Transparency Talk

Category: "Tips & Tricks" (25 posts)

The Next Generation of Nonprofit Data Standards
May 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard

Description

History

BRIDGE

A unique identifier for every nonprofit organization in the world.

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

Philanthropy Classification System

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

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

GuideStar Profile Standard

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

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

eGrant/hGrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Jacob Harold and Brad Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Working more collaboratively with grantees.

2) Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

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

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

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

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


1)  Working more collaboratively with grantees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2)  Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, technology can capture such stopgaps.

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

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

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

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

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

--Adriana Jimenez

An Interactive Timeline to Mark Our 75th Birthday? Piece of Cake
March 23, 2016

(Sally Crowley is the communications director for The John R. Oishei Foundation.)

Sally Crowley Head shotOur 75th anniversary had been looming over us here at The John R. Oishei Foundation for about a year. We knew it was coming, and had brainstormed ways to mark it memorably and cost-effectively. It presented us with an excellent opportunity to build more awareness for our Foundation and its long history of supporting the community.

By mid-2015, we had developed a year-long communications plan to create an ongoing “buzz” about turning 75 in 2016. The plan focused on “75 Years of Giving” and included some “usual suspects” such as a kick-off reception, banners, signage, etc.

Probably the most interesting element of our anniversary plan is the interactive timeline that we created for our website’s homepage. We wanted to compile interesting facts to help the media write about us and to arm our board and staff members with key talking points.

We also wanted to acknowledge and honor the people who helped build the Foundation over time. And, we wanted to be “cutting edge” with our tactics to help enhance our image as a leader in digital communications in our region. Rather than starting from scratch, we searched for an existing timeline “widget” that could be integrated into our site somewhat easily.

We found one used by TIME Magazine to tell the life story of Nelson Mandela. We figured, “hey, if it’s good enough for TIME Magazine, it’s probably good enough for us.”

“TimelineJS” is an open-source tool offered by Northwestern University’s KnightLab that allows the “average Joe” (or “Jo” in this case) to create visually rich, interactive timelines. In theory, beginners (like me) can generate a timeline using nothing more than Google Sheets.

In order to use the tool, we had to have a Google account (which we did.) Our IT vendor got us started by placing KnightLab’s Google Sheets template into our Google Drive and setting up a folder for use as an image repository. Once these were in place, all we needed to do was type in dates, headlines and copy for each timeline entry. It was as easy as filling out an Excel spreadsheet. We then uploaded corresponding images to the repository. Happily, this was just a click-and-drag motion. We added the link from each photo into the matching record on the spreadsheet.

To be very frank, the process was a little more difficult and time consuming than I thought it would be. I needed our IT vendor to set things up for me – that was beyond my technical capabilities. Then, they also needed to “take the generated Javascript code provided on the Knightlab website, and arrange the code nicely in our website.” They, in fact, had to help me write that last sentence describing exactly what they did at the end. It seemed like magic to me. I told them, “I have completed the Google Sheet” and two days later, the timeline was up and functioning.

The most time-consuming part was gathering key milestones from our Foundation’s 75-year history. We scoured microfilm at the library. We rifled through boxes of old memorabilia, pulling out relevant newspaper clippings and scanning them -- being careful not to handle them too much for fear of their complete disintegration. We went through our electronic files to pull snippets from media releases, photos of key happenings, etc. The result, SO FAR, is over 100 timeline entries, and the rescue of significant artifacts of our Foundation’s past from the dustbin of history.

One of the coolest characteristics of the timeline is that it is dynamic. I can keep adding things as I have time. And, we can get input from the community. For example, we promoted the timeline on social media, asking folks to try it out and to let us know if we missed anything important. (I knew we’d missed something, since I have not been at the Foundation for 75 years and am, unfortunately, not omnipotent.) Sure enough, I heard back from a staff member -- I forgot the promotion of a colleague. So, I found a photo, uploaded it into Google Drive, went into the Google spreadsheet and added the date and headline. In 5 minutes, the entry was live.

Overall, I’d say the effort was very worthwhile. Feedback has been extremely positive. And, I have to admit: it’s better than I could have imaged.

Take a look. Let us know your thoughts on it and/or share your experiences with anniversary communications and/or interactive timelines!

--Sally Crowley

Transparency Chat: CEP On Sharing What Matters
March 2, 2016

CEP_Ellie-ButeauEllie Buteau, Ph.D., is the vice president of research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), which received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. Transparency Talk is featuring grantees in the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, Foundation Center’s director of transparency, and Ms. Buteau discussed the findings of CEP's new report, "Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency."

