Transparency Talk

Category: "Taxonomy" (5 posts)

Tracking Outcomes: The Message is “Keep it Simple”
June 25, 2014

(Eliza Smith is the Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970c-150wiEarlier this month, I attended a meeting the SF Bay Area Chapter of the Technology Affinity Group (TAG), focused on how technology tools can improve grant performance measurement, particularly if grantmakers are careful to not overcomplicate the process. Several representatives from foundations across the Bay Area convened to discuss outcomes tracking, and new technology platforms and methods that foundations are using to provide more accurate and concise data on grant activities and impact. Three speakers gave presentations on the subject: Kevin Rafter, Manager of Impact Assessment and Learning at the James Irvine Foundation; Anna Lindgren, Assistant to the President at the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment; and Rem Hoffman, Chief Executive Officer at Exponent Partners.

The Foundation has managed to scale down its entire tracking system, mixing quantitative and qualitative data examine where their grantees are in the implementation process: the end result is a clean and accessible data model.

Each speaker addressed the need for a simplification of outcomes tracking. Rafter used the phrase “simplify and smallify,” which the Irvine Foundation has used as a sort of mantra for revising their grantee performance tracking system. The Foundation has managed to scale down its entire tracking system, mixing quantitative and qualitative data examine where their grantees are in the implementation process: the end result is a clean and accessible data model. Moreover, the Foundation is doing its best to alleviate the stress that surrounds evaluation by shifting the focus from stringent observation and measurement analysis to develop a culture of learning. With this shift in focus, Rafter explained that the stigma of evaluation and the threat it presents to programs should evaporate; the Foundation will examine outcomes of various grants holistically with an emphasis on learning, betterment, and experimentation.

Lindgren relayed the Campbell Foundation’s experience developing and more recently, completely overhauling, their custom outcomes tracking model. The Foundation initially worked to create a complex taxonomy for analyzing the products of grant use. Lindgren and her colleagues quickly found that their system was clunky and unwieldy: while they had classifications for various outcomes, there were so many categories that the taxonomy ultimately proved unhelpful. Similar to Rafter and his staff at the Irvine Foundation, Lindgren and her team found that a shift to a much simpler, pared-down system provided far more usable data. Currently, the Campbell Foundation’s team is working on developing data visualizations to accompany their “smallified” outcomes tracking system.

Finally, Hoffman presented on his company, Exponent Partners. Hoffman and his team provide nonprofits with customizable databases that track outcomes and generate analyses of program impact. Much like Rafter and Lindgren, Hoffman emphasized the importance of standardization and simplification of outcomes tracking.

Following the presentations, the entire group discussed the merits of standardization for not only outcomes tracking, but the philanthropic sector at large. Jeannine Corey’s blog post about the Foundation Center’s effort to develop a new taxonomy came up: the call for standardization is increasing exponentially. As we seek out new ways to develop a common language sector-wide, we promote openness, understanding, and transparency between foundations, organizations, and the benefitting public.

How has your foundation or organization benefitted from implementing simplified, “smallified,” or standardized practices?

-- Eliza Smith

A Framework to Communicate Philanthropy
May 14, 2014

(Jeannine Corey is director of grants information management at the Foundation Center. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's Philanthropy News Digest Philantopic blog.)

JCoreyLanguage allows us to communicate complex ideas and acquire information using an agreed-on structure and process. Variations in language around the globe increase the level of effort needed to communicate with people across borders, but it's not impossible if you have a way to translate your ideas into a language others can understand.

The Foundation Center is currently undertaking the challenge of devising a language that can be used by philanthropic organizations around the world to tell the story of their work. That common language is crucial for a field as diverse as ours: not too long ago, we determined that U.S. foundations have more than two hundred and fifty ways to describe "general operating support"!

Given how much the sector has grown and evolved over the past few decades, updates to the taxonomy are critical in order for it to more accurately reflect the work of the field and serve as a relevant tool for a 21st-century global philanthropy community.

