Transparency Talk

Category: "Storytelling" (15 posts)

No Pain, No Gain: The Reality of Improving Grant Descriptions
November 8, 2017

Gretchen Schackel is Grants Manager of the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation in Portland, Oregon.

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 explores 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.

Join us at a session about the Open 990-PF in partnership with Southern California Grantmakers. Learn more or register here.                                   

Gretchen Schackel - Miller photoYou know those blog posts that describe adopting a best practice?  The ones that make it sound so easy and tempting that you try it, only to be let down because you discover that either you are doing something terribly wrong, or it is a lot harder than the author made it sound because they left out all of the pain points? Well, don’t worry—this is not one of those posts! In fact, I will start off with the pain points so you can go in eyes wide open, if like me, you end up on a quest to improve your foundation’s grant descriptions.  

This post is a sequel to another Transparency Talk article that recently featured our foundation’s executive director, detailing lessons learned about why improving grants data is important to the foundation, as well as to the sector as a whole. That article ended with a brief snapshot of some “before and after” grant descriptions, showing how we are working to improve the way we tell the story of each grant, so I’m picking up here where that left off to share an honest, behind-the-scenes look at what it took to get from the before to the after.

“Capturing critical details when writing accurate and complete grant descriptions aids your efforts on the 990-PF form.”

Pain Relievers

As the grants manager, it’s my job to put the right processes in place so we can capture critical details when writing grant descriptions to ensure that they are accurate and complete, and well….actually descriptive (AKA “Purpose of grant of contribution” on form 990-PF). This fall marks my 11-year anniversary at the Miller Foundation and one thing that has remained constant throughout my tenure is what a pain writing good grant descriptions can be if you don’t know where to begin. So, I’m sharing my playbook below, because the communities we are serving, and how we are serving them, deserve to be described and celebrated. I’ve learned some tips and work-arounds along the way that I’ll share as I inventory the various obstacles you might encounter

Pain Point #1:

Lean Staffing. We are a staff of four people: Executive Director, Program Officer, Grants Manager, and Administrative Assistant. We don’t publish an annual report; we have just started using social media, and just completed a website redesign. This makes all of us part-time communications staff. I wouldn’t describe this as a best practice, but it’s the reality at many foundations.  

Pain Reliever #1:

Grant Descriptions Can Serve Many Purposes. As mentioned above, the editorial process involved in prepping text for public consumption can be labor intensive, particularly in organizations without a communications department. Grant descriptions, which represent the substance of our work, turn out to be handy for small organizations like ours because they can serve many purposes. They are used for our minutes, our website, our 990-PF, and for our eReport to Foundation Center for its searchable databases. We don’t have time to write different grant descriptions for each specific use. So, we write one grant description that we can use in multiple platforms and situations.

Pain Point #2:

Garbage In – Garbage Out. Data starts with the grantees, and I know from talking to them that they are often not well equipped with time or technology to collect good data. It’s not just about what questions are we asking but rather how are we helping our grantees understand what we need and help them get us the best data possible.

Pain Reliever #2:

You have to work with what you’ve got. And what we have is the information provided by the potential grantees in their applications.  Most of the information we need can be found in the “Brief summary of the grant request” question on the grant application. Rather than treat this as a test that potential grantees must either pass/fail, we provide detailed instructions of the kind of information we would like to see in the summary as part of our online application process. Taking the guesswork out of the application has improved the data quality we receive at the start of the grant. Our arts portfolio also requires that grantees participate in DataArts, which serves as a collective database that grantees only have to enter once and then all arts funders can access their data. Participating in field-building shortcuts like this is a great way to make the process more efficient for everyone.

Once you have the framework in place to get a good grant summary from your prospective grantees, however, your work is not yet done.  Often, important elements of the funded grant can change during board deliberations, so I find it essential to share the grant summary with our program staff before finalizing to ensure we are capturing the detail accurately.

Pain Point #3: Lack of an industry standard on what makes the perfect grant description.  There are probably as many ways to write a grant description as there are foundations, and reinventing wheels is a waste of our collective time, so I have long wished for a framework we could all agree to follow.

Pain Reliever #3: The Get on the Map Campaign.

We have learned a lot from Foundation Center’s Get on the Map campaign about the elements of a great grant description. The Get on the Map campaign is a partnership between United Philanthropy Forum and Foundation Center designed to improve philanthropic data, and includes a helpful framework that details the best way to share your data with Foundation Center and the public. What I immediately loved about it is how it reminded me of being that weird kid who loved to diagram sentences in junior high. But perhaps it’s not that strange since I know grants managers enjoy turning chaos into order. So, let's try to use sentence diagramming as a model for writing grant descriptions.

The Anatomy of a Good Grant Description

First, we’ll start with the four elements of a good grant description and assign each a color.

  • WHAT: What is the primary objective of the grant?
  • WHO:  Are there any specifically intended beneficiaries?
  • HOW: What are the primary strategies of the grant?
  • WHERE:  Where will the grant monies serve if beyond the recipient address?

Example #1:

We’ll start with an easy example. Program support grant descriptions often write themselves:

Brief summary of the grant request from application form:

“We are seeking support for Chicas Youth Development which serves over 500 Latina girls and their families in grades 3-12 in Washington County. Chicas launched in 2008 and has since grown to partner with three Washington County school districts and over 500 local families each year to offer after school programming, leadership, and community service opportunities for Latina youth and their families.”

