowed private foundations are unaccountable to anyone other than their own trustees.

On disclosure, there are signs of progress. The Ford Foundation says it intends to release its investment returns for the first time. A startup company called Foundation Financial Research is compiling data on endowments as well, which it intends to make available to foundation trustees and sell to asset managers.

What’s more, as the IRS Form 990s filed by foundations become machine readable, it will become easier for analysts, activists, journalists and other foundations to see exactly how billions of dollars of foundations assets are deployed, and how they are performing. Advocates for mission-based investment, or for hiring more women and people of color to manage foundation assets are likely to shine a light on foundations whose endowments that are underperforming.

Unhappily, all indications are that most foundations are underperforming because they pursue costly, active investment strategies. This month, what is believed to be the most comprehensive annual survey of foundation endowment performance once again delivered discouraging news for the sector.

The 2016 Council on Foundations–Commonfund Study of Investment of Endowments for Private and Community Foundations® reported on one-year, five-year and 10-year returns for private foundations, and they again trail passive benchmarks.

The 10-year annual average return for private foundations was 4.7 percent, the study found. The five-year return was 7.6 percent. Those returns are net of fees — meaning that outside investment fees are taken into account — but they do not take into account the considerable salaries of investment officers at staffed foundations.

By comparison, Vanguard, the pioneering giant of passive investing, says a simple mix of index funds with 70 percent in stocks and 30 percent in fixed-income assets delivered an annualized return of 5.4 percent over the past 10 years. The five-year return was 9.1 percent.

These differences add up in a hurry.

Warnings, Ignored

The underperformance of foundation endowments is not a surprise. In a Financial Times essay called The end of active investing? that should be read by every foundation trustee, Charles D. Ellis, who formerly chaired the investment committee at Yale, wrote:

“Over 10 years, 83 per cent of active funds in the US fail to match their chosen benchmarks; 40 per cent stumble so badly that they are terminated before the 10-year period is completed and 64 per cent of funds drift away from their originally declared style of investing. These seriously disappointing records would not be at all acceptable if produced by any other industry.”

The performance of hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture capital has trended downwards as institutional investors flocked into those markets, chasing returns. Notable investors including Warren Buffett, Jack Bogle (who as Vanguard’s founder has a vested interest in passive investing), David Swensen, Yale’s longtime chief investment officer, and Charles Ellis have all argued for years that most investors–even institutional investors–should simply diversity their portfolios, pursue passive strategies and keep their investing costs low.

In his most recent letter to investors in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett wrote:

“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.”

For more from Buffett about why passive investing makes sense, see my March blogpost, Warren Buffett has some excellent advice for foundations that they probably won’t take. Recently, Freakonomics did an excellent podcast on the topic, titled The Stupidest Thing You Can Do With Your Money.

2016700activepassivesign-640x410-jpgThat said, the debate between active and passive asset managers remains unsettled. While index funds have outperformed actively-managed portfolios over the last decade, Cambridge Associates, a big investment firm that builds customized portfolios for institutional investors and private clients, published a study last spring saying that this past decade is an anomaly. Cambridge Associates found that since 1990, fully diversified (i.e., actively managed) portfolios have underperformed a simple 70/30 stock/bond portfolio in only two periods: 1995–99 and 2009–2016. To no one’s surprise, Cambridge says: “We continue to find investments in private equity and hedge funds that we believe have an ability to add value to portfolios over the long term.” Portfolio managers are also sure to argue that their expertise and connections enable them to beat market indices.

But where is the evidence? To the best of my knowledge, seven of the U.S.’s 10 biggest foundations decline to disclose their investment returns. I emailed or called the Getty, MacArthur and Fletcher Jones foundations to ask about their investments in Enervest and was told that they do not discuss individual investments. They declined comment.

To its credit, MacArthur does disclose its investment performance of its $6.3 billion endowment. On the other hand, MacArthur has an extensive grantmaking program supporting “conservation and sustainable development.” Why is it financing oil and gas assets?