In 2012, the Foundation Center began to rethink the classification system that has been at the core of our work, a system largely based on the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities structure that we helped create thirty years ago. Given how much the sector has grown and evolved over the past few decades, updates to the taxonomy are critical in order for it to more accurately reflect the work of the field and serve as a relevant tool for a 21st-century global philanthropy community. Why is this important? Because a shared taxonomy makes it easier for grantseekers to find targeted support, helps funders collaborate with each other and identify potential grantees, and assists researchers and academics who are analyzing the work of the sector.

To that end, staff at the Foundation Center have spent eighteen months evaluating our codes, mining the text of the nearly five million grants and one million philanthropic institutions in our database, and cross-referencing that information against other international standards to inform the creation of a revised taxonomic system. Our goal is not to create another standard but to develop a framework that meets the needs of the sector and can serve as a language that organizations use to communicate their work to each other. For example, we've added new subject areas related to information and media, including associated technologies. We've replaced "type of support" with two new categories: support strategy, to reflect the goal or approach behind the actual support, and transaction type, to capture the various forms of philanthropy beyond the cash grant that happen around the world.

As with the language we use in our day-to-day lives, we expect people will use the words and phrases that resonate with them and best serve their needs. Has anyone ever actually used every single word in the English language? Of course not, and the classification system we are developing is designed to function in the same way: use the words and terms that help you communicate your work. And to make sure the parts of the taxonomy that are relevant to your work make sense, we've opened up a draft of the new system for review and comment through May 23, 2014.

Your input is essential, and we invite everyone in the field to join in. Check out the draft taxonomy and then submit your feedback on both its overall structure as well as specific terms. What do you like about it? What's missing? How can we make it better? We want to know. Together, we can create a taxonomy for the field that serves as a common language we can all use to communicate our work to each other.

-- Jeannine Corey

The Foundation Center and MacArthur Foundation Join IATI – Open Philanthropy Meets Open Global Development
December 23, 2013

(Jeff Falkenstein is vice president of data architecture at the Foundation Center.)

FalkensteinThe Reporting Commitment, an initiative by 15 of the largest foundations in the United States to be more transparent in how they share data on their grantmaking, launched a year ago in October. Since then, those 15 foundations have been joined by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the VNA Foundation. These organizations have committed to a level of transparency and scrutiny never before seen in the philanthropic sector. But why? Some foundations are interested in communicating out what good works they are doing and sharing lessons learned; some are hoping to improve their organizational intelligence through the sharing of better and more timely data, and others are hoping to be more effective, efficient and targeted in both their grantmaking and collaboration efforts. Not that these ideas are mutually exclusive.

At the heart of the Reporting Commitment is a set of standards by which the participating foundations have agreed to report their data. 1) The grant data must be reported at least quarterly; 2) the grant data must include the details of the geographic area being served using the Foundation Center’s geographic taxonomy--the Geotree--so the data can be reported consistently; and 3) the foundations must all report their data using the Foundation Center’s html-based reporting standard, hGrant.

Egrant_reporterhGrant is just one approach to joining the Foundation Center’s eReporting program; another part of the program is eGrant Reporting wherein nearly 1,000 foundations provide data in an Excel format through standard report queries via one of the Center’s grants management software partners. We are working closely with many of our partners to include hGrant as a reporting output option as well.

IATIGiven our experience with data standards, the Center was invited to join the Technical Advisory Group of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), an initiative to create an XML-based data standard to capture data on global development flows, primarily those of governments and international agencies. The goal of this work was to bring together organizations committed to working together to increase the transparency of capital flows benefitting aid on a global scale. In developing this standard, IATI has been careful not to duplicate the great work already being done by other organizations such as the Organization for Economic Co-Operative Development, which produces statistics about past aid flows. Instead, the IATI standard builds on this foundational work and tries to improve the timeliness and accessibility of such data.

Realizing that government and multilateral/bilateral data does not tell the whole story of aid flows, many NGOs have also joined the IATI community. Additionally, two foundations have joined the initiative, including early adopter the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and, most recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation Center is very excited to report that we are officially the 200th organization to join IATI, through the help of the John
D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
. The MacArthur Foundation, one of the original participants of the Reporting Commitment, realized that it wanted to have a voice in international global development, as did the Hewlett Foundation and Gates Foundation. Rather than MacArthur reporting directly to IATI, creating redundancy in their workflows, the Foundation Center worked to enable MacArthur’s Reporting Commitment hGrant feed to be simultaneously converted into the IATI XML standard and, as a result, it is now reported on the IATI registry. We are pleased to be able to help the MacArthur Foundation more fully engage in the global development conversation, and this is just one of the ways the Foundation Center is working to help philanthropy open up its data.

