Transparency Talk

« December 2010 | Main | February 2011 »

January 2011 (6 posts)

Two Cheers for the Giving Pledge!
January 31, 2011

(Bradford K. Smith is the president of the Foundation Center.)

Brad Smith Two cheers for the Giving Pledge! Why not three? The answer lies in a simple, yet challenging word and that is "transparency." As it stands now, the Giving Pledge is pure potential. Unless we are able to track how all the new money it will inject into philanthropy is actually spent, the impact on the world will never be known. But first, the cheering.

More money—Hooray!

Anyone who cares about philanthropy and its ability to increase opportunity and transform lives cannot help but be ecstatic about the Giving Pledge. You've seen the predictions: if all the billionaires on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans signed the pledge it would, quite simply, double the $600 billion currently devoted to philanthropy in the U.S. But the architects of the Giving Pledge—Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett—would undoubtedly be pleased if others around the globe got the bug. The second largest group on the Forbes World Billionaires list are, in fact, Chinese. That explains the Gates/Buffett trip to China and their plans for a similar sojourn to India.

Of course, not everyone will take the Giving Pledge. The China trip got mixed reviews and Carlos Slim has found a way to get publicity by stating proudly that he will not sign on (because he is too busy improving the world by making money from his businesses). But even Mr. Slim does more philanthropy today than anyone ever expected, so this move may be semantics or a reflection of his desire—as the world's richest man—to do things differently than his closet competitors. Anyway way you look at it, though, the Giving Pledge can turbo-charge philanthropy for decades to come and that is great news.

Leading by Example—Hooray!

Kudos to Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett for using their celebrity status and personal example to encourage others to become philanthropists. For all the debate about how private or public the resources of philanthropy should be, most all great philanthropy has started with powerful and immensely successful individuals. Bill and Melinda Gates walk the talk. They are the philanthropy world's equivalent of superstars and have dedicated some $28 billion to their foundation. Warren Buffett set an important example by investing a large share of his fortune in the Gates Foundation rather than creating yet another mega institution. Face it, the world economy seems to be generating a growing global class of the super rich, all of whom face a common problem: after investing and spending on themselves, what to do with all that wealth? The Giving Pledge gives them an answer: philanthropy.


An essential element of the Giving Pledge is the individual public "letter" that is posted on the web site. Reading through the pledges is fascinating and the themes of good fortune and "giving back" abound. It is not a contract, but rather a kind of vow that carries with it the extra degree of commitment inherent in a written, public pledge. But that is as far as it goes, at least in public. The Giving Pledge is a kind of billionaires' social movement whose rallies take the form of dinner parties. Many of the initial discussions about the idea and subsequent meetings with potential signees have taken place around private dinner tables. That is understandable given the kind of love/hate relationship the media and the public have with the rich and successful. And like anything else, people listen to and learn from their peers. I have no doubt that compelling stories of giving have been shared around those tables together with confessions about the burdens and responsibilities of extreme wealth.

But what’s really important is the good that may get done with all the private wealth the Giving Pledge will make available. And we will only know how the public good is being served to the extent that the signers of the Giving Pledge create their own foundations or, like Warren Buffett, entrust their money to another. For it is through foundation tax returns, their web sites, the electronic reporting of their grants and, in today’s world, their Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels that we learn about how philanthropy is changing the world. Some philanthropists may see this as a burden or as intrusion into their privacy but, in reality, it is simply good business. Philanthropy is a notoriously individualistic and inefficient industry. With more information available, philanthropists stand a better chance of knowing what their peers are doing, avoiding duplication, and finding ways to make real progress by working together.

Those who have taken the Giving Pledge will be pleased to know that I have no advice whatsoever on how they should spend their money: that is for them to decide. My only hope is to be able to let loose a third big cheer when they commit to being reasonably transparent about it. Transparency can make the difference between feeling good and doing good. And that is a goal that would seem to be consistent with the aspirations of the Giving Pledge.