Grant Description: to support the Chicas Youth Development program which serves 500 Latina girls in grades 3-12 located in Washington County.

That was pretty easy!! Particularly because of how we improved the clarity of what we ask for.

Example #2:

The grant below is also a project grant but the Brief summary of the grant request from the application is a little less straight forward:

“GRANTEE requests $AMOUNT to support the presentation of two new publications and four community readings featuring the writing of diverse voices: people who are experiencing homeless, immigrants and refugees living in our community, seniors living on a low income, LGBTQ folks, people living with a disability, and many others whose voices often live on the margins.  This project will bring together people to experience and explore art and will focus on those with the least access to do so.

Grant Description: To support community building through publication and public readings of works written by marginalized populations.

Example #3:

This grant is for both general operating support and a challenge grant. Tricky.

GRANTEE respectfully requests $AMOUNT over two years to support program growth as well as provide a matching challenge for individual donations as we continue to increase our sustainability through support from individual donors. If awarded, $AMOUNT would be put to general operating funds to support our continued program growth in all areas: traditional high school program, statewide initiative pilot program and our college program. The remaining $AMOUNT each year would serve as a matching challenge grant. In order to be eligible for the match, GRANTEE would have to raise $AMOUNT in new and increased individual donations each year of the grant period.

Okay Grant Description: To support program growth and provide a matching challenge for individual donations.

Good Grant Description: General operating funds to support program growth and a challenge grant to increase support from individual donors.

Better Grant Description: This grant was awarded in two parts: 1. General operating funds for mission related activities that provide intensive support to low-income high school juniors and seniors in Oregon. 2. A 1:1 challenge grant to increase support from individual donors.

The above description is a perfect example of why it’s important to read the proposal narrative as well as confer with program staff.

If you follow this process, I can’t promise it will be painless, but it will go a long way to relieving a lot of the pain points that come with grants management—particularly the grants management of today in which grants managers are at the crossroads of being data managers, information officers, and storytellers.  I have found making this journey is worth it. Because, after all, behind every grant lies a story waiting to be told and a community waiting to hear it. So, let’s get our stories straight!

--Gretchen Schackel

Give for Good: Telling Your Corporate Philanthropy Story
October 11, 2017

Debbie Johnson is author of  Give for Good: A How-to-Guide for Business Giving.

2x3Debbie IMG 008I have been devoted to philanthropy for a long time because I love it. But when I think about what I enjoy the most, it’s learning about the lives that are changed and the impact of the work. As a result, I’m a big fan of telling your philanthropy story, loud and clear. While humility may lead you to keep your philanthropy anonymous because you don’t want to “toot your own horn” or perhaps to avoid being flooded with requests, being transparent with well-told stories about the positive results of giving back can be very inspirational for other businesses, engaging for employees, and also help your favorite causes to build momentum.

So it’s important to tell your story both internally within the company and externally to the public.

Salesforce Group photo

Internal Communication

Cone LLC, a noted strategy and communications firm, found that 87 percent of Americans’ job loyalty would increase if their company supported activities that would improve society. Internally telling your story allows employees to see themselves and their co-workers doing good in the world by giving back, generating pride in the knowledge that their company helps improve the community.

There are many ways to share your good work with your staff: company newsletters, meetings, blogs, on your website, in social media, at new hire orientations, and visually around the office.

Salesforce, the San Francisco-based cloud computing company, is a great example of a corporation that gives back and makes it a big deal. Salesforce was ranked #1 in the 2017 Fortune 50 Best Workplaces for Giving Back. Its hub offices have large framed photos of employees volunteering all around the world.  These pictures are obtained from “Aloha Ambassadors,” employees who are passionate about their culture. These ambassadors plan volunteer events and then get points for taking pictures and posting them in Chatter, Salesforce’s internal collaboration tool. The points can be used for prizes such as Salesforce t-shirts and hoodies. What a great way to visually show the company’s culture of giving back!

Facebook Screen Shot No CropExternal Communication

Communicating externally is critical so that others know about a company’s generosity and culture of corporate citizenship. According to a Cone LLC survey, 80 percent of US adults favor brands that are socially responsible over others of similar price and quality that aren’t associated with charitable causes, and further, nearly 20 percent would switch to a more expensive brand to support a good cause. However, if you don’t get the word out about your good work, consumers won’t know to choose your brand.

There are also many methods for communicating your good deeds externally, including your website, in social media, in customer or public newsletters, at shareholder meetings, in external blogs, in company brochures, via public relations and industry publications. The Glasspockets’ transparency self-assessment tool provides a helpful roadmap with many ideas for how corporate philanthropy can open up its work. Human interest stories and photos are highly engaging, so use storytelling for maximum effect.

Rackspace, the San Antonio-based managed cloud provider, has a very active employee volunteer group and shares information about its activities and volunteering through a dedicated communications portal, Rack Gives Back.  Rack Gives Back also has a knack for communicating with followers.

Newsletter ScreenshotSalesforce, too, shares its 1:1:1 social responsibility plan externally through its website. The Salesforce 1:1:1 model is about integrating corporate philanthropy by encouraging businesses to pledge to give 1% of its product, time, and resources to philanthropy from an early stage. This example is unique, because it’s clear that Salesforce is not just aiming to highlight stories about its giving, but also trying to grow a movement by motivating corporate peers to prioritize giving.

And you don’t need to be a Fortune 500 company to share these stories. Another good example of sharing giving news comes from Austin-based sign maker, BuildASign, which supported relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey victims then told their customers and followers about it in a colorful newsletter.

