Transparency Talk

Category: "Transparency Tips" (141 posts)

Upcoming Webinar - Going Public: Overcoming the Foundation Transparency Challenge
February 7, 2018

Learn how greater transparency practices can improve foundation effectiveness. Foundation Center is teaming up with United Philanthropy Forum to offer a webinar on February 22nd that will share strategies and tools for creating greater openness at your foundation.

Foundation Center’s Janet Camarena, Director of Transparency Initiatives, will explain how greater transparency sets the stage for more effective foundation practices and grantmaking. She will highlight powerful and free tools that grantmakers can use to assess and improve transparency practices. Attendees will also explore how to design a foundation website with transparency and openness in mind. Learn from helpful peer examples that illuminate best practices on the road to greater transparency and accountability in philanthropy.

Don't miss out on this helpful webinar! February 22, 2-3pm EST

Register Now

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is #OpenForGood
January 31, 2018

Hope Lyons is the director of program management at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Ari Klickstein is the communications associate/digital specialist at RBF. 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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Hope Lyons
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Ari Klickstein

As a private foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund advances a just, peaceful, and sustainable world through grantmaking and related activities. We believe that discerning and communicating the impact of our grantmaking and other programmatic contributions is essential to fulfilling the Fund’s mission, as is a commitment to stewardship, transparency, and accountability. Philanthropy exists to serve the public good. By opening up what we are learning, we believe that we are honoring the public’s trust in our activities as a private foundation.

As part of our commitment to serving the public good, we are proud to be among the first foundations to join the new #OpenForGood campaign by sharing published reports on our grantmaking through Foundation Center’s open repository, IssueLab, and its new special collection of evaluations Find Results, and continue to make them available on our own website. These reports and impact assessments are materials authored by third party assessment teams, and sometimes by our own program leadership, in addition to the published research papers and studies by grantees already on IssueLab.

We feel strongly that we have a responsibility to our grantees, trustees, partners, and the wider public to periodically evaluate our grantmaking, to use the findings to inform our strategy and practice, and to be transparent about what we are learning. In terms of our sector, this knowledge can go a long way in advancing fields of practice by identifying effective approaches. The Fund has a long history of sharing our findings with the public, stretching as far back as 1961, when the results of the Fund’s Special Studies Project were published as the bestselling volume Prospect for America. The book featured expert analysis on key issues of the era including international relations, economic and societal challenges, and democratic practices, topics which remain central to our grantmaking work.

We view our grantmaking as an investment in the public good, and place a great deal of importance on accountability. Through surveys conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy in 2016, our grantees and prospective grantees told us that they wanted to hear more about what we have learned, as well as what the Fund has tried but was recognized as less successful in its past grantmaking. Regular assessments by CEP and third-party issue-area experts help keep us accountable and identify blind-spots in our strategies. While our evaluations have long been posted online, and we have reorganized our website to make the materials easier to find, we have also made a commitment to have additional reflections on what we’re learning going forward and to more proactively share these reports. We are grateful to Foundation Center for creating and maintaining IssueLab as a sharing platform and learning environment hub for the public, practitioners, and peers alike to locate resources and benefit from the research that the philanthropic sector undertakes.

--Hope Lyons and Ari Klickstein

Through a Glass a Little Less Darkly: Looking Back, Looking Forward 2017-2018
January 17, 2018

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

Janet Camarena PhotoIn the spirit of Glasspockets, before we completely erase the past and close the books on 2017, we wanted to identify the highlights of the year from a transparency perspective. Here are last year’s moments and trends that made me think that transparency and openness are not just catching on, but starting to lead to a more permanent culture of transparency, which may signal continued progress in 2018:

E_SDG_Logo_UN Emblem-02#10 - SDGs Catch On: The 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. 2017 saw foundations increasingly aligning their funding with the SDGs, and some even using it as a shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress. 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, and some started taking advantage of this in 2017 to help explain the reach of their work. The GHR Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Tableau Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation each offer inspiring examples of how the SDGs can be used to increase philanthropic transparency, and ultimately understanding of the public good generated from their activities.