Janet Camarena:  I'm going to start with what jumped out at me as surprising. The report lists time and inconsistencies across staff members as the most common barriers to greater foundation transparency.  Only 6% responded to your survey that a lack of commitment to transparency was a barrier and a full 24% responded that there was nothing specific that limited their foundation's transparency. Could this be because those surveyed are already predisposed to pushing the effectiveness envelope? Can you talk a little bit about the survey sample and how representative it might be? 

Ellie Buteau:  Yes, definitely. Response bias is always a top-of-mind question when we conduct a survey. The main bias we wondered about for this study was whether or not foundations that are already working on, and care about, transparency were more likely to respond. Unfortunately, we have no way of reliably measuring that. We did have data about a few other variables that were important to compare, including assets, giving, geographic location, etc. The main difference we saw was that foundations that have used one of CEP’s assessments (such as our Grantee Perception Report) in the past were more likely to respond to the survey. This is something we find in most of our survey samples. It doesn’t mean that foundations that haven’t used our assessments aren’t responding, but they are doing so at a lower rate. It could indicate, though, that foundations interested in gathering feedback on their performance were more likely to respond. We have more information about what we tested for response bias on page 45 of the report. 

JC:  I found it a little troubling that only 45% of CEOs of independent foundations view the general public as a relevant stakeholder group for their transparency efforts, yet the premise of philanthropy is that it is dedicated to serving the public good.  Did you also find this surprising? And any thoughts on the disconnect there?  

CEP_Foundation-Transparency_coverEB:  I did not find that surprising, and I’m not sure our data indicates that there is a disconnect between how foundations are thinking about certain aspects of transparency and serving the public good. If foundations are focused on being open with the nonprofits they fund and the nonprofits that may want funding from them in the future, that does seem like a pretty direct connection to serving the public good. After all, those are the organizations through which foundations are able to serve the public.

I think sometimes conversations about transparency suggest foundations should make sure they are sharing information with anyone and everyone. But that doesn’t seem like the most effective or efficient use of foundation resources. If people want to know what foundations are up to, most of the foundations of the size included in our study have websites or publicly available annual reports. Where I see real opportunity for foundations to do more is in sharing information about what does and doesn’t work in addressing the tough challenges they’re working to address. While that information itself may not be of interest to the general public, it can be applied in ways that benefit the general public.

JC:  Since the report points out that the philanthropy field is weak when it comes to sharing lessons learned and assessments of foundation performance, and since it also correlates stronger grantee-grantmaker relationships among foundations who have a tendency to be more transparent, will you be advocating that those who use your Grantee Perception Reports and other survey products share them?    Why or why not?

EB:  It’s up to foundations that use our Grantee Perception Report to decide whether to share their results publicly. Many, in fact, do, and almost all at least share a summary of what they learned. You can find on our website a list of those foundations that have made their GPRs public (scroll down on this page). I think it’s great when foundations are open in this way. But I don’t think that a foundation publicly sharing its GPR results is necessarily indicative of it doing more to respond to feedback or having strong relationships with its grantees.

JC:  Of the websites you examined, only 5% shared any information about lessons learned when things didn't go as planned.  Often this is because grantmakers fear harming the reputation of grantees or casting their work in a negative light.  Can you talk about how those grantmakers that were opening up this side of the work tackled that issue.

EB:  In the report, we share some examples of foundations being open about when things didn’t pan out as hoped. Those foundations do not name names of specific grantee organizations or tie results back to any individual organization. They seemed to share their lessons in a more general way, but still communicated enough specificity that others could learn from their experiences. I think their examples show that it’s possible to strike this balance.


JC:
 One of the struggles with the field and transparency is, of course, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, once you start looking under the hood of foundation websites, patterns of emerging and best practices often surface.  Can you point to one or two transparency examples you uncovered that you wish others in the field would emulate?

EB:  Here is where we had a finding that did surprise me. I thought that perhaps the more information foundations shared on their websites, the more transparent they’d be seen to be by grantees. It turned out that was not borne out in the data. I think this is really important to consider: that the amount of information shared isn’t directly tied to perceptions of transparency. In my own experience, that makes sense. Sometimes, even when I know that a foundation has shared information about what it’s learned, I’ve had difficulty figuring out where to find that on a foundation’s website because there is so much other information on the site. I think what I’d suggest is that a focus be on how their websites can most effectively be used as a tool for sharing information that matters.  

