Transparency Talk

Category: "Strategic Planning" (10 posts)

How Engaging Conversations Build Better Strategic Plans
April 11, 2017

(Michelle Hunter is Director of Strategy and Alignment for The Chicago Community Trust. A version of this blog first appeared in The Chicago Community Trust’s blog.)

MichelleMartinHunterBW-150x150“How did The Chicago Community Trust create its strategic plan?”

This is a question we hear frequently from our colleagues in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors who are working on their own strategic plans, and it’s easy to see why.

Strategic planning can be a complex business: cumbersome, messy and time-consuming. In fact, the very words “strategic planning” are often enough to draw sighs of despair from the most dedicated staff and board members.

Despite the challenges, though, it is critical for organizations to have clarity of vision for what they want to accomplish and how they’ll know if they’ve succeeded. And when creating a strategic plan, process is almost always as important as the final product.

For the Trust, our highest priority as we developed our new plan was to ensure that we were listening to the voices of our diverse body of stakeholders as much as possible.  We viewed opening up the Trust’s work as an opportunity to cultivate transparency, participation, learning and dialogue. 

“Opening up our work has helped build trust and collaboration with our stakeholders, and served to improve our processes.”

As a community foundation, the Trust exists to improve the quality of life for all who call the Chicago region home. If we were to create a plan that had a strong chance of succeeding, we needed to find a way for our process to include the input of many, not just a few.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to present itself: the year that we launched our strategic planning process was also the year of the first On the Table. 

On the Table is an annual Trust initiative. On one day a year, we invite residents of our region to come together with friends, colleagues and acquaintances to share a meal and to talk about what matters most to them and their communities.

How it works is simple: individuals and organizations sign up to host conversations on any topic of their choosing. The Trust provides a host toolkit  and a follow-up survey to learn what participants discussed.

The inaugural On the Table on May 12, 2014 drew about 11,500 participants from throughout metropolitan Chicago. We knew that the conversations would have a significant impact, not only on our region and the people who participated, but also on the direction of the Trust’s strategic plan. We eagerly awaited the results of the survey to learn what community members saw as the most pressing issues facing Chicago.

When the survey responses had been fully compiled and analyzed by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement,  we saw that the most frequently discussed topics at that year’s On the Table were:

  1. Education & youth development
  2. Community engagement
  3. Equity and social inclusion

It was uplifting to see that these and other topics that had been top of mind for us up to that point in our strategic planning process were also high priorities for community members.

Trust_logo_horizontal_CMYKIn addition, On the Table gave us the essential feedback from nonprofits we serve that the Trust’s grant application process was overly complicated, burdensome and derailing nonprofits from their missions. This input directly contributed to the launch of the Trust’s general operating grants program also known as GO Grants. The GO Grants program features a streamlined application process so that nonprofits can spend less time on the administrative work of seeking grants and more time on the vital services they provide to our region.

The experience of On the Table gave us the assurance that we needed to continue on our path of creating a strategic agenda for the Trust through 2020. And as many On the Table participants told us, the initiative provided a critical opportunity to tell their community foundation what was important to them. Opening up our work has helped build trust and collaboration with our stakeholders, and served to improve our processes.

No matter how you choose to engage your stakeholders in strategic planning, the important thing is that you engage them. It’s much easier to build full understanding and buy-in for a strategic plan among stakeholders by including them in the process as early as possible. And the plan itself will be much richer and stronger because of their contributions.

On May 16, the Trust will host its fourth On the Table and once again invite thousands of Chicagoans to engage with one another around mealtime conversations.

On the Table is a terrific opportunity to build deeper connections with your supporters and clients and to make progress together on shared priorities. If your organization is going through any kind of strategy development, you might consider using On the Table as a tool for connecting with your stakeholders. Visit www.onthetable.com to learn how.

--Michelle Hunter

Building Communities of Practice in Crop Research
November 22, 2016

(Jane Maland Cady is International Program Director at The McKnight Foundation. This post first ran on The McKnight Foundation's blog.)

JCady_originalTo spur change at the systems level, it is critical to involve many individuals and institutions that work within that system, facilitating the sharing of information and knowledge. This has been a core belief of McKnight’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) for many years. Our assessment, however, is that cross-sector collaboration, learning, and networking have historically been sorely lacking in agriculture research and development systems across the world.

Testing a New Model

Twelve years ago, CCRP sought to change this by testing out a community of practice (CoP) model in the Andes region of South America. Community of practice, a term that has come into fashion over the last few years, refers to a group of people with a common concern or passion who interact regularly to improve their work. In the case of CCRP, the cohort of Andes grantees was united by geographic region and common interest and experience in addressing the stark hunger and poverty issues in their communities. As the model began to prove effective in strengthening capacity at regional, institutional, project, and individual levels, CCRP expanded the model to our other regions.

Today, all four CCRP regions exchange ideas within their communities of practice and with each other, working to spark new thinking and innovation in agriculture research and development. Over time, the communities have grown their skills and approaches, particularly around farmer-centered research and agroecological intensification (AEI) — or, finding food solutions that balance the needs of the earth and its people.

