Transparency Talk

Category: "Why Transparency" (160 posts)

Eye On: Airbnb Co-Founders Joe Gebbia, Nathan Blecharczyk, and Brian Chesky
April 26, 2017

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.)

Two friends were struggling to pay their rent when they realized they could earn much-needed funds from travelers.  In 2007, they charged their first three customers $80 a night to sleep on an air mattress in their San Francisco apartment when local hotels sold out during a conference.

And the rest is history.

Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, friends and former Rhode Island School of Design classmates, expanded their enterprising idea.  With Gebbia’s former roommate, Nathan Blecharczyk, the trio founded Airbnb in 2008 and revolutionized the art of renting home space.  As Gebbia explained in a TED talk, Airbnb designs for trust to create a “culture of sharing… that brings us community and connection instead of isolation and separation.”

Within 10 years, the trio has groomed Airbnb into a $30 billion tech giant, a disruptive and controversial force that has transformed the travel and tech industry and popularized the idea of the “sharing economy.”  As Airbnb has grown, so have controversies and debates over its impact in already tight rental markets.  Criticism that the company has contributed to community displacement and a reduction in available long-term rentals have led to ongoing legal battles. Yet, despite the regulatory struggles, even hotels are rallying to find ways to imitate the trendsetting Airbnb.

 

Entrepreneur - Airbnb Trio
The Airbnb co-founders are among the youngest to join Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in the Giving Pledge. It also marked the first time all of a company’s co-founders committed at the same time. Credit: Entrepreneur


Now the entrepreneurial trio – who are each worth an estimated $3.3 billion and among the youngest on the 2016 Forbes 400 billionaires list – have started making visible strides in the original sharing economy by engaging in philanthropy. 

The Airbnb co-founders are among the youngest to join Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in the Giving Pledge, whereby wealthy individuals pledge to give away the majority of their wealth within their lifetime.  When they joined the Giving Pledge last year, it also marked the first time all of a company’s co-founders committed at the same time.

In a Fortune interview, the entrepreneurs credit Warren Buffett and Bill Gates with their decision to join the Giving Pledge.  Gebbia touted Buffett as a “Jedi master of philanthropy.”  And Chesky said Buffett’s argument resonated with him – wealth beyond a certain point has zero utility, and such wealth could have a greater social impact.

Still relatively new to philanthropy, the trio acknowledge they are taking their time to give away their wealth.  However, openness is at the heart of the sharing economy, and the Airbnb co-founders understand a public expectation of openness in philanthropy exists.

“I’ve always believed that you should [be public about giving], such that you can be very public about your values and what you stand for,” Chesky said in a Fortune interview.

Corporate Philanthropy

As the Airbnb co-founders design their philanthropic strategy, the company is experimenting with different ways to use its platform for good. 

The San Francisco-based company has created a disaster response platform that brings together hosts and community groups to provide free temporary housing for individuals and families displaced by disasters, as well as relief workers.  When a disaster occurs, Airbnb contacts local hosts who may volunteer to provide free housing; if no hosts are available, Airbnb will subsidize the housing cost.

“I’ve always believed that you should [be public about giving], such that you can be very public about your values and what you stand for.”

Airbnb connects hosts to help support local and national disaster relief efforts, and arranges disaster preparedness training.  Airbnb also contributes travel vouchers to support advance teams and large groups of relief workers for major national and international disasters.

More recently, the company has pledged to use its disaster response platform to aid refugees affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order. Over the next five years, Airbnb has committed to provide short-term housing for 100,000 refugees and those barred from entering the United States.  Airbnb also pledged $4 million to the International Rescue Committee over the next four years to support the most critical needs of displaced people worldwide.

Airbnb also recently announced a scheduled launch of a humanitarian division next month focusing on global issues such as displaced populations, rural flight and bias against strangers.

Given that building community is one Airbnb’s central philosophies, the company’s platform supports a number of opportunities for Airbnb hosts to make a positive social impact via global volunteerism and “Open Homes,” which provides housing at free or reduced costs for medical treatments, college visits, or family gatherings.

Through a “social impact experiences” program, Airbnb guests enjoy culture and learn about local causes in the cities they are visiting.  Local community leaders and volunteers are invited to create an opportunity that brings people closer to their work.  Nonprofit leaders and Airbnb hosts lead the experience, and the nonprofits receive 100% of the social impact experience fees. 

Airbnb hopes this will connect guests to issues they care about or introduce them to new causes.  The social impact experiences run the gamut, from visiting a local artist or animal shelter to attending a dinner and theater event, or spending a day with an urban gardener to create green space in Los Angeles. 

Airbnb has committed to fighting homelessness in New York City, where the company recently settled a lawsuit involving legislation that would fine Airbnb hosts up to $7,500 for renting out certain types of apartments and homes for less than 30 days.  Last year, the company donated $100,000 to WIN (formerly Women In Need), a group that helps homeless women and their children.  Additionally, Airbnb pledged to recruit volunteer hosts and guests to assist WIN clients with professional skills training, such as resume building and interviewing for jobs, and increasing children’s literacy.

Personal Giving 

The trio’s individual giving appears to be driven by a spirit of entrepreneurship; they want to give others the opportunity to achieve their dreams and support “future creatives and entrepreneurs.” 

Joe Gebbia

Joe GebbiaIn Joe Gebbia’s Giving Pledge letter, he described his hope to help other entrepreneurs: “I want to enable as many people as possible, especially in underprivileged communities, to experience this magic firsthand… and achieve their dreams.”