— Brad Smith

Absolute Transparency: An Illuminating Approach to the Grantmaking Process
January 25, 2011

(Karen Topakian was the executive director of the Agape Foundation for 16 years. The Foundation merged in 2010 with the Peace Development Fund. Currently, she is the owner of Topakian Communications, a freelance writing and communications consulting business. You can find her on Facebook at Topakian Communications.)

Karen Topakian

Transparency in clothing can be provocative. Transparency in decision-making can be illuminating. That's what the founders of the Agape Foundation thought when they decided that their grantmaking process must occur in the light of day, in an environment of complete transparency.

Agape's full name, The Agape Foundation–Fund for Nonviolent Social Change, indicated its commitment to the practice of nonviolence in word and deed. The foundation believed that those with the power, the grantmaker, needed to act with openness and accountability toward those without, the grantseeker.

Most foundations conduct their grantmaking process behind closed doors, shrouding grantmaking activities in a secrecy that can perpetuate a perception of elitism. Such a perception damages the sector, and can breed ill will and mistrust.

By making the process transparent, grantmakers can speak directly to grantseekers and forge a partnership around shared values and actions. That transparency also provides an opportunity for grantseekers to see what parts of their proposal and organization resonate with funders, and what parts may be unclear or misunderstood.

It was this philosophy of transparency and partnership that drove the grant decision-making process among Agape's Board of Trustees. This body of activists and nonprofit leaders read, reviewed, and discussed the proposals after the staff eliminated those organizations which did not meet the guidelines. (Agape only funded young, California-based, grassroots nonviolent social change organizations.)

The board then winnowed the docket down to five to eight proposals that best matched Agape's mission and funding criteria. The real show, however, took place at the next phase of the grantmaking process: the session where the applicants made their presentations, live and in person.

These final candidates received an invitation to attend a day-long session. Often groups were invited because the board had questions that weren't answered in the proposal. An invitation did not guarantee funding, however.

At the granting session, the grantseekers were required to make a 10-minute presentation and answer questions from the board. Their participation need not have ended there. They were also invited to listen to other groups' presentations, join the board for lunch, witness their deliberations and final granting decisions, and participate in an evaluation of both the process and the session at the end of the day.

Board members and grantseekers had to abide by two rules of engagement:

  • Board members must use the question time to raise any outstanding concerns or questions about the proposal so that the grantseeker can address them
  • Grantseekers cannot speak during the board's deliberations

The lunch session allowed the board, staff, and grantseekers to build community by sharing food and camaraderie as partners and fellow activists—further breaking down the barriers between the grantmakers and the grantseekers. This informal part of the meeting also allowed grantseekers to meet each other and learn more about each other's work, with the hope that they would develop relationships, collaborations, and community.

After the presentations, the board began their official deliberations, deciding on grantees and grant amounts by consensus. Not all decisions came easily. Sometimes the board chose not to fund a proposal because they felt the organization was not capable of completing the work as described. Other proposals were declined because the presenter could neither adequately answer the board's questions nor address major concerns.

If that happened, the grantseeker would have known why from the questions and discussion that took place during their presentation. Those moments were always the hardest for all involved, but provided a valuable learning experience for the grantseeker.

Sometimes the board had difficulty reaching consensus on the amount of the grant. Through open and honest discussion, they reached an amount upon which all could agree.

The final item on the agenda, the evaluation of the process, included everyone. Now the grantseeker could share their thoughts and feelings about the experience, allowing Agape's board and staff to learn how their actions were seen and felt by others. This stage—like all the others—was always done with an eye toward improving the process the next time. Always done with an eye toward transparency.

— Karen Topakian

Why Glasspockets? An Interview with Foundation Center President Brad Smith
January 20, 2011

In an end-of-year conversation with Philanthropy News Digest, Foundation Center President Brad Smith shared his thoughts on a few of the topics that characterized 2010 and will likely shape 2011: the slow economic recovery and its impact on giving, the Giving Pledge campaign, and the meaning of transparency in a philanthropic context. We have excerpted his comments on transparency and posted them here.