CCRP-Blog-Image-2-cropped-resized
Kandela, the president of a women’s group belonging to the farmer federation FUMA Gaskiya (Niger) is marking her preferred pearl millet panicles during participatory pearl millet selection. (Photo credit: Bettina Haussmann).

 

10YrsCCRPMalawi-1Ways to Improve Networking, Learning, and Collaboration

With the success of The McKnight Foundation's four implemented communities of practices, the foundation has identified several methods that help to achieve success in networking, learning, and collective action. First, each community of practice is supported by a regional team that supports CCRP’s grantmaking processes; the team also facilitates ongoing support and feedback loops. These include reviewing concept notes and proposals, planning inception meetings, cross-project meetings and exchanges, initiating mid-year reviews, and providing feedback on annual reports and project progress. It is a resource-intensive model, to be sure. But the foundation hears consistently from grantees that this structure of regular interactions builds skills and relationships with project teams and other partners, serving to strengthen the capacity of the larger CoP.

Another important way that CCRP builds an effective community of practice is by tailoring its priorities and activities based on each region’s context. A combination of efforts help promote a CoP’s vibrancy within the crop program, including:

  • grantmaking portfolio driven by regional needs and opportunities
  • In-person and virtual trainings and workshops to explore particular thematic areas, strengthen research methods, and build particular sets of skills
  • Annual facilitated CoP convenings that typically involve scientific presentations, interactive or modeling exercises, peer exchange and critical feedback, collective reflection / idea generation, and immersive field visits
  • Targeted technical assistance based on emergent needs, both grantee-led and initiated by the regional team, as well as linking with program-wide technical expertise and support
  • Cultivating an evaluative culture that supports 1) integrated monitoring, evaluation, and planning; 2) learning regarding developmental-evaluation and adaptive action approaches; 3) using and incorporating foundational principles that guide the work and program as a whole; and 4) building participatory evaluation skills
  • Other resources and tools such as handbooks, guides, videos, checklists and templates, sensors, database access, and GIS technology provision
  • Ongoing formal and informal peer learning
  • Support and collaboration in the CoP for leadership development, mentorships, conference planning, peer review for publications, and other kinds of professional and academic development


10YrsCCRPWestAfricaThe foundation's crop research program first implemented the community of practice model in the Andes 12 years ago and in Africa 10 years ago. Today, these seasoned CoPs continue to lead to new innovations and inspiration. The foundation is excited and proud to celebrate the 10th anniversaries of both the Southern Africa and West Africa communities of practices this year. On the occasion of these anniversaries, each CoP recently produced collections of research and insights gathered from their respective areas of work. We invite you to review them and learn more.

--Jane Maland Cady

Flooding the Locks: Philanthropy’s Knowledge Conduits
August 3, 2016

 Panama Canal Authority Photo 3

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

Adriana ImageThe Panama Canal expansion project opened last June following several delays and controversies. It was a risky bet with promising outcomes.

While the expansion aimed to improve global trade by doubling the canal’s capacity, it now runs the risk of failure from faulty design. The project was wrought with conflicts of interest, imprecise data, and dubious processes; its stakeholders consider critiques of the canal “unpatriotic,” reluctant to learn from mistakes.

Uniquely positioned to embrace risk, foundations should tread outside their comfort zone to achieve large-scale, systemic change; but they should also learn from the Panama Canal’s massive gamble. When making big bets, transparency, data-informed decisions, accountability, and clarity of process lead to better outcomes. “Success” means having honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not, rather than aiming for perfection.

As foundations move to take on more risk — including increased knowledge-sharing and openness, advocacy funding, financial risk, and impact investing — they will need to operate with greater transparency and accountability. Their staffing functions will evolve to support them in this process. The field of grants management is already shifting in this direction. At many organizations, grants managers are pushing for increased innovation, transparency, collaboration, and improved systems that will lead to more impact.

“Uniquely positioned to embrace risk, foundations should tread outside their comfort zone to achieve large-scale, systemic change.”

From Data Processing to Knowledge Management

Grants management is changing from a process and compliance role to one that focuses on data analysis, information sharing, and knowledge management. According to the 2016 Grants Managers Network Salary & Jobs Survey, grants managers now spend approximately 25% of their time on functions of information/knowledge, evaluation, and strategy (with an additional 14% on data management), and only 10% on compliance and 11% on administrative support.

This evolution has occurred naturally as grants managers work with larger amounts of data, fueled by increasingly powerful technological platforms and processing power. Within this change, we are moving up the ladder on the Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom Pyramid from merely processing data, to helping foundations analyze it and convert it into valuable, meaningful information and knowledge. As grants managers, we now play a key role in strategy by facilitating smarter, data-informed grantmaking.

GMNsalarysurveycover-768x994Like the locks of a canal, grants managers ensure that the right data flows out of our organizations at the right time. We are on the frontlines of providing data and information for external surveys; 990 tax returns; mapping tools; annual reports; foundation websites and searchable public databases; etc. We may also participate in collaborative efforts such as the Foundation Center’s e-Reporting and hGrant, or help implement the principles of IssueLab’s Open Knowlege (for example, by appropriately coding and tagging data, and linking our grants management systems with open repositories for knowledge-sharing, analysis and learning; or by adding open-licensing requirements to our grant contracts). The data and information we deliver allows foundations to deepen impact through collaboration with the field.

