Transparency Talk

Category: "Websites" (11 posts)

How to Make Grantee Reports #OpenForGood
July 20, 2017

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

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Mandy Ellerton

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

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

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Molly Matheson Gruen

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

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

Learning Logs Emerge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Sees the Light of Day

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

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

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

Learning from the Learning Logs

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

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

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

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

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

--Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen

What Will You #OpenForGood?
July 13, 2017

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

Janet Camarena Photo

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

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

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A Short History

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

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

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

Working Collectively Smarter

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

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

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

Calls to Action

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

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

Share Your Photos

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

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

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

What will you #OpenForGood?

--Janet Camarena

GrantAdvisor: A TripAdvisor for Funder Feedback
July 6, 2017

Michelle Greanias is executive director of PEAK Grantmaking. Follow her on Twitter @mgreanias. This post also appears in PEAK Grantmaking’s blog.

Michelle GreaniasFor funders, hearing honest input from grantseekers about what they think about a foundation’s practices and getting insights from their experiences working as a grantee partner is a critical component of effective grantmaking. Up until now, funders have needed to initiate the request for feedback via surveys, conversations, and third-party evaluators.  Now, a collaboration of funders, nonprofits, and others interested in improving philanthropy are exploring a new approach—GrantAdvisor, which recently launched in California and Minnesota with a goal of eventually reaching the entire country.

GrantAdvisor is like TripAdvisor—it’s a website that allows individuals (in this case, grant applicants, grantees, and others) to share their first-hand experiences with funding organizations, and for funders to have the opportunity to respond publicly.  The idea is that just as a traveler would check TripAdvisor when planning a trip, a nonprofit would check GrantAdvisor before applying to a funder. And, just as a hotel monitors TripAdvisor to see what your customers like best and least about them, funders can see how grantees and colleagues are experiencing working with them.

“Listening to unfettered feedback from grantees can help funders build more efficient processes and more effective partnerships, which ultimately increases impact.”

It works by collecting anonymous feedback from grantseekers and grantees. When five reviews have been submitted, the data will be shared publicly. A funder profile needs at least five reviews before it becomes public. The unpublished results are sent to the funder providing an opportunity for the funder to respond. After the first five reviews are published, subsequent reviews will be posted, and the funder can respond at any time. Funders are encouraged to register with GrantAdvisor to receive automatic notices when reviews are posted about their organizations and post responses when new reviews are submitted.

As a grants manager, this concept was a little scary to me at first—what if the feedback isn’t all positive?  How would it affect an organization’s reputation?  But the reality is that an organization’s reputation is already affected if grantseekers are having poor experiences with a funder. I want to know, and I believe most grants managers would agree, about any issues and be able to address them.  Especially since the alternative is allowing problems to build and multiply as bad practice impacts more and more grantees.

I also considered this transparent move through another critical lens—aligning values with practices.  In PEAK Grantmaking’s recent research, the top three common values held by grantmakers were collaboration, respect, and integrity.  Being open to feedback, even difficult feedback, is a concrete way to show that grantmakers are “walking the talk” by bringing those values to life through our practices.

Jessamyn Shams-Lau, executive director of Peery Foundation, and Maya Winkelstein, executive director of the Open Road Alliance, both support this work and see four reasons that GrantAdvisor.org is useful to funders:

  1. Feedback: Listening to unfettered feedback from grantees can help funders build more efficient processes and more effective partnerships, which ultimately increases impact.
  2. Benchmarking: With a common set of questions for every foundation, funders can benchmark the effectiveness of their grantmaking practices from the perspective of the grantee experience.
  3. Honest and Accurate Data. When foundations directly solicit feedback (even anonymously), respondents give different answers. Since GrantAdvisor.org collects reviews with or without funder prompting, this unsolicited feedback is the most honest feedback and honest reviews mean accurate data.
  4. Saving Time. Over time, the hope is that the sharing of information via GrantAdvisor.org will help potential grantees better self-select which foundations to approach and which are not well aligned. This will result in a higher-quality pipeline for foundations, which saves everyone time and gets funders closer to impact faster.

Given the promise and potential of this new feedback mechanism to strengthen grantmaking practice, I am honored to serve on the GrantAdvisor national advisory committee. I will share more information about this effort as it progresses and look forward to hearing from the profession about this tool, particularly those in California and Minnesota, where GrantAdvisor will be initially active.