Amanda Flores-Witte Photo# 9 - Pain Points See the Light of Day: I noticed a greater willingness among grantmakers to publish reports and blogs not just to enumerate the successes, or business as usual activities, but to also candidly open up about the struggles and pain points along the way. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but some particularly inspired me:

  • A great example comes to us from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s storytelling series on Medium about its adventures in public arts funding. Given the project challenges, Mandy Flores-Witte shared on Transparency Talk that a trusted colleague advised them against opening up about the challenges they encountered, but they saw what could be gained by telling the story from various stakeholder perspectives, and as a result, ended up also producing a great example of why philanthropy needs more storytellers. (Yes, I know I’m cheating a bit here because this is from a 2016 series, but it’s so good that I’m including it anyway!)
  • In terms of formal publications, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation published a very detailed report analyzing the impact of a large-scale, multi-year and multi-sector initiative designed to end and prevent chronic homelessness. Among the report’s findings was the fact that homelessness actually increased during the grant period. At a less learning-focused foundation, this might have been enough to quash its publication.
  • Hanh Cao Yu photoThe California Endowment’s (TCE) chief learning officer, Hanh Cao Yu, lived up to her title by enumerating TCE’s mistakes in a Transparency Talk blog about the pain points the foundation encountered on the road to a health policy systems change.

We hope to see this practice grow in 2018, and that when funders do issue such knowledge that they take the time to share it on an open repository like IssueLab, as part of our #OpenForGood campaign. This practice is a significant one because sharing this knowledge can save other practitioners and funders from repeating costly experimentation and prevents us all from working in the dark.

#8 - Foundation Transparency Movement Builds Globally: The need for greater foundation transparency is not unique to the United States. In fact, the majority of countries outside the United States lack the regulatory structure we have that requires foundation disclosures that we take for granted here, such as transparency about leadership, compensation, grantmaking activities, or even just to verify their very existence. In many regions, this has created urgency around voluntary transparency movements, and some picked up steam by creating their own transparency assessments. In 2017, Australia, Brazil, and New Zealand each launched movements designed to motivate institutional philanthropists to greater transparency. In the case of Australia, the foundations are approaching this from a storytelling lens. And national philanthropic associations in both Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment, developed self-assessments for their own members. Given the dearth of global philanthropic data, we predict more global associations will be emphasizing the importance of voluntary transparency in 2018.

Mac-1024x512-03#7 - Transparency Comes to Competition Philanthropy: While competitions are nothing new in philanthropy, transparency about the competition can often fall short. This was not the case with the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change, as they designed the competition with transparency in mind. The goal was to award $100 million to an organization aiming to make “real and measurable progress on a critical problem of our time.” In the end, after several rounds, the winner was announced at the end of 2017 as a joint effort between Sesame Workshop West and the International Rescue Committee to team up to serve the growing population of child refugees in the Syrian response region.

But an additional real winner in this example was also transparency. As is often the case with competition or even ordinary grant programs, the demand for worthy ideas far outstrips the supply of grant dollars. The potential solutions in the proposals are wasted since they usually do not see the light of day, and those agencies must then source new prospects, re-package those requests to other funders, or give up. In response to these realities, the MacArthur Foundation partnered with Foundation Center to bring greater visibility to those ideas, with three goals in mind: drive investment in proposals that merit it; facilitate collaboration and learning between organizations working on similar problems; and inspire funders and organizations working for change to do things differently. As a result, there is now an open database of solutions ready for others to learn from and support, the 100&Change Solutions Bank.

