Transparency Talk

Category: "Web Tools" (47 posts)

The Foundation Transparency Challenge
November 2, 2016

Janet CamarenaI often get asked which foundations are the most transparent, closely followed by the more skeptical line of questioning about whether the field of philanthropy is actually becoming more transparent, or just talking more about it.  When Glasspockets launched six years ago, a little less than 7 percent of foundations had a web presence; today that has grown to a still underwhelming 10 percent.  So, the reality is that transparency remains a challenge for the majority of foundations, but some are making it a priority to open up their work. 

Our new Foundation Transparency Challenge infographic is designed to help foundations tackle the transparency challenge. It provides an at-a-glance overview of how and why foundations are prioritizing transparency, inventories common strengths and pain points across the field, and highlights good examples that can serve as inspiration for others in areas that represent particular challenges to the field. 

Trans challenge_twitter1-01

Using data gathered from the 81 foundations that have taken and shared the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment, we identified transparency trends and then displayed these trends by the benefits to philanthropy, demonstrating the field's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to working more openly.

Transparency Comfort Zone

Despite the uniqueness of each philanthropic institution, looking at the data this way does seem to reveal that the majority of foundations consider a few elements as natural starting points in their journey to transparency.  As we look across the infographic, this foundation transparency comfort zone could be identified by those elements that are shared by almost all participating foundations:

  • Contact Information
  • Mission Statement
  • Grantmaking Priorities
  • Grantmaking Process
  • Key Staff List

Transparency Pain Points

On the flip side, the infographic also reveals the toughest transparency challenges for philanthropy, those elements that are shared by the fewest participating funders:

  • Assessments of Overall Foundation Performance
  • Diversity Data
  • Executive Compensation Process
  • Grantee Feedback
  • Open Licensing Policies
  • Strategic Plans

What’s In It for Me?

Community of Shared LearningOnce we start talking about the pain points, we often get questions about why foundations should share certain elements, so the infographic identifies the primary benefit for each transparency element.  Some elements could fit in multiple categories, but for each element, we tried to identify the primary benefit as a way to assess where there is currently the most attention, and where there is room for improvement. When viewed this way, there are areas of great strength or at least balance between strengths and weaknesses in participating foundations when it comes to opening up elements that build credibility and public trust, and those that serve to strengthen grantee relationship-building.  And the infographic also illustrates that philanthropic transparency is at its weakest when it comes to opening up its knowledge to build a community of shared learning.  For a field like philanthropy that is built not just on good deeds but on the experimentation of good ideas, prioritizing knowledge sharing may well be the area in which philanthropy has the most to gain by improving openness. 

“The reality is that transparency remains a challenge of foundations, but some are making it a priority to open up their work.”

And speaking of shared learning, there is much to be learned from the foundation examples that exist by virtue of participating in the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment process. Our transparency team often receives requests for good examples of how other foundations are sharing information regarding diversity, codes of conduct, or knowledge sharing just to name a few, so based on the most frequently requested samples, the infographic links to actual foundation web pages that can serve as a model to others.

Don’t know what a good Code of Conduct looks like?  No problem, check out the samples we link to from The Commonwealth Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Don’t know how to tackle sharing your foundation’s diversity data?  Don’t reinvent the wheel, check out the good examples we flagged from The California Endowment, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. A total of 19 peer examples, across seven challenging transparency indicators are offered up to help your foundation address common transparency pain points.

Why did we pick these particular examples, you might ask?  Watch this space for a follow-up blog that dives into what makes these good examples in each category.

#GlasspocketsChallenge

And more importantly, do you have good examples to share from your foundation’s transparency efforts? Add your content to our growing Glasspockets community by completing our transparency self-assessment form or by sharing your ideas with us on Twitter @glasspockets with #GlasspocketsChallenge and you might be among those featured next time!

--Janet Camarena

 

The Annual Report is Dead. Long Live the Annual Report!
October 13, 2016

(Neal Myrick is Director of Social Impact at Tableau Software and Director of Tableau Foundation, which encourages the use of facts and analytical reasoning to solve the world’s problems. Neal has served in both private and nonprofit senior leadership positions at intersection of information technology and social change.)

Neal Myrick photoMaybe it is the headlines from the campaign trail, but I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about philanthropy, impact, and accountability.

As the head of Tableau Foundation, I’m responsible for ensuring that we embody the values our employees have entrusted us to uphold. My team and I are accountable to the thousands of people who make up Tableau, and to the tens of thousands of Tableau customers and partners who are passionate about using data to drive change.