Ultimately, foundation boards are responsible for overseeing the investment of their endowments. Why don’t they do a better job of it? Maybe it’s because many foundation trustees — particularly those who oversee the investment committees — come out of Wall Street, private equity funds, hedge funds and venture capital. They are the so-called experts, and they have built successful careers by managing other people’s people. It’s not easy for the other board members, who may be academics, activists, lawyers or politicians, to question their expertise. But that’s what they need to do.

And, at the very least, foundations ought to be open about how their endowments are performing so those who manage their billions of dollars can be held accountable.

--Marc Gunther

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

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

Learn from the Transparency Challenge Highlights Reel
January 19, 2017

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives. A version of this post first appeared on the James Irvine Foundation blog.)

Janet Camarena PhotoWho doesn’t love a challenge? Marathons and Olympic events spur individual athletes to break records, mountaintops invite climbers to scale greater heights, and moonshot challenges motivate innovators to aim for the impossible. Could transparency pose similar challenges and opportunities for philanthropy?

Last November, Glasspockets launched a new feature designed to inspire foundations to greater transparency heights. Using data gathered from 81 foundations that have taken and shared the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment, the Glasspockets team identified transparency benefits and trends in a new Foundation Transparency Challenge infographic.  Since it’s often easier to learn by example, the infographic serves as a highlights reel showcasing foundations that are succeeding where most fear to tread, and this post digs in a little deeper to help other foundations learn from some of the selected examples.

Less Pain, Much to Be Gained

The Foundation Transparency Challenge reveals the toughest challenges for philanthropy — those elements that are shared by the fewest participating funders.

The infographic curates the hundreds of documents we have aggregated in Glasspockets to highlight those that can serve as good examples, including pain points for the field such as providing assessments of overall foundation performance, codes of conduct, and grantee feedback mechanisms. Below are observations about each of these based on some good examples from our collection of participants, along with an explanation of why these particular examples were selected.

Assessment of Overall Foundation Performance

Opening up how a foundation measures its own progress develops a culture of shared learning across the field. Despite the fact that many foundations emphasize impact assessment for their grantees, few lead by example and share how they measure their own progress.

Transparency Challenge - Shared Learning Infographic
Only 22 percent (18 foundations) of the 81 Glasspockets participants use their websites as a vehicle to share an overall foundation performance assessment though some do (The James Irvine Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the New York State Health Foundation.)

Irvine’s assessment is also unique because it is updated annually, aligned to the rhythm of a foundation annual report — a good tip for those considering how to make the ritual of the annual report a more beneficial exercise.

Another common pitfall is foundations often focus all of their assessment efforts on the grantmaking side. Dashboard metrics in these three examples of performance assessments include things like social media, reputational capital, communications and learning, staffing, financial performance, and funding in diverse communities, in addition to programmatic dashboards. In other words, they look at the institution as a whole.

Grantee Feedback Mechanism

Providing a way for grantees to provide a foundation with ongoing feedback serves to strengthen relationships with stakeholders and creates a culture of continuous improvement, yet only 31% of our sample do so. Most foundations have a contact form of some kind, but few take the step of creating a form specifically for feedback year-round. Opening up a foundation’s website in this way helps break down the insularity of philanthropy.

“Learn from a new Transparency Challenge infographic, which serves as a highlights reel showcasing foundations that are succeeding where most fear to tread.”

Because it is difficult for foundations to receive unvarnished feedback, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation uses a neutral third party service to collect confidential feedback, in addition to giving the option of providing the foundation with direct feedback at any time.

Another obstacle for feedback is grantee time. A good step taken by both Packard and the Barr Foundation is to provide prompts that make it easier for the grantee to consider areas in which they might have advice for the foundation.

In the case of Barr, its online form resembles a Yelp review format that allows a star rating and offers a quick multiple-choice survey in addition to the ability to provide an open-ended response.

Code of Conduct

Finally, posting a Code of Conduct is a small but simple way to build credibility and public trust by demonstrating an institution’s commitment to professional and ethical conduct. Many foundations do not post a code of ethics or guiding principles, but even for those who do, surprisingly few explain what happens if the code is violated.

The codes of conduct offered up by Commonwealth Fund, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation are good examples for peers; they include rules of engagement that one might expect, and they also have rare but important details about the consequences of a code violation.