Watch the video»

For the complete interview visit PhilanTopic blog»

— Daniel Matz

Foundations Fail at Failing
January 18, 2011

Michael Remaley is the director of Public Policy Communicators NYC and president of HAMILL REMALEY breakthrough communications.

"If you hit the bull's eye every time,
you've set the target too close."

I thought of this, one of my favorite aphorisms, at the Communications Network's annual conference last September when the Hewlett Foundation's Communications Director Eric Brown talked about his organization's "failed grantmaking" contest.  Hewlett's smart internal exercise forces each department to name one grant from its portfolio that did not meet expectations, think through and explain what went wrong and help the entire organization learn from its failure. 

This is a learning exercise that more foundations should consider adopting. But more than that, it is an important example of how Hewlett's leadership has set the tone for candor about the unavoidable truth of philanthropic experimentation: failure is part of the equation. 

It is no coincidence that Hewlett is also one of the few foundations that has talked publicly about initiatives that didn't live up to expectations. It is also no coincidence that Hewlett's profile on Glasspockets gives a good indication of its commitment to transparency.  I would assert that Hewlett's reputation for being one of the most innovative, thoughtful, and effective foundations is directly related to its transparency, willingness to publicly question its strategies, and forthrightness in discussing the limitations of its successes. And that reputation further enhances its ability to exert influence and make change.

The hard sciences learned the importance of sharing candid assessments of "failed" experiments centuries ago. In fact, scientists seem to treasure results that do not meet expected outcomes even more highly than those that confirm what is already believed to be true. 

I am hardly the first person to call upon foundations to talk more openly about failure, experimentation, and unexpected outcomes. (See list below.) Hewlett's Paul Brest seems to have really kickstarted the conversation in 2007 by writing and talking about his foundation's experiences. That was followed by Robert Giloth and Susan Gewirtz's seminal 2008 piece in Foundation Review, "Philanthropy and Mistakes: An Untapped Resource." Many others, including Bob Hughes, Larry Blumenthal, Edward Pauly, Grant Oliphant, and Sean Stannard-Stockton, have added important insights about the need for foundations to be more open about their lessons learned.  The conversation about failure and experimentation seemed to grow and deepen over the past three years.  So you might think that foundations would be making major changes in how they communicate about failure.  You would be wrong.

Foundations give a lot of lip service to supporting "experimentation" in social sciences. But you almost never hear them talking about outcomes that failed to meet expectations, and even more rarely, those that call their basic strategies into question. If foundations want to be real leaders in advancing social change, they must move past the endless happy-talk that makes every grant sound like a success. Instead, they should use their web sites to detail how they are evaluating their work and what they've learned from unexpected outcomes. 

A foundation sharing its experiences with grants gone wrong is still very much the exception.  Anyone who is on the receiving end of foundation annual reports and newsletters knows this is true.  But to substantiate my assertion, I decided to do a little systematic poking around.

I figured the 21 largest supporters of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (most of which are also supporters of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations) would be the foundations most attuned to the value of self-reflection, evaluation, and sharing results that defy expectations, and also those that would have budgets big enough to support substantial evaluation efforts. I spent many hours exploring the nooks of crannies of these foundations' web sites.  I looked at numerous publications and evaluation sections of the sites, and I searched each site on the terms failure, failed, unmet expectations, unmet objective, unmet goal, experimentation, mistake, lessons learned, and assessment.

What I found was that few foundations make it easy to learn from projects that didn't go as spectacularly as planned, let alone talk frankly about what has been learned from the shortcomings of foundation strategy or execution.   Many of the 21 foundations I examined made no mention at all of evaluation criteria and organizational outcomes, even though their association with CEP and GEO implies that they demand that kind of forthrightness from grantees. The majority of the foundation sites I examined had a few project evaluation reports scattered among other foundation supported research – and many of those evaluation reports were laudatory with pablum like "real collaboration is a challenge" tacked on at the end. 