The question I’ve been wrestling with is not if we should tell our story, but how. How can we share what’s been accomplished in a way that is both timely and true without taking credit for someone else’s work? Moreover, how can we do all of this while still being a good steward of the company’s resources?

Annual_Report_Open_ThumbnailThat’s why I’m pleased to share the Tableau Foundation’s brand new Living Annual Report. We’ve ditched the traditional, glossy printed annual report for a live report so anyone can get near real-time information on what we’re doing around the globe.

The Living Annual Report gives our stakeholders better, more timely information while reducing the investments of staff time and resources of a traditional printed report. It pulls information from the same data sources we use every day. The report updates weekly, and most pages have interactive capabilities that allow anyone to explore the data.

The Report doesn’t just take look back at what we’ve done, either. It is also helping us chart the course ahead.

Earlier this year we adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as a framework for setting our priorities and measuring progress. While the 17 Goals themselves are expansive, the 230 underlying indicators help us organize our activities and approach partnerships with a clear sense of what we’re trying to achieve.

SDG breakdown

Page 3 of the report shows the latest breakdown of Tableau Foundation grants by goal.

We recognize that we’re capacity builders, and that the issues we’re trying to effect require much larger collaborative efforts. After all, the problems we’re trying to solve are multidimensional, so why should the solutions be different?

Almost immediately, real-time transparency around priorities led to more relevant and constructive conversations with potential partners.  We are finding more opportunities to deploy our two most valuable resources - our products and our people – to help people around the globe use facts and data to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.  

And somewhere in putting the report together, it became about something bigger. We started to see the Report as a model that shows foundations and nonprofits that they don’t have to spend substantial resources printing reports that are outdated the moment they are printed.

The purpose of a foundation or nonprofit’s annual report is to persuade decision-makers – funders, board members, partners, lawmakers – to take action. But if the information in the report is outdated, how can those people make choices that lead to real impact?

“We’ve ditched the traditional, glossy printed annual report for a live report with near real-time information on what we’re doing around the globe.”

This is not to say we should sacrifice storytelling. On the contrary, interactive charts and graphs sitting seamlessly alongside photos, videos, testimonials, and one-click calls-to-action can create a holistic engagement experience far beyond what a static printout might do. 

My real hope is that our report will inspire others to ditch the glossy paper and to get on board with the real purpose of the report – sharing actionable, up-to-date information with those in a position to take action. Some already have. Heron Foundation has been reporting on their portfolio through data visualizations for several years now. The Foundation Center’s Glasspockets transparency assessment tools and Foundation Maps are bringing sector-wide insights to grantmaking. And after seeing our Living Annual Report, others tell me they’re not far behind.

Imagine talking to a Development Director, for example, and being able to explore an interactive, near-real-time annual report to help you understand how your investment in the organization is having impact?  Not “as-of last May” when a traditional annual report would have been printed, but as-of last week? As a funder, we can and should lead by example.

Which brings me back around to the idea of impact and accountability. To do our work well, we have to share timely information. This means sharing what we are doing, showing how our resources are being spent, and being responsible for the progress… or possibly lack thereof.

This level of accountability can be uncomfortable sometimes, but is necessary to establish more constructive partnerships based on trust, set ourselves up to learn from the data, and ultimately do more impactful work.

As the work grows and changes, this report will change with it. And we’re continually making improvements and all suggestions are welcome – feel free to email us anytime at foundation@tableau.com with any feedback.   

--Neal Myrick

California Foundation Data—Now Available At-a-Glance
September 27, 2016

Did you know…

  • California is home to 7,755 foundations that collectively give more than $7 billion?
  • In the last 10 years, giving by California foundations has increased by 90% and assets have increased by 70%?
  • Education, Health, and Environment & Animal Welfare are the top funding priorities favored by California foundations?
  • Statewide, across all regions, Children & Youth is the top population group supported by California foundations?

CA blog image 200x200v2-01The longer I work at Foundation Center, the more I realize how difficult it is for those of us in the social sector to understand the ecosystems in which we work.  Grantmakers and nonprofits evolve their areas of focus, public reporting of current activities takes longer than it should, and keeping up with the latest information takes time.  As a result, all of us, from those with innovative solutions but little experience with fundraising, to those with years of experience who are convinced we are always working with the usual suspects, all at some point realize we could use some current, authoritative data to inform strategies and decisions.

Not surprisingly, the most frequent questions we get from grantseekers and grantmakers alike relate to getting a lay of the overall philanthropic landscape and responding to queries about who are the top funders in a particular field or region, or where a particular foundation ranks in the big scheme of things. 