Relationships Matter Practices-1#6 - Transparency Recognized as Key to Effective Grantmaking: A common concern we often hear is that funders don’t want to just “do transparency for transparency’s sake”—they want to do it because it leads to better and more effective grantmaking. 2017 was notable in that several industry groups took up the charge and leveraged member and client experience to demonstrate how transparency leads to more effective philanthropy, which should help foundations justify spending time on transparency efforts in 2018. The National Center for Family Philanthropy featured webinars and a blog series to reinforce the idea that transparency is appropriate for family foundations too. In April, we were happy to see that transparency topped GuideStar’s list of practices philanthropy should adopt to overcome common challenges. And in November, the Center for Effective Philanthropy published Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success. And guess what? The report found that transparency is key to healthy grantee/grantmaker relationships and particularly well-suited to addressing the power imbalance inherent in the relationship. Now that the ROI question has been put to rest, we expect to see more foundations prioritizing transparency in 2018.

Reedyjenniferford-cropped#5 - No Moat Philanthropy: Listing transparency among a list of cultural values or stating that one’s institution is aiming to create a culture of openness is a good place to begin, but Jen Ford Reedy’s excellent blog series about the Bush Foundation’s efforts is a great reminder to the field not to start and stop with elegantly written values statements. The blog series shares detailed steps and strategies foundation leaders can use to move their foundation toward greater openness. Ford Reedy’s blog series also deserves attention because it offers the field helpful advice on how working more openly can serve to help the field become more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

Phil goals#4 - GrantAdvisor Breaks Through Insular Foundation Culture: Industries as diverse as restaurants, travel, retail, health, and even nonprofits have had the blessing and curse of receiving unfiltered user feedback via online review sites for many years now, so it’s hard to believe that until 2017 this was not the case for philanthropy. With the launch of GrantAdvisor.org in April, now foundations can view, for better or worse, what their stakeholders really think. Anyone can register to give feedback, and once a foundation receives more than five reviews their profile goes live on the site. Given the power dynamic, reviews are anonymous, and foundations are able to post responses. An engaging profile with emoji-symbols invites users to rate foundations on two principal metrics: the length of time it takes to complete a foundation’s application process, and a smiley/frowning face rating assessing what it’s like to work with the particular funder. So far, enough reviews have been submitted to provide 49 foundations with unfiltered feedback. And perhaps more importantly, more than 130 foundations have registered to receive alerts when feedback is posted, so it’s an encouraging sign that the field is listening. As more reviews get published, this will continue to scale in 2018, and it will be interesting to see the kinds of changes foundations make in response.

990-PF graphic#3 - Open Data & Open 990-PFs Set the Stage for Change: Open, machine-readable 990-PFs actually became a reality in 2016, but 2017 represented the first full year of their availability and allowed some interesting experimentation to take place. For the uninitiated, though the IRS 990 and 990-PFs have always been public documents, they weren’t made digitally available as open data until April 2016 when the IRS started making digitally available all electronically filed 990 and 990-PF documents. Since the data is now not only open, but digital and machine-readable, this means that anyone from journalists to researchers to activists can aggregate this data and make comparisons, correlations, and judgments about philanthropy at lightning speed, all without any input from foundations. Throughout 2017, agencies like Foundation Center, GuideStar, and academic research institutions that use data from the 990s to analyze the field experimented with the usability of the data for new analytic tools. Here at Foundation Center, we prototyped investment transparency and financial benchmarking tools, while others also experimented with using the new treasure trove of open data in innovative ways. For example, a start-up company called Foundation Financial Research is compiling 990-PF benchmarking data on foundation endowment investment performance. Though there are technical glitches to be worked out, it is likely that over time the data will become more reliable and comprehensive leading to more such comparative tools. A recorded webinar by Digital Impact reviewed the challenges and opportunities of this new age of open philanthropic data, and a webinar and blog series on Transparency Talk outlines specific considerations for private foundations.

