Transparency Talk

Category: "Reporting" (24 posts)

Building the Social Sector's Collective Brain Trust: Redesigned IssueLab Launched
June 23, 2016

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena

Recently when I was helping my son cultivate his ant farm, I learned that a lone ant is a dead ant.  Ants are the ultimate collective, working in teams, and by doing so, they accomplish amazing feats that no lone ant alone could do. 

Do Ants Know Something Foundations Don’t?

As you may know from unwelcome encounters in your home, ants tend to move very effectively by moving in swarms.  They operate with what scientists call a “collective brain” or “swarm intelligence” that helps them share knowledge, move quickly over great distances, build bridges and highways, organize, and make collective decisions that accomplish tasks that they couldn’t do alone. 

"IssueLab’s relaunched website has almost 20,000 knowledge resources, covering 38 different issue areas, from 7,000+ organizations around the world."

Philanthropy by contrast is increasingly fragmented, with individual foundations developing and often holding lessons learned, strategic direction, and operating plans close to their vests. Yet, like ants, they are often trying to move proverbial mountains and accomplish goals that a single institution can’t do alone. So, is there something we can learn from the insect world, much like how observing bird flight informed and inspired the development of aircraft?  Can we observe insects to inform the development of collective intelligence?

There is hope here in that increasingly, philanthropy articles and conferences are turning to the theme of collective impact, and knowledge sharing, which are in many ways a departure from the current practice in philanthropy in which fragmentation - or the “lone ant” phenomenon - tends to be the prevailing norm. And there is also hope in the form of new tools that are available to you to help us all work smarter, provided we commit to take advantage of them.

Moving Toward a Collective Brain Trust

New tools recently launched by IssueLab may give us all a roadmap to how to go from struggling, lone ants to mighty ants. IssueLab’s relaunched website has almost 20,000 knowledge resources, covering 38 different issue areas, from 7,000+ organizations around the world. Each resource includes links to the full report, and helpful data, such as article abstracts, related articles, and author information. 

Many of these resources include lessons learned and were funded directly by foundations. Together, IssueLab resources represent one of the greatest assets of the social sector, provided they remain easily findable and usable by others.

The Path to Open Knowledge

Toward that end, IssueLab's relaunched website also includes helpful resources aimed at helping the social sector commit to creating a culture of open knowledge. The website includes recommended principles and also tactical practices that organizations can adopt to move toward this vision of a collective brain trust, from which we can all mutually benefit.

Given the critical connection between transparency and shared learning, earlier this year Glasspockets added Open Licensing to the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency self-assessment profile. Since this is one of our newest elements, and it is an emerging practice among foundations, we want to draw particular attention to a set of tools now available on IssueLab's redesigned site that aim to demystify the path to open knowledge.

IssueLab breaks it down into the following practices:

  • Articulating an open knowledge policy; 
  • Using open licensing on all knowledge products; 
  • Using open knowledge repositories like IssueLab to catalog and better share your work; and 
  • Using a shared descriptive vocabulary, such as schema.org, on your organization’s website to make it easier to discover and index knowledge products.

To learn more about each practice, visit IssueLab's Open Knowledge area.

How Can We Know What Others Know?

And to continue building a bigger and bigger brain trust that truly represents the shared knowledge of our labors, the redesigned IssueLab also makes it easier for anyone to upload, find, and freely share research by providing metadata and links to original documents on publishers' websites.

New features include:

  • An improved interface that makes it easier and faster to upload research to IssueLab and share items via a website, blog, or on social media.
  • Filtered search, the ability to curate user libraries, and "what to read next" suggestions for related research.
  • The ability to use Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) to increase a document's long-term accessibility across the Internet and on archival sites like WorldCat, the world's largest library catalog.
  • Metadata such as keyword search, date published, geography, and language to facilitate powerful searching and browsing capabilities.

Visit IssueLab to start collecting, connecting, and sharing knowledge, and just maybe collectively moving mountains.

--Janet Camarena

IRS Releases 990 Forms as Machine-Readable Data
June 16, 2016

Editor's Note: Last month, Transparency Talk featured a blog post by Foundation Center president, Brad Smith on the coming of open 990 data and its implications for philanthropy. Read here for additional perspective on the news story below that the IRS has now formally started its release of 990 Forms, including 990-PFs, as machine-readable, open data.

Irs-logo-250 Amazon Web Services has announced that the Internal Revenue Service has made more than a million electronic 990 tax forms available as machine-readable data through its Amazon Simple Storage Service.

Released Wednesday, the public data set includes certain Forms 990 filed by nonprofit organizations with the IRS since 2011, Forms 990-EZ filed by smaller nonprofits, and Forms 990-PF filed by private foundations. The data from each 990 is provided in an XML file that includes the main 990 form, other filed forms and schedules, and any information detailing how the document was filed; some non-disclosable information is excluded.