--Michelle Greanias

Warren Buffett Has Some Excellent Advice for Foundations That They Probably Won't Take
March 16, 2017

(Marc Gunther writes about nonprofits, foundations, business and sustainability. He also writes for NonprofitChronicles.com. This post also appears in Nonprofit Chronicles.)

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

Marc GuntherWith a collective $800 billion in assets under management, America’s big foundations spend vast sums of money to buy investment advice. They’re getting little, if anything, of value in return.

Their own investment offices, and the Wall Street banks, hedge funds, private equity firms and consultants they hire, when taken together, deliver investment returns that lag behind market indexes, all evidence indicates.

These foundations would do better to call an 800 number at Vanguard or Schwab and buy a diversified set of low-cost index funds.

So, at least, argues Warren Buffett, one of the great investors of our time. In his latest letter to investors in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett writes:

When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.

The limited data available about foundation endowments bears him out.

It’s not possible to prove that Buffett’s advice would enable foundations to improve their returns–and thus have more money to devote to their grant-making. Most foundations don’t disclose the financial performance of their endowments.

Of the 10 largest grant-making foundations in the US, only two — the MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — publish investment returns on their websites. MacArthur’s disclosure is exemplary. (So is its performance, perhaps not coincidentally.) I emailed all ten and got nowhere with the rest.

The best evidence about how foundations are managing their endowments comes from an annual study published by the Council on Foundations and Commonfund, a nonprofit asset management fund that serves foundations, colleges and nonprofits. Their most recent survey, which covers the 10-year period from 2006 through 2015, found that returns averaged 5.5 percent per year for 130 private foundations and 5.2 percent per year for 98 community foundations.

Further insight can be gleaned from Cambridge Associates, an investment firm whose clients include foundations, universities and wealthy families. Cambridge tracked the performance of 445 of its endowment and foundation clients and found they generated average annualized returns of 4.97 percent for the 10-year period ending June 30, 2016. (These returns should not be considered Cambridge’s performance track record, a spokesman told me.)

High pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns for foundations.

By contrast, Vanguard’s model portfolio for institutional investors, a mix of passively invested index funds, with 70 percent invested in stocks and the rest in fixed income securities, delivered 5.81 percent over the 10-year-period through 2015, and 6.1 percent for the 10-year period ending on June 30, 2016, according to Chris Philips, head of institutional advisory services at Vanguard. (All figures for investment returns are net of fees, meaning fees are taken into account.)

That may appear to be a small edge for Vanguard. But when institutions are investing hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars, small gains compounded over time add up to big money. Money, again, that could be better spent on programs.

Actually, it’s worse, because the figures reported by the Council on Foundations and CommonFund do not include the salaries that foundations pay to their in-house investment offices. The chief investment officers are often the highest-paid executives at foundations, and their deputies do well, too.

Why, then, do foundations continue to pay high salaries and high fees in the pursuit of market-beating returns, when so many fail?

They should know better. It’s no secret that passive approaches to investing outperform most active money managers, once fees and trading costs are taking into account. In 2005, Buffett wrote that “active investment management by professionals – in aggregate – would over a period of years underperform the returns achieved by rank amateurs who simply sat still.”

Taking aim at hedge funds, with their high expenses, Buffett then offered to bet $500,000 that no investment professional “could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees.”

Only one — one! — investment pro took the bet. Not surprisingly, Buffett will win the bet, by a very comfortable margin. And yet foundations and those who advise them are pouring more, not less, money into hedge funds.

Everyone Wants to Be Special

Buffett has a theory about why those in charge of foundations entrust their endowments to active money managers and hedge funds:

The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.

In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars.

Vanguard’s Chris Philips has a similar theory:

There is this perception that by going index you are ceding that you do not have any skill and you are going to be average in the marketplace. That doesn’t feel good. As humans, we want to be good. We don’t want to be average.

Foundation executives may be especially prone to believe that they deserve better than “average” investment advice. By dint of their position, they are often told that they are wiser, funnier and better-looking than average.

Jeffrey Hooke, a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and a former investment banker, says the trustees of foundations who serve on their investment committees are likely to favor active asset management.