The Foundation Center is dedicated to increasing knowledge on philanthropy through the timeliness and transparency of data, as can be seen via our recent efforts around:

Much like the MacArthur Foundation wanting to get its information out to both peer foundations and the global development community, the Foundation Center is looking for ways to help other foundations be more strategic, gain access to more timely data, better understand where they sit in the sector in relation to their peers, and create opportunities for knowledge sharing and learning.  We'll be announcing some new foundations joining the Reporting Commitment soon. Our work with hGrant and IATI is just another step down that road to helping foundations become a part of the open data movement. Come join us!

If you want to learn more about the Foundation Center’s eReporting program, IATI or anything else in this blog, please contact me at JAF@foundationcenter.org.

-- Jeff Falkenstein


 

Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor…your taxonomies (Part 2)
November 5, 2012

(Jeff Falkenstein is vice president of data architecture at the Foundation Center. In his previous post, Jeff discussed the importance of data standards in improving access to timely and accurate data on foundation activities.)

Falkenstein-100It’s human nature to try to arrange things into categories. In fact, the science of classifying stuff can arguably be traced back to the Neanderthal who decided to put smooth black rocks in one pile and bumpy white rocks in another. Many millennia later, Aristotle (384-322 BC) created a taxis nomia with which to classify all living things by their shared characteristics, work that was greatly advanced by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) in his 160-volume work Naturalis Historia. Today when people think about taxonomies, they’re likely to be reminded of their junior high school science class (SpeciesàGenusàFamilyàOrderàClass…) -- or the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons (Accelerati Incrediblus vs. Carnivorius Slobbius). 

…for the field to continue operating without a shared taxonomy consigns philanthropists to acting within narrow, self-defined fiefdoms that sum to the equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

In the realm of knowledge management, a taxonomy is a structured set of codes used to classify the fields within a standard, which in turn allows for the comprehensive aggregation of similar data. Taxonomies normalize data; indeed, the application of a taxonomic system to data is the critical first step in the process of turning data into information and information into knowledge. Rather than relying on imperfect search engine algorithms or data mining technology to draw inferences from vast amounts of data, taxonomies highlight common themes within data sets and at the same time foster connections between similar but distinct activities.

In the 1980s, the Foundation Center, working with the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) at the Urban Institute, helped develop the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE), a taxonomic system used by the IRS, GuideStar, TechSoup Global, and the NCCS to classify nonprofit organizations. An expanded version of the NTEE is used by the Foundation Center to classify both foundation grants and grant recipients; by organizations like VolunteerMatch to track volunteering opportunities; and by many private foundations to classify, benchmark, and track their own grantmaking activities. The Center and many of its partners also use supplemental taxonomic systems. The Center has developed taxonomies for population groups, types of support, auspices, and geographic-area served -- collectively known as a Grants Classification System (GCS) -- to provide a more complete picture of U.S. foundation activities. 

Admittedly, none of these taxonomies is perfect. No social sector taxonomy is. And the challenge is even greater in the realm of global data collection, where the Center is working to develop a taxonomy that can be applied to philanthropic activities of widely varying nature while building in enough depth and detail so that it’s useful to researchers, policy makers, grantseekers, and other foundations without sacrificing user-friendliness. But for the field to continue operating without a shared taxonomy consigns philanthropists to acting within narrow, self-defined fiefdoms that sum to the equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

Working with affinity groups, regional associations, taxonomists, geographers, and experts from particular sectors, the Center has developed deeper subject coverage on many topics, including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), human rights, and disability and sexuality issues. Our partners in this evolving work include organizations like the Disabilities Funders Network, the International Human Rights Funders Group, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, the Getty Research Institute, the D5 Coalition, the Mission Investors Exchange, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) , the China Foundation Center, the Centre for Social Impact, Grupo de Institutos Fundações e Empresas (GIFE), Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía (CEMEFI), and the many foundations who supply data via our eGrant and hGrant Reporting programs.