The release of 990 filings as machine-readable data by the IRS, which plans to add new 990 data on a monthly basis, will make it easier for anyone to search the forms digitally for information about an organization's finances, trustees, lobbying activities, and salaries. Even when nonprofits or foundations filed them electronically, the IRS previously had stripped the forms of confidential information, converted them to TIFF (image) files, and released them as PDF documents. But in response to a lawsuit filed by open-records activist Carl Malamud in 2015, a federal judge ordered the IRS to release machine-readable Forms 990 from nine nonprofits. The IRS's Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities subsequently called for the agency to require nonprofits to file their financial data electronically, and the agency announced that it would begin releasing electronic versions of the forms this year.

This post originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.

Foundation Transparency: Game Over?
May 23, 2016

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center).

BradfordKSmithThe tranquil world of America's foundations is about to be shaken, but if you read the Center for Effective Philanthropy's (CEP) new study -- Sharing What Matters, Foundation Transparency -- you would never know it.

Don't get me wrong. That study, like everything CEP produces, is carefully researched, insightful and thoroughly professional. But it misses the single biggest change in foundation transparency in decades: the imminent release by the Internal Revenue Service of foundation 990-PF (and 990) tax returns as machine-readable open data.

Clara Miller, President of the Heron Foundation, writes eloquently in her manifesto, Building a Foundation for the 21St Century: "…the private foundation model was designed to be protective and separate, much like a terrarium."

Terrarium photo 2Terrariums, of course, are highly "curated" environments over which their creators have complete control. The CEP study, proves that point, to the extent that much of the study consists of interviews with foundation leaders and reviews of their websites as if transparency were a kind of optional endeavor in which foundations may choose to participate, if at all, and to what degree.

To be fair, CEP also interviewed the grantees of various foundations (sometimes referred to as "partners"), which helps convey the reality that foundations have stakeholders beyond their four walls. However, the terrarium metaphor is about to become far more relevant as the release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within.

What Is Open Data?

It is safe to say that most foundation leaders and a fair majority of their staff do not understand what open data really is. Open data is free, yes, but more importantly it is digital and machine-readable. This means it can be consumed in enormous volumes at lightning speed, directly by computers.

"The release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within."

Once consumed, open data can be tagged, sorted, indexed and searched using statistical methods to make obvious comparisons while discovering previously undetected correlations. Anyone with a computer, some coding skills and a hard drive or cloud storage can access open data. In today's world, a lot of people meet those requirements, and they are free to do whatever they please with your information once it is, as open data enthusiasts like to say, "in the wild."

Today, much government data is completely open. Go to data.gov or its equivalent in many countries around the world and see for yourself.

The theory behind open data, increasingly born out in practice, is that making information available leads to significant innovation for the public good while the demand for and use of such data also improves its accuracy and quality over time. And some open data is just fun: one of my personal favorites is the White House visitors list!

What is the Internal Revenue Service Releasing?

Irs-logo-250Thanks to the Aspen Institute's leadership of a joint effort - funded by foundations and including Foundation Center, GuideStar, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, and others - the IRS has started to make some 1,000,000 Form 990s and 40,000 Form 990PF available as machine-readable open data.

Previously, all Form 990s had been released as image (TIFF) files, essentially a picture, making it both time-consuming and expensive to extract useful data from them. Credit where credit is due; a kick in the butt in the form of a lawsuit from open data crusader Carl Malamud helped speed the process along.

The current test phase includes only those tax returns that were digitally filed by nonprofits and community foundations (990s) and private foundations (990PFs). Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data. In other words, that which is born digital will be opened up to the public in digital form. Because of variations in the 990 forms, getting the information from them into a database will still require some technical expertise, but will be far more feasible and faster than ever before.

"Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data."

The Good

The work of organizations like Foundation Center-- who have built expensive infrastructure in order to turn years of 990 tax returns into information that can be used by nonprofits looking for funding, researchers trying to understand the role of foundations and foundations, themselves, seeking to benchmark themselves against peers—will be transformed.

Work will shift away from the mechanics of capturing and processing the data to higher level analysis and visualization to stimulate the generation and sharing of new insights and knowledge. This will fuel greater collaboration between peer organizations, innovation, the merging of previous disparate bodies of data, better philanthropy, and a stronger social sector.

The (Potentially) Bad

The world of foundations and nonprofits is highly segmented, idiosyncratic and difficult to understand and interpret. GuideStar and Foundation Center know this.

But many of the new entrants who are attracted by the advent of open 990 data will not. They will most likely come in two forms: start-ups claiming their new tools will revolutionize the business of giving, and established, private sector companies, seeking new market opportunities. Neither of these is intrinsically bad and could lead to some degree of positive disruption and true innovation.

The negative potential could be two-fold. Funders will inevitably be intrigued by the start-ups, their genius and their newness and divert funding towards them. Foundations are free to take risks and that is one of their virtues. But while needs grow, funding for the data and information infrastructure of philanthropy is limited, technology literacy among foundations relatively low, and many of these start-ups will prove to be shooting stars (anybody remember Jumo?).