Supporting Instinct: Data-Driven Grantmaking Policies

Grants managers can also help foundations set internal policies and procedures that are driven by data, not just habit or inertia. For example, statistics showing a low percentage of grants to new organizations might trigger a change in a funder’s letter of inquiry process to promote more openness through Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Other data might be used to assuage fear of change or generate internal buy-in at the board and/or staff levels. In many cases such data supports — not contradicts — staff and boards’ instinct for change, and leads to increased openness and trust by demonstrating that policy decisions are not arbitrary.

“‘Success’ means having honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not, rather than aiming for perfection.”

At the Surdna Foundation, three years of grantmaking data were used to show that transitioning a portion of the grants approval process from quarterly board approvals to monthly delegated grant approvals would streamline operations, liberate time for “bigger-picture” learning, and benefit grantees by eliminating five weeks from the proposal review process.

In 2014, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation internally reviewed ten years of grantmaking data and discovered a drop in the average duration of its overall grants. To offset this trend, the Foundation’s grants management team used this data point to advocate with their board for the creation of a “Duration Fund” that would renew Hewlett’s commitment to multi-year support, reduce grantee uncertainty, and lessen administrative burdens. Likewise, statistics showing a lower-than-expected percentage of general operating support grants triggered a conversation around increasing unrestricted support --- when used appropriately to advance strategy --- in accordance with the Foundation’s values. Since embarking on its initial ten-year review, Hewlett’s grants management team has been spearheading the assessment of its grantmaking data each year to identify areas for foundation-wide policy improvements.

Tracking Diversity Data

Grants managers are playing a key role in the movement to increase transparency around diversity in philanthropy. By collecting demographic data (including race, ethnicity and gender) about the staff and board composition of their grantees, foundations can hold themselves accountable to values of diversity, equity and inclusion in their grantmaking portfolios, and make progress towards mission and goals.

Trends tweetC 1024x512Many grants managers are leading the process of collecting, structuring, and sharing this aggregate data (often based on D5 Coalition principles) with organizations such as GuideStar and Foundation Center, bringing greater transparency and understanding of diversity in foundation giving. Diversity data can also help funders track how organizations and fields evolve over time, and contribute to the broader body of public information about trends among nonprofits.   

Glasspockets includes Diversity Policies and Diversity Data indicators in its Transparency Trends tool. According to these indicators, 46% of participating foundations make their diversity policies publically available, and 7% share information on the demographics of their own staff and boards (The James Irvine Foundation, for instance, includes this information as an infographic on its annual report).

Legal and Financial Compliance: Pushing the Boundaries of Risk

Transitioning to a more strategic, knowledge management-based role has helped grants managers keep sight of the end goal of their compliance functions, i.e., to create greater impact. Contrary to the perception of compliance as a “risk-averse” function, many grants managers are using the due diligence process to maximize their foundations’ boldest efforts, pushing for greater risk-taking and transparency. In this context, our role is to assess, communicate, and document risk --- not avoid it --- to help foundations make informed decisions about potential rewards and trade-offs.  This shift has occurred as grants managers are increasingly included in strategic conversations “upstream” with program staff and senior leadership.

Advocacy funding is one example. Due to common fears and misconceptions around 501(c)3 lobbying limitations (and certain funders’ hesitation to support these expenses), grantseekers sometimes conceal activities linked to the dreaded “L” word in their proposals.  Foundations should encourage the opposite. With a nuanced understanding of the rules of nonprofit lobbying and advocacy funding, grants managers can foster honesty and openness with applicants about their proposed activities, clarify legal limitations, and encourage lobbying where appropriate as a critical tool towards achieving positive systemic change.

Throughout the due diligence process, grants managers can also advise grantees and program staff on financial issues, and lead constructive discussions with grantseekers to build trust and set expectations from the onset.

Rather than reducing organizations to a set of ratios or denying funding based on numbers, we can advise on alternate ways to structure a grant to provide greater impact (such as providing a capacity-building grant or using a fiscal sponsor). Many of these scenarios require creativity and flexibility to make the grant viable despite all obstacles; some funding may also be riskier in nature (such as exercising expenditure responsibility in countries opposed to civil society, or supporting new entities with no financial track record), but nonetheless more effective.

CEP-Investing-and-Social-ImpactImpact Investments: The Riskiest Bet

The move toward impact investments has arguably been one of philanthropy’s biggest bets as foundations struggle to maintain the balance between purpose and perpetuity (or timely spend-down). According to the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2015 Investing and Social Impact report, 41% of foundations now engage in impact investing (including Mission-Related Investments and Program-Related Investments), and another 6% plan to do so in the future. This shift has substantial implications for the staffing of foundations, and some are tapping into the skills of grants management to fill the gaps.