Moreover, to better meet the sector’s needs, we have been engaged in a comprehensive revision of our Grants Classification System and plan to release a new version of the GCS in beta in the third quarter of 2013. We’ve been working hard to make this an open and collaborative process, and we encourage our partners and other stakeholders, including affinity groups, regional associations, and foundations, to share with us their own taxonomies and send us their feedback to help develop a tool that will better serve the entire sector.

Developing a comprehensive taxonomy that reflects the realities of a rapidly globalizing world is just a start, however.  After all, what good is a taxonomy if no one uses it? Our next challenge is to help more foundation leaders understand that the application of a structured taxonomy to their grants data turns it into searchable information; that that information can then be harnessed to answer questions from staff, trustees, foundations doing similar work, and even reporters and the general public; that it can be used to create data dashboards and reports;  that it can be used to break down program and information silos within large institutions and foster collaboration with others; and that it can help highlight who among their grantees is really effective. To put it another way, the application of a taxonomic system to data is nothing less than the critical first step in transforming masses of raw data into usable, sharable knowledge.

We know it isn’t going to be easy to get everyone onboard. And we also know that one reason foundations and affinity groups have hesitated to adopt the GCS taxonomy in the past is its overwhelming size (For starters, the taxonomy has more than 1,300 codes). So this is what we’re telling foundations and other entities which share that concern: Use only the codes and terms that are relevant to your work. If, for example, your foundation only provides funding for the arts, or funding for animal welfare, or higher education, use only those terms that apply to your work and ignore the others.  Or, if the very idea of doing your own data coding causes you to break out in hives, just tell us in your own words as specifically as possible what and who your grants are for, and we'll do the coding for you.

While we hope that more organizations will adopt or adapt the revised system when it’s released  in 2013, we understand that it can’t be all things to all people. Other taxonomies like OECD’s DAC-CRS system, or the U.S. government’s Standard Industrial Classification or North American Industry Classification System, will continue to be used. Over time, our plan is to develop “crosswalks” from those taxonomies to the GCS system, creating in effect a comprehensive social sector thesaurus that enables greater data comparability, greater discovery of intra- and inter-sectoral trends, greater knowledge and learning opportunities, and more collaboration among funders, nonprofits, governments and other social sector actors. The Center continues to encourage an open dialogue as we strive together to make the taxonomic system a tool and resource for all.

We are already working with the Hewlett and Gates foundations, LiquidNet for Good, and all our other Markets for Good partners to improve the social sector infrastructure through the development of more useful standards and taxonomies. Won’t you join us as we forge a movement around better data for a better world?

--Jeff Falkenstein

Has your foundation experienced challenges with applying a taxonomy to your work? Either leave a comment below or contact Jeff at JAF@foundationcenter.org.

Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor…your grants data (Part 1)
October 18, 2012

(Jeff Falkenstein is vice president of data architecture at the Foundation Center.)

Falkenstein-100To say that Jeff Raikes’ announcement of the launch of Markets for Good  was big news is an understatement. Raikes’ call to improve the philanthropic information infrastructure and support the quality of and access to data speaks to the core of the Foundation Center’s mission and vision. The Center, along with fifteen partner foundations, recently made a big announcement of its own when it launched the Reporting Commitment, a movement to improve the transparency of, and reduce duplication among, foundations through the adoption of common reporting standards and a consistent geographic taxonomy. Needless to say, these two developments have the potential to significantly impact the future of the philanthropic sector.

One of the biggest challenges of our work -- and the critique of our products and services we hear most often -- is directly related to the fact that it’s difficult to get our hands on foundation data quickly enough to make these tools as useful as they need to be for program officers, researchers, academics, grantseekers, and others.