"Once the 990 data is 'in the wild,' conclusions may be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair."

The second category of new entrants is far more complex and will come in the form of for-profit data analytics companies. Some of these have business models and immensely sophisticated black box technologies that rely heavily on government contracts for defense and national security. They will be lured by the promise of lucrative contracts from big foundations and mega-nonprofits and the opportunity to demonstrate social responsibility by doing good in the world.

But these for-profit analytics companies will quickly discover that there is only one Gates Foundation among the 87,000 private foundations and only a handful of richly-resourced nonprofits among the 1.3 million on the IRS registers. And those who choose to contract the services of "Big Analytics" will need to consider the potential reputational consequences of aligning their "brands" with the companies behind them.

Sound defensive? Not at all: Foundation Center welcomes the competition, has been building for it since 2010, and knows the challenge can only make us and the social sector better.

The Ugly

Once the 990 data is "in the wild," it is possible if not probable, conclusions will be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair. Those who are new to the field and relatively uninformed (or uninterested) in its complexity, may make claims about executive compensation based on comparisons of foundations of wildly disparate size and scope.

The same could be done with overhead rates, payout, or any other figure or calculation that can be made based on information found in the 990-PF. Some foundations already chafe when responsible sector advocates like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) use Foundation Center data to rank foundations according to their Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. Imagine claims coming over the transom from individuals and organizations whose core values do not include a belief in the practice of philanthropy and a normative vision for how it could be better.

"Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing."

Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing. This was the spirit in which Clara Miller introduced her terrarium analogy to highlight what she sees as the artificial disconnect between the controlled, strategic, and curated world constructed by the grants side of foundations and the sometimes contradictory forces at work in the larger economy in which their assets are invested.

Foundations like Heron are striving to put 100% of their assets toward mission, while others like Rockefeller Brothers Fund are divesting their investment portfolios from fossil fuels and re-investing those assets in ways that further the goals of their climate change grantmaking, rather than exacerbate the problem.

A recent (and as of yet unpublished) Foundation Center survey found that 60% of foundations were not engaged in impact investing and had no plans to do so. That is their choice, but open 990 data may well put them in a position of having to publicly explain it.

For example, using Foundation Center databases, I searched across several hundred thousand foundation 990-PF tax returns and found 37 foundations that held Corrections Corporation of America stock in their investment portfolios. These foundations may well believe, as the majority of foundations insist, that the purpose of the investment arm of the foundation is to generate the highest sustainable return possible in order to fund the mission through grants. But if a foundation holding that stock is striving to work on juvenile justice or improve the lives of black men and boys, an investigative reporter or activist might well ask why they are investing in a corporation that runs private, for-profit prisons

It's 10:00pm, Do You Know Where Your 990 Is?

With the game over for foundation transparency, the big takeaway is to know your 990-PF (or 990 for community foundations). Suddenly, it will be transformed from a bureaucratic compliance document into one of your foundation's key communications vehicles.

"Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable."

Right about now, you may be thinking: "What about the website re-design we spent all that money on, with our new logo, carefully crafted initiative names, and compelling photos??" It's still important, and you can follow the lead of those foundations guided by the online transparency criteria found on Foundation Center's Glasspockets website.

But for the sector as a whole, while fewer than 10% of all foundations have websites, they all file 990 tax returns. As the IRS open data release unfolds and mandatory digital filing kicks in, the 990-PF will become one of the primary sources of information by which your individual foundation will be known and compared to others.

I recently asked a group of foundation CEOs whether they ever had an in-depth discussion about their 990-PFs among their board members and was met with blank stares. In a world of digital transparency, this will have to change. As 990s become a data source and communications vehicle, the information on them will need to be clear, accurate and above all, a faithful representation of how each individual foundation makes use of the precious tax exemption it has been granted to serve the public good.

A few simple tips for starters:

  • Take advantage of Section 15 (block 2) to talk about your priorities, grant process, limitations, and restrictions.
  • In Section 15 (block 3) write the correct, legal name for each grantee organization and add its EIN or BRIDGE ID
  • In the same section, write clear and compelling descriptions for the purpose of each grant (more than you might think, people look at foundations by what they fund).
  • Make sure all numbers on the form add up correctly (you'd be surprised!).

Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable. Philanthropy is essential to American society and a positive source for good in a challenging world.

As the terrarium walls insulating individual foundations fall, we will surely face a few moments of anxiety and discomfort. But greater transparency, fueled by open IRS data, can only make us more conscientious stewards of our resources, more effective decision-makers, and better collaborators on our way to achieving greater and greater impact in the world.

Game over? It's just beginning!

-- Brad Smith

The Next Generation of Nonprofit Data Standards
May 2, 2016

(Jacob Harold is president and CEO of GuideStar and Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. Join Harold and Smith for their webinar, How Data Standards Can Help Save the World, on May 12 at 2:00 pm EDT. In the webinar, Harold and Smith will discuss the ways data standards are already improving the grantmaking process for both funders and grantees. They'll also address how foundations can participate in these initiatives and promote a better information system for the sector. See you there! This post first ran in PhilanTopic.)