Paradise Papers graphic
Source: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

#2 - Paradise Leaked: I should preface this one by saying that Glasspockets remains committed to advocating for voluntary transparency and the inclusion of this particular item should not be taken to mean that we are shifting to advocating forced entry! The “Paradise Papers” refers to a set of 13.4 million financial documents, originating from the Bermuda-based law firm Appleby, detailing investments held in offshore accounts often in paradise-like locales. Leaked to German reporters from Süddeutsche Zeitung, who then shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the documents name more than 120,000 people and companies, including many prominent individuals ranging from the likes of Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II, to celebrities like Madonna and Bono, and to government officials like U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. The “Paradise Papers” also include offshore financial holdings of philanthropists like Open Society Foundations founder, George Soros and Simons Foundation founder, Jim Simons. You can read more here about that. But in terms of our work at Glasspockets, the headline to this story is not that high-net worth individuals hold large sums of money in offshore bank accounts—that is really old news. But coming on the heels of the Equifax leaks, which exposed vulnerabilities in one of the nation’s largest credit data reporting agencies and could impact upwards of 143 million American households, the subsequent Paradise Paper leaks further demonstrated that there is no longer any impenetrable fortress for our financial data. Couple these vulnerabilities with the interest in the activities of high-net worth individuals, and you have a perfect storm of motive and opportunity.

So, the take away here is not to live under the false sense of security that data systems can be reinforced and your offshore accounts are safe from prying eyes. Rather, assume that at some point, this will all be disclosed, so why not be proactive and explain long term philanthropic aims? There are valid reasons why donors establish funds and foundations outside of the United States, such as funding projects in countries where it doesn’t have diplomatic relations or for long-range planning so payout rates don’t force rash decisions. If these challenges, visions and strategies are not explained, others can fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. Many foundations have a history section of their website; the new era of leaks suggests that it may be time to add a future directions section. 2018 will likely bring more massive data breaches and leaks—are you ready?

Open Democracy Infographic1_tw#1 - Foundations Take a Stand: Traditionally, foundations are more comfortable writing checks to support others to take the microphone rather than using their institutional voice to speak out. 2017 saw a departure from this practice with many foundations finding their voice as a result of the current political climate. Funder groups banded together to issue open letters, CEOs blogged and foundation staff tweeted to reinforce commitment to issues or population groups that were in the political line of fire. Here at Foundation Center, we continued to improve our open, nonpartisan web portal that explores philanthropy’s role in U.S. democracy. Given the response of foundations in 2017, I’m betting we will see support for movement building of all Communications-network-logo-1-1persuasions grow this year. And speaking of speaking out, given this trend of foundations taking a stand, the Communications Network’s recent conference focused on just this topic and they have crafted some helpful tips on how to navigate institutional communications about politically charged issues of the day.

So, what am I missing?  The drawback of a list like this is that inevitably something that should be included gets left off.  And we want to continue to use this space to highlight emerging trends and excellent examples of transparency at work in philanthropy, so please share any thoughts, self-promotion, or suggestions below.  We have a whole year of blog content ahead of us to fill and welcome audience input.  Happy 2018!

-- Janet Camarena

Getting Practical About Open Licensing
January 11, 2018

Kristy Tsadick is Deputy General Counsel and Heath Wickline is a Communications Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where they created an Open Licensing Toolkit for the foundation’s staff and its grantees in 2015. 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.

Kristy_Tsadick photo
Kristy Tsadick
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Heath Wickline

Some of the biggest barriers to open licensing—an alternative to traditional copyright that encourages sharing of intellectual property with few or no restrictions—are practical ones. What rights are authors really giving others when they openly license their work? How do authors decide on the right Creative Commons license for their work? And having decided to openly license what they’ve created, how do authors actually let others know about their decision?

The Hewlett Foundation, where we both work, has a long history of supporting openness and transparency, and when Larry Kramer joined the foundation as president in 2012, he decided to make a renewal of that commitment a key part of his tenure. In 2015, that renewed commitment resulted in a decision to extend our support for open licensing to require it on works created using grant funds, underlining our belief that if grants are made to support the public good then the knowledge they generate should also be considered a public good.

To successfully implement this idea, we knew we would have to offer some concrete guidance to our program staff and grantees on both what we were asking of them and how to do it. We also knew we wanted to create a policy that would offer our grantees flexibility to comply with it in ways that made sense for their organizations. Both ideas are embodied in the Open Licensing Toolkit for Staff that we developed.