The 35-year-old Georgia native added, “I want to devote my resources to bring the moment of instantiation, when someone who has an idea sees it become real, to as many people as I can.  It can unlock the understanding that they can make things happen, that they can shape the world around them.”

Gebbia serves on the Board of Trustees at his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).  In 2014, he pledged $300,000 to RISD for a $50,000 term scholarship and an endowed fund for talented students in need of financial aid.

Nathan and Elizabeth Blecharczyk

Nathan and Elizabeth BlecharczykIn Nathan and Elizabeth Blecharczyk’s Giving Pledge letter, the couple said they are in a “unique position to have significant positive impact” by giving away their wealth.  “We feel a responsibility to share our good fortune, and we pledge to dedicate the majority of our wealth over time to philanthropy,” the Blecharczyks said.

Nathan Blecharczyk, 33, who developed Airbnb’s website, demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit early on.  When he was 12 years old, Blecharczyk learned how to code and wrote customized programs for clients; he developed popular programs for e-mail marketing.  By age 14, he founded an Internet software business and funded his Harvard University tuition with the sale of his business. 

The San Francisco residents cited their upbringing – his parents taught him to be inquisitive, confident and motivated, and her parents and teachers taught her to be self-aware and use her strengths to help others – as the reason to direct their philanthropy toward the “potential of children” and “transformative ideas.”

“Airbnb went from an off-the-wall idea to a transformative company as a result of assembling the right team – cofounders, mentors, investors, and later employees – and now we want to help others pursue unconventional ideas that can make the world a better place,” the Blecharczyks said in their letter.

The couple said their interests are in the areas of education, scientific research, medicine, space exploration, environment and effective governance.  “Our philanthropic approach will be reflected through the lens of our own passions and experiences but rooted in analysis to ensure we are choosing wisely,” the couple said.

Brian Chesky

Brian CheskyBrian Chesky, 35, wants his philanthropy to spur youth entrepreneurship.  “We all live with unknown potential.  The younger you are, the more unknown it is,” Chesky said in his Giving Pledge letter.  “But the clock ticks by each day of your life.  And each day someone young isn’t exposed to what is possible, their potential slowly dims.”

The New York native credited a high school teacher and RISD professors for helping him to dream and see that he could “design the kind of world I want to live in.”

“You can have a lot of impact on someone just by showing them what is possible,” Chesky said.  “With this pledge, I want to help more kids realize the kind of journey I have had.  I want to show them that their dreams are not bounded by what they can see in front of them.  Their limits are not so limited.  Walt Disney once said, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’  I would like to help them dream.”

To learn more, visit Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge feature and check out individual profiles for Joe Gebbia, Nathan and Elizabeth Blecharczyk, and Brian Chesky.

-- Melissa Moy

New Online Portal Opens Up Ocean Conservation Philanthropy
April 20, 2017

(Amanda Dillon is Knowledge Services Manager for Foundation Center. A version of this article was first written for Alliance magazine.)

Amandadillon-150x150_125_125_s_c1Ocean conservationists and their supporters can now easily track funding for marine protection activities through a new online portal, FundingtheOcean.org.

The site aims to break down knowledge barriers and democratize access to critical information needed to drive ocean conservation philanthropy worldwide by centralizing access to essential data, resources, and tools.

With funding support from six major foundations, Foundation Center unveiled the portal this month. It offers free access to data on philanthropic, U.S. federal, bi/multilateral aid grants, and crowdsourced information about grassroots marine conservation organizations, enabling users to see data on who is working on ocean conservation around the world.

TW_General_440x220_v4Current figures indicate that while the ocean covers 71 percent of the earth's surface, less than one percent of all philanthropic funding has gone to support it since 2009. 

“This is a critical moment for the ocean,” said Bradford K. Smith, president of Foundation Center. “The decisions we make now will shape the ocean’s future, and the future of the lives and livelihoods of those that depend on it.”

With FundingtheOcean.org, users will be able to find funders, recipients and grants conveniently displayed by geographic area.  This data can help spur collaboration and maximize conservation efforts.  For example, users could potentially benchmark open data on marine protection funding to help them learn from the successes and failures of their peers; identify new ideas and approaches; and increase access to and awareness of conservation efforts.

Additionally, the website features eight case studies and a curated report collection featuring major conservation funders, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Packard Foundation, so that users can learn more about what’s working and what we’re learning about funding the ocean.

For more information: www.fundingtheocean.org

--Amanda Dillon

How Engaging Conversations Build Better Strategic Plans
April 11, 2017

(Michelle Hunter is Director of Strategy and Alignment for The Chicago Community Trust. A version of this blog first appeared in The Chicago Community Trust’s blog.)

MichelleMartinHunterBW-150x150“How did The Chicago Community Trust create its strategic plan?”

This is a question we hear frequently from our colleagues in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors who are working on their own strategic plans, and it’s easy to see why.

Strategic planning can be a complex business: cumbersome, messy and time-consuming. In fact, the very words “strategic planning” are often enough to draw sighs of despair from the most dedicated staff and board members.

Despite the challenges, though, it is critical for organizations to have clarity of vision for what they want to accomplish and how they’ll know if they’ve succeeded. And when creating a strategic plan, process is almost always as important as the final product.

For the Trust, our highest priority as we developed our new plan was to ensure that we were listening to the voices of our diverse body of stakeholders as much as possible.  We viewed opening up the Trust’s work as an opportunity to cultivate transparency, participation, learning and dialogue. 

“Opening up our work has helped build trust and collaboration with our stakeholders, and served to improve our processes.”