These are just a few of many examples in “The Transparency Challenge” infographic, so take a look to see which examples might inspire you to the next mountain peak on your journey to openness. In a future post I’ll review the remaining examples we highlighted and why.

If An Evaluation Was Commissioned But Never Shared, Did It Really Exist?
November 15, 2016

(Fay Twersky is director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @FayDTwersky. This post first ran on Center for Effective Philanthropy's blog.)

Fay photoThere are a lot of interesting data in the recent Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices report, co-authored by the Center for Effective Philanthropy and the Center for Evaluation Innovation. There is useful, practical information on how foundations structure their evaluation operations, how much they spend on evaluation, the kinds of evaluations they commission, and so forth. Great stuff.

But some findings give me pause. Perhaps the most sobering statistic in the report is that very few foundations consistently share their evaluations with their grantees, other foundations, or the public. Only 28 percent share their evaluations “quite a bit or a lot” with their grantees.  And that drops to 17 percent for sharing with other foundations, and only 14 percent for sharing with the general public.

“We have a moral imperative to share what we are learning from the evaluations we commission so that others may learn from our successes and mistakes.”

Really? Why are we not sharing the lessons from the evaluations we commission?

It feels wrong.

It seems to me that we have a moral imperative to share what we are learning from the evaluations we commission so that others may learn — both from our successes and mistakes. 

After all, why would we not share?

Are we worried about our stock price falling? No. We don’t have a stock price.

Are we worried about causing undue harm to specific organizations? There are ways to share key lessons from evaluations without naming specific organizations.

Do we believe that others don’t care about our evaluations or our findings? Time and again, foundation leaders list assessment and evaluation as high on the list of things they need to get better at.

Are reports too technical? That can be a challenge, but again, there are ways to share an executive summary — or commission an easy to read summary — that is not a heavy, overly technical report.

So, the main question is, why commission an evaluation if you are going to keep the lessons all to yourself? Is that charitable?

--Fay Twersky 

The Foundation Transparency Challenge
November 2, 2016

Janet CamarenaI often get asked which foundations are the most transparent, closely followed by the more skeptical line of questioning about whether the field of philanthropy is actually becoming more transparent, or just talking more about it.  When Glasspockets launched six years ago, a little less than 7 percent of foundations had a web presence; today that has grown to a still underwhelming 10 percent.  So, the reality is that transparency remains a challenge for the majority of foundations, but some are making it a priority to open up their work. 

Our new Foundation Transparency Challenge infographic is designed to help foundations tackle the transparency challenge. It provides an at-a-glance overview of how and why foundations are prioritizing transparency, inventories common strengths and pain points across the field, and highlights good examples that can serve as inspiration for others in areas that represent particular challenges to the field. 

Trans challenge_twitter1-01

Using data gathered from the 81 foundations that have taken and shared the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment, we identified transparency trends and then displayed these trends by the benefits to philanthropy, demonstrating the field's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to working more openly.

Transparency Comfort Zone

Despite the uniqueness of each philanthropic institution, looking at the data this way does seem to reveal that the majority of foundations consider a few elements as natural starting points in their journey to transparency.  As we look across the infographic, this foundation transparency comfort zone could be identified by those elements that are shared by almost all participating foundations:

  • Contact Information
  • Mission Statement
  • Grantmaking Priorities
  • Grantmaking Process
  • Key Staff List

Transparency Pain Points

On the flip side, the infographic also reveals the toughest transparency challenges for philanthropy, those elements that are shared by the fewest participating funders:

  • Assessments of Overall Foundation Performance
  • Diversity Data
  • Executive Compensation Process
  • Grantee Feedback
  • Open Licensing Policies
  • Strategic Plans

What’s In It for Me?