In particular, grants managers are playing a key role in the due diligence process for Program-Related Investments (PRIs), transferring our knowledge and skills from the financial compliance processes. We are also building out systems to track and monitor loan repayments and reporting. Through these functions we act as a bridge between finance and programs, contributing towards organizational learning and mission.

As a leader in the impact investment space, the Kresge Foundation was the first to develop a PRI module in Fluxx (now available to all Fluxx users) to better capture the nuances and complexities of PRIs.  The build out was led by the Foundation’s Program Operations and Information Management department (formerly known as its grants management department, but recently renamed to reflect the totality of its strategic functions).

Transferring PRIs into Kresge’s grants management system has made the Foundation’s processes more transparent, says Marcus McGrew, Director of Program Operations and Information Management: “All of the Foundation’s work that lived in people’s heads has now been consolidated into one data management platform.”

Transparency of PRIs and other impact investments will become increasingly critical as 990 tax returns are now available as machine-readable, open data, and as the line between endowment and program strategies continues to blur.

Like the philanthropic sector, success of the Panama Canal will depend on leaders’ humility and willingness to learn from failure. This will require implementing best practices to ensure the locks flow as intended. If transparency and accountability matter for the world’s greatest engineering feat, they matter for philanthropy.

--Adriana Jimenez

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

#FailEpic Continued
August 19, 2015

(Chris Cardona is program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. This post first ran in The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy.”

I appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it’s so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened – when do you know to throw in the towel? – and that it’s not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

Chris CardonaI would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success – that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it – masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who’s doing the telling, and when.

I see two strands of conversation worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

One is to explore what it looks like to have candid conversations between funders and nonprofits about real issues of execution and responsibility (on all sides!) in a context beyond the one-on-one grant relationship. I come to this with an instinct that a more public version of such conversations would be salutary, but also deep wariness about doing it in a way that’s constructive instead of harmful.

  • Are there stages by which such conversations evolve? Do you need to start with self-reflection, then within your own organization, then within a trusted network of peers, then more publicly? That’s an awful lot of steps.
  • Perhaps the best starting place is not talking about failure within a particular grant relationship, but in the context of a topic of shared interest in which the participants don’t have a direct stake. One can imagine a study group dedicated to reviewing examples of initiatives that have failed, and seeking to generate and apply insight from them – with an audience of funders and nonprofits who aren’t part of that field. Might that be a less threatening way to get started?
  • Because trying to have a conversation within a field about what worked and what didn’t is incredibly difficult. I think about the “four pillars” strategy in the immigration reform movement, which national funders and nonprofits developed together after a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006-07. They analyzed why they lost and how they could overcome those disadvantages, and then moved resources and effort toward filling those gaps. What makes cases like that possible? Where else does this happen?

The other strand of conversation worth pursuing is to ask what it looks like within an organization, and specifically a foundation, to be open to acknowledging, learning from, and acting on failure. What values and motivations need to be in place? Who are the change agents and culture bearers? How do incentives need to change? Are there particular structures or systems that make it easier to learn from and act on failure? What do a higher risk tolerance and a culture of inquiry look like in practice? I feel like we know a lot about this in the field, but the threads of conversation aren’t necessarily organized.

  • Part of the challenge is, who owns failure within the institution? In other words, who’s responsible for identifying it, naming it, lifting it up, creating a safe space in which to discuss it, making sure meaning is derived, and then following through on application of that insight? Those responsibilities fall across a number of function – evaluation, HR, programs, senior leadership, board. What role should be the steward or the shepherd ensuring that those functions are integrated in pursuit of mining improvement from failure, and what resources or tools does that person or team need?

Thanks again to all have engaged on this topic, and to the organizations that have begun hosting conversations among funders about being more open about failure. Do the strands of conversation I suggest above seem relevant, and worth pursuing? What kinds of spaces could we create for more authentic funder-nonprofit dialogue? And how can we get clearer about the organizational culture needed to support openness about failure?

--Chris Cardona

The McKnight Foundation’s Strategic Framework, Updated for 2015-2017
March 27, 2015

(Kate Wolford is the president of the Mcknight Foundation, and Meghan Brown is the board chair of the Foundation.) 
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Kate Wolford

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Meghan Brown

With 2015 now in full swing, we are pleased to share with you The McKnight Foundation’snew Strategic Framework, updated and refreshed for 2015-2017. This is the second iteration of this important document, the first of which was developed in 2011 and implemented for 2012-2014. We got good mileage out of our inaugural framework during the first three years; we are excited to put the new one — a slightly streamlined model which retains the parts that worked well and revises those that needed some tuning up — to use during the next three.

McKnight’s Strategic Framework is very much a living document, which — like our work — must evolve in response to a changing environment if it is going to remain useful and relevant. We intentionally took an open and collaborative approach to the framework update process, inviting input from stakeholders connected to McKnight’s mission at all levels. Naturally, our board and staff were highly engaged; but we took a further step this time around, turning to our network of grantees, peers, and other partners for ideas on mapping our strategic course based ontheir unique contexts.