As a community foundation, the Trust exists to improve the quality of life for all who call the Chicago region home. If we were to create a plan that had a strong chance of succeeding, we needed to find a way for our process to include the input of many, not just a few.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to present itself: the year that we launched our strategic planning process was also the year of the first On the Table. 

On the Table is an annual Trust initiative. On one day a year, we invite residents of our region to come together with friends, colleagues and acquaintances to share a meal and to talk about what matters most to them and their communities.

How it works is simple: individuals and organizations sign up to host conversations on any topic of their choosing. The Trust provides a host toolkit  and a follow-up survey to learn what participants discussed.

The inaugural On the Table on May 12, 2014 drew about 11,500 participants from throughout metropolitan Chicago. We knew that the conversations would have a significant impact, not only on our region and the people who participated, but also on the direction of the Trust’s strategic plan. We eagerly awaited the results of the survey to learn what community members saw as the most pressing issues facing Chicago.

When the survey responses had been fully compiled and analyzed by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement,  we saw that the most frequently discussed topics at that year’s On the Table were:

  1. Education & youth development
  2. Community engagement
  3. Equity and social inclusion

It was uplifting to see that these and other topics that had been top of mind for us up to that point in our strategic planning process were also high priorities for community members.

Trust_logo_horizontal_CMYKIn addition, On the Table gave us the essential feedback from nonprofits we serve that the Trust’s grant application process was overly complicated, burdensome and derailing nonprofits from their missions. This input directly contributed to the launch of the Trust’s general operating grants program also known as GO Grants. The GO Grants program features a streamlined application process so that nonprofits can spend less time on the administrative work of seeking grants and more time on the vital services they provide to our region.

The experience of On the Table gave us the assurance that we needed to continue on our path of creating a strategic agenda for the Trust through 2020. And as many On the Table participants told us, the initiative provided a critical opportunity to tell their community foundation what was important to them. Opening up our work has helped build trust and collaboration with our stakeholders, and served to improve our processes.

No matter how you choose to engage your stakeholders in strategic planning, the important thing is that you engage them. It’s much easier to build full understanding and buy-in for a strategic plan among stakeholders by including them in the process as early as possible. And the plan itself will be much richer and stronger because of their contributions.

On May 16, the Trust will host its fourth On the Table and once again invite thousands of Chicagoans to engage with one another around mealtime conversations.

On the Table is a terrific opportunity to build deeper connections with your supporters and clients and to make progress together on shared priorities. If your organization is going through any kind of strategy development, you might consider using On the Table as a tool for connecting with your stakeholders. Visit www.onthetable.com to learn how.

--Michelle Hunter

Transparency Talk Welcomes Arcus Foundation to Glasspockets
March 29, 2017

(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets.) 

Arcus foundation logoWe are pleased to welcome Arcus Foundation to our community of foundations that have publicly commited to working transparently. By taking and sharing the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” (WHGP) self-assessment, Arcus is contributing to a growing collection of profiles that serve as a knowledge bank and transparency benchmarking mechanism.

Arcus, with its offices in New York and Cambridge, United Kingdom, advocates for global human rights and conservation movements: “Together, we learn from each other and take bold risks on groundbreaking ideas that drive progress toward a future of respect and dignity for all.”

“We strive to apply a high level of transparency in our operations and in our relationships with grantees, partners and other stakeholders.’”

This month, Arcus became the 87th foundation to join WHGP.  As a way of welcoming Arcus to the Glasspockets community, we’d like to highlight some of the ways in which this foundation openly shares its environmental and social justice work.

First, Arcus has pledged a rare commitment to openness in its transparency statement that is part of the website’s introduction to Arcus’ work.

The foundation uses its website to explain its grantmaking process,  shares expectations for grantees, and offers a searchable grantee map and database.  A short video invites and informs prospective grant applicants.

Other ways that Arcus lives up to its transparency statement is by opening up its knowledge via  grantee impact stories, reports, and a foundation blog.  Additionally, the foundation discloses more than a decade of its financial information

Enjoy exploring the work that Arcus is doing for social justice and the environment.  Perhaps it will inspire your foundation to become #88!  Does your foundation have glass pockets?  Find out

 --Melissa Moy

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 new Transparency Talk series devoted to putting the spotlight on the importance of the 990PF, 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 990PF 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

Apocalypse Later? Philanthropy and Transparency in an Illiberal World
March 6, 2017

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. As recently reported by Nonprofit Quarterly, the National Council of Nonprofits has launched a campaign to get nonprofits to sign a Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship that calls for preservation of the Johnson Amendment in its current form. This blog also appears in PhilanTopic.)

This post is part of a new Transparency Talk series devoted to putting the spotlight on the importance of the 990PF, 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 990PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool. 

Brad Smith PhotoHow long will it be before nonprofit transparency takes its place alongside diceros bicornis on the endangered species list? Hopefully never, but in a world that's growing more technologically sophisticated and more illiberal, I'm beginning to think that if it's not Apocalypse Now, maybe it's Apocalypse Later.

The value of transparency

Transparency has been a boon to the philanthropic sector, making it possible for organizations like Foundation Center, Guidestar, the Urban Institute, Charity Navigator, and others to create searchable databases spanning the entire nonprofit and foundation universe. Our efforts, in turn, contribute to responsible oversight, help nonprofits raise funds to pursue their missions, and fuel online platforms that enable donors to make better giving choices. Transparency also enables foundations to collaborate more effectively, leverage their resources more efficiently, and make real progress on critical issues such as black male achievement, access to safe water, and disaster response. The incredibly rich information ecosystem that undergirds the American social sector is the envy of others around the globe — not least because it gives us a clear view of what nonprofit initiative can accomplish, how it compares and contrasts with government, and how social, economic, and environmental issues are being addressed through private-public partnerships.