Our current moment in the human story is often called the age of information. And indeed, we are too-often overwhelmed by the torrent of data coursing through our lives. As a society, we have developed many tools to organize the information we rely on every day. The Dewey Decimal System helps libraries organize books. UPC codes help stores organize their products. Nutrition labels help to present information about food ingredients and nutritional value (or lack thereof) in a way that's consistent and predictable.

Data Standards Image-600wi
The nonprofit sector has also relied on data standards: we use the government's Employer Identification Number (EIN) to identify individual organizations. The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) is used by many — including GuideStar, Foundation Center, and others — to help reveal the diversity of the nonprofit community, guide funding decisions, and foster collaboration.

But just as other information systems have continued to evolve so must ours. When the Dewey Decimal System was developed in 1876, Melvil Dewey could not have imagined Amazon.com, e-readers, or Goodreads.com. Similarly, the EIN/NTEE framework is simply not enough to explain, organize, and share the complex story of nonprofits.

So we are glad to share the news that a new generation of social sector data standards is emerging. These can help us all do our work better, making smarter decisions while saving time to focus on that work.

There a several standards that are important, but we'd like to direct your attention to four:

Standard

Description

History

BRIDGE

A unique identifier for every nonprofit organization in the world.

A joint project among GlobalGiving, Foundation Center, GuideStar, and TechSoup Global.

Philanthropy Classification System

A taxonomy that describes the work of foundations, recipient organizations, and the philanthropic transactions between them.

Led by Foundation Center, with significant input from hundreds of stakeholders.

GuideStar Profile Standard

A standardized framework for nonprofits to tell their own stories. Used by more than 100,000 nonprofits.

Includes the five Charting Impact questions (developed in partnership with Independent Sector and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance). GSPS feeds the GuideStar for Grants system that was developed as part of the Simplify Initiative in partnership with the Technology Affinity Group.

eGrant/hGrant

An easy way for foundations to share the grants they make in near-real time.

Over 1,200 foundations use eGrant to report their grants data to Foundation Center and 19 foundations publish their data in open format through the Reporting Commitment.

This list is by no means comprehensive — other standards are also important, including but not limited to IATI and PerformWell. Others, such as XBRL or LEI, could become important for the field. But for now, we urge the nonprofit sector to understand these four standards and, where possible, to adopt them for your own use.

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It is worth noting that we in the nonprofit sector use the word "standards" in two distinct ways. First, there are "practice standards" that work to define excellence. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance Standards for Charity Accountability or Independent Sector's Principles for Good Governance and Effective Practice fit this definition. Practice standards are a powerful way to help define and promote good practices.

But here we're pointing to "data standards" that are simply a way of organizing information in a consistent format to make it more useful. Both practice standards and data standards exist to help us do our work better. Neither guarantee excellence, but in different ways they help us drive toward excellence.

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As a field, we need to absolutely minimize the amount of time we spend managing data — and maximize the time we spend solving problems. Think of these standards as enablers to help us do just that, and do it at scale.

--Jacob Harold and Brad Smith

Blind Spots No More: Introducing Transparency Trends
April 13, 2016

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena

There are some lessons you learn that you never forget. "Mirror, signal, blind spot," is thankfully one of those lessons for me, dating all the way back to driver's ed when I was equal parts excited and horrified that someone was handing me the keys to a moving vehicle. I still recall the teacher emphasizing how important it is when changing lanes to first check the mirror for what is behind you; signal to let others know you are entering/exiting a lane; and then to check your blind spot, assuming there is someone invisible to you that only looking over your shoulder and out the window will reveal.

"The new Transparency Trends tool helps foundations benchmark openness."

So, is our new Glasspockets' Transparency Trends a mirror, a signal, or a viewer for revealing blind spots a foundation may be creating? It actually serves all of these purposes. Transparency Trends, created with support from the Barr Foundation, aggregates the data we have collected from all foundations that have taken and publicly shared their "Who Has Glass Pockets?" self-assessment transparency profiles, and allows the user to interact and display the data in a variety of ways.

The default view displays data about all 77 participating foundations, and users can perform a number of helpful transparency benchmarking activities with the tool, including:

  • Learn which transparency elements are most and least commonly shared online;
  • Access lists of which participating foundations share each transparency indicator;
  • Access statistics about the sharing frequency of each transparency element;
  • Compare a specific foundation to a select peer group by region/asset/foundation type; and
  • Download a customized report detailing suggested improvements for a particular foundation.

Some interesting facts quickly reveal both strengths and blind spots:

Searchable Grants Performance Assessment
  • Nearly two-thirds of participating foundations provide searchable grants via their websites;
  • 87% of participating foundations provide key staff biographies;
  • Fewer than half of participating foundations post a Code of Conduct online;
  • Despite all of the talk about impact, only 22% of participating foundations share foundation performance assessments via their websites; and
  • Only 31% of participating foundations use their websites to collect grantee feedback.

