Transparency Talk

Category: "Tips & Tricks" (29 posts)

Trend to Watch: Using SDGs to Improve Foundation Transparency
September 19, 2017

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

Janet Camarena PhotoAs Foundation Center's director of transparency initiatives, one of the most interesting parts of my job is having the opportunity to play "transparency scout," regularly reviewing foundation websites for signs of openness in what is too often a closed universe. Some of this scouting leads to lifting up practices that can be examples for others on our Transparency Talk blog, sometimes it leads to a new transparency indicator on our assessment framework, and sometimes we just file it internally as a "trend to watch. "

Today, it's a combination of all three; we are using this blog post to announce the launch of a new, "Trend to Watch" indicator that signals an emerging practice: the use of the Sustainable Development Goals to improve how foundations open up their work to the world.

Sustainable Development GoalsThe United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. There are a total of 17 goals, such as ending poverty, zero hunger, reduced inequalities, and climate action. Written deliberately broad to serve as a collective playbook that governments and private sector alike can use, they can also serve as a much needed shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress.

And let's face it, as foundation strategies become increasingly specialized and strategic, explaining the objectives and the nuances can become a jargon-laden minefield that can make it difficult and time consuming for those on the outside to fully understand the intended goal of a new program or initiative. The simplicity of the SDG iconography cuts through the jargon so foundation website visitors can quickly identify alignment with the goals or not, and then more easily determine whether they should devote time to reading further. The SDG framework also provides a clear visual framework to display grants and outcomes data in a way that is meaningful beyond the four walls of the foundation.

Let's take a look at how some foundation websites are using the SDGs to more clearly explain their work:

Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF)

One of my favorite examples is from a simple chart the Silicon Valley Community Foundation shared on its blog, because it specifically opens up the work of its donor-advised funds using the SDGs. Donor-advised funds are typically not the most transparent vehicles, so using the SDGs as a framework to tally how SVCF's donor-advised funds are making an impact is particularly clever, refreshing, and offers a new window into a fast-growth area of philanthropy.

A quick glance at the chart reveals that quality education, good health and well-being, and sustainable cities and communities are the most common priorities among Silicon Valley donors.

GHR Foundation

A good example of how the SDGs can be used as a shared language to explain the intended impact of a grant portfolio is from GHR Foundation in Minnesota. I also like this example because it shows how the SDGs can be effectively used in both global and domestic grant portfolios. GHR uses the SDG iconography across all of its portfolios, as sidebars on the pages that describe foundation strategies. GHR's "Children in Families" is a core foundation grantmaking strategy that addresses children and families in need on a global scale. The portfolio name is a broad one, but by including the SDG iconography, web visitors can quickly understand that GHR is using this program area to address poverty, hunger, as well as lead to outcomes tied to health and well-being:

GHR is also able to use the SDG framework to create similar understanding of its domestic work. Below is an example from its Catholic Schools program serving the Twin Cities:

Through the visual cues the icons provide, I can quickly determine that in addition to aligning with the quality education goal, that this part of GHR's portfolio also addresses hunger and economically disadvantaged populations through its education grantmaking. This could also signal that the grantmaker interprets education broadly and supports the provision of wrap-around services to address the needs of low-income children as a holistic way of addressing the achievement gap. That's a lot of information conveyed with three small icons!

Tableau Foundation

The most sophisticated example comes to us from the tech and corporate grantmaking worlds--the Tableau Foundation. Tableau makes data visualization software, so using technology as a means to improve transparency is a core approach, and they are using their own grantmaking as an example of how you can use data to tell a compelling visual story. Through the interactive "Living Annual Report" on its website, Tableau regularly updates its grantmaking tallies and grantee data so web visitors have near real-time information. One of the tabs on the report reveals the SDG indicators, providing a quick snapshot of how Tableau's grantmaking, software donations, and corporate volunteering align with the SDGs.

As you mouse over any bar on the left, near real-time data appears, tallying how much of Tableau's funding has gone to support each goal. The interactive bar chart on the right lists Tableau's grantees, and visitors can quickly see the grantee list in the context of the SDGs as well as know the specific scale of its grantmaking to each recipient.

If you're inspired by these examples, but aren't sure how to begin connecting your portfolio to the Global Goals, you can use the SDG Indicator Wizard to help you get started. All you need to do is copy and paste your program descriptions or the descriptive language of a sample grant into the Wizard and its machine-learning tools let you know where your grantmaking lands on the SDG matrix. It's a lot of fun – and great place to start learning about the SDGs. And, because it transforms your program language into the relevant SDG goals, indicator, and targets, it may just provide a shortcut to that new strategy you were thinking of developing!

