Transparency Talk

Category: "WASH Funders" (4 posts)

Make Success Open Source, and Bring on the Competition!
October 29, 2013

(Eric Stowe is the founder and director of Splash, an international nonprofit working on smart solutions to the water crisis in developing countries.)

Stowe-100Greater transparency and open source sharing could accelerate the pace of social sector change, but few organizations are able to take this thinking forward. I recently wrote a piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review wherein I suggested that successful organizations in the social sector could finally start to see real traction and systems change if, and when, we open up our internal business strategies to competitors.

Help Entrepreneurs Use Proven Models

The belief behind this is that no one organization, or even a handful, can solve the massive problems we are fighting against. If we open-sourced our work and allowed some of the brilliant entrepreneurs out there to take our respective work further by enabling them to start at step 20, instead of step 1, it would ultimately advance our causes for the better.

No single group has effectively taken proven solutions to global scale to eradicate the very problems they started out to conquer.

If the end goal is true scale toward a solution, not an organization’s scale toward perpetuity, then we need to get a fraction of the growing pool of amazing social innovators away from focusing on the newest unproven solutions—continually building new starting lines toward untested finish lines.

Instead, encourage the sector as a whole to make success open source and scale what works. Why? Because no single group has effectively taken proven solutions to global scale to eradicate the very problem(s) they started out to conquer. I believe this trend will continue unless we methodically and systematically promote theft of our proven and successful models.

Lest it be seen simply as NGO naiveté, I am actually a fan of the market side of the equation. My argument ultimately advocates for more solid competition in the sector, not less. If someone can best us at our game (which they most assuredly can), and force us to either step it up or be put out of business (which they absolutely might), that is a net gain.

Use Risk Capital to Make Success Open Source

How do we take this further, from dialogue to action?

In funding terms, when we collectively talk about “scaling impact,” it usually means “scaling an organization’s footprint.” To funders, I say that lone organizations in any sector simply don’t have, nor have they ever had, the resources to pull it off. Funders should no longer bear the notion that single implementers should carry the burden alone; nor should funders accept organizations that say they can.

In my conversations with successful implementing organizations, most have stated they would be willing to promote imitation of their models by competent third parties. But funding it is incredibly tricky, if not outright impossible, in a field where most grants go the traditional route of project-by-project funding—which leaves little or no room in the budget to strategically document our respective paths to success and, more importantly, promote its imitation by separate organizations.

It is terribly exciting when we think of finally scaling our solutions rather than continually locking them down and walling them off.

If willing organizations could marry their openness to this concept with donors willing to bundle a bit of risk capital in their larger grants, it would open up the space to try this out and catalyze second-mover advantage, rather than hinder it.

Invest in Imitation and Move Toward Real Scale

But what happens if the imitation of a successful model is weak? The donors who will fund global solutions at scale can sniff out the difference between a weak approximation of the gold standard and the real thing. This should mitigate risk for donors at every level within the funding spectrum and ensure that the overall drag from anemic imposters doesn’t result in a net decrease in efficiency, reach, or quality. It will certainly take time to standardize and evaluate the growth of imitators—with all sorts of speed bumps along the way. Sadly, time is on our side, since we aren’t currently solving any singular problem on our own.

From an implementer’s perspective, this is scary ground to cover, because it has the potential to put our brand, our reputation, and our hard-won success at risk. Yet it is terribly exciting when we think of finally scaling our solutions rather than continually locking them down and walling them off.

Aqua_logo_smallFor my part, it is easy to preach this indefinitely without ever acting on it. To supplant that, in the coming years I will try to push my own organization, Splash, to invest up to 5% of our annual funding to nurture second-mover advantage. This will include rigorously documenting and standardizing our strategies, as well as bringing “competitors” into our office to learn our work from front to back—with the intention that we will start to see real growth outside my own organization's abilities and reach. I believe that committing 5% toward nurturing imitation will go much further toward real scale than isolating that same amount to our own program growth ever could.

If we get throttled and crushed in the process by a group that is quicker, smarter, and sharper than us—so be it. To them I say, “Bring on the competition!”

-- Eric Stowe

Enabling More Effective Giving by UK Foundations
July 24, 2013

(Loren Treisman, PhD, serves as Trust Executive for the Indigo Trust in London. A version of this post originally appeared on the Indigo Trust’s blog on July 1st, 2013.)

Treisman-100Last month, The Indigo Trust hosted a working lunch which brought together data experts and civil society representatives to explore how we could encourage UK Foundations to publish their data in an open format in order to make grant giving more effective.