The people on the boards tend to be in the business. They’re private equity executives, they’re stockbrokers or they’re in hedge funds. They’re totally biased in favor of active managing because that’s how they’ve made their living.

Hooke has researched public pension funds and found that they, too, underperform the markets by choosing active managers. Investment officers don’t want to talk themselves out of a job, he says:

They are never going to walk into the boardroom and say, ‘Hey, it just isn’t working.’ They’ve got wives, they’ve got mortgages they’ve got kids.

These investment officers aspire to be the rare bird who can consistently outperform the market, like David Swensen, the storied portfolio manager at Yale. (I profiled Swensen in 2005 for the Yale Alumni Magazine.) But Swensen, like Buffett, says that identifying the best asset managers is exceedingly difficult. In a 2009 interview, Swensen told me that investors who rely on “low-cost, passively managed index funds” and rebalance regularly will “end up beating the overwhelming majority of participants in the financial markets.” Buffett has said that in the course of his lifetime he has identified only about 10 investment professionals who can beat the markets over time; there are about 87,000 foundations in the US.

Pay for Performance?

In fairness, the foundation trustees and investment officers labor under a peculiar burden. They are obligated by law to give away five percent of their assets every year. So if they want to exist in perpetuity, they must earn in excess of five percent on their investments, which is a tall order. Of course, no foundation is entitled to live forever. If some spend down their assets, well, new foundations come along all the time.

Most foundations, though, aim to survive in perpetuity, and chase superior returns, at a cost. Consider, for example, the Ford Foundation, which, with assets of $12.2 billion (as of 12-31-2015), is the second-biggest foundation in the US, behind the behemoth Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2015, the Ford Foundation’s highest-paid employee was vice president and chief investment officer Eric Doppstadt, who was paid $2.1 million. He was followed by  director of public investment Michael Walden at $1,017,061, director of private equity Sherif Nahas at $972,362 and director of hedge funds William Artemenko at $955,479. All were paid more than Darren Walker, Ford’s president, whose compensation was $788,542, according to Ford’s Form 990-PF filing,

Then there were Ford’s outside asset managers. In 2015, they included Silchester International Equity Management which was paid $2.2 million, Wellington Energy Investment Advisor, which collected just under $2 million and Eagle Capital Management, which got $1 million.

How did they perform? “Sharing the investment returns is outside of our policy,” says Joshua Cinelli, Ford’s chief of media relations, by e-mail.

In this, Ford is typical. At the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, chief investment officer John Moehling was paid $2.3 million, and three other investment professionals earned more than $1 million. All were better paid than Packard’s chief executive, Carol Larson. Packard, too, will not disclose its returns.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and MacArthur Foundation all pay their chief investment officer more than their top executives. The argument for doing so, presumably, is that these investment professionals could make as much money or more in the private sector.

But, again, with the exception of MacArthur and Kellogg, the foundations won’t say whether their investment officers and their outside asset managers are delivering market-beating performance.

What we do know is that high pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns. Interestingly, when pension-fund critic Jeff Hooke analyzed data from 33 state pension systems, he found that the 10 states with the highest fee ratios achieved lower return rates than those that spent the least.

Transparency and Accountability

Foundation endowment returns could probably be calculated by going through years of IRS filings. Unfortunately, the Form 990-PF tax form for foundations is “seriously flawed,” “unwieldy” and “unintelligible to the many lay readers, including trustees and journalists,” according to longtime foundation executive John Craig.

In a 2011 blog post for the Foundation Center, Craig lamented the fact that investment performance is not solicited on the Form 990:

Since their endowments are the only source of income for most foundations and effective endowment management is a challenge for many foundations, this is an egregious omission—equivalent to not requiring for-profit corporations to report their earnings on tax returns and financial statements.

I asked Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, which promotes transparency through its laudable Glasspockets initiative, why foundations won’t disclose their investment returns. “They don’t report it because it’s not required,” he said, “to state the obvious.”

Smith went on to say that foundations may be “worried about perverse incentives that could be created by a ranking.” If foundations compete to generate the best investment returns, he explained, they could feel pressured to take on risky investments. During the Great Recession, some foundations that pursued aggressive investment strategies had to sell highly-leveraged, illiquid investments at a loss. 

Still, I wonder if there’s a simpler explanation for the lack of disclosure: Foundation staff and trustees don’t want to be held accountable for mediocre results.