What more examples? The good news is we're also tracking SDGs as a transparency indicator at "Who Has Glasspockets?" You can view them all here. Is your foundation using the SDGs to help tell the story of your work? We're always on the lookout for new examples, so let us know and your foundation can be the next trend setter in our new Trend to Watch.

-- Janet Camarena

Is Your 990-PF Working Against You?
September 12, 2017

Lauren Haverlock has practiced public accounting since 2004. As a senior manager at Moss Adams LLP, she provides compliance and consulting services to all types of exempt organizations, including public charities and private foundations.

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

Join us at a session about the Open 990PF in partnership with Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Learn more or register here.

Lauren HaverlockAs a CPA specializing in tax exempt organizations, the annual 990-PF form that private foundations must file with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the source of many questions I receive. And now that this data is not just publicly available, but open, it is wise for us all to take a closer look at whether your 990-PF may unintentionally be working against you.

Of course, the IRS has been gathering data on 990-PF filers for years. It has used this data to better identify and investigate anomalous and non-compliant private foundations. But now, all electronically filed Form 990-PF data is available to the general public in machine readable formats opening up the investments, portfolio performance, grant recipients, expenses, and transactions of foundations like never before.

Now that this information is publicly available in machine readable format, it can be easily aggregated to provide valuable insight into the industry as a whole. It can also highlight outliers. Ultimately, the availability of this data provides a window into private foundations, many of which were previously used to operating outside the public eye. As Glasspockets has reported, currently only 10% of U.S. foundations even have a website, so if your foundation is among the 90% that do not, that means that your 990-PF is the only source of intelligence about your organization. 

In the new world of readily available machine-readable Form 990s, private foundations will want to verify their tax filings—the source of their data—are prepared completely and accurately. Common mistakes to watch out for when filing the Form 990-PF are detailed in this article.

Transactions

Private foundations face more burdensome regulations on investments and expenses than 501(c)(3) public charities:

  • Restrictions on how money is spent
  • Requirements as to how much money is used for charitable purposes
  • Rules regarding how endowments can be invested

The consequences for noncompliance in regards to the above transactions can range from excise-tax penalties assessed on the foundation or its managers to revocation of exempt status.

Specific items to be aware of include the following:

  • Prohibited transactions with a disqualified person, including trustees, directors, and foundation managers as well as certain family members and businesses of the aforementioned.
  • Failure to meet the minimum distribution requirement in a previous year
  • Excess business holdings of an active trade or business
  • Risky asset investments that could jeopardize a foundation’s charitable purpose (for example, not having a diversified portfolio of investments)
  • Certain types of expenditures, such as foreign grants, grants to for-profit entities, unapproved scholarships, or lobbying and political activities, are either prohibited outright or require extra diligence to be permissible. 

For example, foundations are permitted to reasonably compensate a disqualified person for personal services. And an organization can grant funds to foreign or for-profit organizations if expenditure responsibility is exercised. And more details about what is permissible in regards to political funding appears below. But the main point here is just the affirmation of these closely scrutinized transactions could raise the risk profile of a private foundation.

Net Investment Income

Although considered tax-exempt, private foundations are still required to pay an excise tax at a rate of 1% or 2% of the income they generate. As such, investment income is of intense focus when foundations file their tax returns. Foundations should remember that the calculation of taxable income should be undertaken with the same tax-reduction mindset that for profit entities and individuals undertake.   

“Ultimately, the availability of this data provides a window into private foundations, many of which were previously used to operating outside the public eye.”

The Form 990-PF reports income both on a book and on a tax basis on Page one. A foundation should ensure that it is properly capturing all taxable income from all sources and not simply assuming that taxable income is the amount reported on their financial statements. For example, private foundations with “alternative investments,” including private equity, hedge funds, managed futures, real estate, commodities and derivatives contracts, could receive a Schedule K-1 from their investments. Flow-through income from that Schedule K-1 should be reported in the foundation’s tax-basis income statement. 

Additionally, any excise tax a foundation pays could bring negative attention. If an entity consistently pays the higher excise tax of 2%, it could lead donors to question why the foundation is giving money to the IRS in the form of taxes rather than providing grants.  

 

Balance-Sheet Investments

Private foundations are required to report the details of their investments, including the number of shares and types of publicly traded stock held. Reporting this can often be burdensome and feel invasive, but failure to include this information could result in an incomplete Form 990-PF. An incomplete Form 990-PF is deemed to have never been filed in the first place, which could result in late-filing penalties or revocation of exemption if it occurs three years in a row.