Community of Shared LearningOnce we start talking about the pain points, we often get questions about why foundations should share certain elements, so the infographic identifies the primary benefit for each transparency element.  Some elements could fit in multiple categories, but for each element, we tried to identify the primary benefit as a way to assess where there is currently the most attention, and where there is room for improvement. When viewed this way, there are areas of great strength or at least balance between strengths and weaknesses in participating foundations when it comes to opening up elements that build credibility and public trust, and those that serve to strengthen grantee relationship-building.  And the infographic also illustrates that philanthropic transparency is at its weakest when it comes to opening up its knowledge to build a community of shared learning.  For a field like philanthropy that is built not just on good deeds but on the experimentation of good ideas, prioritizing knowledge sharing may well be the area in which philanthropy has the most to gain by improving openness. 

“The reality is that transparency remains a challenge of foundations, but some are making it a priority to open up their work.”

And speaking of shared learning, there is much to be learned from the foundation examples that exist by virtue of participating in the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment process. Our transparency team often receives requests for good examples of how other foundations are sharing information regarding diversity, codes of conduct, or knowledge sharing just to name a few, so based on the most frequently requested samples, the infographic links to actual foundation web pages that can serve as a model to others.

Don’t know what a good Code of Conduct looks like?  No problem, check out the samples we link to from The Commonwealth Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Don’t know how to tackle sharing your foundation’s diversity data?  Don’t reinvent the wheel, check out the good examples we flagged from The California Endowment, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. A total of 19 peer examples, across seven challenging transparency indicators are offered up to help your foundation address common transparency pain points.

Why did we pick these particular examples, you might ask?  Watch this space for a follow-up blog that dives into what makes these good examples in each category.

#GlasspocketsChallenge

And more importantly, do you have good examples to share from your foundation’s transparency efforts? Add your content to our growing Glasspockets community by completing our transparency self-assessment form or by sharing your ideas with us on Twitter @glasspockets with #GlasspocketsChallenge and you might be among those featured next time!

--Janet Camarena

 

The Annual Report is Dead. Long Live the Annual Report!
October 13, 2016

(Neal Myrick is Director of Social Impact at Tableau Software and Director of Tableau Foundation, which encourages the use of facts and analytical reasoning to solve the world’s problems. Neal has served in both private and nonprofit senior leadership positions at intersection of information technology and social change.)

Neal Myrick photoMaybe it is the headlines from the campaign trail, but I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about philanthropy, impact, and accountability.

As the head of Tableau Foundation, I’m responsible for ensuring that we embody the values our employees have entrusted us to uphold. My team and I are accountable to the thousands of people who make up Tableau, and to the tens of thousands of Tableau customers and partners who are passionate about using data to drive change.

The question I’ve been wrestling with is not if we should tell our story, but how. How can we share what’s been accomplished in a way that is both timely and true without taking credit for someone else’s work? Moreover, how can we do all of this while still being a good steward of the company’s resources?

Annual_Report_Open_ThumbnailThat’s why I’m pleased to share the Tableau Foundation’s brand new Living Annual Report. We’ve ditched the traditional, glossy printed annual report for a live report so anyone can get near real-time information on what we’re doing around the globe.

The Living Annual Report gives our stakeholders better, more timely information while reducing the investments of staff time and resources of a traditional printed report. It pulls information from the same data sources we use every day. The report updates weekly, and most pages have interactive capabilities that allow anyone to explore the data.

The Report doesn’t just take look back at what we’ve done, either. It is also helping us chart the course ahead.

Earlier this year we adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as a framework for setting our priorities and measuring progress. While the 17 Goals themselves are expansive, the 230 underlying indicators help us organize our activities and approach partnerships with a clear sense of what we’re trying to achieve.

SDG breakdown

Page 3 of the report shows the latest breakdown of Tableau Foundation grants by goal.

We recognize that we’re capacity builders, and that the issues we’re trying to effect require much larger collaborative efforts. After all, the problems we’re trying to solve are multidimensional, so why should the solutions be different?

Almost immediately, real-time transparency around priorities led to more relevant and constructive conversations with potential partners.  We are finding more opportunities to deploy our two most valuable resources - our products and our people – to help people around the globe use facts and data to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.  

And somewhere in putting the report together, it became about something bigger. We started to see the Report as a model that shows foundations and nonprofits that they don’t have to spend substantial resources printing reports that are outdated the moment they are printed.