We intentionally took an open and collaborative approach to the framework update process, inviting input from stakeholders connected to McKnight’s mission at all levels.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my earlier blog post inviting input as we updated the previous framework. It was gratifying to hear affirmations of McKnight’s embrace of adaptive action in addressing complex challenges and changing external conditions. There were also comments specific to individual program areas and suggestions for new issues we should consider, all of which were shared with relevant staff. I also heard from several foundation and nonprofit colleagues that they had used the framework format for their own reflection and planning efforts. Thank you for contributing to our process; your input helped make the final product relevant and useful to us, our peers, and our partners.

McKnight-Foundation-LogoMcKnight’s Strategic Framework 2015-2017 commits the Foundation to optimize the use of all of our resources to advance our mission. It reflects continuity in our conviction that our ability to achieve deep impact depends not only on what we do, but also how we do our work. It is intentionally broad, reflecting the diverse set of program interests and goals which we pursue. (More detailed information about specific program goals, strategies, and guidelines is available here.) Importantly, this iteration also embraces the Foundation’s recent full and robust implementation of impact investing.

As board and staff developed this document, we followed an adaptive action process framed by the questions:

  • What? What is the external context in which we pursue our mission and goals? What data, trends, and patterns do we see?
  • So What? What are the implications of these trends and patterns for our work as a Foundation and across our diverse program areas and operations?
  • Now What? How do we best deploy our resources to optimize our impact?
Naturally, our board and staff were highly engaged; but we took a further step this time around, turning to our network of grantees, peers, and other partners for ideas on mapping our strategic course based ontheir unique contexts.

The principles of adaptive action support an approach we use across the Foundation and within each program area to adjust our strategies over time in response to changes in cultural, economic, environmental, political, scientific, and technological landscapes. For example, trends relevant to multiple program strategies range from the continuing rise of greenhouse gas emissions and growing pressures on life-sustaining natural resources globally, to changing demographics and persistent disparities across race and ethnicity in our home state of Minnesota. In subsequent posts on our blog throughout this year, I anticipate that McKnight staff colleagues will examine in greater detail key trends that are influencing directions and shifts within specific program areas and how we are responding. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, please don’t hesitate to share any thoughts or questions as you read through the document, which you might think of as a pocket guidebook for McKnight’s upcoming three years. And, as always, we are grateful to grantees and partners for the work we do together on our shared journey to improve the quality of life for present and future generations.

--Kate Wolford and Meghan Brown

Read All About It: “Foundation Plans to Stay In Business Forever!”
April 30, 2014

(Bruce Trachtenberg was executive director of the Communications Network  from 2006-2013. He currently serves as an advisor to the Network. This post originally appeared on the Communications Network blog.)

6a00e54efc2f808833014e8887ecc4970d-800wiI recently sat in on a Philanthropy New York panel discussion that asked a very simple question, “Why do foundations choose to go on forever?”

That question, which was prompted by attention being paid to the recent uptick in the number of foundations that intend to spend themselves out of business, got me thinking.

When a foundation makes the decision to close down, that’s considered news. But what about foundations that plan to keep going forever, don’t they have some obligation to publicly explain why?

Again, take the case of foundations spending down, and the considerable effort expended to make sure others know the thinking behind the decision.

When a foundation makes the decision to close down, that’s considered news. But what about foundations that plan to keep going forever, don’t they have some obligation to publicly explain why?

For example, the Atlantic Philanthropies, a “limited life foundation” planning to distribute its entire endowment and close its doors by 2020, states on its website:

In keeping with the founder’s Giving While Living philosophy, we believe in making large investments to capitalise on significant opportunities to solve urgent problems now, so they are less likely to become larger, more entrenched and more expensive challenges later.

Another example is the Quixote Foundation, which also plans to go out of business in the next few years, by “spending up”–an event which, they also describe as something to celebrate:

Current events point to a landmark chance to make the most of our assets, and we can’t wait. Between now and 2017, Quixote Foundation will spend all of its money into progressive work, using the entire endowment.

But what about foundations that plan to keep going and going and going? How much time or attention, if any, do they devote to publicly discussing their reasons for doing so?

In the Philanthropy New York session, the rationale panelists gave for their foundations choosing perpetuity over limited life seemed to rest on a belief that they can do more good over the long haul than in the immediate. Or as Jane O’Connell, president,Altman Foundation, said, “Spending down provides quick fix, but we’ve decided to stay at the table for hopefully the next 100 years.”

Regardless of the reason foundations opt for perpetuity, by sharing their reasons publicly they can also further understanding of the role of philanthropy in society and the good it aims to do, whether now or later.

Also, if staying in business forever is a question that gets revisited every so often–one expert suggests it’s a conversation trustees have at least once a decade–again, the fact the conversation took place seems like something to disclose.

What do you think? Do foundations need to explain why they plan to be around forever?

-- Bruce Trachtenberg

Glasspockets Find: Lumina Illuminates Its Own Strategic Planning Process
January 16, 2013

Lumina Foundation

Four years ago, Lumina Foundation launched its first four-year strategic plan based on Goal 2025. The goal was to make it possible for 60 percent of Americans to obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025, to produce the skills set that the nation would demand for a vibrant 21st century economy. Four years on, Lumina has just released its 2013-2016 Strategic Plan.