 JC:  The last time CEP issued a report on transparency, it led to changes in the kinds of questions you include in your Grantee Perception Survey, which now includes questions specific to assessing perceptions about foundation transparency.  How will what you learned from this report impact your own work in the future? 

EB:  This research has given us a better understanding of how foundation CEOs, themselves, are thinking about transparency. It turns out there is a lot of agreement about what transparency means, so this research really validates the importance of the questions we added to our grantee survey a few years back. Transparency, especially about the substance of foundations’ work, is considered crucial by both grantees and foundation CEOs. Foundations and grantees are more aligned than they may realize when it comes to the information they think is important for foundations to share. Now it’s about foundations implementing — and really doing it well. Our research suggests they are doing well in some areas but not in others. We will build off of the findings in this study as we continue our research on other related topics. For example, we recently fielded a survey on evaluation practices at foundations, in partnership with the Center for Evaluation Innovation, and are seeing findings in that study that further build upon what we published in this report.

Innovation Trends: The Influence of Transparency Across Multiple Sectors
February 25, 2016

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

A thoughtful and recently released report from Weber Shandwick –“Innovation Trends: Always-On Transparency” – investigates how transparency and openness can be implemented into organizations across corporate, social and public sectors.

Leader voices include Howard Schulz, Starbucks Chairman and CEO; Paul Polman, Unilever CEO; Jean Case, Case Foundation CEO; and Brad Smith, Foundation Center CEO.

AO_social_TC-1 and 3
Rather than view transparency and openness as an administrative burden, leaders among corporations, foundations, nonprofits and government share the realization that working in a more open way can accelerate effectiveness in unexpected ways. 

One organization is embracing failure and encouraging others to be open about what is not working.  As part of its “Be Fearless Campaign,” Case Foundation shares lessons learned on its website.  The foundation encourages organizations to “fail forward” and work through challenges by solving the right problem, being a collaborator and leading through uncertainty, and remaining humble to acknowledge learning opportunities and feedback. 

Transparency and openness can accelerate effectiveness in unexpected ways.

For “a clear theory of change” and transparency across nonprofits and foundations, Case advised that organizations must disclose legal status and financial accountability as well as evaluate effectiveness using rigorous social and environmental metrics.

At Foundation Center, Smith suggests foundations can take three critical actions to foster openness and partnership: innovate together, listen more and share early and often.  Foundations have the unique opportunity as funders and experts to “set the tone for collaboration among their grantees” and incorporate their perspectives into program design, measurement and evaluation.

The report summarizes what transparency looks like across sectors:

  • Corporate: Lead and engage audiences to create shared value
  • Social: Live and foster a culture of shared accountability and impact
  • Public: Empower an informed and active populace

The report also summarizes common roadblocks to transparency across sectors.   According to the report, a lack of understanding of where to begin and how to move forward are the most common barriers to transparency.

To help address these barriers, the report offers an insightful five-step roadmap that provides concrete steps, or “a starting point for organizations across sectors to align their practices with best-in-class transparency efforts.”

Roadmap highlights:

  1. Integrate – Embed transparency and accountability throughout the organizational culture
  2. Listen – Create feedback loops to invite internal and external stakeholder perspectives
  3. Measure – Align indicators and analytics processes to continuously track outcomes and impact
  4. Learn – Surface examples of challenges and successes to document what works and fix what doesn’t
  5. Lead – Curate a rich multi-channel dialogue about progress and impact to share the transparency journey with key stakeholders.

Another helpful feature is a template that details how to visualize and act on concrete next steps.  The graph points to four key areas: research and reporting; thought leadership; storytelling and campaigns; and events and convenings.

For example, the firm advises how leaders should act in the area of thought leadership. 

  • With employees: “Empower employees to contribute to thought leadership with their own perspectives and impact examples.”
  • With consumers: “Position thought leadership as the authentic voice of the organization, leveraging diverse spokespeople.”
  • With shareholders and boards: “Leverage board member and shareholder expertise and perspectives to inform thought leadership and help co-create op-eds and think pieces.”

The leader lessons and transparency plan provide a unique framework and may help remove some of the guess work and uncertainty out of what organizations should explore and where change can occur.

How can your organization “fail forward” and cultivate a culture of transparency, openness and dialogue?  Where can you start today?

--Melissa Moy

A Case for Better (Self-Imposed) Transparency Standards for Foundations
December 29, 2015

(Rick Cohen is the National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and the editor of NPQ's Cohen Report. Prior to joining NPQ, Rick was executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and vice president of the Enterprise Foundation. A version of this blog appeared in NPQ.)