Thanks to support from The James Irvine Foundation, researching these kinds of key statistics for California institutional philanthropy just got a lot easier with the launch of Foundation Center’s new California Foundation Stats dashboard, which is a free, online tool that allows anyone to access hundreds of charts and tables on the size, scope, and giving priorities of California foundations, as well as giving to California-based recipients by those outside California, lists of top funders by region and issue area, and also includes access to nearly 900 research reports about California-based initiatives, sortable by regional focus. Data about trends in funding specific support strategies and population groups is also included.

California Foundation Stats provides statewide data, as well as regional data tables for nine different regions: Bay Area, Central Coast, Central Valley, Inland Empire, Los Angeles, North Coast, Orange County, Sierra Range, and South Coast and Border.

An exciting aspect of these data tables is that as Foundation Center receives updated grants information from grantmakers as part of the “Get on the Map” campaign effort or as a result of newly available 990 forms, the dashboard will be a living data set that changes to reflect up-to-date information about giving priorities and giving to the state or regions.

Everyone from grantmakers, grantseekers, to academics, advocates and journalists will find the dashboard to be a useful tool to support their work, and one which they will want to bookmark to come back to as the data changes.  The highlighted facts shared at the top of the blog are just an example of the data you can uncover by taking some time with this new tool.  

--Janet Camarena

Glasspockets Find: Exponent Philanthropy Video Series Encourages Transparency
July 14, 2016

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

Embracing failure has the potential to maximize effective and impact in philanthropy.  This trend of self-reflection and sharing lessons learned among foundation and funder leaders is upping the ante on the need for transparency and opening up the work of grantmakers.

Exponent Philanthropy – a philanthropic membership organization representing approximately 2,300 foundations and funders – won a Fund for Shared Insight grant last year to produce a video series that shares wisdom and best practices in philanthropy. The videos will delve into how foundations can be more open about how they work, why and how they make their decisions, and the lessons they have learned – both good and bad.

This year, Explonent Philanthropy released a total of nine Philanthropy Lessons videos that highlight tips and best practices for funders, grantees and philanthropy work. 

Among the videos, the importance of transparency and the tricky topic of evaluation are explored.  How can funders and grantees communicate honestly with one another, and with the communities they serve?  How can impact and effectiveness be measured?  What criteria should be used? 

Several funders acknowledged the challenge in evaluating the effectiveness of grantees and the measures used.  One funder likened the overzealousness of foundation reports to “overjudginess,” where foundation expectations of grantees may be unfair.  Another funder said it’s OK for a grantee to fall short of their program objectives; instead, he expected grantees to be honest and explain the encountered challenges and barriers.

Miguel Milanes, vice president of Allegany Franciscan Ministries (also profiled on Glasspockets), described the importance of flexibility and listening, truly listening to grantees.

Milanes’ organization had given a $2,000 grant to help preserve Mexican American culture through traditional dance and requested a written report on the project outcomes.  Unable to speak or write in English, two grantee representatives gave a face-to-face report to Milanes and shared two binders full of photos and receipts documenting the project.

“It was more important than any report I’ve ever received,” Milanes said of the unorthodox grant report.  “That was a seminal moment.  It changed the way we did our grantmaking and our reporting.  We accept other types of reports and documents on the grants we make.”

Other foundation leaders raised questions about the how and why of evaluation.  Would pre-and post-test survey results really show the impact of helping a human trafficking survivor?  Is the requirement of sending an international fax report of every attendance list for an African HIV women’s program excessive and costly?

Exponent Philanthropy’s innovative project also invites website visitors and funders to share their lessons and personal stories on the website and also via social media using #MyPhilLesson. 

One website visitor, Lisa Tessarowicz of The CALM Foundation, shared how being “uncomfortable” and not having the answers actually helps foundations to think creatively, take more risks to “experiment more and think critically” about how money is given away.

We look forward to seeing more stories from funders, grantees and community at large.  It will interesting to see what grantmaking leaders glean from their experiences with grantees, and how they will apply these important lessons to improve philanthropy and elevate transparency.

--Melissa Moy

Blind Spots No More: Introducing Transparency Trends
April 13, 2016

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

Janet Camarena

There are some lessons you learn that you never forget. "Mirror, signal, blind spot," is thankfully one of those lessons for me, dating all the way back to driver's ed when I was equal parts excited and horrified that someone was handing me the keys to a moving vehicle. I still recall the teacher emphasizing how important it is when changing lanes to first check the mirror for what is behind you; signal to let others know you are entering/exiting a lane; and then to check your blind spot, assuming there is someone invisible to you that only looking over your shoulder and out the window will reveal.

"The new Transparency Trends tool helps foundations benchmark openness."