Last but not least, another great way to share your philanthropy story is through an annual giving report posted to your website. Many companies are now realizing the importance of including corporate giving close-ups in these reports. Here are a few examples:

  1. HP sets up access to its report by stating the importance of transparency
  2. Procter and Gamble uses its report to share its community impact
  3. Unilever provides ongoing progress on its sustainable living hub

These are only a few examples of how companies are increasingly using internal and external platforms to share the good that they are doing in the world.

How are you telling your story?

--Debbie Johnson

Give For Good Book CoverGive for Good: A How-to-Guide for Business Giving

Learn more about Debbie Johnson and Sam Woolard's book Give for Good: A How-to-Guide for Business Giving.  In the book, Johnson brings her business expertise and extensive nonprofit volunteering to bear, helping clients be strategic in their philanthropy.  

No Moat Philanthropy Part 4: Beyond the Transactional
October 5, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we are devoting our blog space all week to the series. This is the fourth post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedWe have a grantmaking model that is based on the belief that, if we do it right, we will create more good by what we inspire than by what we directly fund. Principle #4 and #5 of No Moat Philanthropy are directly related to this, how connecting and sharing with others can advance your foundation’s mission.

Principle #4: Value every interaction as an opportunity to advance your mission

Our tagline and our strategy are one and the same: We invest in great ideas and the people who power them. We know that the only way anything happens is through people. Any place or field, therefore, is limited by the ambitions and the skills of the people in it.

The Bush Fellowship has been a flagship program of the Foundation for decades. We hear repeatedly from Bush Fellows that the experience changed what they thought was possible in their life and career. With the Bush Fellows program as our source code, we’ve been working for the past five years to ensure that all of our programs have the same effect. How can we encourage people to think bigger and think differently? How can we be a force for optimism?

This notion of a foundation being a force for optimism is not an obvious one. After all, we mostly tell people no. Last year, 95 percent of people who applied for the Bush Fellowship did not receive one. We’ve worked diligently to make sure all applicant interactions with us are helpful and encouraging, regardless of grant or fellowship outcome. And our surveys suggest the work is paying off. For example, 79 percent of declined Bush Fellowship applicants said the process increased their beliefs that they can accomplish “a lot.”

“If we do grantmaking right, we will create more good by what we inspire than by what we directly fund.”

To have this impact with each applicant, we:

Operate hotlines to speak with Bush staff. For our open programs, we have established hotlines for potential applicants. We will speak with people as many times as they desire to provide coaching on their idea or proposal. For applicants, this is a way to clearly understand what we are looking for and to vet ideas with us. For Bush staff, this is a way to provide coaching and encouragement to strengthen proposals and to influence activities beyond those we fund.

Give feedback about declined applications. We offer feedback to declined applicants for our major grant and fellowship programs because we see this as another valuable opportunity to provide coaching and encouragement. We have also witnessed applicants using the feedback to improve their plans and proposals, which benefits both them and us. This two-way dialogue also allows applicants to share how we can improve the process for them.

Find ways to support declined applicants. In the course of our processes, we learn about far more amazing people and organizations than we can actually fund. Therefore, we try to find ways to be useful to more than just the limited number of accepted applicants. For example, we consider declined Bush Fellowship finalists to be part of our “Bush Network” and invite them to bushCONNECT. We also provide declined Bush Prize finalists with a $10,000 grant. In our hiring process, we offer unsuccessful finalists the chance to meet with our hiring consultant for an individual coaching session. In addition, across all our programs and operations, we try to craft our applications and our processes so that the experience of applying adds value to an applicant’s thinking and planning.

Every interaction is an opportunity to influence and be influenced.  Every interaction is an opportunity for shared learning. And that brings me to our fifth and final principle…

Bush-altlogo-color Principle #5: Share as you go.

In the past five years, we’ve been working to get more of what we are thinking — and learning — out to the community. This has required adjusting our standards and prioritizing just getting something out, even if it is not glossy and beautiful. It has required a new, shared understanding with grantees and Fellows that their reports and reflections will be public, so as many people as possible can benefit from their experience. It has required designing our internal work — like strategy documents for the Board — with external audiences in mind so they are ready to share.

We believe that if we do it right, we can have as much and potentially more impact from sharing the stories and spreading the lessons from our grantees and Fellows as from the investments themselves. This belief is at the heart of all our communications (see learning paper: “Communications as Program”) and is also reinforced with specific tactics such as:

“We potentially have more impact from sharing the stories and spreading the lessons from our grantees and Fellows.”

Post grantee reports on our website. We introduced “Learning Logs” to make grant reports public, and we hope, to give them life and utility beyond our walls. We refer prospective applicants to relevant learning logs as they craft their proposals, and we hear from applicants that they have indeed learned from them. Grantees and Fellows also share that they read one another’s Learning Logs as a way to get new ideas for overcoming barriers.

Share lessons along the way. We are publishing learning papers (like this one) as we believe we have something useful to share. We intended this to lower the bar of who, when and how we share. Our learning papers are not beautiful. Most of them are not based on statistically significant evaluation methodologies. They simply document a staff effort to process something we are working on and to share our reflections.

Tie evaluation to audience analysis. We invest heavily in external evaluations of our work, but in doing so we have found that the end-product is often only useful to our staff and key stakeholders. Consequently, we introduced a different approach to thinking about evaluation with a sharing mindset. We use a framework to identify the audiences who might care about or benefit from the lessons of an evaluation, what questions are relevant to each group, and what form or output would be most useful to them.