The kit is structured to help the foundation’s program staff decide to which grants the new rule applies, introduce open licensing to grantees, and help clarify what an open license on written works will mean for them. It uses FAQs, a “decision tree,” template emails and other documents to walk through the process. There is even a guide to marking works with a Creative Commons license to make clear what information is needed along with the copyright notice. And while the kit was designed with Hewlett Foundation staff in mind, we also wanted it to be useful for grantees and others interested in expanding their understanding and use of open licenses—so, of course, the toolkit itself carries a broad Creative Commons license.

Hewlett_toolkitIn thinking about which of our grants would be in scope for open licensing, we realized early on that general operating support is incompatible with the policy because those funds are given “with no strings attached.” Beyond even this broad exemption, we wanted to allow plenty of space for grantees to select licenses or request an exemption where they felt open licenses could do harm to them financially. It’s been gratifying to see how grantees have recognized the spirit of the new policy, and how infrequently they’ve requested exemptions—so much so that we stopped tracking those requests about a year after instituting the new policy. In one area where we did often see requests for exemptions—in grants to performing arts organizations, where the “work” is often a performance and selling tickets to it or recordings of it central to a grantee’s business model—we recently decided to change our standard grant agreements to recognize the need for this exemption.

Our goal in adopting the new policy was to show others what open licensing could mean for them—the way it can help spread knowledge and increase the impact of philanthropic resources. In that, we’ve been extremely successful, as other organizations have built on our toolkit, and our policy, to encourage open licensing in their own work. The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), for example, based its implementation guide for its own transparency policy on our toolkit, and the U.S. Department of State included a link to it in its Federal Open Licensing Playbook to encourage open licensing across all federal agencies. And because we included a Creative Commons license on the kit to be #OpenForGood, other organizations—including yours—are free to use and build on our work, too.

Hardly anyone would argue against getting more impact for the same dollars or having their ideas adopted and shared by more people. But real-world implementation details get in the way. Our experience with our Open Licensing Toolkit shows that a practical, flexible approach to open licensing helped extend our impact in ways we never could have imagined.

--Kristy Tsadick and Heath Wickline

New IssueLab Infographic Delves into Foundation Evaluation Practices
January 3, 2018

Evaluation_look_1101[1]More than half of funders are sharing evaluation results. How are they doing it, and how can other foundations learn from these lessons?

A detailed IssueLab infographic reveals how foundations are conducting evaluations, what they’re evaluating and whether they publicly shared what they learned. The findings are based on a 2017 Foundation Center survey of U.S. foundations.

In the last five years, 42% of foundations have conducted and/or commissioned an evaluation. Among the types of foundations more likely to do so are larger funders, as well as community foundations, of which 64% reported a commissioned evaluation in the last five years.

Other key findings:

  • 55% of foundations share what they are learning (Are you?)
  • Only 36% of foundations look at what other funders are sharing
  • 28% of foundations evaluate themselves as a whole
  • 51% of foundations evaluate individual grants

Most surprising and disappointing is how few foundations report using the knowledge that is shared by others. In a field that is not known for sharing, it’s likely most foundation staff don’t think the data is out there or searchable and retrievable in a user-friendly way. To solve this problem, IssueLab developed a new IssueLab:Results tool that easily allows anyone to seek and find foundation evaluations. You can now easily learn from your colleagues.

This IssueLab infographic is part of Foundation Center’s ongoing efforts to champion greater foundation transparency.. This year, Foundation Center launched the related #OpenForGood campaign, which encourages foundations to openly share their knowledge and learn from one another. Hint-Hint: adopting open knowledge practices could be an excellent New Year’s resolution for your foundation! How will your foundation be #OpenForGood?