Editor's Note: As the year draws to a close, it is natural to remember and reflect on those whom we have lost.  Last month, philanthropy lost one of its strongest voices for change with the passing of Rick Cohen. A prolific writer, Cohen was known for encouraging philanthropy to extend its reach to marginalized and underserved communities. Seeing the weaknesses of a closed door culture, Cohen also frequently wrote and spoke about the need for greater foundation transparency and the potential for improving philanthropic practice by increasing stakeholder participation and influence. In honor of Cohen, Transparency Talk is closing out 2015 by revisiting a two-part post Cohen authored for Transparency Talk in 2012 on the case for enhanced foundation transparency, and his recommendations for improved transparency standards.

Photo_74078_landscape_650x433Rather than simply arguing for more or less transparency, a better strategy is to consider the public purposes that might be served by better, proactive standards of disclosure. I suggest the following: 

  1. A better story: Spruill’s charge to the sector is still the ultimate reason, to explain what organized philanthropy is and does, but it is so much more credible when it emerges from the analysis of independent analysts and the public. The glossy annual reports whose cost of writing, design, and printing exceeds many nonprofits’ budgets are not persuasive. They look more and more like corporate advertisements. If philanthropy has a strong story to tell, it should be one that can be told by independent observers examining the data.
  2. Civic engagement: Foundations themselves are relatively unified, regardless of their political leanings, in favor of increased civic engagement, not just in the public arena of government, but in the engagement with communities, in the overall pursuit of community and societal betterment. If foundations are part of a sectoral commitment for advancing the public good, one means is to make more foundation information available, to make citizens and policy makers better “consumers” of foundation products, just as foundations want to help citizens be better consumers and participants in the processes of government and business. 
  3. Foundations in public policy: Increasingly, foundations have been moving into the public policy arena, not simply through their grantmaking, but their direct participation. Foundations partner with government at various levels, notably a recent spate of foundation engagements with the federal government in programs such as the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service and the “Race to the Top” in the Department of Education. In some cities, notably Detroit, where local government has taken a turn toward the dysfunctional, foundations are developing and running programs that in some ways are taking the place of the public sector. As foundations become direct players in the public arena, not simply supporting nonprofits to do so, foundations should be increasing the transparency the public needs about their operations.
  4. Increased accountability: At this time, there is a parallel debate going on about increasing the transparency of government data. Virginia Senator Mark Warner has introduced the DATA Act which would create standardized formats for reporting and publication of government spending data. The Act, as the Sunlight Foundation commented, “could help eliminate much government waste, fraud, and abuse, and make spending oversight much easier.” Better, expanded, standardized data makes oversight easier, it’s that logical.  But so much of the data reported in 990s is not particularly standardized and, when it comes to data on foundation investments, virtually uninterpretable.  That isn’t a reason to drop the data requirement.  It is to improve the reporting and formatting of data so that the public—and oversight agencies—can figure out what it contains. 
  5. Abuse of 501(c) confidentiality:  The nation faces an explosion of organizations—and money—seeking the 501(c) confidentiality for the only purpose of keeping the identities of the players pulling the levers of the political system secret.  Television commentator Dylan Ratigan suggests that “our political system has become an auction in which the highest bidder wins,” but the identities of the bidders are increasingly under wraps.  In other arenas, public agencies such as municipal governments and state universities are creating affiliated nonprofits and foundations with a purpose of reducing or removing a slice of their operations from public scrutiny and oversight.  If this nation is going to pursue greater freedom of information, we will, as Senator Warner suggests, need to have better mechanisms with which to “follow the money.” ( We have to better follow foundation moneys, too. 

Let’s face it that there is no discernible Congressional appetite for playing with the laws and regulations facing foundations right now.  Since foundations are overseen by the Internal Revenue Service—and in some measure by a number of states that have provided at least a semblance of staffing and support for charity oversight functions usually in their AG offices, though state attention only sporadically ever nears private foundations—not much is going to happen. 

If there is more money for the Internal Revenue Service, it is logically going to go to expanding its capacity for dealing with its new responsibilities under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, not for oversight and enforcement activities regarding charities.  In general, there’s no money to be made by the IRS for chasing nonprofits and foundations, and like a sports agent looking for a contract, the IRS wants to be shown the money that it can generate through stepped up enforcement. 

Moreover, the IRS is not generally among the more popular of federal agencies.  The outcry against Maine Governor Paul LePage’s denunciation of the IRS as new Gestapo caused him to apologize to Jews, but not to IRS agents who might have been offended, and few in Congress stepped to the plate to defend the IRS.  Ways and Means Committee hearings into IRS operations have been held,  prompted in part by the complaints of Tea Party groups believing that their applications for 501(c)(4) social welfare status were being subjected to politically motivated IRS reviews. 