Lobbying and Political Activities

Private foundations are prohibited from undertaking any lobbying or political activities, unlike 501(c)(3) public charities, which are permitted to undertake limited lobbying activities. However, not all actions related to politics are prohibited—private foundations can undertake certain bipartisan educational activities or support charities that undertake lobbying if they follow certain guidelines. For example, the specific project grant rule, when followed, could allow a private foundation to fund a project that explicitly has lobbying activities.

Grant Reporting

The grant reporting schedule seems innocuous, but it can weave a story of relationships that extend beyond grantor and grantee. The grant recipients of private foundations are public, which means the public can gather data regarding which organizations a foundation supports by using data-mining tools.

Open-990-borderAlthough this information can be valuable to fundraisers and your grantmaking peers, it can also reveal an informal or unclear grantmaking process and serve as an inadvertent disclosure of taxable expenditures. As such, a foundation should ensure that there is a due diligence process related to grant recipients that verifies if a recipient is a qualified 501(c)(3) public charity, and use the space provided in the 990-PF (Part XV) to explain its grantmaking process, deadlines, and eligibility requirements.

While grants to other types of entities are permitted, if certain expenditure responsibility procedures are not followed, this type of granting could possibly raise a red flag. Any grantee that reports a foreign address, appears to be a corporation, or otherwise stands out could still garner a foundation unwanted attention from the general public and IRS. Grantmakers making grants to foreign organizations also have the option of using a process called equivalency determination to demonstrate how they determined that a foreign organization is equivalent to a U.S. charity. The grantmaker is required to collect a specific set of data, as outlined in IRS Revenue Procedure 92-94, that provides details about the grantee’s operations and finances.

Private foundation contributor schedules are public, which means anyone can pull these donor lists. With open-source data, foundation support can be easily compiled and aggregated to better understand an ecosystem of donors and support—keeping a private foundation accountable to the community it serves.

Even though the Form 990-PF is a government filing, its public nature and the increased openness of its data may lead to both greater interest and scrutiny in the private foundations filing it. Take control of your financial story by filing timely, complete, and accurate Form 990 returns, paying special attention to the areas noted above, and ultimately what increases may be a greater understanding of the field itself.

--Lauren Haverlock

How to Make Grantee Reports #OpenForGood
July 20, 2017

Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen joined the [Archibald] Bush Foundation in 2011, where they created and now direct the Foundation's Community Innovation programs. The programs allow communities to develop and test new solutions to community challenges, using approaches that are collaborative and inclusive of people who are most directly affected by the problem. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

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Mandy Ellerton

When we started working at the Bush Foundation in 2011, we encountered a machine we’d never seen before: the Lektriever. It’s a giant machine that moves files around, kind of like a dry cleaner’s clothes rack, and allows you to seriously pack in the paper. As a responsible grantmaker, it’s how the Bush Foundation had meticulously tracked and stored its files for posterity - in particular, grantee reports - for decades.

In 2013, the Bush Foundation had the privilege of moving to a new office. Mere days before we were to move into the new space, we got a frantic call from the new building’s management. It turned out that the Lektrievers (we actually had multiple giant filing machines!) were too heavy for the floor of the new building, which had to be reinforced with a number of steel plates to sustain their weight.

MMG 2015 Headshot1
Molly Matheson Gruen

The Lektrievers symbolized our opportunity to become more transparent and move beyond simply preserving our records, instead seeing them as relevant learning tools for current audiences. It was time to lighten the load and share this valuable information with the world.

Even with all this extra engineering, we would still have to say goodbye to one of the machines altogether for the entire system to be structurally sound. We had decades of grantee stories, experiences and learning trapped in a huge machine in the inner sanctum of our office, up on the 25th floor. 

Learning Logs Emerge

We developed our grantee learning log concept in the Community Innovation Programs as one way to increase the Foundation’s transparency. At the heart of it, our learning logs are a very simple concept: they are grantee reports, shared online. But, like many things that appear simple, once you pull on the string of change – the complexity reveals itself.

“Every Community Innovation project is an opportunity for others to learn and the learning logs are a platform to share this learning.”

Before we could save the reports from a life of oblivion in the Lektriever, build out the technology and slap the reports online, we needed to entirely rethink our approach to grantee reporting to create a process that was more mutually beneficial. First, we streamlined our grant accountability measures (assessing whether the grantees did what they said they’d do) by structuring them into a conversation with grantees, rather than as a part of the written reports. We’ve found that conducting these assessments in a conversation takes the pressure off and creates a space where grantees can be more candid, leading to increased trust and a stronger partnership.

Second, our grantee reports now focus on what grantees are learning in their grant-funded project. What’s working? What’s not? What would you do differently if you had it to do all over again? This new process resulted in reports that were more concise and to the point.