Transparency is a concept that works best when the benefits are (at least) two-directional. Lumina Foundation is well aware that it cannot achieve Goal 2025 on its own. It can, however, serve as a catalyst for action. Its new strategic plan reflects key lessons learned over the past four years and defines two primary imperatives: mobilizing to reach Goal 2025 and designing and building a 21st century higher education system. At current rates, the nation will fall 23 million degrees and credentials short of Goal 2025. The new plan includes strategies to jumpstart access and success in education beyond high school by focusing on critical segments of society and by engaging key stakeholders including employers, institutions of higher education, and local, state, and federal policymakers.

Mobilizing to Reach Goal 2025

Explore Lumina Foundation's strategic plan»

With a series of short video clips that can be easily shared via social media, Lumina breathes life into what might otherwise be just another routine strategic plan. By taking a periodic evaluation of progress made and plans for next steps - and publicly sharing this information in a compelling manner - the foundation is encouraging its partners, and potential partners, to keep up the good fight and better positioning itself for ultimate success.

A three-page executive summary of the 2013-2016 Strategic Plan is now available. The full plan will be available to download in the coming weeks.

Do you know of examples you’d like to share that illustrate how transparency can help achieve strategic goals?

 -- Mark Foley

The Archives of U.S. Foundations: an Endangered Species, Part 1
January 9, 2013

John E. Craig, Jr., is Executive Vice President & COO of The Commonwealth Fund. He recently presented at a Philanthropy New York event on Why Archives Matter, which was the subject of an earlier blog post here.

Craig_100A foundation’s archives preserve records of the programs, activities, products, governance, people, and history of the organization that may have enduring cultural, historical, research, or institutional value. Yet, despite the important role archives play in a field that focuses on investing in ideas, a recently released survey about foundation record management practices reveals that only a small minority maintain foundation archives, so clearly there is a need to make a case for why foundations should devote resources to archive development and management. There are at least six compelling reasons for why foundations should give their inactive files and historical records serious attention:


1. Historical Research on Social and Economic Developments and Influential Institutions and Individuals.
The late Paul Ylvisaker described philanthropy as “America’s passing gear,” and foundations serve this purpose in numerous ways: by helping to launch movements (such as civil rights, environmental protection, or health care reform); by developing new institutions and strengthening existing ones; by making society more inclusive through support of programs to improve the lot of vulnerable populations; by building up the knowledge base for social improvements and

“…no history of the civil rights movement would be complete without access to the permanent records of the Ford Foundation; no history of the development of the “miracle” rice strains that sparked the Green Revolution… would be complete without the records of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations; and no history of the health care reform legislation of 2010 would be complete without the records of The Commonwealth Fund, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation…”

scientific advancement and, through the support of individual researchers, contributing to the nation’s intellectual capital; and by strengthening the social fabric and physical capital of the communities in which foundations operate. In the hands of good researchers, the records of foundations can provide guidance for future generations in tackling new and continuing social problems. As examples, no history of the civil rights movement would be complete without access to the permanent records of the Ford Foundation; no history of the development of the “miracle” rice strains that sparked the Green Revolution, which helped transform Southeast Asian societies in the 1960s and 1970s, would be complete without the records of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations; and no history of the health care reform legislation of 2010 would be complete without the records of The Commonwealth Fund, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and other national and regional health care philanthropies.

2. Promoting Accountability in the Foundation Sector
The permanent records of foundations help foster accountability among this very privileged group of institutions. Foundations, given their exemption from most federal and state taxes, owe it to the public to provide clear and accessible records of how they have conducted their business and what they have accomplished—records that enable rigorous independent assessments of the impact of foundations’ strategies and programmatic investments.

3. Protecting the Foundation Sector and Defending Institutions from Misinformed Attacks
Individual foundations and the sector as a whole periodically come under attack—by regulators, elected officials, the media, or academics. In the absence of good historical records, foundations are at risk of not being able to make their case for being tax-exempt convincingly, or they may simply be caught flatfooted in being able to produce records of their accomplishments and actual behavior.

4. Facilitating Strategic Planning and Fostering a Learning-from-Experience Culture
Archival records enrich the research base for consideration of foundations’ future directions and help ensure program continuity. The lessons from earlier experience that they hold can help prevent strategic and tactical mistakes by current and future foundation managers.

5. Ensuring Institutional Memory and Sense of Accomplishment
Permanent archives are also a primary source for the institutional memory that is vital to learning organizations, and for the institutional pride that ensures the strong staff morale needed to achieve high performance.

6. Good Management and Administrative Efficiency
Finally, the care given to archives is a beneficial operational discipline, with orderly archives being a reflection of efficient office practices and good management. Inactive records are not allowed to pile up and get in the way of current files and information from inactive files can be achieved quickly when needed.

2012 Survey of Foundation Archives
As important as archives are for good foundation management, a confidential December 2012 survey of the 300 largest foundations conducted for The Commonwealth Fund by Mathew Greenwald & Associates finds that, even among very large foundations, no more than 20 percent maintain archives. The survey findings are reported on The Commonwealth Fund’s Web site. The surveyed institutions account for approximately 52 percent of the foundation sector’s endowment assets, including private, community, corporate, and operating foundations. Among the responding foundations, those with larger endowments, those with larger staffs, and those that are older were found to be more likely to maintain archives.