Webinar to the max. Webinars are not a particularly novel activity; however, we view them as a core tool of permeability. We host a webinar at the beginning of every application period for Grant and Fellowship programs to explain the process and what we are looking for. We also host them when we have a job opening to discuss the role and what it is like to work here. We host them annually for our Foundation initiatives to explain what we are up to and where we are headed. Most webinars feature a staff presentation followed by an open Q&A with videos archived on our website for anyone who missed it.

If you’ve been reading this series all week, you might be wondering when I’m going to get to the downsides of No Moat Philanthropy. All new approaches have their pain points.  So, come back tomorrow and I’ll share our pain and why we believe it is worth it.

--Jen Ford Reedy

The Power of Narrative: Philanthropy and Storytelling
August 31, 2017

Nicole Richards is Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia

Nicole Richards photoWhen it comes to storytelling, philanthropy generally gets a failing grade.

It’s not that we’re short on great stories—they’re everywhere. We hear, see and experience them every day in our work to catalyse positive social change. The story opportunities in philanthropy flow as bountifully as the chocolate river in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

But who has the time to capture them so that they become more than just a feel-good anecdote? Who has the capacity to tell them in a way that might influence others to act? Most of us are too busy with the business of grantmaking and measuring impact to share more than the occasional story at a board meeting or conference. Thousands of stories slip away.

Willy Wonka & RiverThat’s to our detriment. Humans are hard-wired for storytelling—stories are what connect us.

Three months ago, I stepped into the newly created role of Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia, the national industry association for giving in Australia. The position, which is directly aligned with the organization’s strategic plan, has been backed for three years by five local funders who believe in the power and potential of storytelling to grow giving in this country.

The stories I tell span the spectrum of philanthropy, with a view to increasing transparency for a diverse cast of philanthropic actors. From collective giving groups and newly established private ancillary funds to the country’s oldest philanthropic foundations—the stories and the protagonists are distinct but the intent is the same: to make a difference.

Some of those are human interest stories that profile funders and their giving journeys case studies that showcase good practices, and opinion-style narratives designed to challenge the status quo.

From what we’ve seen, the appetite for these stories is boundless—philanthropists of all sizes and persuasions love learning from the collective experience of their peers. Telling these stories, or better yet, passing the mic so that the stories can be recounted firsthand by the funders, their nonprofit partners and the communities they serve, is a powerful form of knowledge sharing, of connecting people with new ideas and networks.

While it’s easy enough to find  and package the stories for ready consumption by those already practicing philanthropy, the bigger challenge is to send the stories beyond the echo chamber and put them before would-be philanthropists and aspiring social change makers. 

That’s as much about opening up philanthropy to demystify it for the uninitiated as it is about sharing stories of philanthropic impact for other philanthropy insiders. Philanthropy is too often viewed as the closed-door, exclusive domain of the ultra-wealthy. As agents of philanthropy, we have a responsibility to bust that myth and lift the veil.

Not all the stories we choose to tell should gleam like candy—the authenticity of the story is critical to its impact. We need more cautionary tales such as stories of failure, of missteps and strategies that went awry. By sharing the stories that aren’t sugar-coated, we make philanthropy less opaque, more accessible and ultimately more effective. By making storytelling a part of our process, we begin to normalize a culture of openness.

While crooning about pure imagination beside his chocolate river, Willie Wonka intoned: “Want to change the world…there’s nothing to it.”

We know he’s wrong on that front, but his golden ticket giveaway of the chocolate factory was a great story.

There’s a story behind every act of giving. For the sake of more and better philanthropy, it’s time we took those stories beyond the chocolate factory gates.

--Nicole Richards

 

Practicing Transparency for Discovery and Learning
May 22, 2017

Richard Russell Resize Photo

At The Russell Family Foundation, we appreciate tools that help make the invisible more visible. This pursuit of transparency is a family trait that stems from our experience in the financial services industry, where we invented stock indexes that more truly reflect the market. The Frank Russell Company earned a reputation for quality research, long-term thinking and general excellence. We do our best to carry on in that tradition at the foundation.

In particular, we seek to communicate and practice our core values, such as lifelong learning and the importance of relationships. During the past 20 years, these touchstones have served us well.

Richard Woo Photo

Today, we’re relying on them even more as we prepare for a period of significant transition, which involves new roles for family members, changes to leadership and staff positions, and evolving our core programs. What’s different now, however, is that we are employing new tools to guide us.

Legacy Communications Toolkit

For us, transparency is as much about discovery as disclosure. That’s because the discovery process is how we determine: (1) what we know, (2) what we don’t know, (3) where we stand, and (4) what boundaries, if any, exist for a specific topic. Discovery can be a humbling and inspiring experience. Sometimes it exposes our blind spots; other times it reveals important new opportunities. Nevertheless, learning is the payoff for investing in transparency and discovery.

In 2016, we took steps to re-affirm our founding principles, in order to set the stage for the next 20 years of operations. We identified the need for additional frameworks to help guide us through important issues such as leadership succession and grant strategy. From those efforts, we’ve bundled together all the useful pieces, which we call our Legacy Communications Toolkit (it's a work in progress).