If MacArthur and Kellogg are exemplary in their disclosure — Kellogg kindly arranged a phone interview with Joel Wittenberg, its chief investment officer —  the Gates and Bloomberg foundations are unusually opaque. Gates Foundation money is housed in a separate trust and is reportedly managed by Cascade Investments, which also manages Gates’ personal fortune. (Buffett is a trustee of the Gates Foundation, and presumably keeps an eye on the endowment.) Bloomberg’s philanthropic and personal wealth are reported to be managed by Willett Advisors. Cascade and Willett have access to some of the world’s top money managers, and may have a shot at outperforming the averages.

This isn’t a new issue. Testifying before Congress in 1952, Russell Leffingwell, the chairman of the board of the Carnegie Foundation, famously said:

We publish our investments. We have to be very careful about our investments because we know that others, some others, take investment advice from our list of investments. Well, that is all right. We think the foundation should have glass pockets.

The bottom line: America’s foundations, as a group, are taking money that could be devoted to their programs – to alleviate global poverty, to improve education, to support medical research or promote the arts — and transferring it to wealthy asset managers. They should know better, and they do.

--Marc Gunther

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

What's Your Story?: Q&A with Kenneth Rainin Foundation's Amanda Flores-Witte
July 21, 2016

(The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which recently joined the Glasspockets transparency movement, shares how innovation, technology and creativity played a role in telling its story in its annual report. Janet Camerena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center. Amanda Flores-Witte is senior communications officer at Kenneth Rainin Foundation.)

Janet Camarena: Increasingly, foundations are wondering whether there is still a need for the time and expense of issuing an Annual Report. The thinking goes that with the advent of informative foundation websites, that perhaps the annual report is an antiquated ritual. The Kenneth Rainin Foundation recently updated this ritual by issuing its Turning Points 2015 Year in Review as an entirely online resource, creatively using video and the Medium platform to tell the story of the road you traveled last year. Can you begin by telling us why your foundation determined the annual report exercise, whatever the format, was still a worthwhile one?

Amanda Flores-WitteAmanda Flores-Witte: When we set out to work on any project, our aim is never to do something solely because it is expected or because we did it that way last time. We get curious and ask questions, while revisiting our goals and keeping transparency in mind. This is exactly the approach we took when thinking about our year in review. We challenged ourselves to think creatively about how we could best share our story while highlighting the work of our grantees and partners.

Fortunately, technology has breathed new life into annual reports by offering a variety of tools, platforms, and formats, and more innovative ways to share information and engage readers. We felt that a summary that highlighted the year's activities-or captured the turning points in each program area-would be a valuable tool for people to get to know the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and learn about our progress. We thought an online report would allow us the flexibility to present our story in an interactive format using text, photos, audio and video, and make the report more interactive. We know that people engage with content in different ways and use a variety of devices to access it, so it was important for us to also have the ability to leverage our assets and promote the report on social media, our website and our newsletter.

JC: The Kenneth Rainin Foundation emphasizes innovation, and the word "cutting edge" comes up a lot throughout the organization, including in the mission. I imagine this must set the bar pretty high - that your own communications be cutting edge? Beyond the Annual Report, are there other ways that you try to live up to that "cutting edge" aspiration when it comes to telling the story of the foundation?

AFW: We strive to be authentic and shine a bright light on the terrific work our grantees are doing, as well as build our presence online, which is where people tend to spend a great deal of time. Being innovative means that we are continually revisiting how we communicate our work-is there a better, more effective or more inspiring way to accomplish our goals? We are always curious about what other organizations are doing and enjoy exploring. In addition, our board of directors and staff are not shy about sharing their ideas and challenging us to think bigger or look at projects through a different lens. There is nothing more exciting to us than brainstorming an idea and then diving in to research how to best execute it. Kenneth Rainin FoundationWe value flexibility and being open minded as our projects evolve. We also realize there are risks involved when we embrace new or unconventional ideas. In our organization, staff members have the freedom to experiment. This way of thinking is at the heart of all our programs. We realize that some things might be less successful than we wanted, and there will be successes we didn't anticipate. Either way, we always learn valuable lessons that we can apply to the next big idea.