So, is our new Glasspockets' Transparency Trends a mirror, a signal, or a viewer for revealing blind spots a foundation may be creating? It actually serves all of these purposes. Transparency Trends, created with support from the Barr Foundation, aggregates the data we have collected from all foundations that have taken and publicly shared their "Who Has Glass Pockets?" self-assessment transparency profiles, and allows the user to interact and display the data in a variety of ways.

The default view displays data about all 77 participating foundations, and users can perform a number of helpful transparency benchmarking activities with the tool, including:

  • Learn which transparency elements are most and least commonly shared online;
  • Access lists of which participating foundations share each transparency indicator;
  • Access statistics about the sharing frequency of each transparency element;
  • Compare a specific foundation to a select peer group by region/asset/foundation type; and
  • Download a customized report detailing suggested improvements for a particular foundation.

Some interesting facts quickly reveal both strengths and blind spots:

Searchable Grants Performance Assessment
  • Nearly two-thirds of participating foundations provide searchable grants via their websites;
  • 87% of participating foundations provide key staff biographies;
  • Fewer than half of participating foundations post a Code of Conduct online;
  • Despite all of the talk about impact, only 22% of participating foundations share foundation performance assessments via their websites; and
  • Only 31% of participating foundations use their websites to collect grantee feedback.

The more I explore Transparency Trends, the more excited I became about the "Mirror, signal, blind spot" rule of the road as a metaphor for the importance of philanthropic transparency. After all when you are handed the keys to a foundation, it's great if someone also hands you some institutional memory so you can have a view of the road travelled so far and what has been learned so you can actually get somewhere rather than driving in circles.

And since there are likely others who are travelling a similar path, the notion of signaling to the world what direction you are going resonates as well, since you might get there faster (and more efficiently) via a pooled or shared ride approach, or by at least sharing your road maps and shortcuts.

And finally, are you and the others on the road actually creating blind spots that prevent those around you from knowing you exist and building on your shared efforts? From Transparency Trends, you can see that fewer than half of participating foundations have a Knowledge Center that shares the lessons they are learning, and only 12% have open licensing policies that make it clear how to build on the knowledge the foundations funds and produces.

Knowledge Center Open Licensing

As fun as it is to explore the data on the pinwheel display, don't miss the opportunity to download a customized report. Since the reports are particularly helpful as a mechanism to surface both the transparency blind spots and strengths a particular foundation might have, Transparency Trends is accessible to any foundation, whether or not they have previously participated in Glasspockets.

So, if you have not submitted a profile to Glasspockets, you can still explore and extract helpful information from the tool by completing a short questionnaire about your existing transparency practices. The questionnaire will not be shared without your permission, but it will allow you to view your foundation as compared to others in our database.

Customized ReportA customized report from Transparency Trends

Our hope is these reports will serve to encourage greater foundation transparency by quickly surfacing data that identifies areas in which a foundation is behind its peers in regards to specific transparency indicators. And for those foundations that have already participated, you get a shortcut to your customized report since you will skip the questionnaire and go directly to a report to reveal your strengths and weaknesses, or areas where you may inadvertently be creating blind spots.

And speaking of blind spots, I have been thankful for the "Mirror, signal, blind spot" mantra many times when it has literally saved my life. I can recall several occasions when I've ritually check the blind spot, convinced it was empty, and only because I did the over-the-shoulder check did I avoid a collision. I'm reminded of this particular lesson at the launch of Transparency Trends because perhaps philanthropy needs a way to do the over-the-shoulder check as well. By visualizing both philanthropy's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to greater openness, we can collectively work toward a future with fewer blind spots, more awareness of those around us, and a clear view of what we have learned from the road travelled so far.

Explore Transparency Trends and let me know what you think.

-- Janet Camarena

Philanthropic Dollars Also Shape Electoral Outcomes: Here’s How…
October 28, 2015

(David Callahan is founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy. Previously, he was a senior fellow at DemosThis is the fifth in a series of 10 posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day, and beyond. This post first ran in PhilanTopic.) 

Callahan Headshot%2c 1With another presidential campaign season under way, we’re again hearing a lot about the mega donors and Super PACs that fuel modern politics. But this isn’t the only stream of money that influences how elections unfold in the U.S.; philanthropic dollars also play a key role, with foundations supporting a range of activities that affect how our democracy functions and what happens at the polls.

Understanding the flow of these grants isn’t just helpful for nonprofits hoping to get a piece of the pie. It’s also super useful for journalists or others keen to see how foundations — which, by law must be nonpartisan — are deploying funds in ways that can sway electoral outcomes.