Where we are today

Federal law — U.S. Code, Title 26, Section 6104 — stipulates that public access to Form 990, a federal information form that tax-exempt organizations are required to file annually, must be provided promptly on request at the exempt organization's office or offices, or within thirty days of a written request. However, exempt organizations don't have to provide copies of their Forms 990 if they make these materials broadly available through the Internet, or if the IRS determines that the organization is being subject to a harassment campaign.

“ The social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts.”

In 2015, Carl Malamud, the Don Quixote of open data, dragged transparency into the digital age when he brought suit against the Internal Revenue Service to force it to make the 990s of a handful of organizations that had been filed electronically available as machine-readable open data. Malamud won, and, somewhat surprisingly, the IRS then did more rather than less to comply with the order: as of June 2016, all Forms 990 filed electronically by 501(c)(3) organizations are available as machine-readable open data through Amazon Web Services. As such, they can be downloaded directly in digital form and processed by computers with minimal human intervention. The development represents a victory not only for Malamud but for the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, which has toiled for years to make 990s more accessible. The idea, of course, is that free, open data on nonprofits will enable more innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to use the data in ways that help make the sector more effective and efficient. Since Malamud won his case, the IRS has posted some 1.7 million Forms 990 as machine-readable open data.

Philanthropy in a shifting world

The increasingly illiberal world in which we find ourselves was not made in America: it is a worldwide phenomenon born of globalization, income inequality, technology-driven unemployment, the unprecedented movement of migrants and refugees, and the specter of terrorism. The democratization of information driven by social media and the Internet also has been accompanied by distrust of traditional media, the narrowing of the space in which civil society organizations operate, and growing attempts to restrict thought and behavior. Author William Gibson (credited with inventing the term "cyberspace") presciently (if darkly) described a world we probably all recognize today in his 2003 reflections on George Orwell: "A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and quotidian degrees of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree on it any more readily." Indeed.

The bitter, divisive 2016 presidential election in the United States saw information from the 990s of the Clinton and Trump foundations used to support allegations of influence peddling, self-dealing, and the like. The resulting bad press and subsequent investigations by the New York State Attorney General's office caused both foundations to eventually announce that they planned to wind down their activities.

At the same time that foundations are being subjected to more scrutiny, we see a growing number of high-net-worth individuals turn to alternatives that require little or no transparency in exchange for the tax advantages they receive for their charitable giving. The most common of these are donor-advised funds administered by community foundations or investment firms such as Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab. Community foundations do file 990 tax returns, so information about each grant they award is reported and made available to the public, though without the identity of the donor. With the charitable gift funds sponsored by investment funds, however, information on individual grants remains invisible. Then there are newer, hybrid structures like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the LLC formed by the co-founder of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to "advance human potential and promote equal opportunity." There is no public disclosure requirement for the tax returns of LLCs, which means that any details we learn about the grants made by CZI will be what Zuckerberg, Chan, and their colleagues choose to tell us.

The first step?

So what are the implications of all this for the social sector in the Unites States? The media (traditional and social) has been on fire with stories about the Trump administration's intent to remove information on issues like climate change from government websites. In response, universities and others are rushing to download as much of that data to non-government servers as possible. In the same vein, it would not be difficult for the IRS to suddenly stop posting 990 tax returns as open data, especially given all the "trouble" they caused during the presidential campaign. This might be met by another Malamud-style legal challenge but that would take time to unfold. And if successful, this time around the IRS might comply by releasing only a handful of specific 990s rather than all those that have been digitally filed.

"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment

President Trump also has announced his intent to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision (named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson) in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Repeal of the provision could open the way for huge amounts of so-called dark money — donations from corporations, unions, and individuals aimed at influencing the outcome of elections — to find its way into 501(c)(3) organizations. Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits and foundations, the current recipients of such funds — primarily 501 (c)(4) and (c)(6) nonprofits — are not required to disclose their donors.

I am not a lawyer and may be out on a limb here, but overturning the Johnson Amendment would require an act of Congress, and would not be easy. Yet, if Congress decides to do so, it is not inconceivable that the administration, with the assent of Congress, could then remove the public disclosure requirement for Forms 990 in order (depending on your point of view) to: 1) protect donor privacy as an exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech; or 2) make it more difficult to "follow the money" when it comes to political campaigns.

If this were to happen, it is not entirely clear which constituencies would emerge to fight for the continued provision of Forms 990 as public information. Foundations, in particular, are not universally enthusiastic about having their grants and other information in the public domain for a variety of reasons (including privacy, journalistic scrutiny, and wariness of being swamped by applications for funding). What's more, in recent conversations with foundation leaders, I've heard concerns that when it comes to controversial issues such as immigration or charter schools, having their information made more visible could make them targets for harassment. And, of course, neither nonprofit organizations nor foundations enjoy filling out 990s, which like a lot of tax forms are long, time-consuming, and expensive to complete. Yes, organizations like the National Council of Nonprofits, Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations, and the Philanthropy Roundtable might rally to defend broad public access to Forms 990, but only if their members were firmly behind them.