Over the past couple of years, we have developed some new components. One centerpiece is our three-dimensional chessboard, which we introduced in our last blog post. It is a useful tool for initiating and clarifying conversation about important issues that might otherwise be difficult to surface. The chessboard can be used to visualize and understand the complex layers of communications and expectations associated with foundation life – like how transparent we need to be when revising our grant strategy, or how we understand a family member who doesn’t want to participate.

Case in point: In a family foundation, tensions can arise when trustees hold competing or conflicting opinions and worldviews. If not handled sensitively, principled conversations among peers can become deeply personal, causing individuals to briefly lose sight of the organizational mission and the goal of serving the public trust. One such discussion arose among our trustees in 2016; at issue was the scope of themes that should be eligible for funding. The intentional and purposeful conversation among family trustees about this matter was facilitated by a skilled and trusted organizational consultant outside the foundation. With that assistance, the trustees clarified the boundaries between personal, familial, organizational and public goals – and eventually settled on a decision that balanced the greatest number of interests especially that of serving the foundation’s public mission. This exercise in more transparent communication among trustees and consensus decision-making was essentially the laboratory that gave rise to the three-dimensional chessboard.

Can you imagine applying the three-dimensional chessboard to a crucial conversation waiting to happen at a foundation near you?

Another dynamic tool we rely on is a graphic timeline of the foundation’s history. It is a 20-foot mural, on display in our office that highlights important moments from our beginnings in 1999 to the present day. The timeline is filled with photos, charts, and quotations, with more being added as time passes. This visual history does more than remind us of the past; it helps us appreciate the context of defining moments. Those moments (as well as the details of our history) constitute our collective narrative. We are continually exploring and discovering the appropriate balance between transparency, family privacy and a public trust.

TRFF visual-timeline

The Russell Family Foundation uses its timeline as a teaching tool.  Source: The Russell Family Foundation

To date, the timeline has proven to be an invaluable teaching tool, especially for younger family members who wish to take active roles in the foundation, or newcomers to our enterprise who want to know how we got here. It stimulates conversation and questions, and it has helped us onboard new community board members and staff by giving them a vivid sense of our history and mission. Grantees and community visitors are often intrigued by the informal imagery captured on the story wall, which invites their curiosity, discussion and ultimately a deeper relationship with our work.

Imagining the Future Together

The elements of our Legacy Communications Toolkit emphasize storytelling in its many forms: visual, narrative, historical, data-driven, and more. Storytelling activates our imaginations so we can see the changes we’ve accomplished or wish to make going forward. This process also helps us envision what level of transparency is required.

A good example of this approach is how we are currently updating one of our longest standing environmental programs, which focuses on the waters of Puget Sound.

After a decade of investment and hundreds of grants employing a wide variety of tactics, we took stock of our impact on Puget Sound protection and restoration. We reviewed our grant history, studied the most recent literature, interviewed regional thought leaders, and drew upon the relationships with our longtime grantees. The effort was illuminating – making the invisible more visible. Despite all that had been accomplished over the years, we recognized that our efforts were a mile wide and an inch deep.

Visualizing our impact in this way gave us the motivation to develop a new approach. We knew from past projects that there was an appetite for alignment among nonprofits. We also realized that our broad network of individual grantees gave us credibility to encourage greater collaboration within the field. We put these pieces together to create the Puget Sound Collective, an informal group of nonprofits and funders who desire a more coordinated regional vision and strategy for Puget Sound recovery.

Our partners joined the Puget Sound Collective for the possibility of making greater impact and doing more together. But, naturally, they want to know where their peers are coming from, how specific goals will be set, and how decisions will be made. In other words, they expect transparency. We knew going in that openness and candor would be the table stakes for this new forum. However, bringing people together to work across differences (organizations, missions, geographies, genders, race, class, etc.) requires transparency in all directions. That takes time; it takes deep, trusting relationships.

The experience has reinforced how important it is for the foundation to practice transparent behavior. We are building the road alongside our partners as we walk it. We need to be honest when we can only see as far down the road as they can. We need to be clear in our intention for grantees to set the agenda – to offer support without control – because relationships like this move at the speed of trust.

At a time when the country is experiencing deep divides and uncertainty, family foundations can reassure their constituents by demonstrating a commitment to transparency about their story and the essentials behind the work they do. However, they should also bear in mind the Goldilocks Principle – “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.” They need to find the best fit for their organization because the benefits of transparency are measured in degrees.

We hope our methods, experiments, and discoveries serve as useful references. Mahalo to those who commented on the first blog post. To everyone reading this installment, please share your thoughts, counterpoints or questions.

--Richard Russell and Richard Woo

The Force Was Strong With Her: How Carrie Fisher Struck Back By Opening Up
December 29, 2016

Just like Princess Leia, she was passionate, fierce and fearless. As we grapple with the loss of Carrie Fisher, who died this week following a heart attack, we reflect on her legacy of openness in the service of change.

Fisher will forever be remembered as Princess Leia from a galaxy far, far away.  Beyond the Star Wars franchise, Fisher was also an accomplished novelist, screenwriter, and a mental health advocate.  As the daughter of Hollywood power couple – actress Debbie Fisher and singer Eddie Fisher – she was born into the public eye, which may have prepared her both for stardom, and her capacity to go public with what many would consider a private matter.  

“Princess Leia would have gotten through being bipolar and an addict in the same way I did,” Fisher said in an NPR interview.