--Melissa Moy

Glasspockets Find: GuideStar’s Good Practices for Foundations Leads with Transparency and Openness
November 15, 2017

Earlier this year, GuideStar released an informative report, "A Guide to Good Practices in Foundation Operations” that offers tips to eliminate foundation inefficiencies and increase open and responsive grantmaking. The report title emphasizes that a one-size-fits-all “best practices” approach is not appropriate given the unique nature of foundations; it also cautions that this can foster a “one-size-fits-one” culture that creates great inefficiencies for grantseeking organizations, and for the sector as a whole.

At Glasspockets, we are happy to see that transparency topped GuideStar’s list of practices philanthropy should adopt to overcome these challenges.

Download the Report.

In addition to transparency, GuideStar’s good foundation practices cover a range of topics including communications, power dynamics, constituency relations, diversity, and due diligence. Specifically, the report recommends the following tips to eliminate inefficiencies and maximize social sector impact:

  1. Be Transparent to the Public
  2. Be Rigorous—But Remain Respectful of Your Applicants
  3. Be Responsive to Your Constituents
  4. Be Proactive about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

“We believe that foundations of all shapes and sizes can apply these practices. We also believe that civic society will be much more efficient, stronger, and more effective if all foundations adopt them,” the report states.

Foundation-good-practices-report coverBe Transparent to the Public

Transparency not only benefits grantseekers and the public, but it also benefits grantmakers. GuideStar shared that grantmakers who are open and transparent are more likely to pursue excellence, and be more responsive to their constituents and public criticism. Another benefit: “The act of transparency can force an organization to be clear about its goals and strategy.” 

GuideStar also highlights how foundations can learn from their peers and develop benchmarks through the Glasspockets’ Transparency Trends tool, which helps foundations compare its transparency practices with others and create a customized report with recommendations.

Be Rigorous—But Remain Respectful of Your Applicants

GuideStar suggests foundations can determine the “health of a grantseeker” by: verifying its eligibility to accept grants; confirming that the nonprofit’s proposal aligns with the grantmaker’s mission; and checking on the grant applicant’s role in the community and the field. However, GuideStar cautions foundations about making unreasonable and overly stringent demands such as requesting redundant information or unnecessary documentation that could potentially impede nonprofits from fulfilling their missions. For example, a foundation could gain information on a grantseeker’s legal status, its impact, and its financial health due to the availability of outside products or check the foundation's current records before requesting that information from the nonprofit.

Be Responsive to Your Constituents

Funders should not overlook the use of staff expertise to inform new directions. For example, staff feedback mechanisms should be in place so that their experience and observations can inform foundation’ strategies and missions. GuideStar encourages funders to use an in-house or third-party survey to gather “staff perceptions of their relationships with managers, whether staffers believe they are empowered to do their jobs, and their perceptions of organizational culture.” GuideStar also states that beneficiary feedback mechanisms represent an under-used but effective means of informing foundation strategy.

Be Proactive about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Funders’ efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion should be internalized and synthesized as a “keystone value for an organization” and not due to “ad hoc efforts or in response to public campaigns.” GuideStar emphasizes that diversity is essential to maximizing a foundation’s impact on social good because it “encourages innovation, energizes organizations, and widens perspectives.” Diversity should be reflected in the staff from the Board of Directors to line staff.

Moving Forward

In light of change and uncertainty in society, GuideStar notes that foundations continue to play an important role in influencing and empowering change in the social sector. With GuideStar’s insightful and practical suggestions to address inefficiencies and implement good practices, foundations have opportunities to create internal changes that can have long-lasting impact inside and outside of foundation walls. What good practices is your foundation currently implementing, and which good practices will you aim for?

--Melissa Moy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain Relievers

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

Pain Point #1:

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

Pain Reliever #1:

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

Pain Point #2:

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

Pain Reliever #2:

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

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

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

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

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

The Anatomy of a Good Grant Description

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

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

Example #1:

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

Brief summary of the grant request from application form:

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

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

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

Example #2:

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

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

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

Example #3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Gretchen Schackel

In the Know: #OpenForGood Staff Pick
November 1, 2017

Gabriela Fitz is director of knowledge management 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 research and 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.