Let’s take the area of voter education, registration, and turnout as an example. It’s no secret that who turns out to vote, and where, can make a big difference in determining which candidates win on Election Day. If more African Americans turn out in swing states like Florida or North Carolina, for instance, that’s good news for Democrats. If the electorate tilts toward older and white voters, Republicans stand to gain.

Campaigns and Super PACs spend mightily to shape who votes. But what have foundations been doing? Well, Foundation Center’s newly launched Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool offers some answers to that question.

Consider the state of Florida, a fiercely contested battleground in both presidential and off-year elections. Drilling into the data, where grantmaking can be easily segmented by the populations served, we find that five funders have given over a half million dollars in grants in recent years to seven groups that work with “ethnic and racial groups” on voter education, registration, and turnout. For example, the Florida New Majority Education Fund pulled in $200,000 in grant money from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Proteus Fund in 2012 and 2013. Casey has described this group as working to “increase the voting and political power of marginalized and excluded constituencies toward an inclusive, equitable, and just Florida.” Historically, these constituencies have supported Democrats at election time.

Other Florida groups that have received money for voting work, according to the database, include the Farmworker Association of Florida and Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast.

Screenshot_Callahan_1

Moving to another swing state, North Carolina, we find a similar pattern: Nearly a half million dollars in grants have been made in recent years for voting work with racial and ethnic groups. The biggest recipient here was Democracy North Carolina, which has lately been at the forefront of efforts to defend voting rights amid a legislative push in that state to restrict the franchise in ways that research has found tends to reduce turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and young people.

Speaking of efforts to restrict the franchise, it’s important to note that not all grantmakers in the democracy space have sought to make voting more accessible by historically marginalized groups. Some have supported work to require voter identification at the polls and to roll back  measures such as early voting and same-day registration, which advocates have pressed for in many states as a way to expand and diversify the electorate.

In North Carolina, the John William Pope Foundation has long been known for its support of tougher voting rules that it says are needed to protect against voter fraud. What exactly has this entailed? The data shows 61 grants totaling more than $2.4 million by the foundation in North Carolina since 2011 that relate to democracy issues.

The Pope Foundation — controlled by Republican activist Art Pope — has been one of the top funders in the democracy space in recent years in North Carolina. But two other funders have given more: the Triad Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Other big funders of democracy work in the state include the Z. Smith Reynolds and Ford foundations.

There are a lot more examples we could dig into to illustrate how funders are shaping voting work at the state level in ways that can and do affect electoral outcomes. All this grantmaking is officially nonpartisan and perfectly legal, but little of it is actually impartial.

And herein lies an important truth about how money influences America’s democracy. Yes, there is a vast and swollen river of cash flowing into political campaigns. But another, separate tributary of philanthropic money related to elections has also been growing. In fact, Foundation Center reports that funders have made grants totaling nearly $300 million since 2011 specifically for work in support of campaigns, elections, and voting.

That amount is nothing compared to the more than $6 billion that political contributors gave in the 2012 election cycle alone. But it’s still serious money that deserves close scrutiny.

 --David Callahan 

True Board Engagement: How openness and access to board conversations has changed Creating the Future
April 23, 2015

(Karl Wilding is the director of public policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the umbrella body for charities and the volunteer movement in England. Justin Pollock the principal and founder of Orgforward, a community-focused consultancy working with organizations and their leadership to build the capacity to sustain thriving communities. Both Karl and Justin are Creating the Future board members.)

””

Karl Wilding

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Justin Pollock

It’s a widely held maxim that sunlight, read as transparency and openness for the purpose of this post, is the best disinfectant. While true, we feel this view has an unfortunate undertone of emphasising the negative: greater transparency is needed in order to prevent and/or catch wrongdoing. It focuses attention on what we hope to avoid rather than what we hope is possible.

At Creating the Future, rather than thinking of sunlight as that thing that disinfects, we embrace the photosynthetic view that letting the light in allows for growth and transformation. We recognize our role in supporting thriving communities and believe that the community should have a role in creating our success at all levels of the organization. Though Creating the Future is not a grantmaking foundation, we believe that all organizations, including foundations, gain by opening up to and actively engaging the communities we are passionate about and that we profess we serve.

In a conversation about boards and governance recently, someone remarked to one of us that “transparency can be transformational,” and it’s this sort of thinking that powers Creating the Future’s approach to leadership, trusteeship, and governance. Beyond just being transparent – allowing people to see us, we are open – people can actually interact with us and influence our growth in real time.  This approach to governance is open, not just in the sense of visibility, but open to challenge, praise, and, since board members live stream from various places around the world, the occasional ribbing for the state of our living rooms and barking dogs (how much more “real life” can it get than that?).