Carrie Fisher - SW CinemaBlend
Carrie Fisher starred as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise.  Source: CinemaBlend

Sharing a Private Struggle

Fisher, 60, candidly shared her struggles with depression and bipolar disorder in media interviews and also in her books.  It may have been cathartic for Fisher to ink the semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from The Edge and her comedy show, “Wishful Drinking,” which she eventually turned into a memoir.  Her new autobiography, The Princess Diarist, has become a bestseller.

“Fisher’s tireless advocacy efforts are a shining example of how high-profile openness and transparency can lead to increased awareness, empathy, and change.”

Although most would shy away from opening up about mental illness, rather than avoid personal issues, the actress showed great courage in coming forward and using her celebrity as a platform to advocate for mental health and substance abuse awareness.  Throughout her life, she openly discussed her substance abuse struggles and treatment, and hospitalization.

The witty author was featured on the Emmy Award-winning BBC documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, which destigmatized mental illness.  Fisher was among several celebrities who shared their experiences of wrestling with health and medical conditions while living in a public spotlight on the Discovery Health Channel show Medical Profile.

Fisher’s tireless advocacy efforts are a shining example of how high-profile openness and transparency can lead to increased awareness, empathy, and change.  Her voice contributed to greater public awareness of mental health and substance abuse issues, emphasized the challenge of stigma related to illness and treatment, as well as the need for increased access to programs and services.

Carrie FisherSeveral organizations recognized the mental health advocate for her efforts.  In 2016, Fisher won an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism for her “forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”  In 2012, Fisher won the Kim Peek Award for Disability in Media.

In an advice column for The Guardian, Fisher responded to a request for advice on how to live with bipolar disorder.  “We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges.  Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic – not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival.  An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder,” Fisher advised. “That’s why it’s important to find a community – however small – of other bipolar people to share experiences and find comfort in the similarities.”

And that’s what Fisher did.  She devoted her high-profile platform to raising awareness, changing attitudes and expanding support for mental health. 

We’ll miss you, Carrie Fisher.  May the Force be with you.

--Melissa Moy

Free Webinar: What Story Does Your 990 Tell About Your Foundation?
September 22, 2016

What does your foundation’s 990 say about the organization? 

Now that the IRS has started releasing e-filed Forms 990 and 990-PF as machine-readable, open data is available to the public. While this move will spur transparency and openness in the philanthropy field, foundation leaders may be uncertain of how open data and potential public scrutiny of philanthropy may impact foundation programs, staffing and investment management. 

Glasspockets recently partnered with the Communications Network to offer an insightful webinar on the Form 990’s potential risks and vulnerabilities, as well as how to use Form 990 to share the work of your organization. 

The webinar highlights the types of information included on the 990-PF, how the 990-PF data is being used now and in the future, and recommendations on how to communicate your foundation’s work through the 990-PF.

Check out this great webinar!

What's Your Story?: Q&A with Kenneth Rainin Foundation's Amanda Flores-Witte
July 21, 2016

(The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which recently joined the Glasspockets transparency movement, shares how innovation, technology and creativity played a role in telling its story in its annual report. Janet Camerena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center. Amanda Flores-Witte is senior communications officer at Kenneth Rainin Foundation.)

Janet Camarena: Increasingly, foundations are wondering whether there is still a need for the time and expense of issuing an Annual Report. The thinking goes that with the advent of informative foundation websites, that perhaps the annual report is an antiquated ritual. The Kenneth Rainin Foundation recently updated this ritual by issuing its Turning Points 2015 Year in Review as an entirely online resource, creatively using video and the Medium platform to tell the story of the road you traveled last year. Can you begin by telling us why your foundation determined the annual report exercise, whatever the format, was still a worthwhile one?

Amanda Flores-WitteAmanda Flores-Witte: When we set out to work on any project, our aim is never to do something solely because it is expected or because we did it that way last time. We get curious and ask questions, while revisiting our goals and keeping transparency in mind. This is exactly the approach we took when thinking about our year in review. We challenged ourselves to think creatively about how we could best share our story while highlighting the work of our grantees and partners.

Fortunately, technology has breathed new life into annual reports by offering a variety of tools, platforms, and formats, and more innovative ways to share information and engage readers. We felt that a summary that highlighted the year's activities-or captured the turning points in each program area-would be a valuable tool for people to get to know the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and learn about our progress. We thought an online report would allow us the flexibility to present our story in an interactive format using text, photos, audio and video, and make the report more interactive. We know that people engage with content in different ways and use a variety of devices to access it, so it was important for us to also have the ability to leverage our assets and promote the report on social media, our website and our newsletter.

JC: The Kenneth Rainin Foundation emphasizes innovation, and the word "cutting edge" comes up a lot throughout the organization, including in the mission. I imagine this must set the bar pretty high - that your own communications be cutting edge? Beyond the Annual Report, are there other ways that you try to live up to that "cutting edge" aspiration when it comes to telling the story of the foundation?

AFW: We strive to be authentic and shine a bright light on the terrific work our grantees are doing, as well as build our presence online, which is where people tend to spend a great deal of time. Being innovative means that we are continually revisiting how we communicate our work-is there a better, more effective or more inspiring way to accomplish our goals? We are always curious about what other organizations are doing and enjoy exploring. In addition, our board of directors and staff are not shy about sharing their ideas and challenging us to think bigger or look at projects through a different lens. There is nothing more exciting to us than brainstorming an idea and then diving in to research how to best execute it. Kenneth Rainin FoundationWe value flexibility and being open minded as our projects evolve. We also realize there are risks involved when we embrace new or unconventional ideas. In our organization, staff members have the freedom to experiment. This way of thinking is at the heart of all our programs. We realize that some things might be less successful than we wanted, and there will be successes we didn't anticipate. Either way, we always learn valuable lessons that we can apply to the next big idea.