The more I explore Transparency Trends, the more excited I became about the "Mirror, signal, blind spot" rule of the road as a metaphor for the importance of philanthropic transparency. After all when you are handed the keys to a foundation, it's great if someone also hands you some institutional memory so you can have a view of the road travelled so far and what has been learned so you can actually get somewhere rather than driving in circles.

And since there are likely others who are travelling a similar path, the notion of signaling to the world what direction you are going resonates as well, since you might get there faster (and more efficiently) via a pooled or shared ride approach, or by at least sharing your road maps and shortcuts.

And finally, are you and the others on the road actually creating blind spots that prevent those around you from knowing you exist and building on your shared efforts? From Transparency Trends, you can see that fewer than half of participating foundations have a Knowledge Center that shares the lessons they are learning, and only 12% have open licensing policies that make it clear how to build on the knowledge the foundations funds and produces.

Knowledge Center Open Licensing

As fun as it is to explore the data on the pinwheel display, don't miss the opportunity to download a customized report. Since the reports are particularly helpful as a mechanism to surface both the transparency blind spots and strengths a particular foundation might have, Transparency Trends is accessible to any foundation, whether or not they have previously participated in Glasspockets.

So, if you have not submitted a profile to Glasspockets, you can still explore and extract helpful information from the tool by completing a short questionnaire about your existing transparency practices. The questionnaire will not be shared without your permission, but it will allow you to view your foundation as compared to others in our database.

Customized ReportA customized report from Transparency Trends

Our hope is these reports will serve to encourage greater foundation transparency by quickly surfacing data that identifies areas in which a foundation is behind its peers in regards to specific transparency indicators. And for those foundations that have already participated, you get a shortcut to your customized report since you will skip the questionnaire and go directly to a report to reveal your strengths and weaknesses, or areas where you may inadvertently be creating blind spots.

And speaking of blind spots, I have been thankful for the "Mirror, signal, blind spot" mantra many times when it has literally saved my life. I can recall several occasions when I've ritually check the blind spot, convinced it was empty, and only because I did the over-the-shoulder check did I avoid a collision. I'm reminded of this particular lesson at the launch of Transparency Trends because perhaps philanthropy needs a way to do the over-the-shoulder check as well. By visualizing both philanthropy's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to greater openness, we can collectively work toward a future with fewer blind spots, more awareness of those around us, and a clear view of what we have learned from the road travelled so far.

Explore Transparency Trends and let me know what you think.

-- Janet Camarena

From Cardboard to the Cloud: Grantmaking Systems in an Era of Collaboration and Learning
April 6, 2016

(Adriana Jimenez is grants manager at the Surdna Foundation and also serves on the board of directors of the Grants Managers Network.  She regularly contributes to Transparency Talk, discussing issues pertaining to transparency, data, and grants management.)

AjimenezThe Surdna Foundation’s first grants management system was made of cardboard: it was a shoebox filled with index cards. (Next there was a custom-built system, followed by an off-the-shelf installed one). For decades, this box served the foundation’s basic record-keeping needs, but technology –and transparency – eventually took precedence.  

Now in its 99th year, the foundation has since ditched the cardboard for the cloud. In 2015, Surdna transferred its grantmaking database to the workflow- and cloud-based system, Fluxx.

Moving to the cloud has helped the foundation become more open, streamlined and transparent.

These benefits were not accidental. Our decision to switch grants management platforms arose from a 2012 three-year strategic Roadmap which recommended the following changes in support of mission: 

1) Working more collaboratively with grantees.

2) Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

3) Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

To implement these changes Surdna’s Roadmap suggested retooling outdated systems and processes. It was clear we’d need a new grants management system: we’d reached the limits of our next cardboard box.

Surdna’s transition to the cloud highlights how foundations are beginning to use grants management systems to inform and improve their overall strategic directions. Through the use of data- and community-driven platforms, funders can support their efforts in collecting, harnessing and sharing better information, while working more collaboratively across teams and beyond.

Here’s how our new grantmaking system is helping us advance Surdna’s strategic goals.


1)  Working more collaboratively with grantees.

Cloud-based platforms provide actionable data on-demand. This has been empowering for staff, particularly those who previously lacked direct contact with our grant information (and those with busy travel schedules).

Phil Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation, says: “Our new system has made data accessible on the fly. I can now review and approve grants from any location and drill down to get more information.” (And by “drill,” he means literally – he recently approved a grant from his dentist’s chair.)

"Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes."

Beyond its streamlining implications, this opens new channels for deepening our connections with grantee partners and empowering our senior leadership. For example, while on the road the president can now use organizational and grants data to help him strategize for site visits, or identify grantees to greet at a reception. With the aid of a mobile app a data point becomes a real person, fostering face-to-face collaboration.

Via the cloud-based grantee portal, invited applicants can now work collaboratively with program officers throughout the proposal-writing process and get feedback from staff in real time.

Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes. For instance, in our previous system grantees had no way of accessing their “final” proposal (with edits made by Surdna’s program and grants management staff) online; now they can view revisions in real time, as well as access information on upcoming payments, reports, and past grants.

For Jose Garcia, Program Officer for the Strong Local Economies Program, the portal has expedited the proposal formulation process and created a new, direct line of communication between program staff and applicants. Moving to the cloud has “decreased bureaucracy in our work with grantees and prospective grantees, allowing greater responsiveness to both. It has eliminated unnecessary paperwork so we can spend time on the important stuff.”

By “important stuff,’ he means our mission, and the people working to make it happen. Streamlining our processes means grantees can spend more time on their own mission-related activities, rather than draining resources on fundraising.

In a recent survey, grantees described the portal as “accessible,” “user-friendly,” “easy” and “organized”. 85 percent of respondents were “satisfied” to “very satisfied” with the accessibility of Surdna’s application forms.

But there is room for improvement. Grantees felt ambivalent about their level of satisfaction with the portal as a tool for communicating with Surdna staff. Only a total of 23 percent were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied, while 1/3 were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied,” and 52 percent were “unsure”.

By making future enhancements to the portal we can continue to unlock its potential as a robust communication tool.


2)  Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

Unlike many installed databases (designed primarily for grants managers), our workflow- and cloud-based system is used regularly by everyone on staff, from the receptionist to the president. Working on a single platform has reduced shadow systems while supporting a more holistic understanding of our work across programs.

Intuitive searches and dashboards provide a birds-eye view of Surdna’s grantmaking landscape, past and present. This has aided our cross-programmatic learning:

“One of Surdna’s strengths is that each program exists within a larger ecosystem of all programs. In the Thriving Cultures Program, we also think in terms of Sustainable Environments and Strong Local Economies [Surdna’s other 2 programs areas]. We can now view the arts in that broader context,” says Shin Otake, Program Associate for the Thriving Cultures Program.

Shared workflows help his team (and others) keep track of grants in the pipeline: “the grant approval process from invitation to approval is seamless. Any member from my team or the Office of Grants Management can see the status of any grant at any given moment, or create reports to map out where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

"Using data- and community-driven platforms, funders can better share information and collaborate internally and externally."

Increased collaboration among finance, grants management, and program staff has also improved our internal controls.

For example, the finance department can now reconcile grants payments by running monthly reports in the system. The timeliness of these reports is key, as it allows grants management to address errors early on, and provide accurate spending data to program staff for budgeting purposes.  

Non-grant contracts (such as fees for consultants, research, grantee convenings, etc.) have also migrated to our grants management system, where they can now be approved and monitored in a central location by Surdna’s Chief Financial Officer. For Controller Matt Walegir, “this has provided a great oversight procedure which did not exist before. We can now get a complete picture of where our contracts are at any given moment.”

Tracking non-grant contracts in a grants database has significant implications beyond internal controls and budgeting. By co-mingling contracts and grants in one space, we are reminded that our tools for impact extend beyond traditional grantmaking. At Surdna, we also have program-related investments (also tracked in Fluxx), mission-related investments, contracts, funder collaboratives, and of course, communication.

Thinking of these “tools in the toolbox” holistically is critical for foundations as they continue to look less “traditional” in the future.

3)  Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

This priority has the greatest implications for advancing Surdna’s commitment to transparency.

Helen Chin, Director of Surdna’s Sustainable Environments Program, says the new system has “opened up how we interact with the grantmaking process and compliance protocols. It has allowed staff to access reports and other data without having to bypass its gatekeepers, the Office of Grants Management.” 

The “democratization of data” she describes has been a major cultural shift at Surdna, and will continue to transform the way foundations work as the boundaries between different roles are shifted. For example, if program staff can access reports and other data on their own through streamlined processes, the role of grants management can continue to become more strategic, helping foundations interpret their data (rather than merely provide it) to drive decisions. Data-driven foundations can learn from their work over time and share their lessons with the field, helping them become more transparent about their work.

A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that most foundations’ top barriers to achieving transparency are staff-related: 31 percent do not have the time to invest in working to be transparent, and 28 percent lack consistent levels of transparency across staff.

Staff limitations such as these can be appeased by putting the right tools in the right hands (if you hired the wrong hands, that’s a different story!). Cumbersome systems – not people – are what often create stopgaps and inconsistencies.

Fortunately, technology can capture such stopgaps.

Our new system enables the sharing of data with the sector through its ability to communicate with external datasets. One example is our adoption of the Foundation Center’s GeoTree, a taxonomy to classify grants by geographic area served.  This information can now be aggregated into the Foundation Center’s repository and made available to a community of funders, non-profits, and researchers seeking to understand the broader funding landscape.

Taken further, foundations can expand the capabilities of their grantmaking systems through the integration of third-party programs to enhance data analysis, visualization, and operations.  Grants management systems are just beginning to facilitate the connection of their platforms with tools like Tableau, PolicyMap, Census Data Mapper and Foundation Maps to help funders make better sense of their data and aid them in decision-making.