Some of the best exceptions were Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation. Each of those foundations not only makes it easy to find many project evaluations that are balanced in presenting positive and negative outcomes along with what was learned through the process, but also present self-critical examinations of foundation strategy and progress as whole. It is also not a coincidence that each of those foundations' profiles on Glasspockets indicates a commitment to transparency demonstrated by making public an assessment of overall foundation performance.

But perhaps the best example – the foundation that gets the Gold Star for Succeeding in Failing – is the James Irvine Foundation. The evaluation section of its site describes their approach to evaluating grantee success and links to all of its individual evaluations of initiatives. It also links to a Foundation Assessment section that has foundation annual progress reports for the last four years.  These progress reports are exceptionally detailed and well-documented, as well as frank about successes and failures.  Irvine has also produced "Insights: Lessons Learned" publications with candid assessments of their experiences with collaborations and other grantmaking practices. A search of the Irvine site on "lessons learned" produces lots of useful and interesting evaluative information and insightful critical analysis.

We are all members of the social science community and contributors to the social experiment that is American philanthropy. We now have enough examples of foundations talking humbly about their shortcomings to know that such candor only accelerates social progress and enhances the reputations of those philanthropic leaders. We've seen no evidence that talking forthrightly about the real-world circumstances leading to failure damages nonprofits or the foundations involved, so I wonder why foundations seem so reluctant to take on this leadership role.

What has your organization learned from experiments that didn't meet expectations?

Selected Readings:
A Chronology of the Dialogue on Failure
and Experimentation in Philanthropy

— Michael Remaley

Building a Community for Excellence in Evaluation
January 10, 2011

(James Kemp has several years experience as a fundraiser and researcher with Oxford Research Group: an award-winning UK-based charity. In this role James worked closely with decision makers, independent experts, and the media to develop and promote policies relating to UK and international security. James has worked with Nominet since 2007, and is currently the Technical Department's Project Manager.)

Kemp_100 A Missed Opportunity

Project evaluation forms... what is a grantmaker to do? Generally, grantees would rather spend time on work that contributes directly to their objectives. Rightly so, given the use to which funders usually put data gathered through evaluation. But without high quality and well-designed project evaluation processes—plus good application of the data it creates—the consequences are great. Our communities of interest learn slower and are less efficient; funders are unable to reliably understand, predict, and communicate impact; and we are all less effective.

In short, project evaluation forms exemplify a missed opportunity; a difficult problem; a major under-utilization of data. How can we maximise the value of this aspect of grantmaking and social investment for the benefit of funders and grantees?

Addressing the Challenge and Adding Value

Being recently established, Nominet Trust can take a fresh approach to evaluation processes—and obstacles—from its earliest grant cycles. There is much to refine and test, but what may be of interest to various civil society organisations, is the tool we have built that lies at the centre of our evaluation process. The tool is called the Knowledge Centre (after Foundation Center naming conventions), and it is an open, searchable online library containing completed project evaluation forms as case studies. It is in the proof of concept stage, so we welcome feedback.

The Centre is not restricted to Nominet Trust grantees – which is critical. Anyone who has completed a project that matches one or more of our charitable objectives is invited to complete our online  case study form. (The content is covered by a Creative Commons license - Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK.)

Our  case study forms are short and ask questions designed for the benefit of people planning similar projects (e.g. questions to find out what people would do differently if they were to repeat the project). We also ask about partners, so in time we capture data for social network analysis. Feedback on this form would also be appreciated.

The Knowledge Centre is engaging and useful for both the people who submit forms and those who search for forms. Because each case study is published as a web page it can easily be shared via social media outlets. Forms also feature a contact button, project outputs like videos and reports, and reflect an organisation’s own branding. In effect, these pages double as an advertising platform and networking opportunity, which may be especially helpful for small to medium-sized organisations.