Gabi Fitz photo

As the #OpenForGood campaign builds steam, and we continue to add to our IssueLab Results repository of more than 400 documents containing lessons learned and evaluative data, our team will regularly shine the spotlight on new and noteworthy examples of the knowledge that is available to help us work smarter, together. This current pick comes to us from the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation.


Staff Pick: Native Arts & Cultures Foundation

Progressing Issues of Social Importance Through the Work of Indigenous Artists: A Social Impact Evaluation of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation's Pilot Community Inspiration Program

Download the Report

Quick Summary

NACF Report

Impact measurement is a challenge for all kinds of organizations, and arts and culture organizations in particular often struggle with how to quantify the impact they are making. How does one measure the social impact of an epic spoken word poem, or of a large-scale, temporary art installation, or of performance art? The same is true of measuring the impact of social change efforts--how can these be measured in the short term given the usual pace of change? This report provides a good example of how to overcome both of these struggles.

In 2014, the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation (NACF) launched a new initiative, the Community Inspiration Program (CIP), which is rooted in the understanding that arts and cultures projects have an important role to play in motivating community engagement and supporting social change.

This 2017 report considers the social impacts of the 2014 CIP projects—what effects did they have on communities and on the issues, conversations, and connections that are critical in those communities? Its secondary purpose is to provide the NACF with ideas for how to improve its grantmaking in support of arts for community change.

Field(s) of Practice

  • Arts and Culture
  • Native and Indigenous Communities
  • Social Change
  • Community Engagement

This report opens up knowledge about the pilot phases of a new initiative whose intended impacts, community inspiration and social change, are vital but difficult concepts to operationalize and measure. The evaluation provides valuable insight into how foundations can encourage the inclusion of indigenous perspectives and truths not only in the design of their programs but also in the evaluation of those same programs.

What makes it stand out?

Several key aspects make this report noteworthy. First, this evaluation comprises a unique combination of more traditional methods and data with what the authors call an "aesthetic-appreciative" evaluation lens, which accounts for a set of dimensions associated with aesthetic projects such as "disruption," "stickiness," and "communal meaning," providing a more holistic analysis of the projects. Further, because the evaluation was focused on Native-artist led projects, it relied on the guidance of indigenous research strategies. Intentionality around developing strategies and principles for stakeholder-inclusion make this a noteworthy and useful framework for others, regardless of whether Native communities are the focus of your evaluation.

Key Quote

"Even a multiplicity of evaluation measures may not 'truly' tell the story of social impact if, for evaluators, effects are unobservable (for example, they occur at a point in the future that is beyond the evaluation's timeframe), unpredictable (so that evaluators don't know where to look for impact), or illegible (evaluators cannot understand that they are seeing the effects of a project)."

--Gabriela Fitz

How "Going Public" Improves Evaluations
October 17, 2017

Edward Pauly is director of research and evaluation at The Wallace Foundation. This post is part of the Glasspockets #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new research and 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.

ED_finalAs foundations strive to be #OpenForGood and share key lessons from their grantees' work, a frequent question that arises is how foundations can balance the value of openness with concerns about potential risks.

Concerns about risk are particularly charged when it comes to evaluations. Those concerns include: possible reputational damage to grantees from a critical or less-than-positive evaluation; internal foundation staff disagreements with evaluators about the accomplishments and challenges of grantees they know well; and evaluators’ delays and complicated interpretations.

It therefore may seem counterintuitive to embrace – as The Wallace Foundation has – the idea of making evaluations public and distributing them widely. And one of the key reasons may be surprising: To get better and more useful evaluations.

The Wallace Foundation has found that high-quality evaluations – by which we mean independent, commissioned research that tackles questions that are important to the field – are often a powerful tool for improving policy and practice. We have also found that evaluations are notably improved in quality and utility by being publicly distributed.