The purpose of a foundation or nonprofit’s annual report is to persuade decision-makers – funders, board members, partners, lawmakers – to take action. But if the information in the report is outdated, how can those people make choices that lead to real impact?

“We’ve ditched the traditional, glossy printed annual report for a live report with near real-time information on what we’re doing around the globe.”

This is not to say we should sacrifice storytelling. On the contrary, interactive charts and graphs sitting seamlessly alongside photos, videos, testimonials, and one-click calls-to-action can create a holistic engagement experience far beyond what a static printout might do. 

My real hope is that our report will inspire others to ditch the glossy paper and to get on board with the real purpose of the report – sharing actionable, up-to-date information with those in a position to take action. Some already have. Heron Foundation has been reporting on their portfolio through data visualizations for several years now. The Foundation Center’s Glasspockets transparency assessment tools and Foundation Maps are bringing sector-wide insights to grantmaking. And after seeing our Living Annual Report, others tell me they’re not far behind.

Imagine talking to a Development Director, for example, and being able to explore an interactive, near-real-time annual report to help you understand how your investment in the organization is having impact?  Not “as-of last May” when a traditional annual report would have been printed, but as-of last week? As a funder, we can and should lead by example.

Which brings me back around to the idea of impact and accountability. To do our work well, we have to share timely information. This means sharing what we are doing, showing how our resources are being spent, and being responsible for the progress… or possibly lack thereof.

This level of accountability can be uncomfortable sometimes, but is necessary to establish more constructive partnerships based on trust, set ourselves up to learn from the data, and ultimately do more impactful work.

As the work grows and changes, this report will change with it. And we’re continually making improvements and all suggestions are welcome – feel free to email us anytime at foundation@tableau.com with any feedback.   

--Neal Myrick

California Foundation Data—Now Available At-a-Glance
September 27, 2016

Did you know…

  • California is home to 7,755 foundations that collectively give more than $7 billion?
  • In the last 10 years, giving by California foundations has increased by 90% and assets have increased by 70%?
  • Education, Health, and Environment & Animal Welfare are the top funding priorities favored by California foundations?
  • Statewide, across all regions, Children & Youth is the top population group supported by California foundations?

CA blog image 200x200v2-01The longer I work at Foundation Center, the more I realize how difficult it is for those of us in the social sector to understand the ecosystems in which we work.  Grantmakers and nonprofits evolve their areas of focus, public reporting of current activities takes longer than it should, and keeping up with the latest information takes time.  As a result, all of us, from those with innovative solutions but little experience with fundraising, to those with years of experience who are convinced we are always working with the usual suspects, all at some point realize we could use some current, authoritative data to inform strategies and decisions.

Not surprisingly, the most frequent questions we get from grantseekers and grantmakers alike relate to getting a lay of the overall philanthropic landscape and responding to queries about who are the top funders in a particular field or region, or where a particular foundation ranks in the big scheme of things. 

Thanks to support from The James Irvine Foundation, researching these kinds of key statistics for California institutional philanthropy just got a lot easier with the launch of Foundation Center’s new California Foundation Stats dashboard, which is a free, online tool that allows anyone to access hundreds of charts and tables on the size, scope, and giving priorities of California foundations, as well as giving to California-based recipients by those outside California, lists of top funders by region and issue area, and also includes access to nearly 900 research reports about California-based initiatives, sortable by regional focus. Data about trends in funding specific support strategies and population groups is also included.

California Foundation Stats provides statewide data, as well as regional data tables for nine different regions: Bay Area, Central Coast, Central Valley, Inland Empire, Los Angeles, North Coast, Orange County, Sierra Range, and South Coast and Border.

An exciting aspect of these data tables is that as Foundation Center receives updated grants information from grantmakers as part of the “Get on the Map” campaign effort or as a result of newly available 990 forms, the dashboard will be a living data set that changes to reflect up-to-date information about giving priorities and giving to the state or regions.

Everyone from grantmakers, grantseekers, to academics, advocates and journalists will find the dashboard to be a useful tool to support their work, and one which they will want to bookmark to come back to as the data changes.  The highlighted facts shared at the top of the blog are just an example of the data you can uncover by taking some time with this new tool.  

--Janet Camarena

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