JC: Next, let's talk about the formats, beginning with the Medium platform. What is Medium, and why did you decide this was the right platform for the Rainin Foundation to tell its story? And what kinds of criteria should foundations use to determine whether Medium might be right for them?

AFW: We worked with a consultant who understood our requirements and helped us explore different avenues and tools that could help us accomplish our goals. Ultimately, we decided that Medium would be the ideal platform for creating a media-rich presentation while also giving us the opportunity to amplify our voice and access an expanded audience.

Medium is an online publishing platform that was founded in 2012 and has evolved into a community of 30 million monthly users, according to a January 2016 CNN story. It has become such a popular publishing platform that even the White House, Bono and the Gates Foundation use it.

Criteria for whether to use Medium will vary depending on what an organization wants to accomplish. For us, it was important to have a platform that was easy to use and incorporated performance metrics. We didn't want to get bogged down trying to master a new technology. Medium is user-friendly and intuitive, and the visual design closely aligns with the Foundation's desired aesthetics-a clean presentation with plenty of white space. Medium also exposes us to a broader audience, which is hard to get elsewhere, and the platform makes the post shareable. The trade-off is that Medium's standard features, which make it very simple to use, can feel limiting. If you are looking for more customization or want flexibility with typefaces, color and layout, Medium may not be the best choice.

JC: The videos that you produced as part of the Turning Points 2015 progress report were particularly effective in humanizing the foundation. More often we see grantee videos on a foundation site, but you deliberately chose to put your own team on camera. However, being in front of a camera can be intimidating. Can you share with us how you prepared your team for it, and whether you have any advice for foundations around who tells the story, and how to prepare them? And please share any other general advice you have for foundations about how to prepare and use video to share the progress of their work.

AFW: We think it's important to share experiences and stories authentically, and video can be an effective tool to accomplish this objective.

Before we embark on a new project, we develop a creative brief to think about our audience and what we want them to feel or take away from an experience. This brief ensures that stakeholders are all on the same page, which gives the project a strong start and basis for ongoing evaluation.

For our CEO and staff videos, we hired a talented video team who helped everyone feel at ease and made the process fun-this was really important to us. A few days before the shoot, we provided our staff with a couple of questions to answer about a stand-out moment they had in 2015, and then checked in with them before filming to ensure they had an idea of what they wanted to get across. We didn't rehearse with them, nor did we do a lot of takes during filming.

We loved capturing the personalities of our program staff in a more informal way and allowing viewers to hear the story directly from the staff person who experienced it. By being willing to improvise a bit, we were able to capture memorable moments. Of course, our approach to video production changes according to our project goals. Some projects are impromptu, while others may require much more planning.

JC: Are there other foundations or nonprofit organizations that inspire you when it comes to opening up their work in interesting or new ways? Share some examples.

AFW: We're fortunate to work in a field where so many people do fantastic work, take risks and share it with the world. There are numerous resources, and we count the Communications Network as one of the best places to access tools and expertise. We are continually inspired by the work of other foundations and organizations. Some of our favorite sources for inspiration include the James Irvine Foundation; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; The San Francisco Foundation; the Robin Hood Foundation; and many, many others. We often reach out to foundations for referrals and learn about their approach to a project, the challenges they encountered, and their overall experience. We want to especially thank Daniel Silverman at the James Irvine Foundation. He's been so gracious with his time and advice, no matter how many times we contact him.

JC: You spoke about performance metrics earlier. What has your audience response been like for both the video and Medium? And how are you measuring their impact?

AFW: The response has been positive. We have surpassed 5,000 video views, which is a strong showing relative to our target audience. Last year for the Medium post, our goal was to engage 12% of our email list. We surpassed this number, quadrupling our goal. This year, we're hitting our targets for views and interaction, and anticipate that the numbers will continue to increase throughout the year, as they did in 2015. It's interesting to note, however, that the videos are garnering more attention than the Medium post, which is something we'll take into account in our planning for the next end-of-year report.

We're always looking to strengthen how we measure impact. For this project, we analyze how people engage with the information on our website, third party websites (Vimeo and Medium) and social media. We look at responses and comments, viewing and reading times, and shares. One big takeaway for us has been the need to continually promote the report and videos in the foundation's communications, staff email signatures, and by leveraging and repurposing the content in creative ways.

JC: Will this be the framework you use for your 2016 Year in Review, or do you have something new and "cutting edge" you're considering?