Finally, we redesigned our website to create a searchable mechanism for sharing these reports online. This involved linking our grant management system directly with our website so that when a grantee submits a report, we do a quick review and then the report automatically populates our website. We’ve also designed a way for grantees to be able to designate select answers as private when they want to share sensitive information with us, yet not make it entirely public. We leave it up grantee discretion and those selected answers do not appear on the website. Grantees designate their answers to be private for a number of reasons, most often because they discuss sensitive situations having to do with specific people or partners – like when someone drops out of the project or when a disagreement with a partner holds up progress. And while we’ve been pleased at the candor of most of our grantees, some are still understandably reluctant to be publicly candid about failures or mistakes.

But why does this new approach to grantee reporting matter, besides making sure the floor doesn’t collapse beneath our Lektrievers?

Bushfoundation-Lektriever photo
The Lektriever is a giant machine that moves files around, kind of like a dry cleaner’s clothes rack. The Bush Foundation had meticulously tracked and stored its files for posterity - in particular, grantee reports - for decades. Credit: Bush Foundation

Learning Sees the Light of Day

Learning logs help bring grantee learning into the light of day, instead of hiding in the Lektrievers, so that more people can learn about what it really takes to solve problems. Our Community Innovation programs at the Bush Foundation fund and reward the process of innovation–the process of solving problems. Our grantees are addressing wildly different issues: from water quality to historical trauma, from economic development to prison reform. But, when you talk to our grantees, you see that they actually have a lot in common and a lot to learn from one another about effective problem-solving. And beyond our grantee pool, there are countless other organizations that want to engage their communities and work collaboratively to solve problems.  Every Community Innovation project is an opportunity for others to learn and the learning logs are a platform to share this learning, making it #OpenForGood.

We also want to honor our grantees’ time. Grantees spend a lot of time preparing grant reports for funders. And, in a best case scenario, a program officer reads the report and sends the grantee a response of some kind before the report is filed away. But, let’s be honest – sometimes even that doesn’t happen. The report process can be a burden on nonprofits and the only party to benefit is the funder. We hope that the learning logs help affirm to our grantees that they’re part of something bigger than themselves - that what they share matters to others who are doing similar work.

We also hear from our grantees that the reports provide a helpful, reflective process, especially when they fill it out together with collaborating partners. One grantee even said she’d like to fill out the report more often than we require to have regular reflection moments with her team!

Learning from the Learning Logs

We only launched the learning logs last year, but we’ve already received some positive feedback. We’ve heard from both funded and non-funded organizations that the learning logs provide inspiration and practical advice so that they can pursue similar projects. A grantee recently shared a current challenge in their work. It directly connected to some work we knew another grantee had done and had written about in their learning log. So, since this knowledge was now out in the open, we were able to direct them to the learning log as a way to expand our grantee’s impact, even beyond their local community, and use it to help advance another grantee’s work.

Take, for example, some of the following quotes from some of our grantee reports:

  • The Minnesot Brain Injury Alliance's project worked on finding ways to better serve homeless people with brain injuries.  They reflected that, "Taking the opportunity for reflection at various points in the process was very important in working toward innovation.  Without reflection, we might not have been open to revising our plan and implementing new possibilities."
  • GROW South Dakota addressed a number of challenges facing rural South Dakota communities. They shared that, “Getting to conversations that matter requires careful preparation in terms of finding good questions and setting good ground rules for how the conversations will take place—making sure all voices are heard, and that people are listening for understanding and not involved in a debate.”
  •  The People's Press Project engaged communities of color and disenfranchised communities to create a non-commercial, community-owned, low-powered radio station serving the Fargo-Moorhead area of North Dakota. They learned “quickly that simply inviting community members to a meeting or a training was not a type of outreach that was effective.”

Like many foundations, we decline far more applications than what we fund, and our limited funding can only help communities tackle so many problems. Our learning logs are one way to try and squeeze out more impact from those direct investments. By reading grantee learning logs, hopefully more people will be inspired to effectively solve problems in their communities.

We’re not planning to get rid of the Lektrievers anytime soon – they’re pretty retro cool and efficient. They contain important historical records and are incredibly useful for other kinds of record keeping, beyond grantee documentation. Plus, the floor hasn’t fallen in yet. But, as Bush Foundation Communications Director Dominick Washington put it, now we’re unleashing the knowledge, “getting it out of those cabinets, and to people who can use it.”

--Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen

What Will You #OpenForGood?
July 13, 2017

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.  This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Janet Camarena Photo

This week, Foundation Center is launching our new #OpenForGood campaign, designed to encourage better knowledge sharing practices among foundations.  Three Foundation Center services—Glasspockets, IssueLab, and GrantCraft are leveraging their platforms to advance the idea that philanthropy can best live up to its promise of serving the public good by openly and consistently sharing what it’s learning from its work.  Glasspockets is featuring advice and insights from “knowledge sharing champions” in philanthropy on an ongoing #OpenForGood blog series; IssueLab has launched a special Results platform allowing users to learn from a collective knowledge base of foundation evaluations; and a forthcoming GrantCraft Guide on open knowledge practices is in development.

Although this campaign is focused on helping and inspiring foundations to use new and emerging technologies to better collectively learn, it is also in some ways rooted in the history that is Foundation Center’s origin story.

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A Short History

Sixty years ago, Foundation Center was established to provide transparency for a field in jeopardy of losing its philanthropic freedom due to McCarthy Era accusations that gained traction in the absence of any openness whatsoever about foundation priorities, activities, or processes.  Not one, but two congressional commissions were formed to investigate foundations committing alleged “un-American activities.”  As a result of these congressional inquiries, which spanned several years during the 1950s, Foundation Center was established to provide transparency in a field that had nearly lost everything due to its opacity. 

“The solution and call to action here is actually a simple one – if you learn something, share something.”

I know our Transparency Talk audience is most likely familiar with this story since the Glasspockets name stems from this history when Carnegie Corporation Chair Russell Leffingwell said, “The foundation should have glass pockets…” during his congressional testimony, describing a vision for a field that would be so open as to allow anyone to have a look inside the workings and activities of philanthropy.  But it seems important to repeat that story now in the context of new technologies that can facilitate greater openness.

Working Collectively Smarter

Now that we live in a time when most of us walk around with literal glass in our pockets, and use these devices to connect us to the outside world, it is surprising that only 10% of foundations have a website, which means 90% of the field is missing discovery from the outside world.  But having websites would really just bring foundations into the latter days of the 20th century--#OpenForGood aims to bring them into the present day by encouraging foundations to openly share their knowledge in the name of working collectively smarter.

What if you could know what others know, rather than constantly replicating experiments and pilots that have already been tried and tested elsewhere?  Sadly, the common practice of foundations keeping knowledge in large file cabinets or hard drives only a few can access means that there are no such shortcuts. The solution and call to action here is actually a simple one—if you learn something, share something

In foundations, learning typically takes the form of evaluation and monitoring, so we are specifically asking foundations to upload all of your published reports from 2015 and 2016 to the new IssueLab: Results platform, so that anyone can build on the lessons you’ve learned, whether inside or outside of your networks. Foundations that upload their published evaluations will receive an #OpenForGood badge to demonstrate their commitment to creating a community of shared learning.

Calls to Action

But #OpenForGood foundations don’t just share evaluations, they also:

  • Open themselves to ideas and lessons learned by others by searching shared repositories, like those at IssueLab as part of their own research process;
  • They use Glasspockets to compare their foundation's transparency practices to their peers, add their profile, and help encourage openness by sharing their experiences and experiments with transparency here on Transparency Talk;
  • They use GrantCraft to hear what their colleagues have to say, then add their voice to the conversation. If they have an insight, they share it!

Share Your Photos

“#OpenForGood foundations share their images with us so we can show the collective power of philanthropic openness, not just in words, but images. ”

And finally, #OpenForGood foundations share their images with us so we can show the collective power of philanthropic openness, not just in words, but images.  We would like to evolve the #OpenForGood campaign over time to become a powerful and meaningful way for foundations to open up your work and impact a broader audience than you could reach on your own. Any campaign about openness and transparency should, after all, use real images rather than staged or stock photography. 

So, we invite you to share any high resolution photographs that feature the various dimensions of your foundation's work.  Ideally, we would like to capture images of the good you are doing out in the world, outside of the four walls of your foundation, and of course, we would give appropriate credit to participating foundations and your photographers.  The kinds of images we are seeking include people collaborating in teams, open landscapes, and images that convey the story of your work and who benefits. Let us know if you have images to share that may now benefit from this extended reach and openness framing by contacting openforgood@foundationcenter.org.

What will you #OpenForGood?

--Janet Camarena

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions
April 5, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(Christie George is the director of New Media Ventures, a mission-driven venture firm and donor collaborative supporting progressive startups.  New Media Ventures supports companies and organizations that – through the use of new media and technology – build advocacy movements, tell new stories and drive civic engagement.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation.  The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

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If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants.

“...If you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects.”

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities. 

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches:

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous
impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to
reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have New Media Ventures logoat least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: CoWorker.org hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; Vote.org got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us.