We’ve only scratched the surface. For Jonathan Goldberg, Director of Grants Management, Learning, and Information Systems, “The real power could come from what we learn and share with others outside the foundation.  Consider all the data that foundations currently maintain, and all the untapped knowledge that we might extract by aggregating and sharing that information within and beyond the grantmaking community.  It’s something this platform is tailor-made for, and it could be transformative to the field of philanthropy and those who benefit from it.”

As we enter a new era of collaboration and learning, we’re excited to explore the vast possibilities of continuing to break down foundation silos through cloud-based systems.

We may not have all the answers yet, but when we do we promise not to hide them in a cardboard box.

--Adriana Jimenez

'Dark Money' Expected to Set 2016 Records
January 18, 2016

(This post first appeared in Philanthropy News Digest.)

The amount of so-called dark money, contributions to nonprofits and other tax-exempt entities that are not required to disclose their donors, backing various presidential campaigns in 2016 is expected to exceed the more than $300 million contributed during the 2012 presidential election cycle, the New York Times reports.

The troubling lack of transparency, the Times notes, is being driven by political advocacy groups that exploit a loophole in the tax code that allows them to avoid disclosing their donors while holding on to their tax-exempt status. Many of those organizations court special interest groups and wealthy donors who crave the influence that political contributions can buy but spurn any public accountability implied by those contributions. For example, almost 20 percent of the television ads touting the positions of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) have been financed by dark money, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, with most of that coming from the nonprofit Conservative Solutions Project.

The biggest dark money spenders in this cycle, however, have been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that operates under the umbrella of the American Crossroads "super" PAC, which was co-founded by longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove. While the Federal Election Committee could force such organizations, with their heavy involvement in political campaigns, to register as political action committees, the commission hasn't shown any inclination to do so. Indeed, with Congress having effectively quashed, in the ominubus spending bill it passed at year-end, near-term efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to regulate these groups until after the 2016 election cycle and the FEC content to sit on the sidelines, the Justice Department is seen as the only federal agency that might attempt to shed some light on their activities.

Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and a longtime advocate of campaign finance reform, has asked the Justice Department to do just that, with an emphasis on political activities associated with Rubio's campaign. "Secret money is the formula for corruption," Wertheimer told the Times. "It's the influence buyer's dream."

Albert R. Hunt. "'Dark' Funds May Bode Ill in 2016 Election." New York Times 01/03/2016

A Dash of Diversity and a Cup of Reality
December 15, 2015

(Dolores Estrada is director of grant operations at The California Endowment, a health foundation established in 1996 to address the health needs of Californians.)

Editor’s Note: In the near future, our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment will include an additional data element related to diversity. We will continue to track which foundations have values statements related to diversity and inclusion, and we will also be adding a transparency element indicating which foundations openly share diversity data about their staff and board.  Currently, relatively few foundations provide diversity head counts, with only 5 out of 77 profiled foundations sharing that data publicly.  The California Endowment recently completed and posted its annual Diversity Audit, so we invited its team to draft a series of posts explaining why and how they share this information. This is the second post in the series, and the first post appears here.

Estrada-150At The California Endowment (TCE), our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is strong.  It is driven by a fundamental belief that we cannot achieve our mission of improved health for Californians unless every segment of our community participates in advancing solutions.  This commitment to diversity created a guiding framework for our organization.  It also set the stage for what we now call an authorizing environment, which means permission to talk about and engage in diversity-related work with the Foundation as leverage.   This space also allows us to gather information on the governance, management, and staff composition of our community partners which, in turn, helps to ensure that TCE holds itself accountable to our diversity and inclusion goals. 

Timing, as they say, is everything. In 2010, TCE transitioned to our 10-year Building Healthy Communities (BHC) strategy.  The planning and implementation of BHC was the perfect time to embrace our values through meaningful collection and use of diversity data.  Our recipe for moving forward had a pinch of confidence, a dash of diversity, doused with a cup of reality. 

Over the course of the last five years, as the manager of grants administration, I have had the task of operationalizing our institutional values of diversity, equity and inclusion into our paperless grantmaking and grant administration.  Although The California Endowment has held to these values since inception, we needed clarity on the mechanics of how collecting data would help us with our mission.  We have the resources and technology to collect the data, but when diversity principles and values meet reality, it gets a little complicated.  We discovered that when it came to incorporating DEI practice in our grantmaking and grant administration, we knew the outcomes we wanted, but had no clear, easy recipe to get there.

Being an advocate of diversity, equity and inclusion has meant being prepared to embrace failure as a pathway for future success.  Promoting and practicing DEI is not simple.  It requires planning, patience, and a willingness to openly share and learn from our failures.  And boy have we shared a lot!

We started with voluntary applicant diversity data questionnaires attached to our online applications.  Our diversity questionnaire was crafted with care to ensure that we were using the correct terminology to capture the information we needed.  We asked for diversity information on the board of directors, executives, and staff of our grantee organizations and stored it in our grants database. 