The survey revealed that only 37 percent of the non-archiving large foundations have formal short-term records-retention policies as required for nonprofits under the 2002 federal Sarbanes-Oxley legislation—suggesting worrisome laxity or informality with respect to institutional record-keeping within the sector.

The 2012 survey found that most large foundations without archives warehouse their historical records, at least for a time (48%), but many simply allow files to accumulate in their offices (Exhibit 1). Twenty percent of this group gave “doubt of the importance of historical records” as a major reason for not maintaining archives, but neither cost nor privacy or confidentiality was identified as a major reason. A sizeable number of foundations cited their youth as contributing to their failure to set up archives, explaining that the issue is either something they have not yet gotten to or have not needed to address thus far.

Craig-exhibit-1

For large foundations that do have archives, the 2012 survey found that two-thirds manage them in-house; 17 percent place their historical records with independent nonprofit archive centers; 9 percent place records with a historical society, museum, or research library; and 7 percent place them with a university or college archive (Exhibit 2). An example of a very large foundation that historically managed its archives internally but recently switched to the outsourced model is the Ford Foundation. Ford selected as its repository in 2012 the Rockefeller Archive Center, which is the independent archive organization most often used by large foundations, including, since 1985, The Commonwealth Fund.

Craig-exhibit-2

Many foundations that maintain archives put all important records in them since the foundation’s founding. Foundations generally follow traditional archiving practices in preserving program files, the foundation’s publications, public relations documents, organizational records (for example, board and committee minutes), key administrative records, and, if they produce them, photographs, documentaries, and videos. Most institutions do not archive declined proposals and no longer attempt to keep traditional archival material like officers’ calendars. External archive centers typically do not accept financial or human resources records, owing to lack of space and to processing priorities. Most foundations with archives (80%) are not preserving important e-mail correspondence, and over half are not archiving Web site information.

The survey found that the cost of archives varied with foundation size, age, and the nature of the foundation’s work. For a 94-year old, $650 million foundation with extensive intramural program operations and publications like The Commonwealth Fund, the annual costs of archives is about $100,000. The mean annual cost reported in the survey was $60,000.

Most foundations restrict researchers’ access to their archives, but nearly half will permit access if the research objective is deemed worthwhile (Exhibit 3). About a third (31%) routinely open their archives to researchers. The most common restriction is on access to administrative records.

Craig-exhibit-3

Like other institutions, foundations see their archiving system at risk of being overwhelmed with the influx of materials. Even so, foundations with archives are staying on top of the paper flow relatively well: two-thirds say that at least 75 percent of records sent to archives have been processed Many foundations with archives are using their own information technology systems to advance archiving objectives, and some are quite advanced in doing so. But for over half, IT system improvements could improve archiving performance. Half of the foundations that currently have archives expect that, over time, their archives will be primarily electronic, and another 40 percent foresee a growing role for IT in their archiving practices (Exhibit 4).

Craig-exhibit-4

Most foundations with assets under several billion dollars find that outsourcing their archives to an external center is more efficient than attempting to build a professional internal archives unit. The survey found that half of foundations using external archives centers find the services, overall, to be “very good” to “excellent,” and another 35 percent rate the services “satisfactory.” Echoing challenges facing the archiving profession, the chief areas of concern are timeliness in processing materials and using information technology to maximum advantage. Foundations report that researchers are well served by external archive centers.

Clearly, the state of foundation archives is a neglected “glasspockets” issue in the sector. In a follow-up blog, I will present some recommendations for improving the archiving practices of foundations.

Becoming a "Web 2.0 Philanthropy" at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
January 10, 2012

(Steve Downs is Chief Technology and Information Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Steve Downs Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), like many philanthropies today, has embraced social media. We have a Facebook page, YouTube channels, blogs and multiple official Twitter feeds. Our staff also participate directly: more than 40 of my colleagues are regular Twitter users and many have contributed blog posts to popular sites within their fields. Our CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (@risalavizzo), sets the tone with her regular activity on Twitter.

Like many philanthropies, we're still finding our way and doing our best to learn from our collective experiences and from the experiences of others. For RWJF, engagement in social media is rooted in a context – a context about who we are as an organization and what we seek to become.

The first part of that context comes from our history with transparency. Since RWJF's beginnings, we have emphasized independent evaluation of our programs. As David Colby (@DavidCColby) and his colleagues have detailed, RWJF chose to make public the results of those evaluations so others could learn whether the interventions had (or had not) been effective. In addition, since 2007, we have made public an annual assessment that examines a number of dimensions of our organizational performance. (You can download these reports on our website.)