Transparency and hope

Born in 1956 out of hostile McCarthy-era hearings accusing foundations of supporting "un-American activities," Foundation Center has worked for many years with the Internal Revenue Service and other organizations to build a public information system for philanthropy. GuideStar has done much the same for nonprofit organizations. The cornerstone of these systems has been data contained in the Forms 990. If access to these forms were reduced or eliminated, the transparency of the entire social sector — and with it the promise of greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation — would be an obvious casualty. It also would strengthen the position of those in government and the social sector, both here and abroad, who, for whatever reason, believe the need for donor privacy outweighs the value of transparency. Russell Leffingwell, a Republican banker and trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said it best in 1952 in his testimony to the Cox Commission declaring that his foundation "should have glasspockets." Leffingwell went on to say:

"I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk. If the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back and back and back so that our ignorance of ourselves and our     fellow man and of other nations is steadily reduced, there is hope for mankind, and unless those boundaries are pushed back there is no hope...."

At the end of the day, the social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts. We live in an age, illiberal or not, in which our mission to serve the public good to the best of our ability is powered by technology that allows us to share knowledge as never before. And knowledge is rooted deeply in transparency. Apocalypse later? We can't let that happen.

-- Brad Smith

From Good Idea to Problem Solved: Funding the Innovation Means Funding the Process
February 8, 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 Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Americas Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

Mandy Ellerton

Molly Matheson Gruen

Good ideas for solving our toughest social problems come from a variety of places. But, we need more than just good ideas – we need transparent and thoughtful ways to get community buy-in and a wide variety of perspectives to make those ideas a reality.

For a cautionary case in point, take the origin story (later chronicled in the book The Prize) of the ill-fated attempt to transform the failing Newark public schools. A prominent governor, mayor and, later, an ultra-wealthy tech mogul, hatched the idea to radically transform the schools in the back of a chauffeured S.U.V. Commentary suggests that these leaders did not consult community stakeholders about the plan, only half-heartedly seeking community input much later in the process. As one community member put it to these leaders, "You have forced your plans on the Newark community, without the

measure of stakeholder input that anyone, lay or professional, would consider adequate or respectful." To some observers, it's no surprise that without initial community buy-in, nor a transparent process and over $100 million later, the plan ultimately crashed and burned.

But, let's not throw stones at glass houses. The Newark example is indicative of a larger pattern especially familiar to those of us in the field of philanthropy. We've learned that lesson the hard way, too. Many of us have been involved in (well-intentioned) backroom and ivory tower deals with prominent community leaders to magically fix community problems with some "good ideas." Sometimes, those ideas work. But a lot of times, they don't. And unfortunately, we often chalk these failures up to innovation simply being a risky endeavor, comparing our social innovation failure rates to the oft-discussed (maybe even enshrined?) business or entrepreneurship failure rates. What's more, we almost never actively, sincerely discuss and learn from these failed endeavors.

But social innovation failure often comes at a cost, leaving behind disillusioned community members, bad outcomes for some of our most vulnerable, and lots and lots of wasted dollars that could have gone to something better. Take the Newark example: the failed attempt to transform the schools created massive civic disruption, re-awakened historic hurts and injustice and will likely leave community members even more skeptical of any future efforts to improve the schools.

Through our work at the Bush Foundation, we've learned that truly good ideas–those that will really have a sustainable impact–are often created in deep partnership and trust between organizations, leaders, and–most critically–the people most affected by a problem.

But, that kind of deep community partnership and transparency takes a lot of work, time, and attention. And, most everything that takes a lot of work takes some funding.

Community-innovation

That's why we created our Community Innovation programs at the Bush Foundation in 2013: to fund and reward the process of innovation–the process of solving problems. While the emphasis in innovation funding is often on "early stage" organizations or projects, we joke that we are a "pre-early" funder or that we fund "civic R & D." We provide funding for organizations to figure out what problem to address in the first place, to get a better understanding of the problem, to generate ideas to solve the problem, and then, after all that work (and maybe having to revisit some of the earlier stages along the way), the organization might be ready to test or implement a good idea. See how we depict that "pre-early" problem solving process here.

Most importantly, throughout the innovation or problem-solving process, we also look for particular values to drive the organization's approach: Is the organization genuinely and deeply engaging the people most affected by the problem? Is the organization working in deep partnership with other organizations and leaders? Is the organization making the most of existing resources?

Let's bring it to life. Here are three examples of the 150+ organizations we've funded to engage in a process to solve problems in their communities:

  • World Wildlife Fund's Northern Great Plains initiative is bringing ranchers, conservationists, oil business developers, and government officials together to create a vision for the future of North Dakota's badlands and a shared energy development plan that protects this important landscape.
  • PACT for Families Collaborative engaged truant youth, their parents, education staff, and service providers to understand barriers to school attendance and redesign services and test strategies for positive, sustainable solutions to truancy in western Minnesota.
  • Pillsbury United Communities is using human-centered design processes to engage North Minneapolis residents to address their neighborhood's food desert and create North Market: a new grocery store managed in partnership with a local health clinic that will also be a clinic, pharmacy, and wellness education center.

"We've learned that truly good ideas–those that will really have a sustainable impact–are often created in deep partnership and trust between organizations, leaders, and...the people most affected by a problem."

Our grantees and partners are teaching us a lot about what it takes for communities to solve problems. One of the biggest things we've learned is that collaborative projects often take far more time than anyone initially expects, for a variety of reasons. Over the past few years nearly a third of our grantees have requested more time to complete their grants, which we have readily agreed to.