--Rick Cohen

The Need - and Appetite for - Enhanced Foundation Transparency
December 28, 2015

(The late Rick Cohen was the National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and the editor of NPQ's Cohen Report. Prior to joining NPQ, Rick was executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and vice president of the Enterprise Foundation. A version of this 2012 blog appeared in NPQ.)

Editor's Note: As the year draws to a close, it is natural to remember and reflect on those whom we have lost.  Last month, philanthropy lost one of its strongest voices for change with the passing of Rick Cohen. A prolific writer, Cohen was known for encouraging philanthropy to extend its reach to marginalized and underserved communities. Seeing the weaknesses of a closed door culture, Cohen also frequently wrote and spoke about the need for greater foundation transparency and the potential for improving philanthropic practice by increasing stakeholder participation and influence. In honor of Cohen, Transparency Talk is closing out 2015 by revisiting a two-part post Cohen authored for Transparency Talk in 2012 on the case for enhanced foundation transparency, and his recommendations for improved transparency standards.

Photo_74078_landscape_650x433It is nearly impossible to think about transparency in the world of philanthropy without putting philanthropy into a societal context. Philanthropy is not a world unto itself, but one that is engaged in extensive interactions with other sectors of the economy and society, particularly important in an era of increasingly crippled institutions and practices of democracy in the U.S.

The political context concerns the flows of secret moneys into the electoral process, obviously an activity prohibited to private and public foundations, but one that increasingly shapes the perspectives of the American public toward nonprofits—and, if they knew what foundations were beyond the television portrayals of philanthropoids as white glove socialites—foundations too. Secret money is the lifeblood of American political campaigns, perhaps brought to a level of self-parody when comedian Stephen Colbert points out that Karl Rove is giving anonymous political money to help keep political giving anonymous. The calls for breaking through the wall of secrecy in political spending are increasing, notably in the District and Appeals Court decisions in Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission

And so it is with foundations and the calls philanthropic leaders face for increased transparency. As Vikki Spruill, the new leader of the Council on Foundations, noted in what appears to be one of her first official communications to the Council’s membership, institutional philanthropy faces “its most critical moment…right now. At a time when our world faces a storm of converging challenges with dwindling resources, philanthropy’s positive impact remains a mystery to far too many…[W]e must seize the imperative to help society better understand philanthropy’s impact and contributions.”   

It is a frequent refrain from foundation leaders, the admonition that foundations have to do a better job at telling their story. But that isn’t transparency. At best, it is managed transparency, telling the story that foundations want public policy decision-makers, the general public, and their specific stakeholders to hear and understand. Transparency, however, is not managed through public relations firms. Can you imagine if the Federal Elections Commission were only to make available the information it thought would tell the story of its “positive impact?” For as miserable and partisanly hamstrung as the FEC is today, the story telling wouldn’t be worth the physical effort of a computer click on “download.”

Transparency empowers the users, the recipients of information, to hold powerful agencies of government, well-heeled donors to political campaigns, and institutions without direct levers of official accountability to the public somewhat more accountable. When you stage manage transparency, it simply isn’t. Of course that doesn’t mean simply opening the doors of foundations and inviting the public to rifle through file cabinets, but it does mean trying to find ways of making essential information more accessible and reviewable by outsiders. 

How Public Should Private Philanthropy Be?

In the foundation world, the debate du jour is how public private philanthropy is, that is, to what extent the tax exempt dollars of private foundations should be considered in some ways open to public scrutiny. It is an argument that ultimately boxes everyone into a corner. The philanthropic impulse occurs with a donor willing to put some of his or her excess capital to work for what is hoped to contribute to the public good. But in this nation, that occurs with the benefit of the charitable deduction, applicable to the small scale donations of this nation’s generous working people and to the much larger donations of affluent people who create foundations. 

OK, so the funds aren’t quite public dollars—aggrieved constituents cannot ask foundations for administrative redress, they cannot vote foundation trustees out of office, and in all but an incredibility limited number of cases do they even find themselves with standing to litigate a foundation’s grant decisions. And they aren’t quite fully private dollars, else they would be taxed and their managers wouldn’t be filing 990PFs, following IRC rules for executive compensation and self-dealing, or fretting whether President Obama’s annual call for capping itemized deductions including the charitable deduction will depress charitable giving and philanthropic grantmaking.