We use Twitter, monitoring our hashtag during the meeting, to encourage people to share their curiosity and brilliance so we can respond in real time to the ideas that break us out of the group-think commonly found when people of like passions gather.

All well and good in theory. But what does this really look like in practice and what does it make possible for us as trustees and anyone else interested in the work of the organization we serve?

In practice, our board meetings are entirely open, end to end. We leverage Creating the Future’s presence online. Prior to every monthly board meeting, our board chair posts a blog providing the context and agenda for our upcoming meeting, our operational leaders post video progress reports, and you can find a link to our upcoming meeting which are all live-broadcast using Google Hangouts.

We use Twitter, monitoring our hashtag during the meeting, to encourage people to share their curiosity and brilliance so we can respond in real time to the ideas that break us out of the group-think commonly found when people of like passions gather. But it doesn’t stop there: most board meetings, we invite a guest to take part in the broadcast in the anticipation that they might just lead us to change the questions that we’re asking ourselves. And if you missed something and want to know what happened next, or would like to check back on something we did, we’re in plain sight - all the meetings are archived and available on the website.

And  anyone can see this. In fact, the world gets to see it at the same time as we can, and it’s the internet, so they can share their opinions and thoughts freely. Now, we understand that this might be heresy to a foundation, in which board meetings often include sensitive topics such as grantee deliberations, however, board meetings also include strategy, planning, and policy discussions, which are exactly the conversations that thrive at Creating the Future through this open model. Thankfully the web makes it easy to segment out each part.

You might be wondering what is the value of this approach and how does it ultimately help us?What does all this effort make possible?

For us as board members, the most powerful thing about openness is that it fosters conversations where there is nothing to hide and therefore nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed by (we are sure that there is some social science that helps explain this – but we just feel it in our bones).

At the top of our list: better conversations that lead to better decisions. We think this might be one of the most compelling reasons for foundations to consider, since foundations are in the business of decision-making and idea generation. What does that look like? We actually dialog with one another, asking better informed questions, hearing different perspectives and reflections, getting positive affirmation, and gaining more confidence in the decisions we make. The last bit is important: we’re all human, taking on leadership as a trustee isn’t always easy, so it’s nice to get a bit of praise for a decision we’ve made.

For us as board members, the most powerful thing about openness is that it fosters conversations where there is nothing to hide and therefore nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed by (we are sure that there is some social science that helps explain this – but we just feel it in our bones). Any decision we make has been vetted and thought through. The assumptions that can often go unidentified when making decisions are all brought into the open so that we, in our leadership roles, deeply understand the implications and rationale behind the actions and decisions we make. Personally, we love this aspect as it encourages our own growth and strengthens our resolve around the beliefs and values we hold.

Next is the thing we often hear is missing - better engagement. We’re all in one way or another seeking to better engage board members, beneficiaries, and stakeholders. For us, this is at the foundation of our work. We know we are “better together” when we can draw on the abundant wisdom that is out there. So involving stakeholders and other interested people in the leadership and governance of Creating the Future is pretty much saying to them that they are as important as us – it’s not about the people in the room, but rather about the ideas, plans, and actions that result from the gathering.

CreatingtheFutureLogoB&W492x104Finally, we find openness raises trust – among each other as trustees, with the community that supports us, and with the staff that work tirelessly to facilitate the execution of our strategy. Everyone has an opportunity to shape decisions and everyone can see we’re just ordinary people, not some nonprofit rock stars or even mysterious alchemists who work in dark smoky rooms. And we reckon ultimately that engagement and trust build capacity: people want to join us on the journey because they realize they can be part of it in meaningful ways.

The skeptics at this point are probably wondering: what could go wrong? What about sensitive issues, confidentiality, or errant voices? This is straightforward: there’s always going to be stuff we want to think or talk about without the world watching, and for that we allow for closed sessions. And we  do this transparently as well, acknowledging the rationale each time it is needed. We think people appreciate us for being honest and up front about that. And for those  who may fear negative comments or hijacked conversations, all we can say is that it just doesn’t happen. Rather than taking us in a direction we don’t want to go, external voices elucidate new paths that we excitedly travel down and may not have seen because of the inherent nature of “group think.”

We honestly have not experienced anything scary: openness has become mundane, with many of us shedding the nervousness that comes from thinking about the fact that the world could be watching. This is a good thing, unless you are offended by seeing an untidy living room or a person eating their lunch.