--Christie George

 

Transparency Talk Welcomes Arcus Foundation to Glasspockets
March 29, 2017

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.) 

Arcus foundation logoWe are pleased to welcome Arcus Foundation to our community of foundations that have publicly commited to working transparently. By taking and sharing the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” (WHGP) self-assessment, Arcus is contributing to a growing collection of profiles that serve as a knowledge bank and transparency benchmarking mechanism.

Arcus, with its offices in New York and Cambridge, United Kingdom, advocates for global human rights and conservation movements: “Together, we learn from each other and take bold risks on groundbreaking ideas that drive progress toward a future of respect and dignity for all.”

“We strive to apply a high level of transparency in our operations and in our relationships with grantees, partners and other stakeholders.’”

This month, Arcus became the 87th foundation to join WHGP.  As a way of welcoming Arcus to the Glasspockets community, we’d like to highlight some of the ways in which this foundation openly shares its environmental and social justice work.

First, Arcus has pledged a rare commitment to openness in its transparency statement that is part of the website’s introduction to Arcus’ work.

The foundation uses its website to explain its grantmaking process,  shares expectations for grantees, and offers a searchable grantee map and database.  A short video invites and informs prospective grant applicants.

Other ways that Arcus lives up to its transparency statement is by opening up its knowledge via  grantee impact stories, reports, and a foundation blog.  Additionally, the foundation discloses more than a decade of its financial information

Enjoy exploring the work that Arcus is doing for social justice and the environment.  Perhaps it will inspire your foundation to become #88!  Does your foundation have glass pockets?  Find out

 --Melissa Moy

Tips from the Tech Sector on How Philanthropy Can Scale Impact
February 15, 2017

(Shannon Farley is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Fast Forward, the accelerator for tech nonprofits. Prior to Fast Forward, she was the founding Executive Director of Spark, the world's largest network of Millennial philanthropists. Earlier in her career, Shannon co-founded The W. Haywood Burns Institute, a MacArthur Award-winning juvenile justice reform organization. Reach her on Twitter: @Shannon_Farley.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Americas Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series. 

Shannon Farley - Fast ForwardThree years ago, my co-founder Kevin Barenblat asked me why there weren’t more Khan Academies and Wikipedias. He wanted to know why more nonprofits weren’t building software to create social change at scale. At the time, my answer was that the nonprofit startup universe didn’t look anything like the tech startup landscape. Tech startups have founder meetups, online training portals, and investors hankering to go all in on the next big tech solution. Meanwhile, tech nonprofits (organizations with software or hardware at the core of their impact model) were weirdos, stuck at the juncture of the tech and nonprofit worlds. Only a few existed and they operated with little support from either sector.

Kevin and I thought this was a missed opportunity. In the last 10 years, the cost of launching a tech startup dropped from millions to thousands of dollars. With cloud-computing, digital networks, and the ubiquity of mobile, the marginal cost for return on impact decreased drastically, making the business case for tech nonprofits very compelling.

“ We’ve found that one of the biggest hindrances to innovation in the nonprofit sector is restricted funding.”

Determined to empower more nonprofits to leverage tech for social impact, Kevin and I took some cues from the tech playbook and launched Fast Forward. Our accelerator program equips tech nonprofits with seed stage funding, training, mentorship, and connections to the entrepreneur and investor community. While we take a sector agnostic approach to our portfolio, we look for organizations building tech solutions for social issues like education, healthcare, human rights, and the environment. We are able to invest in these early stage tech nonprofits thanks to philanthropic funding from philanthropists familiar with tech models like Google.org, BlackRock, Omidyar Network, and AT&T. Our approach and funding model have been strongly influenced by the tech sector in four key ways:

1. Accelerator Programs

Philanthropists have used leadership programs to train emergent social entrepreneurs for decades. Technologists apply a similar model in a program called an accelerator or incubator. We combined the best of both into the Fast Forward program. We call the Fast Forward program an accelerator because it occurs over an accelerated period of time – 13 weeks. Equal parts leadership development and startup boot camp, our curriculum is built around defining and measuring impact, board development, product design, and hiring technical talent. Our cadre of over 100 mentors for our cohort come from both worlds – nonprofit leaders and philanthropists as well as engineers and leading startup founders.