We believe that being transparent in itself is the right thing to do, but the reasons for encouraging openness go far beyond this. In summary, openness makes grantmaking better.

We believe that being transparent in itself is the right thing to do, but the reasons for encouraging openness go far beyond this. In summary, openness makes grantmaking better. We believe that opening up grant data will enable more effective collaboration amongst funders and between civil society and funders, allow for more effective strategic planning which will ensure that money gets to where it’s needed the most, enable grantmakers to assess their impact and demonstrate this to the public and enable analysis of interventions across a whole sector such as health or higher education.

A great example of how open data can lead to better understanding of a sector is demonstrated here, where Water, Sanitation and Hygiene funders released their data to enable more effective collaboration and programmatic design across the sector globally. DFID’s development tracker is another excellent example of the power of open data and enables users to trace aid flows globally.

It’s exciting to see a movement toward such openness globally, with interventions such as the Open Government Partnership. The UK has also taken a lead in this movement, with DFID publishing all its data to an IATI standard and being ranked first in terms of Aid transparency by Publish What You Fund. The UK has also taken a lead in developing the G8 Open Data Charter. Now it’s time for Foundations to play their part.

We have set ourselves a goal to ensure that within five years, 80% of grants made by UK charities, foundations & other grantmakers are reported as open data to agreed standards and 50% by number/volume.

This should enable grantmakers in the UK to have a clear understanding of who is funding what, where and at what level, and also enable more strategic philanthropy and collaboration and improve transparency for the public and authorities.

Watch this space for further details on how we intend to move forward with this programme.

The following people attended the working lunch and we’d like to thank them for their crucial insights and contributions:

Simon Marshall, Big Lottery Funding
Cathy Pharoah, Cass Business School
Owen Barder, Centre for Global Development
Beth Breeze, Centre for Philanthropy – Kent University
Adam Pickering, Charities Aid Foundation
Joni Hillman, Development Initiatives
Mary Glanville, Institute for Philanthropy
Carol Mack, Association of Charitable Foundations
Tom Steinberg, mySociety
David Kane, NCVO– National Council for Voluntary Organisations
Charlotte Ravenscroft, NCVO – National Council for Voluntary Organisations
Dan Corry, New Philanthropy Capital
Ed Anderton, Nominet Trust
Martin Tisne, Omidyar Network
Chris Taggart, Open Corporates
Nigel Shadbolt, Open Data Institute
Richard Stirling, Open Data Institute
Rufus Pollock, Open Knowledge Foundation
Tim Davies, Practical Participation
Mark Brough, Publish What You Fund
David Hall-Matthews, Publish What You Fund
Dorothea Hodge, Aequitas Consulting

INDIGO TRUST REPRESENTATIVES
Fran Perrin, Founder and Director, Indigo Trust
William Perrin, Trustee, Indigo Trust
Loren Treisman, Executive, Indigo Trust
Richard Crellin, Researcher, Indigo Trust/SFCT

If you’re a Foundation, open data expert or civil society group and you’re interested in getting involved in this initiative, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

--Loren Treisman

Editor’s Note: The Indigo Trust is part of The Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts (SFCT). SFCT is the operating office of 18 grantmaking trusts established by three generations of the Sainsbury family. David Sainsbury, founder of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation has been profiled in our Eye on the Giving Pledge and you can read his profile here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Jeff Falkenstein

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

Glasspockets Find: Inside the Gates Podcast Series
July 17, 2012

Bill and melinda gates fdnThe Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently began a podcast series called “Inside the Gates Foundation.”  The podcast series is an effort to communicate strategy to grantees, as well as to provide regular insights into the inner workings of the foundation.  In our search for good examples of transparency in the private foundation world, we wanted to point this out as a way for large institutional funders to use digital media to humanize their work by helping those on the outside get to know those on the inside.

In the first episode of the series, Chris Elias, president of the Global Development program at Gates (and former CEO of foundation grantee PATH), discusses the intricacies of strategy development at the foundation. The podcast also contains a segment with Shelly Thakral, Program Officer in the foundation’s India office, discussing her work on the Ananya Initiative, a program to ensure that the people of Bihar have access to healthcare, water and sanitation.

A regular feature of the series is a Q&A with Mercy Karanja, Senior Program Officer, also known as “Auntie Agony.” Mercy answers questions commonly asked by Gates grantees and potential grantees, such as “How does Gates Foundation decide what projects to fund?”

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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