AFW: We're not locked into a specific framework. Like all of our projects, we will reflect and ask ourselves, "Is this still working? What can we do better? What did we learn?"...so stay tuned.

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

Living Up to a Legacy of Glass Pockets
November 5, 2015

(Deanna Lee is chief communications and digital strategies officer at Carnegie Corporation of New York.)

Deanna LeeWhat does a website redesign have to do with “glass pockets?” For Carnegie Corporation of New York—whose mission is to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding—it goes far beyond a general use of the Internet to transmit information. “Glass pockets” is a defining principle of who we are, and thus a defining principle that has guided our entire web redesign process.

First, some background. In the 1950s,  Carnegie Corporation chair Russell Leffingwell testified before Congress that “foundation[s] should have glass pockets,” allowing anyone to easily look inside them and understand their value to society.  A legacy of transparency connected to dissemination continued through Corporation president John Gardner, who advocated for energetic dissemination of activities, to current president Vartan Gregorian, who has emphasized our “legacy of glass pockets” as an ideal and a guidepost for “communicating as clearly and in as much depth as possible how the Corporation conceives of its mission.”

Today’s digital landscape means that we can realize this—reaching and engaging more people, with more information about what we do—as never before. We think of web channels, tools, and design, not as new, “disruptive” technologies, but rather as evolving (and exciting!) opportunities to realize a 100-plus year-old mission.

And so, the redesign process for Carnegie.org began with a largely internal branding exercise to further define our longstanding mission. With the great folks at Story Worldwide, we articulated a core narrative with “pillars” or key principles, including a sense of stewardship to the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, a focus on expert knowledge, a “selfless” emphasis on program grantees and their work, and a commitment to serving as a convener of grantees in like areas of knowledge, and of knowledge-based communities.  These organizational principles were central to how design firm Blenderbox went on to imagine and develop the website layout and user experience.

At the same time, we conducted surveys and interviews with multiple stakeholders and audiences about the old site. As Chris Cardona of the Ford Foundation has written on the Glasspockets blog, we have to be open to failure, and be willing to look at what works and what doesn’t.  Also important, as emphasized in Glasspockets’ transparency indicators, is sharing the results.

What wasn’t working? People said they did not have a clear sense of our program areas.  With information and stories ranging from international peace and security to voting rights to standards in K-16 education all “mixed together,” they found it difficult to delve into their areas of interest.  Also, grantees wanted to be able to connect with peers, and to learn about each other’s activities.

This is why the new Carnegie.org immediately presents a clear depiction of our core program areas (arranged, in homage to Andrew Carnegie, like library book spines). 

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Each program folds out into a preview of a mini-site, with separate subdomains or “hubs” for Education…Democracy…International Peace and Security…and Higher Education and Research in Africa. 

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Enter a program hub, and a simple layout shows the overarching goal of the program and its focus areas (or, in terms of Glasspockets indicators, grantmaking priorities).

Beyond that, each program boasts its own flavor and kinds of content that emphasize those mission pillars—expert knowledge, convening, an emphasis on grantees, and stewardship of our history:

3-600pxInternational Peace and Security currently features commentary on this policy question of the day: Should the U.S. cooperate with Russia on Syria and ISIS? Answers are “convened” as a compendium of multiple grantee experts, scholars, and policymakers—a forum bringing together leading worldwide thinkers and opinions. 

Education features an interactive, multimedia presentation (we call it a Fable) on STEM education—showcasing our historical work on math and science education, including Carnegie Commission reports that set the framework for today’s Next Generation Science Standards, and visual case studies of grantees like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Democracy’s Fable takes an extensive look at the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Plus, at a time when nearly one in four Americans is not registered to vote, we wanted to convene communities and engage the public with our grantees’ work.

4-600px“Your Vote—Your Voice” showcases tiles of leaders of the New Americans Campaign weighing in on why it's important for recently naturalized citizens to vote. 

Good digital strategy also employs community, in the form of partnerships. We’re pleased to have worked with TINT to convene live social media compilations, including the feeds of more than 40 partners of National Voter Registration Day. And, a Genius version of the Voting Rights Act allows for annotations by experts at the Brennan Center for Justice and others.