2. General Support Funding

Each tech nonprofit in our cohort is granted $25,000 in unrestricted funding. We’ve found that one of the biggest hindrances to innovation in the nonprofit sector is restricted funding. Could you ever imagine a VC telling a startup they will fund a new version of the app, but not the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) and tech team required to build it? No. Sadly, that’s often the case in philanthropy. Too often, the technology for a nonprofit is thought of in terms of software licenses rather than as a staffed role integral to achieving impact. For a nonprofit to build programs and products that can impact millions, they need the same general support money considered the norm in the for-profit sector. This type of funding enables a nonprofit to hire the required tech team. As tech development becomes an essential component of impact, nonprofits need CTOs to drive this work. Foundations need to double down on general support if we want to see innovation at scale.

3. Growth Funding

Early stage funding is not a short-term partnership in venture capital. VCs typically invest a small amount in the beginning and then increase their investment when a product hits a growth inflection point. Philanthropists, however, tend to fund in terms of projects or annual timeline versus a long-term trajectory. As a result, nonprofits struggle between launch and the point at which they are ripe for mezzanine capital, larger gifts granted by foundations once a nonprofit hits an impact inflection point. The design phase is ongoing, and product launch is just the start of that journey. Donors should recognize philanthropy as the ultimate risk capital and make bets on people and teams building products with the potential to scale.

4. Timing

Philanthropy is slow paced. Tech development and product iterations progress quickly. If it takes six or more months to process a grant, the technology will have advanced beyond the proposal. At Fast Forward, follow-on funding is released as soon as the books are closed on a donation. We don’t wait, because tech doesn’t wait.

So has implementing tech methodologies helped Fast Forward and our cohorts achieve impact? Absolutely. Take our alumnus CareerVillage, a platform that crowdsources career advice from professionals for students in low-income areas. Since the Fast Forward accelerator in 2015, CareerVillage has scaled from reaching 500,000 students to over 1.5 million.

In three years, Fast Forward has accelerated 23 tech nonprofits. These organizations have impacted over 18.4 million lives and raised over $26 million in follow-on funding.

Technology has the power to achieve unprecedented impact in the social sector. Philanthropists have a lot to learn from the tech world.

--Shannon Farley

Glasspockets Find – Can the Silicon Valley Giving Code Be Cracked?
December 21, 2016

The fast and furious pace of Silicon Valley’s tech innovation culture has also given rise to burgeoning new wealth, and yes, new philanthropy.  From 2008 to 2013, total Silicon Valley-based individual giving increased 150%, from $1.9 billion to $4.8 billion, according to a new report. But how do established nonprofit groups make contact with the new philanthropic powerhouses in the neighborhood?

“Just blocks away from the region’s booming tech companies but (local nonprofits) aren’t sure how to attract Silicon Valley’s philanthropy to their causes.”

This question is at the heart of the new report, “The Giving Code: Silicon Valley Nonprofits and Philanthropy,” documenting the rising challenge local Silicon Valley nonprofits face in attracting funding from some of the world’s most generous funders – right in their own backyard.  Despite this wealth of local resources, about 30% of the community-based organizations focused on providing local safety net support – such as homelessness, poverty, troubled public schools – reported higher deficits than the national average.

The authors noted the region is developing an “emerging giving code – an implicit set of strategies and approaches shared by Silicon Valley’s individual, corporate, and institutional philanthropists alike.”  This approach to giving is “widely shared among the region’s new philanthropists” and heavily influenced by technology and business. 

Giving Code Report CoverWith support from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Open Impact gathered data from more than 300 Silicon Valley stakeholders, such as wealthy residents and their advisors, nonprofit executives, corporate and private foundation giving officers, and thought partners across all sectors. 

A key issue raised in the report: Although Silicon Valley philanthropists give funds to local issues and causes, most but most are earmarked for private schools, universities and hospitals rather than for community-based organizations. 

The report stated, “These nonprofits are struggling to keep pace with exponential increases in demand for their services, lack the capacity and the funding to gain real traction, or are themselves in financial distress.  Some have offices just blocks away from the region’s booming tech companies—but they aren’t sure how to attract Silicon Valley’s philanthropy to their causes.  The support they need to have more systemic impact is often right next door, but it is not a door they know how to open.”

Silicon Valley Demographics

Although the Silicon Valley boasts a growing number of millionaires and billionaires, many of its 2.6 million residents are facing financial distress due to the high cost of living. About 29.5% or 800,000 people rely on public or private assistance.  The median sale price of a home in 2015 was $830,361, and in some neighborhoods, homes are two or three times that price.  Since 2011, rents have increased 27%, which is 227% higher than the national average.

Many of Silicon Valley’s community-based organizations operate on a small scale and are doing their best to meet the needs of a growing displaced and vulnerable population.  These organizations have little time, capacity or resources to advocate for systemic change – which appeals to many philanthropists seeking strategic impact.