For over fifty years, the Foundation Center has aggregated information on U.S. foundations pulled from publicly available 990-PF tax returns, annual reports, press releases, foundation Web sites, and other information sources. In addition to offering this data through the Foundation Directory Online, the Center features it in its many research reports and issue-based portals, and has taken steps to incorporate it into grants management software as well as reports and portals developed with a number of foundations and other partners. Much of the value the Center adds to the information we collect comes from an intensive review of hundreds of thousands of grants made by foundations from around the world. The Center also identifies the recipients of those grants: who they are, what they do, where they (generally) work, and which populations they (generally) serve. Additional analysis is done to understand the purpose of the grant, the subject area funded, the type of support provided, the specific population and geographic area served by the grant, and the strategy behind it.

One of the biggest challenges of our work -- and the critique of our products and services we hear most often -- is directly related to the fact that it’s difficult to get our hands on foundation data quickly enough to make these tools as useful as they need to be for program officers, researchers, academics, grantseekers, and others. Our response to this criticism has been to encourage foundations to report their grants data directly to us. In 1998, the Center established its eGrant Reporting program, a set of standards for foundations to report data electronically to the Center via participating grants management software systems or through a self-created Excel file. Using the grants management software of their choice, foundations can generate Excel spreadsheets of their grants in a standardized format and e-mail them directly to us. Receiving grants information electronically in a consistent format enables the Center to process and publish the data in a more timely fashion, while giving foundations more control over how the Center represents their grantmaking and communicates their work to the world. The nearly seven hundred and fifty foundations currently participating in this program are able to report their grants in near-real-time and have that data uploaded to all the Foundation Center products and platforms where the data is featured. But while the program has been an important first step toward greater transparency in the sector, we’ve only scratched the surface.

Over the last few years, the Center has been working with its foundation and grant management software partners to make it easier for foundations to report their data to us in a more timely fashion. In 2010, the Center acquired Grantsfire and hGrant, an HTML-based micro-format grant reporting system, and adapted it to fully complement our existing eGrant reporting program. Grant feeds published by any foundation using the hGrant Reporting program are available to the public, for free, at Glasspockets.org, the Center’s transparency-focused Web site. Indeed, the hGrant system is at the heart of the Reporting Commitment initiative announced by the Center and its fifteen foundation partners.

But the hGrant system is only a start. In the coming months, the Center will be developing xGrant, an XML-based machine-readable version of our eGrant Reporting standard that will allow for a more flexible and easily adapted standard beyond the current hGrant micro-format. We will also be surveying our software vendor partners about their preferred export method. Why offer three ways to report grants data? Because we recognize that foundations do things differently and have varying degrees of capacity, and we want to give them every opportunity to report their grants data in the most convenient way possible.

What’s more, we are working to refine the eGrant reporting standard to align with other global reporting standards, including those developed by the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Why is this important? Because in order to get a holistic picture of how and where philanthropy complements international aid/ bilateral organization/donor government financial flows, our standard needs to align with existing standards. To that end, we invite any and all standard-setting organizations and bodies to share their standards and taxonomies with us so we can map them to the eGrant standard. Creating “crosswalks” between standards will allow for deeper analysis of the full spectrum of development flows and contribute to greater collaboration among public, private, and philanthropic actors.

To demonstrate the usefulness of submitting data to the Center in a standard format, we have been providing participating foundations with free maps of their grants -- maps that can be shared with their boards, staff, or deployed on their Web sites. Maps aside, we firmly believe that foundations which share their grants data via the eGrant Reporting program are also joining a larger conversation around transparency and open data, are putting themselves in a position to teach and learn from each other, and, as articulated by my colleague Larry McGill in the latest issue of Alliance magazine, are taking a significant step toward working more collaboratively and effectively.

New and powerful tools like WASHfunders, a Web portal for funders working to address the world’s water crisis, and Philanthropy In/Sight Human Rights, an interactive mapping tool that displays grant funding for human rights issues, as well as studies like European Funding for Women and Girls are just a few examples of the ways in which foundations and funder coalitions are harnessing taxonomies and standards to forge a shared understanding of their work. The Foundation Center is delighted to contribute to this effort by offering products and services that can help funders and funder coalitions achieve their goals in this area. We encourage you to join us.

--Jeff Falkenstein

Interested in becoming part of the eGrant Reporting community?  We’re glad to have you on board. Either leave a comment below or contact Jeff at eGrants@foundationcenter.org.

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