JC: Next, let's talk about the formats, beginning with the Medium platform. What is Medium, and why did you decide this was the right platform for the Rainin Foundation to tell its story? And what kinds of criteria should foundations use to determine whether Medium might be right for them?

AFW: We worked with a consultant who understood our requirements and helped us explore different avenues and tools that could help us accomplish our goals. Ultimately, we decided that Medium would be the ideal platform for creating a media-rich presentation while also giving us the opportunity to amplify our voice and access an expanded audience.

Medium is an online publishing platform that was founded in 2012 and has evolved into a community of 30 million monthly users, according to a January 2016 CNN story. It has become such a popular publishing platform that even the White House, Bono and the Gates Foundation use it.

Criteria for whether to use Medium will vary depending on what an organization wants to accomplish. For us, it was important to have a platform that was easy to use and incorporated performance metrics. We didn't want to get bogged down trying to master a new technology. Medium is user-friendly and intuitive, and the visual design closely aligns with the Foundation's desired aesthetics-a clean presentation with plenty of white space. Medium also exposes us to a broader audience, which is hard to get elsewhere, and the platform makes the post shareable. The trade-off is that Medium's standard features, which make it very simple to use, can feel limiting. If you are looking for more customization or want flexibility with typefaces, color and layout, Medium may not be the best choice.

JC: The videos that you produced as part of the Turning Points 2015 progress report were particularly effective in humanizing the foundation. More often we see grantee videos on a foundation site, but you deliberately chose to put your own team on camera. However, being in front of a camera can be intimidating. Can you share with us how you prepared your team for it, and whether you have any advice for foundations around who tells the story, and how to prepare them? And please share any other general advice you have for foundations about how to prepare and use video to share the progress of their work.

AFW: We think it's important to share experiences and stories authentically, and video can be an effective tool to accomplish this objective.

Before we embark on a new project, we develop a creative brief to think about our audience and what we want them to feel or take away from an experience. This brief ensures that stakeholders are all on the same page, which gives the project a strong start and basis for ongoing evaluation.

For our CEO and staff videos, we hired a talented video team who helped everyone feel at ease and made the process fun-this was really important to us. A few days before the shoot, we provided our staff with a couple of questions to answer about a stand-out moment they had in 2015, and then checked in with them before filming to ensure they had an idea of what they wanted to get across. We didn't rehearse with them, nor did we do a lot of takes during filming.

We loved capturing the personalities of our program staff in a more informal way and allowing viewers to hear the story directly from the staff person who experienced it. By being willing to improvise a bit, we were able to capture memorable moments. Of course, our approach to video production changes according to our project goals. Some projects are impromptu, while others may require much more planning.

JC: Are there other foundations or nonprofit organizations that inspire you when it comes to opening up their work in interesting or new ways? Share some examples.

AFW: We're fortunate to work in a field where so many people do fantastic work, take risks and share it with the world. There are numerous resources, and we count the Communications Network as one of the best places to access tools and expertise. We are continually inspired by the work of other foundations and organizations. Some of our favorite sources for inspiration include the James Irvine Foundation; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; The San Francisco Foundation; the Robin Hood Foundation; and many, many others. We often reach out to foundations for referrals and learn about their approach to a project, the challenges they encountered, and their overall experience. We want to especially thank Daniel Silverman at the James Irvine Foundation. He's been so gracious with his time and advice, no matter how many times we contact him.

JC: You spoke about performance metrics earlier. What has your audience response been like for both the video and Medium? And how are you measuring their impact?

AFW: The response has been positive. We have surpassed 5,000 video views, which is a strong showing relative to our target audience. Last year for the Medium post, our goal was to engage 12% of our email list. We surpassed this number, quadrupling our goal. This year, we're hitting our targets for views and interaction, and anticipate that the numbers will continue to increase throughout the year, as they did in 2015. It's interesting to note, however, that the videos are garnering more attention than the Medium post, which is something we'll take into account in our planning for the next end-of-year report.

We're always looking to strengthen how we measure impact. For this project, we analyze how people engage with the information on our website, third party websites (Vimeo and Medium) and social media. We look at responses and comments, viewing and reading times, and shares. One big takeaway for us has been the need to continually promote the report and videos in the foundation's communications, staff email signatures, and by leveraging and repurposing the content in creative ways.

JC: Will this be the framework you use for your 2016 Year in Review, or do you have something new and "cutting edge" you're considering?

AFW: We're not locked into a specific framework. Like all of our projects, we will reflect and ask ourselves, "Is this still working? What can we do better? What did we learn?"...so stay tuned.

Glasspockets Find: Exponent Philanthropy Video Series Encourages Transparency
July 14, 2016

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

Embracing failure has the potential to maximize effective and impact in philanthropy.  This trend of self-reflection and sharing lessons learned among foundation and funder leaders is upping the ante on the need for transparency and opening up the work of grantmakers.

Exponent Philanthropy – a philanthropic membership organization representing approximately 2,300 foundations and funders – won a Fund for Shared Insight grant last year to produce a video series that shares wisdom and best practices in philanthropy. The videos will delve into how foundations can be more open about how they work, why and how they make their decisions, and the lessons they have learned – both good and bad.