Finally, we at the Corporation are, first and foremost, stewards of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy. Nearly 10 percent of visitors to our old site came for biographical information about him. To meet their needs more fully and to meet our mission, our Andrew Carnegie Fable includes embeddable elements key for students preparing multimedia presentations, with timelines, quotations, audio and film of Carnegie, infographics on his wealth, and connections to our family of 26 Carnegie institutions worldwide.

This is just the beginning. We’ll soon unveil features allowing program officers to share their experiences, video forums, and more.  It all comes down to glass pockets—using information and the presentation of information to openly share how we meet our mission responsibilities of serving as convener and champion of expert knowledge and change-making grantees. Carnegie.org aims to clearly present our intent, our priorities, and our work, and most of all to be a living—and evolving—expression of our mission to advance and diffuse knowledge and understanding.

--Deanna Lee

The Purpose of a Foundation's Website
April 27, 2015

(Jay Genske is the director of digital, communications at The Rockefeller Foundation. Marc Mertens is the CEO of A Hundred Years. This post originally appeared on The Rockefeller Foundation's blog.)  


What’s a foundation website for?

””

Jay Genske

””

Marc Mertens

We aren’t the only ones who have asked this question. After all, foundations are not in the business of raising money or selling products or services. So what good can a foundation website do?

The Rockefeller Foundation has over one hundred years of experience promoting the well-being of humanity around the world, we have a significant amount of knowledge that can be leveraged to influence every sector to help us achieve our mission. We also recognize digital media’s transformative power to find and accelerate new ideas and networks to solve some of the world’s greatest social problems.

To reimagine the purpose of the Foundation’s website, we knew we needed to find a partner to step outside a traditional vendor relationship. This would mean becoming an extension of each other’s team, and establishing a deeply collaborative, transparent and open process. The Foundation’s partnership with A Hundred Years resulted in a new depth of insight and understanding of the Foundation’s knowledge, content and systems-level approach to philanthropy. Dozens of staff, grantees, and partners helped to co-design the experience and purpose of the site, which we’re thrilled to launch today.

Here’s a look at what you’ll find:

What solutions are hiding in our PDFs?

A few months ago, the World Bank published a noble and important report noting that nearly 50 percent of their policy reports have the goal to inform and influence the social impact sector, yet more than 31 percent of these reports are never downloaded, and 87 percent are never cited. Like so many organizations, the Foundation produces a number of informal and formal reports, publications, blog posts, stories from the field, thoughts shared on social media, and even drafts of “in-process” work. In a busy and crowded Internet, how can we be sure that our audience is discovering the information they need to make important business and policy decisions?

Rockefeller3

You might call this knowledge management in the world of digital media, and definitely a work in progress. To start, we’ve pulled out the key facts and figures on each initiative page, paired with recent tweets from our grantees and partners. The numbers represent statistically important numbers surrounding the work, such as a staggering fact about the problem we’re trying to solve, or a key learning from our research that could be leveraged by others. We’ve also affixed a topical and geographical tagging structure to all knowledge to enable dozens of entry points to our learning. Finally, we’ve installed a best-in-class Search tool to scan and surface intelligence, hopefully providing a little serendipity along the way.

Rockefeller11

Building on the success of our blog, the new Insights and Ideas section surfaces the thoughts and theories of some of the world’s brightest and boldest social innovators. We’ve posed questions around topics the Foundation is investing in–such as building urban resilience or advancing health–and curated ideas and options from our network of staff, grantees, and partners. These ideas are at once diverse and interrelated, and we believe they’ll spark new thinking and connections in our global audience.

The Foundation’s grantees are tackling pressing problems, and they have the stories and knowledge to prove it. We want the website to be a medium and mouthpiece that promotes their work to the important funders, influencers, and policy-makers who visit our site. Each grantee now has their own page, showcasing the publications, reports, and storyline of our shared journey.

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Finally, a new section on the Foundation’s strategic approach to philanthropy. This section illustrates our broad view of systems and how we identify spaces where there is momentum for innovation that makes change likely to take hold. We also to seek to intervene where our “risk capital” can usher in new actors and larger flows of capital that have a shared interest in solving these problems.

Just like the Foundation, our website will continue to evolve and refocus. So take a look today and let us know of any feedback in the comments below.

--Jay Genske and Marc Mertens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Sally Crowley

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

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