Barriers to Local Giving

The report identified barriers to local giving:

  • The small size of community-based nonprofits, which have minimal capacity to partner with foundations, corporations and individual donors in the ways philanthropists expect or meet requirements that come with large grants.
  • The cultural divide between the new Silicon Valley donor and traditional nonprofits. Many Silicon Valley donors have business backgrounds and prefer a “return on investment”; they believe they will have more impact in a developing country, where costs and barriers are often low.
  • Knowledge and information gaps – local nonprofits do not know how to make contact with the new donors on the philanthropic scene; and new philanthropists lack awareness of local nonprofits and local needs.
  • Social network and experience gap – community-based nonprofit leaders and new philanthropists “don’t move in the same social circles.”
  • Mindsets and language gap – nonprofit leaders speak a kind of “moral language that emphasizes social responsibility, social justice, equity and the common good” and they use jargon like “empower,” “transformation,” and “theory of change.” Meanwhile, new philanthropists and donors speak in the language of “business, efficiency, and bottom-line profits… they talk about the ‘biggest bang for the buck’ not just in business but in their philanthropy.”

The authors noted that the combination of these gaps – knowledge and information gap, social network and experience – contribute to and reinforce an empathy gap that is felt by both sides.  Therefore, wealthy tech entrepreneurs don’t understand nonprofit leaders, and vice versa, which may lead to judgment and ultimately make it more difficult to “recognize how their work, their passions, their skills, and insights might align for the betterment of their shared local community.”

This report also captures hope amidst struggle.  This hope may be best manifested by the funder of the report, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which was one of the very first Silicon Valley philanthropies to emerge in the region.  The foundation was established in 1964 following the birth of the Hewlett-Packard Company, which was ahead of the curve, i.e. the now familiar trajectory of moving from garage shop tinkering to tech powerhouse. Today, despite being a large, global foundation, the Packard Foundation maintains an active grantmaking program that supports local communities.

The report concluded that potential opportunities to develop a more effective and collaborative Giving Code will “spark the creation of an even more powerful Silicon Valley giving code: one that works on behalf of all the region’s residents.”

--Melissa Moy

The Case for Opening Up Foundations Meetings to the Public
December 6, 2016

(Caroline Fiennes is Director of Giving Evidence, and author of It Ain't What You Give. She co-authored a recent report investigating the role open meetings play in increasing transparency. A version of this post was originally published on Giving Evidence, and has been reposted here with permission.)

Caroline FiennesAll charities and charitable foundations exist to serve the public good. Most of them are subsidized by the public through various tax breaks. Any publicly-listed company must have a meeting at least annually at which the directors are held accountable to the people whose capital they deploy. In over 15 years in this "industry," we’ve only encountered two charities/foundations in the UK which have meetings at which the public – or the intended beneficiaries – can know what goes on. The 800-year-old fund, City Bridge Trust in London, lets anybody observe its decision-making meetings, and Global Giving UK has an annual general meeting (AGM) at which anybody can ask anything. Why don’t more?

It’s hard to be accountable to people, or to hear from people, if they’re not in the room. So we wondered how many charities and foundations have public meetings.

Giving Evidence simply telephoned the 20 largest charities and foundations in each of the UK and the US and asked whether they ever have any meetings which are open to the public, and whether the public can ask questions. Of the 82 organizations we asked, only two have any meetings in public. None allows the public to ask questions.

Open-meetings-coverThis is about accountability and transparency to the people who provide subsidy and to the people the charities and foundations exist to serve.

Suppose that a nonprofit is treated poorly by a grantmaking organization. How can you tell the management of that funder of your experience? Or suppose that the foundation’s strategy could be strengthened by knowledge that you have about a particular population group or region? How can you offer your expertise? Or suppose that the grantees that a foundation is supporting are not providing the services they are supposed to be providing? How can you provide the foundation with your beneficiary feedback? For most foundations, you can’t. This seems to us not good enough.

Hence it’s not the norm elsewhere. For instance, all UK local authorities have their decision-making meetings in public, as does the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence which decides what treatments can be funded from public money.

What’s to hide? One foundation representative perhaps gave the game away by saying outright: “We are accountable to ourselves, not [to] the public. They do not fund us.” Given the tax subsidy, that just isn’t true.

Our purpose here is not to moan or cast blame, but to raise the issue and suggest some ways that charities and foundations can be more accountable and transparent to those who fund them. We are not suggesting that every single charitable entity be required to hold them; most of the 180,000 registered charities in the UK and a million in the US have zero staff. Rather, we suggest requiring organizations with budgets over a certain threshold to hold such events – that threshold might be £1m or $1m, and it might rise over time.

--Caroline Fiennes

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

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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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