For example, the Northfield Promise Initiative is a highly-collaborative, cross-sector, community-wide effort to address education disparities in Northfield, Minnesota. The initiative utilizes action teams composed of diverse stakeholders to drive its work. Early on in the project they decided to stagger the rollout of the teams rather than launch them all at once. That allowed them to take more care in composing and launching each team and allowed interested stakeholders to engage in multiple teams. In addition, later teams could learn from the successes and challenges of the earlier ones. As the grantee put it, "Partners felt strongly that it is important to give the process this extra time to ensure that all the different community voices and insights have been included (thereby maintaining this as a community-owned initiative)." We gladly extended their grant term from two years to four years so that they could spend the time they believed necessary to lead the problem-solving effort thoughtfully and inclusively.

Bush-altlogo-colorFor more helpful examples, here are a couple of resources to explore:

  • One of our innovation programs is an award for organizations that have a track record of solving problems with their communities, called the Bush Prize for Community Innovation. Together with our evaluation partner Wilder Research, we created a report about some of our Bush Prize winners that digs into specific conditions, methods and techniques that appear to help organizations innovate.
  • We believe storytelling and transparency inspire innovation. Our grantees openly share what they're learning as they pursue solutions to community problems in grantee learning logs. The learning logs also include references to specific techniques and methods the organizations use to pursue innovation.

As funders, we also have a role in the innovation process that goes beyond writing the check. By virtue of our relationships and portfolios, we have a bird's eye view of the field. By opening up what we are learning, we hope to build trust with our stakeholders and help others build on our work, hopefully leading to more and better future innovations.

-- Mandy Ellerton and Molly Matheson Gruen

From Early Stage Funding to Lasting Impact: The Venture Philanthropy Approach to Funding Innovation
February 1, 2017

(Christy Chin, Managing Partner at Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation [DRK], is instrumental in finding, funding and supporting DRK entrepreneurs, as well as cultivating and engaging DRK’s network of donor partners. As a venture philanthropy firm, DRK provides critical early stage capital to social enterprises tackling some of society's most challenging issues.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

Christy Chin Photo - DRKWow! How time flies by when a partnership works so well.  As I prepared for my final Watsi board meeting, I reflected on how much Chase and his team had accomplished and what a joy it is to be part of their quest to make healthcare accessible to all. 

In July 2013, we first met Chase Adam.  It was only a few days after he had pitched Watsi, the first nonprofit to be accepted into Y-Combinator.  In no time, Ron Conway, Tim and Billy Draper were urging DRK to take a look at Watsi.  Chase was ready to make the case for Watsi to be in the DRK portfolio, and he had a few questions of his own.  From the first meeting, there was a constructive and respectful exchange because we were aligned on the end goal – healthcare for all.  As a venture philanthropy firm, DRK conducts rigorous due diligence, not unlike the way in which a venture capital firm evaluates a for-profit investment.  These are our key questions:

Is it addressing an important social issue?

Definitely. A large percentage of our work at DRK is focused on global health, so we know that access to medical care, especially surgical treatments, is a critical problem.

Watsi, the first global crowdfunding platform for medical treatments, leverages scalable technology to solve a substantial need for patients abroad.

Chase’s commitment to radical transparency was distinctive. From the very beginning, Watsi allowed anyone and everyone to see how the money was moving and how the patients’ treatment, with their consent, was progressing.  Transparency of funding increased accountability from the moment a patient’s profile was shared to the delivery of the medical procedure. There was an elegance to Watsi that was extremely appealing.  

“ We firmly believe that multi-year, unrestricted funding is precious capital that nonprofits need to build organizational capacity.”

Is the solution being proposed likely to create meaningful change?

Yes, early results were promising.  In the first seven months after launch, Watsi processed more than 3,700 donations and funded medical treatments for more than 250 patients abroad. DRK has seen many success stories of how technology can enable rapid transformation of an ecosystem, and we truly believe in the power of technical innovation to make an impact on vulnerable populations.

Does the leadership team have potential?

Even though Watsi was still in its early stages, I was confident that Chase had what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. His passion for the mission was contagious, and he was clearly a resource magnet. Chase was able to attract both financial and human capital to support his vision.  

Is the solution scalable?

At the time, Watsi was already operating across 13 countries and working diligently to identify new partners to scale this model. Today, Watsi operates in 24 countries globally.

DRK bet on Chase in 2013 because we saw the potential for this model to dramatically shift the way governments and institutions fund healthcare treatments abroad, with real-time data collection and complete transparency. I had the privilege of joining Watsi’s board for those three years; DRK requires a DRK representative serve on all grantee boards. As part of DRK’s portfolio support and board service, we openly share our networks to help connect our entrepreneurs with people we believe can catalyze their efforts. In return, we ask for a three-year projection of the organization’s metrics and milestones that demonstrate the impact the entrepreneur hopes to achieve while s/he is an active member of the DRK portfolio. We also expect that the entrepreneur will regularly engage with DRK through written progress updates and in-person check-ins, as well as ongoing conversations with the board representative and, as needed, other key members of our finance, operations, and development team.  

I was fortunate to be joined on the Watsi board by Premal Shah, President of Kiva (an early DRK grantee), and experienced firsthand the power of the DRK network coming full circle.  In December, as my final board meeting with Watsi approached, I reflected on what made Watsi a great example of why we at DRK are so passionate about our work and strongly believe in this investment approach.  

DRK stacked logoDRK was founded in 2002 by Bill Draper and Robin Richards, two highly successful venture capitalists who chose to leverage their success in the venture capital world, applying their skills, expertise, and resources to solve complex social issues. DRK’s venture philanthropy model has been shaped by Bill and Robin’s legacy – we find, fund, and support early stage social entrepreneurs whose ideas have the potential to drive systems-level change.