This year, Explonent Philanthropy released a total of nine Philanthropy Lessons videos that highlight tips and best practices for funders, grantees and philanthropy work. 

Among the videos, the importance of transparency and the tricky topic of evaluation are explored.  How can funders and grantees communicate honestly with one another, and with the communities they serve?  How can impact and effectiveness be measured?  What criteria should be used? 

Several funders acknowledged the challenge in evaluating the effectiveness of grantees and the measures used.  One funder likened the overzealousness of foundation reports to “overjudginess,” where foundation expectations of grantees may be unfair.  Another funder said it’s OK for a grantee to fall short of their program objectives; instead, he expected grantees to be honest and explain the encountered challenges and barriers.

Miguel Milanes, vice president of Allegany Franciscan Ministries (also profiled on Glasspockets), described the importance of flexibility and listening, truly listening to grantees.

Milanes’ organization had given a $2,000 grant to help preserve Mexican American culture through traditional dance and requested a written report on the project outcomes.  Unable to speak or write in English, two grantee representatives gave a face-to-face report to Milanes and shared two binders full of photos and receipts documenting the project.

“It was more important than any report I’ve ever received,” Milanes said of the unorthodox grant report.  “That was a seminal moment.  It changed the way we did our grantmaking and our reporting.  We accept other types of reports and documents on the grants we make.”

Other foundation leaders raised questions about the how and why of evaluation.  Would pre-and post-test survey results really show the impact of helping a human trafficking survivor?  Is the requirement of sending an international fax report of every attendance list for an African HIV women’s program excessive and costly?

Exponent Philanthropy’s innovative project also invites website visitors and funders to share their lessons and personal stories on the website and also via social media using #MyPhilLesson. 

One website visitor, Lisa Tessarowicz of The CALM Foundation, shared how being “uncomfortable” and not having the answers actually helps foundations to think creatively, take more risks to “experiment more and think critically” about how money is given away.

We look forward to seeing more stories from funders, grantees and community at large.  It will interesting to see what grantmaking leaders glean from their experiences with grantees, and how they will apply these important lessons to improve philanthropy and elevate transparency.

--Melissa Moy

What’s Your Giving Story?
November 20, 2015

Thanksgiving is an opportunity to celebrate what we are thankful for.  For many families, the holiday also marks the beginning of a charitable season, when many focus on sharing and end-of-year giving.

In addition to sharing time and treasure, a movement has started to encourage donors to also share their stories. In recent years, with the advent of social platforms and digital media, nonprofits have felt the pressure to develop media savvy techniques for highlighting the value of their work. 

As it turns out, one of the most powerful ways to tell that story can be by putting the spotlight on the donor voice.  One of the great benefits of philanthropic transparency is that it can rally others to the cause, and that is the premise behind the #MyGivingStory campaign sponsored by #GivingTuesday, which not only encourages us all to become donors, but to also open up and share WHY we give.

One of the great benefits of philanthropic transparency is that it can rally others to the cause, and that is the premise behind the #MyGivingStory campaign.

Founded in 2012 by New York’s 92nd Street Y in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, #GivingTuesday has become a worldwide movement that celebrates giving and philanthropy.  In the United States, it is observed on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving and shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday as a way to bring some balance to a season often criticized for its focus on consumerism. 

Among #GivingTuesday’s numerous supporters are Bill and Melinda Gates and Steve and Jean Case, who have pledged to give away the majority of their wealth during their lifetime.

Donors are encouraged to share why they give on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. As part of the #MyGivingStory contest, donors can share about a time when they gave to a nonprofit organization, and why it was meaningful to them. 

Sharing personal stories “celebrates and encourages giving” in addition to connecting diverse groups of individuals, communities and organizations worldwide, according to #GivingTuesday.

Some #GivingTuesday donors have a personal connection to the charities they support.  In a #GivingTuesday testimony shared by The Huffington Post and 92nd Street Y, Jared Calhoun describes how Ronald McDonald House Charities provided Calhoun and his family much-needed support during a family crisis.  Calhoun’s two-year-old daughter Katelyn was diagnosed with advanced stage neuroblastoma, a type of cancer, and required multiple biopsies, five rounds of chemotherapy, as well as radiation therapy. 

#MGS“During the ordeal and scary moments at the hospital, we were able to find family moments, hugs, smiles and laughter thanks to the Ronald McDonald House,” Calhoun said in his testimony. “Before this experience I didn't know why RMHC was so important. But I can certainly tell that story now. And I'm a big fan.”   

Actor Chris Evans, known for his title role in the Captain America franchise, shared that he likes giving to the #TheRealSuperheroes – young cancer patients – at Christopher’s Haven, a children’s charity that supports child cancer patients when they return home after hospital treatments. 

Nominators may submit 200-word essays about why they are inspired to give to their favorite 501c3-registered organizations.  The public will help select semi-finalists by voting now through November 24.  A panel of judges will determine the winners, who will be announced on Dec. 1 – #GivingTuesday.

Opening up about giving pays off: #GivingTuesday organizers will give away six prizes to the donors and their favorite organizations.  Two nonprofits will receive the top prize of $5,000, and their nominators will receive $500.  Organizers will also give away two second prizes ($2,000 for nonprofits and $200 for nominators) and two third ($1,000 for nonprofits and $100 for nominators) prizes.

What’s your giving story?

--Melissa Moy

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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."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
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    Director, Transparency Initiatives
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