Things have occasionally gone wrong: the technology is the obvious candidate, with broadband connections dropping out. But this is part of the warp and weave of normal life, and we’ve found people stick with us. In fact, the biggest risk is that no one cares, no one’s watching. And if that’s the case you may well have some bigger issues to contend with, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Our aim is to tip the scales from the common practice of making openness rare and exclusivity common (think of most every board meeting you’ve been to), to making exclusivity that rare bird that is hard to find. In fact, we honestly have not experienced anything scary: openness has become mundane, with many of us shedding the nervousness that comes from thinking about the fact that the world could be watching. This is a good thing, unless you are offended by seeing an untidy living room or a person eating their lunch.

Openness is our “not-so-secret sauce.” Maybe it’s just the people around the virtual table, maybe it’s keeping the meetings open to guests, or just the sense that we’re visible, but the meetings are highly enjoyable and stimulating; plus, we get business done. We think opening up gives boards more vitality, richer conversations, and better engagement.  And we reckon fear of failure, of “getting found out,” is the biggest barrier to opening up. So foundations: be brave, join us for one of our board meetings to see how we roll, then hopefully try this format for yourself. You have nothing to lose but your broadband connection. 

--Karl Wilding and Justin Pollock 

Wanna Hangout? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Use of Google Hangouts
May 21, 2014

(Eliza Smith is the Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco. She recently interviewed Erin Kelly and Susan Dentzer from the RWJF to learn about their experience with hosting Google Hangouts.)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), America's largest public Eliza Smithhealth-focused philanthropy, is using Google Hangout to hold virtual panel discussions the first Friday of every  month. The Foundation has been using this social media tool to increase transparency around its work since November of 2013 and is finding these offereings have been very well-received. The foundation treats the platform as an opportunity to open its doors to its stakeholders and the general public so they can explore one of the foundation’s current projects, efforts, or campaigns in-depth and cost-free.

RWJF logoThe most recent Hangout was held on Friday, May 2 in partnership with the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) on its latest campaign, "Choose Wisely." The Choosing Wisely effort promotes patient empowerment, encouraging doctors and leaders in healthcare to inform consumers against employing expensive, superfluous, and potentially dangerous procedures and treatments. The Hangout platform promoted collaboration with doctors, patients, and healthcare professionals; moreover it championed transparency, inviting the general public to tweet (using #RWJF1stFri and @RWFJ) or submit their questions and comments to Google+. Past Hangout themes have centered on the cost and quality of healthcare, country-wide health rankings, innovative ways of delivering healthcare, and interest in new ways of employing and analyzing health data.

We believe these Hangouts can be effective in convening experts on an issue, increasing transparency to the work and partners we have the pleasure to be engaged with, and a means to expand the discussion beyond the those ‘in the room.’
Erin Kelly Erin Kelly
RWJF social media manager Susan Dentzer Susan Dentzer
RWJF senior policy adviser

The RWJF has a strong track record with social media, using tools like Twitter and Facebook so that grantees can connect with its leaders and grantmakers. Erin Kelly, social media manager at the Foundation, says they have been using these tools “to share insight into the issues and projects we’ve invested in across our areas of investments. Oftentimes these discussions are jumping off from an in-person convening or recent research or developments in the field. We believe they can be effective in convening experts on an issue, increasing transparency to the work and partners we have the pleasure to be engaged with, and a means to expand the discussion beyond the those ‘in the room.’”

Susan Dentzer, senior policy adviser to the RWJF, likens the Hangouts to “mini conferences” and sees them as alternative ways of facilitating communication between the Foundation and the general public. “As much information as the Foundation puts out on the web site, many grantees sometimes feel like they don’t understand what’s going on at the RWJF,” Dentzer says. “The Hangouts are an opportunity for grantees to get a sense of what’s going on at the Foundation.” And the best part about these Hangouts? “They are low-cost and low-effort,” as Dentzer says; thus, staff at the Foundation don’t feel spent after conducting a Hangout as they might holding an actual conference, leaving energy and enthusiasm for the next month’s session.

While the First Friday sessions have been popular and widely attended, the RWJF is developing more metrics for measuring the impact of the Hangouts. “This is a work-in-progress,” Dentzer says, “we are finding new ways to assess how many people we reach, who we are reaching, and if any members of the audience take action afterwards.” So far, the Foundation is planning on using resources from Survey Monkey to gather more user data, but they are still looking for more ways to better understand the impact of these social media tools. All told, “this is a great technology for the RWJF,” Dentzer says.

Have you attended one of the RWJF First Friday Hangouts? Tell us about your experience at @Glasspockets on Twitter, or post a comment here on Transparency Talk. 