Since our founding, we’ve raised $110 million in private capital and funded over 100 social enterprises – and we’re aiming to double that number over the next five years. We seek out entrepreneurs with qualities that we know are critically important – vision, energy, determination, courage, passion, and empathy. Our entrepreneurs are tackling important challenges across the globe, including healthcare, education, social justice, poverty alleviation, and the environment.

In the 15 years that DRK has been involved in this work, we’ve learned some powerful lessons that we hope to share with the funding community.  We firmly believe that multi-year, unrestricted funding is precious capital that nonprofits need to build organizational capacity.

We’ve also learned that handing over grant dollars alone isn’t enough. At DRK, the biggest difference we can make for our grantees is providing them with unrelenting support and serving as an advocate on behalf of their organizations.  We’re one of the first institutions to believe in their vision, and we never stop asking the tough questions. As a team, we’ve developed pattern recognition from sitting on many diverse boards and have gained a deep understanding of the challenges our entrepreneurs are likely to face. However, there is always a level of risk we have to account for, and not every DRK portfolio organization becomes a successful endeavor. We are incredibly fortunate to have a supportive board and a community of donor partners that not only accept, but encourage our team to take those risks and explore new possibilities with the potential for great impact.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of our entrepreneurs’ efforts across the globe, and I encourage you to take a moment to visit DRK’s website (www.drkfoundation.org) to learn more. For any institutions interested in exploring the venture philanthropy model, please contact us and we would be more than happy to share our learnings. We have seen the difference that early-stage funding can make for social entrepreneurs. I hope the next time your organization comes across an entrepreneur like Chase, an extraordinary leader with a big idea, you too will make that bet.

--Christy Chin

 

Fueling Innovation Through Competition
January 25, 2017

(June Sugiyama is director of Vodafone Americas Foundation, leading programs for social impact innovation.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

June Sugiyama PhotoInnovation is a word used so frequently that perhaps it has become almost trivial. Globally, we use innovation to describe many things, from new technologies, to new processes, to disruptive ideas, but the action of innovation itself becomes harder to define, and harder still to execute. Countless ideas are abandoned because entrepreneurs could not find the proper funding or mentorship to build their idea from a mere thought to a reality.  

Many entrepreneurs and startups will turn to venture capitalists (VCs) to try to gain funding and support, but it is a challenge in and of itself to get a meeting with a VC, much less secure VC money. This is where foundations and philanthropies, which might be more poised to take risks, can help fill the gap by providing grants to new social impact ideas and start-ups. At the Vodafone Americas Foundation – whether through grants or competition – our goal is to support organizations that use wireless technology to impact change, spark innovation, improve lives, transform the global development sector, or empower women and girls.

“ Countless ideas are abandoned because entrepreneurs could not find the proper funding or mentorship to build their idea from a mere thought to a reality.”

One avenue we take to support organizations – whether a nonprofit, university project, or start-up – is to provide traditional grants earmarked to help develop their product or service to drive social good. However, traditional grants are not the only model for supporting innovation; companies and foundations big and small are developing competition programs to help good ideas develop and move forward. A competition with specific criteria and parameters becomes a refined filter to find driven and passionate individuals - not an arbitrary search. Both commercial and philanthropic organizations host competitions to find the perfect match for unique, effective, innovative, and sustainable solutions to rise to the surface.

Specifically, for us, since Vodafone is a telecommunications service provider, we focus on the ability of mobile technologies to drive innovation for those in need. Because mobile technology is ubiquitous, with over 7 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, it is one of the most effective tools for social change. Innovative mobile solutions have already started to change economies through mobile money, mobile micro-loans, delivery of healthcare through mHealth, education through mobile platforms, and so much more.

VAF_WIP-w-o-winner-block_3inEach year we look for new ideas that leverage mobile for a better world through our Wireless Innovation Project, (WIP) a competition.  The competition is designed to promote innovation and increase the implementation of wireless-related technology. The competition recently opened its ninth annual call for submissions. In March 2017, we will select the winners, with first place receiving $300,000; second place $200,000; and third place $100,000. The winners can receive both the funding and potential mentoring they need while we can invest in the causes and services that are important and meaningful to our mission.

We are excited each year for the WIP competition because it provides unique opportunities for entrepreneurs and the Foundation alike. For example:

  • We get to see their passion firsthand. Each year, we ask the finalists to pitch their project in person at our California offices. This provides us the opportunity to meet new entrepreneurs (and for them to meet one another) to witness their drive and passion for the project. Although there are costs for the Foundation to hold in-person competitions and get everyone under one roof, we feel strongly about getting to know the person behind the innovation; we need to know that they are as committed as we are to ensure a good partnership.
  • Competition brings out the best. In a competition format, naturally there are winners. Driven by a prize and inspired by their peer competitors, all participants are compelled to perform at their very best. A competition sometimes forces people to think outside of the box and go beyond their original concept to differentiate themselves throughout the competition. Within just the competition period itself, entrepreneurs and their ideas may undergo multiple evolutions to arrive at a distilled, quality product or service. The competition format also allows participants to become inspired by one another’s work in a way that is not often possible in traditional grantmaking in which grantees blindly compete against one another.
  • Focus more on potential than current status. What happens when you have a great idea and not much to show for it yet because it’s simply a little early? While it may not be true for all competition models, our Wireless Innovation Project makes it easier for entrepreneurs to highlight the potential of a product or idea and win the competition based on the future impact it can drive versus actual business results seen to date. This allows a greater range of companies, especially start-ups, to gain funding where they may not have been able to otherwise. Our prize money might be just what they need and just at the right time to propel them to where they need to go, like completing a prototype or testing a market.
  • Gather multiple ideas at once. Our annual competition seeks innovations in more than one issue area so it allows us to tap into a diverse source of information and ideas, all at the same time, as well as support these ideas in a bigger way. While we work with different organizations throughout the year for traditional grants, the WIP competition opens up the possibility for us to witness an individual solution or organization to grow and evolve. In one year, we may have a winner that has a solution for the environment and another for financial inclusion. It is truly an engaging experience to learn about, guide, and finally support so many novel and potentially valuable ideas. The WIP competition allows us to generate new connections that we previously may not have made through the traditional grant-giving route. We can break out of our own network to create larger, more integrated networks with entrepreneurs and startups across multiple industries as we make connections with almost all the applicants – not just the winners. We hope that with these partnerships that we create and foster, we continue to make sustainable and dynamic discoveries for solutions that impact great change. 