Being an advocate of diversity, equity and inclusion has meant being prepared to embrace failure as a pathway for future success.

Bam!  Our first clue that something wasn’t working?  In a grouping of over 600 applications submitted less than 400 provided diversity data.  More importantly, the data points submitted didn’t make sense given what we knew about the grantees.  We decided to give the data collection process more time and see what happened. 

We considered the phrasing of the various questions, terminologies used, and online format as possible culprits.  Were those the reason for this data desert?  No, what we failed to do was to explain to our grantee organizations and community stakeholders why we were asking for diversity data and what we intended to do with this information.  In addition, we realized that we had assumed “everyone” had the data and did not factor in barriers or challenges that applicants might have in collecting this information themselves. 

Our team convened, determined to clearly communicate our values and goals and the importance of the data.  Our CEO, Dr. Robert Ross, then penned a message for our online applications and communicated our intent for collecting diversity data, stating: 

"The data collected will serve multiple purposes: to help us understand how we reflect the communities we serve, equip our staff with critical data to assistant nonprofits to better serve the needs of California's diverse communities and to track our progress with our Board and our grantees and communities."

For the next couple of months, our goal will be to create opportunities to learn, share and have open dialogue about DEI data pertaining to the foundation and that of our grantees organization wide.  Our benchmark for success is not about collecting data from everyone, but rather an understanding of how diversity data is incorporated into our grantmaking and allow us to engage our communities and partners in meaningful ways. 

A dash of diversity and a cup of reality make the best recipe for success.

Diversity at the Foundation: Important Enough to Measure
December 8, 2015

(Robert K. Ross, M.D., is President and Chief Executive Officer for The California Endowment, a health foundation established in 1996 to address the health needs of Californians.)

Editor’s Note: In the near future, our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment will include an additional data element related to diversity. We will continue to track which foundations have values statements related to diversity and inclusion, and we will also be adding a transparency element indicating which foundations openly share diversity data about their staff and board.  Currently, relatively few foundations provide diversity head counts, with only 6 out of 77 profiled foundations sharing that data publicly.  The California Endowment recently completed and posted its annual Diversity Audit, so we invited its team to draft a series of posts explaining why and how they share this information. This is the first post in that series.

Ross-150About seven years ago, our Board of Directors engaged in a conversation about the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion at our institution.  While we re-affirmed our allegiance to these values which was present at the inception of The California Endowment, we concluded that we needed to ratchet up the seriousness of our resolve.  The questions that arose: Are we, as a foundation, committed enough to this issue to measure and track improvement?  We have metrics for a range of equity indicators in our healthy communities work, Sons and Brothers program etc., and overall strategic plan, so why not on the matter of diversity in our operation and structure as a foundation?

So, off we went.  We resolved to create a tool to assess our progress, now known as the Diversity Audit.  In it, we committed to express the value of, and commitment to, diversity across a range of parameters at The California Endowment: on our Board, at the management level, among our staff, grantees of the foundation, as well as contractors, consultants, and even investment managers.  We wanted to be able to express our commitment to diversity-equity-inclusion no matter which aspect or element of the foundation one might encounter.

The process of creating, and then institutionalizing the Diversity Audit required the support and engagement of Board, management, and staff.  There is a saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We pay particular attention to recruiting new board members and senior management who value diversity, equity and inclusion.  We look to them to ensure that this commitment lives beyond any one individual or position, and becomes engrained in the DNA of the culture of The Endowment.  While turnover is inevitable in any organization, we do not ever take this commitment as a given. 

Cal Endow Photo
We also required the support of a savvy, thoughtful partner to hold our organizational hand through the process, and we procured the services of SPR Associates to do so.  SPR worked with our staff to begin establishing the right kind of data collection and reporting platform; we needed our Human Resources, Grants Administration, Contracts Administration, Program and Learning Staff, and Investments team all in the boat.  Obviously it required us to embark on the business of asking grantees, contractors, and consultants for the right kind of diversity information – and in the right way.  We now have the diversity question being posed nearly every time we engage in a financial or business transaction.

Diversity Audit 2013 coverOur Diversity Audit, while focusing on tracking progress through metrics, should not be confused or mistaken with the use of quotas.  Simply put, we don’t have numerical goals that define “success” in the Diversity Audit.  But we do want to know whether we have an organization that reflects the range of diversity that the state of California – and the communities we serve – now boasts.  Can we look ourselves in the mirror and comfortably state that our commitment to diversity is at last maintained, and even improves over time?

The Diversity Audit has helped us strengthen the culture and authorizing environment to express our values through our policies, practices, processes.  We review its progress with our Board every three years.  We share both our successes and mistakes with the philanthropic field because we believe that our efforts and value can inform our sector’s learning.  Diversity is indeed an element of my performance measures as President & CEO.  And that’s the way it should be.

--Robert K. Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Mark Schmitt

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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."

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