The Dichotomous Nature of Foundations

Even in their quasi-public identities, foundations have feet planted in two worlds or two cultures, one the private world of a donor, the other a public world of resources afforded a special status by the American public and its elected representatives. It shows in foundations’ postures toward transparency. 

In recent history, the advent of the 990 is one example. Commissions on the future shape and substance of philanthropy have all included encomiums of one sort or another in favor of increased transparency, but statements and actions can sometimes differ. Prior to enactment of the Taxpayer Bill, many foundation leaders were opposed to the liberalization of public access to 990s, and when the law was passed, foundation leaders attempted to find ways of divorcing 990PFs from the public access the law required to nonprofits’ 990s and then worked to delay the applicability of the law to foundations.    

In practice, a similar dichotomous identity occurs, best exemplified by the foundations’ crisis response to the California legislation that would have required a handful of large foundations to simply report on their grantmaking to nonprofits headed by people of color, not make more grants for communities of color, and report on their own staff and board demographics. Foundations fought the bill, known popularly as AB624, tooth and nail, though many of the same foundations are strong supporters of the racial disclosures required of banks in the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, have supported nonprofits demanding similar disclosures of utility companies in front of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and fought strenuously against California’s Proposition 54 initiative which would have generally banned the state from collecting race and ethnicity data. 

Another dimension of foundations’ split thinking on transparency is in their relationship with “stakeholders.” This is more than just a fancied up description of grant recipients whose opinions on how well they are treated by foundation program officers are now solicited de rigeur. Stakeholders are different than insiders such as donors, board members, and staff. The Denver Foundation describes “external stakeholders” as “people who are impacted by your work as clients/constituents, community partners, and others.” Lauren Tulp of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation suggested grantees, community residents, and external experts as potential stakeholders. In some foundation examples, stakeholders have been recruited to participate in foundation grantmaking processes, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and some of the health conversion foundations.

This is now common parlance in the foundation world. Stakeholders with a “vested interest” in the foundation’s work merit inclusion in efforts to assess what the foundation is and should be delivering for various communities with what impact. The concept of stakeholders is common in foundation circles—except when it comes to discussions of transparency, when the circle for inclusion becomes distinctly narrower. Foundations have to come to grips with whether the notion of stakeholders is real or simply a rhetorical device meant to convey a transitory sense of inclusivity.

--Rick Cohen

 

Grantmaker Transparency: The Dawn of a New Age in Philanthropy
November 16, 2015

(Aaron Lester is demand generation manager at Fluxx.  This blog post first ran in PhilanTopic.)

Aaron_lester_for_PhilanTopic"People tend to be private about love and money, and in philanthropy, it's both," says Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

It's only natural that, traditionally, philanthropy has unfolded behind closed doors. On the one hand, the freedom to make personal funding choices gives grantmakers the ability to stay above the fray, uninfluenced by both market and political pressures. On the other hand, it doesn't allow the public to understand, learn from, or think critically about philanthropy.

"Giving and charitable acts are such private, emotional transactions," says Suki O'Kane, director of administration at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. "How do you come from such strong traditions of privacy and intimacy, and bring that out into the open?"

Where do things stand?

Indeed ­– how do we as a sector make the switch from a traditionally opaque business model to an enterprise that embraces more transparency? It all comes down to the following questions: What am I funding? Why am I funding what I'm funding? Is my funding making an impact? And perhaps most importantly, how do we improve?

How do we as a (philanthropic) sector make the switch from a traditionally opaque business model to an enterprise that embraces more transparency?

There is good news: transparency in philanthropy is happening, there's no denying it. In fact, it's well under way, with large foundations like Gates, Ford, and Getty, sharing their endeavors with the public, surveying their grantees (and sharing the results), and creating searchable grants databases. Still, transparency can be difficult.

As a grantmaker, you know that sometimes your investments fail, sometimes grantees don't perform the way you expected, and sometimes, despite your best intentions, you can't pull off a new initiative or program. "Philanthropy isn't venture capital," says Christine Maulhardt, director of communications and public affairs at the Blue Shield of California Foundation. "Big losses aren't typical in our sector. We want everything to work out perfectly."

Regardless of the perceived risks, transparency in philanthropy is here to stay. And yes, it can be scary and hard to figure out how to get started. But the rewards for embracing transparency far outweigh the risk of turning your back on it.

Time for Transparency ImageWhere are we headed?

 

As we look to the (not so distant) future, we're particularly excited about the potential for grantmakers and grantees alike to have the ability to track incoming evaluation data, to understand in real time their organization's short- and long-term impact, and to be able to respond to that data and take action to ensure continued progress.