There are many competition models across the industry, but our model has already identified outstanding innovations that have gone on to win more accolades and additional funding, which has allowed them to reach market and even expand their solutions to create greater impacts. Two of the many notable examples are Mobile ODT, which uses a phone camera for colposcopies, and Nexleaf, which makes a vaccine monitoring platform. Each has been able to turn their ideas into scalable solutions that are revolutionizing healthcare capabilities in emerging markets.   

Finding what was never imagined possible is why so many foundations, companies, and even governments take advantage of the competition model. The model allows brilliant ideas to come forward and help solve specific, important issues in our world today.

--June Sugiyama

 

Learn from the Transparency Challenge Highlights Reel
January 19, 2017

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives. A version of this post first appeared on the James Irvine Foundation blog.)

Janet Camarena PhotoWho doesn’t love a challenge? Marathons and Olympic events spur individual athletes to break records, mountaintops invite climbers to scale greater heights, and moonshot challenges motivate innovators to aim for the impossible. Could transparency pose similar challenges and opportunities for philanthropy?

Last November, Glasspockets launched a new feature designed to inspire foundations to greater transparency heights. Using data gathered from 81 foundations that have taken and shared the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency assessment, the Glasspockets team identified transparency benefits and trends in a new Foundation Transparency Challenge infographic.  Since it’s often easier to learn by example, the infographic serves as a highlights reel showcasing foundations that are succeeding where most fear to tread, and this post digs in a little deeper to help other foundations learn from some of the selected examples.

Less Pain, Much to Be Gained

The Foundation Transparency Challenge reveals the toughest challenges for philanthropy — those elements that are shared by the fewest participating funders.

The infographic curates the hundreds of documents we have aggregated in Glasspockets to highlight those that can serve as good examples, including pain points for the field such as providing assessments of overall foundation performance, codes of conduct, and grantee feedback mechanisms. Below are observations about each of these based on some good examples from our collection of participants, along with an explanation of why these particular examples were selected.

Assessment of Overall Foundation Performance

Opening up how a foundation measures its own progress develops a culture of shared learning across the field. Despite the fact that many foundations emphasize impact assessment for their grantees, few lead by example and share how they measure their own progress.

Transparency Challenge - Shared Learning Infographic
Only 22 percent (18 foundations) of the 81 Glasspockets participants use their websites as a vehicle to share an overall foundation performance assessment though some do (The James Irvine Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the New York State Health Foundation.)

Irvine’s assessment is also unique because it is updated annually, aligned to the rhythm of a foundation annual report — a good tip for those considering how to make the ritual of the annual report a more beneficial exercise.

Another common pitfall is foundations often focus all of their assessment efforts on the grantmaking side. Dashboard metrics in these three examples of performance assessments include things like social media, reputational capital, communications and learning, staffing, financial performance, and funding in diverse communities, in addition to programmatic dashboards. In other words, they look at the institution as a whole.

Grantee Feedback Mechanism

Providing a way for grantees to provide a foundation with ongoing feedback serves to strengthen relationships with stakeholders and creates a culture of continuous improvement, yet only 31% of our sample do so. Most foundations have a contact form of some kind, but few take the step of creating a form specifically for feedback year-round. Opening up a foundation’s website in this way helps break down the insularity of philanthropy.

“Learn from a new Transparency Challenge infographic, which serves as a highlights reel showcasing foundations that are succeeding where most fear to tread.”

Because it is difficult for foundations to receive unvarnished feedback, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation uses a neutral third party service to collect confidential feedback, in addition to giving the option of providing the foundation with direct feedback at any time.

Another obstacle for feedback is grantee time. A good step taken by both Packard and the Barr Foundation is to provide prompts that make it easier for the grantee to consider areas in which they might have advice for the foundation.

In the case of Barr, its online form resembles a Yelp review format that allows a star rating and offers a quick multiple-choice survey in addition to the ability to provide an open-ended response.

Code of Conduct

Finally, posting a Code of Conduct is a small but simple way to build credibility and public trust by demonstrating an institution’s commitment to professional and ethical conduct. Many foundations do not post a code of ethics or guiding principles, but even for those who do, surprisingly few explain what happens if the code is violated.

The codes of conduct offered up by Commonwealth Fund, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation are good examples for peers; they include rules of engagement that one might expect, and they also have rare but important details about the consequences of a code violation.

These are just a few of many examples in “The Transparency Challenge” infographic, so take a look to see which examples might inspire you to the next mountain peak on your journey to openness. In a future post I’ll review the remaining examples we highlighted and why.

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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