-- Eliza Smith

Webinar Available On Demystifiying Funder Transparency
April 9, 2014

Opening Up CoverOn March 20, Glasspockets and GrantCraft held a “free coffee and conversation” webinar discussing the demystification of funder transparency featuring Mary Gregory of Pacific Foundation Services discussing transparency challenges and opportunities for family foundations. If you were unable to attend and would like to view the recording, it is available here. Co-sponsored by Northern California Grantmakers, GrantCraft  and Glasspockets provided an overview of the new guide, Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency, which delves into the innumerable benefits of funder transparency, including increased public trust and greater credibility. Mary Gregory then discussed how transparency strengthens grantee relationships. This webinar series on transparency will continue exploring further chapters in the resource guide with other guest funders. Stay tuned to Transparency Talk for more updates.

-- Eliza Smith

Boosting Transparency Through Podcasting at RWJF
March 11, 2014

Lori Melichar is a team director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as well as a labor economist. You can follow her on Twitter at @lorimelichar.

Listen to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneering Ideas podcast:

Lori-melichar-rwjf-150x150My day job involves finding and supporting innovations with the power to accelerate the development of a culture of health in this country. This means finding ways not only to continually expose myself to new ideas but also to clearly communicate the kinds of ideas that my employer, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), seeks to fund. Lately, I’m finding that on both counts, podcasting is one of my favorite tools.

I listen to podcasts during my daily run—newsy ones from NPR, political gabfests, cultural explorations. Sometimes I listen to TED Talks or stories from The Moth. Most of the time I listen to WTF, a podcast where Marc Maron interviews other comedians like himself.

A podcast invites a unique type of conversation-based storytelling, one that we hope will stimulate real-world conversation about applying innovation to create a culture of health—and generate some ideas we’ll be dying to fund.

Though most of the podcasts I listen to are, on the surface of things, unrelated to philanthropy, let alone health or health care, I can’t tell you the number of times that something I’ve heard in a podcast has stimulated an idea related to my work. Sometimes I have to stop running to jot down a thought, fact or idea. Sometimes a nugget from a podcast festers in my mind throughout my run and ends up somewhere completely different by the end.

I believe in the power of the podcast medium to reach individuals where it matters: between the ears. Which is why I’m thrilled to be taking the reins as the host of RWJF’s podcast, Pioneering Ideas. We launched the podcast last year and our third episode debuted earlier today (you can listen to it above).

Our goal with Pioneering Ideas is to be more transparent about the way we work and the kinds of ideas we seek to fund—and to do so in a way that’s engaging for others who are interested in exploring cutting edge ideas and emerging trends that can transform health and health care. Sometimes that means talking to program officers, grantees and others in the RWJF network; other times it means having conversations with pioneering thinkers with no formal relationship to the Foundation.

In our latest episode, for example, I interview Barry Schwartz, a former professor of mine and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, about how his work on the science of decision-making might apply to health and health care. Another guest on this episode, Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, recently visited RWJF as part of our What’s Next Health: Conversations with Pioneers series, and graciously agreed to spend some extra time with us talking for the podcast.

Of course, our podcast isn’t the only vehicle we have for lifting the curtain on our strategy for exploring and funding cutting edge ideas—we are active across a range of social media, and are always adding and exploring new approaches. But a podcast invites a unique type of conversation-based storytelling, one that we hope will stimulate real-world conversation about applying innovation to create a culture of health—and generate some ideas we’ll be dying to fund.

We’ve been conservative in our promotion efforts so far as we find our legs with this new venture. Just over 250 people listened to our second episode—hardly a landslide, but a very respectable showing for this type of podcast. We’ve been learning a lot behind the scenes, and the feedback we’re receiving is encouraging. A variety of thought leaders in health innovation have shared the podcast with their networks, and we're hopeful that the podcast will ultimately encourage people to tell us about their ideas for health and health care. Our goal is to increase the number of listens by 20 percent with every episode we release and build a high-quality audience that excitedly awaits each episode—just as I await new episodes of WTF every Monday and Thursday morning.

I’d love to know what you think—not just about our podcast (which you can listen to at the top of this post), but about using podcasts to support idea-sourcing and to cultivate conversations that can inform a nonprofit’s efforts at creating social change. Any examples of podcasts that you think do a superlative job of communicating an organization’s interests in a stimulating and entertaining way?

On this morning’s run, I heard Marc Maron say that a philosophy teacher once told him there are two ways to fill your mind: One is to put new stuff in there, and the other is to heat up whatever’s in there so that it expands.

I hope Pioneering Ideas fills your mind.

And if you’ve got any audacious ideas for creating a culture of health in this country, I’d love to hear them. Find me on Twitter at @lorimelichar or email me at lmelichar [at] rwjf.org.

-- Lori Melichar

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  • 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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