Incentives for High Quality

A key reason is that the incentives of a public report for the author are aligned with quality in several ways:

  • Evaluation research teams know that when their reports are public and widely distributed, they will be closely scrutinized and their reputation is on the line. Therefore, they do their highest quality work when it’s public.  In our experience, non-public reports are more likely than public reports to be weak in data use, loose in their analysis, and even a bit sloppy in their writing.  It is also noteworthy that some of the best evaluation teams insist on publishing their reports.
  • Evaluators also recognize that they benefit from the visibility of their public reports because visibility brings them more research opportunities – but only if their work is excellent, accessible and useful.
  • We see evaluators perk up when they focus on the audience their reports will reach. Gathering data and writing for a broad audience of practitioners and policymakers incentivizes evaluators to seek out and carefully consider the concerns of the audience: What information does the audience need in order to judge the value of the project being evaluated? What evidence will the intended audience find useful? How should the evaluation report be written so it will be accessible to the audience?

Making evaluations public is a classic case of a virtuous circle: public scrutiny creates incentives for high quality, accessibility and utility; high quality reports lead to expanded, engaged audiences – and the circle turns again, as large audiences use evaluation lessons to strengthen their own work, and demand more high-quality evaluations. To achieve these benefits, it’s obviously essential for grantmakers to communicate upfront and thoroughly with grantees about the goals of a public evaluation report -- goals of sharing lessons that can benefit the entire field, presented in a way that avoids any hint of punitive or harsh messaging.

“What is it that you don’t know, that if you knew it, would enable you to make important progress in your own work?”

Asking the Right Questions

A key difference between evaluations commissioned for internal use and evaluations designed to produce public reports for a broad audience lies in the questions they ask. Of course, for any evaluation or applied research project, a crucial precursor to success is getting the questions right. In many cases, internally-focused evaluations quite reasonably ask questions about the lessons for the foundation as a grantmaker. Evaluations for a broad audience of practitioners and policymakers, including the grantees themselves, typically ask a broader set of questions, often emphasizing lessons for the field on how an innovative program can be successfully implemented, what outcomes are likely, and what policies are likely to be supportive.

In shaping these efforts at Wallace as part of the overall design of initiatives, we have found that one of the most valuable initial steps is to ask field leaders: What is it that you don’t know, that if you knew it, would enable you to make important progress in your own work? This kind of listening can help a foundation get the questions right for an evaluation whose findings will be valued, and used, by field leaders and practitioners.

Knowledge at Work

For example, school district leaders interested in Wallace-supported “principal pipelines” that could help ensure a reliable supply of effective principals, wanted to know the costs of starting such pipelines and maintaining them over time. The result was a widely-used RAND report that we commissioned, “What It Takes to Operate and Maintain Principal Pipelines: Costs and Other Resources.” RAND found that costs are less than one half of 1% of districts’ expenditures; the report also explained what drives costs, and provided a very practical checklist of the components of a pipeline that readers can customize and adapt to meet their local needs.

Other examples that show how high-quality public evaluations can help grantees and the field include:

Being #OpenForGood does not happen overnight, and managing an evaluation planned for wide public distribution isn’t easy. The challenges start with getting the question right – and then selecting a high-performing evaluation team; allocating adequate resources for the evaluation; connecting the evaluators with grantees and obtaining relevant data; managing the inevitable and unpredictable bumps in the road; reviewing the draft report for accuracy and tone; allowing time for grantees to fact-check it; and preparing with grantees and the research team for the public release. Difficulties, like rocks on a path, crop up in each stage in the journey. Wallace has encountered all of these difficulties, and we don’t always navigate them successfully. (Delays are a persistent issue for us.)

Since we believe that the knowledge we produce is a public good, it follows that the payoff of publishing useful evaluation reports is worth it. Interest from the field is evidenced by 750,000 downloads last year from www.wallacefoundation.org, and a highly engaged public discourse about what works, what doesn’t, why, and how – rather than the silence that often greets many internally-focused evaluations.

--Edward Pauly

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

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

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

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

Salesforce Group photo

Internal Communication

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

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

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

Facebook Screen Shot No CropExternal Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you telling your story?

--Debbie Johnson

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

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

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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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