The second part starts in 2008, when RWJF underwent a strategic planning exercise where we began by looking at the world around us. We saw innovations in philanthropy coming from newer, smaller foundations -- like the Steve and Jean Case Foundation and the Omidyar Network -- that were leveraging new technologies to cast a wider net as an effort to stimulate conversation and engage people more widely. We saw new models for the sector like Kiva and DonorsChoose -- platforms that enabled more direct connections between donors and their impact. And we also saw the amazing, disruptive accomplishments of services like Wikipedia and Craigslist that were run by organizations employing only a few dozen staff by but drawing their power from vast networks of engaged users. We came away from this effort with a sense -- still very impressionistic -- that we should explore what it would mean for us to become a "Web 2.0 Philanthropy."

"Web 2.0" is becoming an increasingly archaic term as it is regularly supplanted by the term "social media," but for us, the distinction has meaning. Where "social media" is often associated with services like Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr, we see "Web 2.0" as running deeper. It is the collection of tools that harness the collective creativity and knowledge of and promote interaction among the Web's many users. It is based on an "architecture of participation," which enables the users of a service to add value to that service. Beyond social media, it can be expressed in many other ways, ranging from the user who improves on a cooking magazine's recipe by adding an unexpected spice to the protester during the Arab Spring posting a cell phone video of a beating on YouTube for the world to see. It is the seller rating system of eBay, in which the experiences of hundreds of other buyers give a potential buyer confidence in the seller. It is about the blurring of the lines between producer and consumer, the blurring of the lines between expert and non-expert and the aggregation of many small contributions into something of great value.

We knew that as a relatively large and relatively middle-aged foundation (we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year) with our traditions, habits and engrained practices – we would have to consciously push ourselves to evolve in this direction. We needed first to flesh out the vision, which we did through a combination of research (i.e. small "r" research like reading case studies and talking with folks at other organizations) and experiential learning. Those of us tasked with working on the vision felt we couldn't do so unless we were actively engaging in Web 2.0 experiences, so we started experimenting with Twitter and Facebook -- and experiencing their cultures and experiencing their value to our day-to-day work. It wasn't long before we concluded that becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy was not so much about adopting new social media than it was about embracing the underlying values of Web 2.0 and weaving them in to our work. We honed in on three principal values:

  • Openness, at one level, implies transparency–letting others see into the organization and how it works. But in Web 2.0, openness goes beyond organizational transparency and represents humility and a willingness to learn, to be surprised, and to hear and accept criticism.

  • Participation refers to a style of engagement in the professional communities of which we are a part. It requires asking questions, listening, responding and contributing where we can add value–whether expertise, research and other materials, or connections.

  • Decentralization is a natural consequence of distributed participation and inherently requires a ceding of some control. So much information is now created and shared collaboratively, and the path and shape that such information takes cannot be controlled by any one entity or group. However, a tremendous upside of the emergence of Web 2.0 is the potential for countless unseen contributors to augment and amplify one's own contributions.

Building on these values, the research and our early experiences, we sketched out a vision of how RWJF could embrace Web 2.0. The vision included a number of elements, ranging from using social media to be better informed about our fields and the work of our grantees, to cultivating our networks of people and organizations who care about our issues, to crowdsourcing expertise, to seeking feedback and criticism and ultimately, to using using Web 2.0 principles to design programs that work at very large scales. The vision, along with a strategy to evolve toward it, gave the organization a context and a rationale for our embrace of social media, which was beginning to play out.

One might be tempted to think that with all of this Web 2.0 strategy development going on, we approached social media with a deliberate, carefully planned strategy, but in fact, we took a much more organic approach. Previous to the Web 2.0 work, we had done some limited blogging and had gotten over the usual jitters about all the things that could go wrong. Later, as a few intrepid staff began testing the waters at Twitter and Facebook, we consciously took a supportive stance. We came up with social media guidelines that, while putting up some guardrails to limit the likelihood of unfortunate events, actually encouraged staff to experiment and to develop their own, individual personalities online. We wanted them to explore how it could provide value and we wanted to learn from their experiences. The context of our overall push to become a Web 2.0 philanthropy informed the development of our social media guidelines, provided a strong incentive for staff to participate and, by connecting it to a set of values, also influences how staff participate in social media.

We're a couple of years into our journey and we reap the benefits of being more open and engaged every day.  Many staff feel as if they're better engaged in their fields, they're learning more and they're expanding their networks.  This being a journey, though, it hasn't always been easy and we've hit our share of potholes.  Staff do wrestle with where to find the time to engage meaningfully in social media and being open and engaged often means having to expose what you don't know -- which can be uncomfortable.  We're also finding that there's a long way between having a vision of how to leverage Web 2.0 to change the world and having the world reliably work like a Wikipedia or a Craigslist.  Just because you ask people's opinions doesn't mean you'll get them -- sometimes the crowd keeps its wisdom to itself.  My colleague Erin Kelly will speak to some of these challenges in a future post on our social media experience.  As we continue this journey, we have lots to learn -- and I'd love to hear how others are finding success or overcoming obstacles to becoming more open, more participatory and more decentralized.

Have you ventured down a similar path? Tell us if/how your organization has embraced these tools to work in a different fashion. Did you to so to become better informed? Build networks? Service a traditional organizational or "consumer" need in a new manner? Let others hear what you have struggled with (or celebrated) to help shape the trajectory of a project you are working on with the contributions of others.

-- Steve Downs

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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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