In the past, there was no common language used to talk about impact evaluation. Now, for the first time, technology can help create that common language. It is possible for foundations to not only track their own progress toward a goal, but also to compare results with other groups working toward the same end. The intelligence learned creates a greater potential for real needle-moving impact.

Becoming Transparent: Best Practices

If your foundation is just beginning the journey toward greater transparency, Camarena has suggestions for working in league with your peers. First, there's no need to be revolutionary. "Rather than creating something custom for your foundation, really look across the field to some standard practices," she says. "When it comes to creating the application process, look at grants management systems that exist already, and look at taxonomy so that you're not inventing a language that won't make sense field-wide." Her key takeaways:

  • Look to other foundations for standard practices on transparency; don't reinvent the wheel
  • Take advantage of modern grants management systems to help guide your application process and to create a common taxonomy.
  • Join a regional association of grantmakers so you can network with your peers and share ideas, successes, failures, and best practices. If you're using a grantmaking solution, join the community of users.
  • Participate in field-wide movements like the Who Has Glasspockets initiative and Foundation Center's Get on the Map campaign.

As daunting as it may be to open your foundation's doors to the public, transparency has far more benefits than drawbacks. Not only will you be moving in step with a growing movement, you'll also be in great company. It's time we started to share the why and how of our giving. All of us stand to benefit.

--Aaron Lester

Transparency Tips: Foundation By-Laws, In-Laws, and Outlaws
May 20, 2015

(Mary Gregory is vice president and director of program at Pacific Foundation Services, a San Francisco Bay Area-based company that provides customized and strategic management services to private foundations.)

Mary-Gregory-150As a philanthropic advisor who has a portfolio of six family foundations, I have become a great fan of foundation by-laws, and in particular, of well written by-laws.  So I was particularly pleased to discover that by-laws are included on Glasspockets, since they tend to be either misunderstood or only considered at the founding stage and then forgotten. 

So, what are by-laws and why do they matter?  They are the basic operating instructions for any nonprofit organization including all foundations.  By-laws define an organization and how it does its business: who may serve on the board (for instance, are in-laws eligible or only descendants?), how many people sit on the board and their terms of service, what officers need to be elected and how often and what their roles are.  By-laws can tell you when and how members of the board can be removed (“outlaws”?). They specify how decisions are made, and they even inform trustees about how they can change the by-laws in the future.

Recently the president of one of our client foundations said to me, “We want to change our by-laws to adapt to new leadership by the next generation. What should we include?”

But, true to the old saying, “You’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen ONE foundation,” there can be many varieties of by-laws.  I work for a small company that manages 23 family foundations, and recently the president of one of our client foundations said to me, “We want to change our by-laws to adapt to new leadership by the next generation. What should we include?” I was able to send them straight to Glasspockets to view the sample by-laws that are available through the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” feature.  I suggested that foundations that have smaller asset sizes might be the best place to look, since those would likely be family foundations and not independent foundations, and thus more relevant to the vision these trustees have for their own small family foundation.  And I knew that the information that the trustees would find on Glasspockets had been freely placed there by foundations willing to share their experience and their ideas (including three of the six foundations with which I work directly).

Whether you are creating a first set of by-laws for a new foundation, or you are re-visiting by-laws to reflect current circumstances, looking at examples may help you think about aspects of stewarding a foundation that you haven’t considered before:

  • Should trustees be compensated?
  • What standing committees should there be?
  • Can decisions be made without a meeting, and if so, how?
  • What are the duties of each officer?
  • What happens in the future if a successive generation wants to partition the foundation?
  • When and where should the annual meeting be held?
True to the old saying, “You’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen ONE foundation,” there can be many varieties of by-laws.

Some by-laws are more detailed than others, so although you can learn a great deal from examples that relate to other foundations, it is always a good idea to have a lawyer look at your by-laws in order to make sure that they are complete.  Once you have your by-laws (and it is a good idea to read them every year to make sure that they still seem relevant to the current trustees), consider adding them to the growing knowledge base on Glasspockets.  Although by-laws may communicate some of the priorities of a family, they are not personal documents, and your example may help other foundations in the future. 

Foundations often think that they need to be highly original, but I would urge you to use your imagination for developing new ways to collaborate to solve social problems, not for creating new phrasing of by-laws. Use Glasspockets as the great resource it is, and contribute your information to Glasspockets to make it even more useful.

--Mary Gregory

Overcoming Website Angst: Keeping it Simple, Easy- to-Manage and Cost Effective
April 15, 2015

(Sally Crowley is the communications director for The John R. Oishei Foundation.) 

Sally CrowleyDid you know that less than 10% of all charitable foundations h ave a website? It seems unbelievable in this day and age, but research conducted by Glasspockets finds that it’s true.

When you think about it, though, it’s actually understandable. Building a dynamic, professional website can be a daunting task. Maintaining it with up-to-date content can be even more daunting. Plus, some price tags will just give you sticker shock… and maybe a bit of angst.

So was the case with ours here at The John R. Oishei Foundation.

When I first started working with the Foundation in 2006, its website was built in HTML and had about three pages, basically listing contact information and directions on how to apply for funding. This was a typical foundation website at the time.

We set out to create a more contemporary, content-rich site… a site where we could feature the work of our grantees, share information and disseminate key research findings.

In 2007, driven by the goals outlined in our strategic plan, we set out to create a more contemporary, content-rich site… a site where we could feature the work of our grantees, share information and disseminate key research findings. We worked with a website design firm that used a proprietary Content Management System (CMS), which, at the time, was a standard way of building websites. The process was extremely labor intensive for us and involved a somewhat substantial investment.

By now, most people know the meaning of a CMS, but just in case, here’s a quick definition:

CMS is a website software that allows content contributors to publish from a central, online web interface without knowing HTML, Javascript or any other complicated computer language. And among CMS programs, you can choose “open source” or “proprietary.”

Open source software is developed by a global community and is typically available at no charge. It is developed and upgraded in a collaborative way, relying on input from thousands of people from around the world. Here’s an example.

Proprietary CMS is developed, owned, and promoted by a private company and is updated/improved at the company's discretion. Here’s an example.

Our website is an extremely valuable tool that helps us communicate with our varied audiences. As our ideas of how and what to share continue to grow, a website that keeps up with our pace has become that much more essential.

Many proprietary CMS website developers offer a “handcrafted CMS” which they claim is better than their competitors’ products. In the past, this was the primary method used to build websites. The open source alternative was not yet mature, so vendors who wrote their own software provided a unique product with relative reliability for that time.

By 2012, the site we had built at Oishei using proprietary CMS was outdated. We wanted to update the site and be “cutting edge,” yet fiscally prudent. Luckily, by then, things had changed in the world of web development. Reliable open source website platforms had become commonplace. Today, I would say WordPress, which the Foundation Center uses for its web hosting services, is probably the most well-known, followed by Joomla! and Drupal. (Our site uses Joomla!) Some open-source platforms have even become so easy-to-use that sites can be created by non-technical staffers with no actual coding, a little bit of know-how and a fair amount of determination.

I am huge proponent of open source websites. Here's why:

  • I want to own my organization's site and I want to be in charge. Using an open source CMS vendor means that I own my website, and that the code and content are portable. There's no proprietary code that can't be shared with me. The website hosting is also under my control. If I become "disenchanted" with my CMS vendor, s/he can't walk off with my site. I can hire another vendor to maintain it for us. We also asked ourselves, "What would happen if our vendor goes out of business"? These days, that could happen to any company, no matter what its size. With open source, another vendor could take over our site with little disruption. 
  • I refuse to pay an arm and a leg for substantial site changes and upgrades. The Oishei Foundation recently changed its logo, core branding elements and moved its offices. This meant many changes to our site to match our new colors, replace the logo wherever it appeared throughout the site, etc. This was too much for me to handle on my own, so our web group handled it for us. Because they use Joomla!, the cost was minimal. (Note that when it comes to spending on communication efforts, we are "uber" frugal -- we'd rather use the funds to support our community.)
  • We want to stay up-to-date. In the ever-changing digital world, new design standards develop frequently; new website features pop up all the time. In addition, there's the human element. People just get bored with what they have over time. So, even though our audience might not be tired of the Buffalo skyline photo featured on our home page, our staff and board might be. Plus, who doesn't love a new bell or whistle on their site from time to time? Open source CMS vendors have a large team of active core developers, and many more third party extension developers as well. They are much more likely to offer new technologies and features faster.

Our website is an extremely valuable tool that helps us communicate with our varied audiences. As our ideas of how and what to share continue to grow, a website that keeps up with our pace has become that much more essential. Open source platforms are always improving, with developers constantly and collectively experimenting with new ideas. This means that as we become more open about the work we do, our technology is right there with us, helping us to communicate even more effectively.

What has your foundation’s experience been with proprietary vs. open source? 

--Sally Crowley

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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