Benefits for Every Audience

So, how do we intend for this tool to be used? Well, in addition to searching the content, it will be possible to export the entire database as a spread sheet. We believe our Knowledge Center can serve a range of groups. 

Potential grantees would be expected to research the Knowledge Centre before applying, and adapt their project design accordingly. The tool is also designed for connecting people who share objectives: hopefully we’ll see more partnerships, resource sharing and maybe merges. One hope of this tool is that we improve efficiency across the community.

Nominet Trust intends to take each application we receive and cross reference Knowledge Centre data to evaluate the method, understand where the organisation fits into social networks, judge whether they have learned from others, and make well-informed decisions with a strong strategic overview. We expect to benefit from the knowledge-sharing and learning opportunities this tool presents, as much as other users. We also intend to analyse the content to understand and communicate more about models of change that are most effective, and so on.

Policy makers and researchers will benefit from the data set built by the Knowledge Centre over time. For example, you could take all case studies against a particular need within a certain region and time, and ask a researcher to analyse our data (along with other sets) to help assess the impact of certain initiatives, organisations or networks, markets or polices, etc. Knowledge Centre data will be available for mashing up with other data sets.

Beyond these primary users, anyone who is interested in civil society activities directed towards shared charitable objectives can use this tool to learn more about what’s going on, who’s doing what, what they would do differently if given the chance, and who to contact. We are simply making data available; we look forward to discovering what people do with it.


First Steps and High Ambitions

The first step is to get the design right, We have released our Knowledge Centre as a “proof of concept” so that we can benefit from feedback. The next and hardest challenge will be populating the database. We face an age old problem: how to incentivise people to divert resources to the creation of what could become a common good, if enough people participate? For our own grantees, inclusion in the Knowledge Centre is a grant condition. Knowledge Centre’s potential depends, however, upon a breadth and depth of data which Nominet Trust cannot generate alone.

Demonstrating the potential through advertising, blogs, and other communication channels will help, but these efforts will not be enough to reach a critical mass. We will appeal to people’s better judgment, but this could take a long time.  Maybe we can build a useful network of participants? Maybe other organisations working to our objectives can incorporate it into their own evaluation and case study management processes?

We have high ambitions for this tool. It is no panacea, but if we can generate enough content for its value to be proven, it could become immensely informative. It could serve as the basis for coordination (between grantees and funders). It could be put to all sorts of uses that improve project and organisational effectiveness, use resources more efficiently, inform policy making, and help to realize our common objectives.

Imagine if many funders implemented a similar tool, and used common vocabularies to create a database for social change. We do not underestimate the challenge we have set for ourselves. Building the Knowledge Centre is only the first step. Our hope is that many other people join us. Together we could build a tool with the power to make an immense contribution to civil society.

— James Kemp

TMI vs. ROI: Risks and Rewards of Philanthropy 2.0
January 4, 2011

(Paul Connolly is Senior Vice President of TCC Group, a management consulting firm that serves nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporate community involvement programs.) 

Paul ConnollyAre "glass pockets" in the digital age half empty or half full? The answer is not so clear, based on the intriguing nuggets that surfaced when I moderated a panel discussion on "Philanthropy 2.0 — The Role of Digital Media, Technology, and Networks" at Yale School of Management's Philanthropy Conference on December 3, 2010. The panelists included Ken Berger of Charity Navigator, Claire Lyons of the Pepsico Foundation, Michael Smith of the Case Foundation, and Jose Zamora of the Knight Foundation. They all agreed that grantmakers can't afford to ignore social media as its saturation grows. They talked specifically about how funders are using digital technology to tap crowd input for influencing funding decisions and to enhance accountability and transparency. The discussion raised some provocative questions.

The Rewards of Crowdsourced Philanthropy

More grantmakers are utilizing online crowdsourcing techniques to engage a wide audience in suggesting funding ideas and priorities. Zamora explained that the Knight Foundation has employed open web-based applications because, "We do not have all the answers, and we often do not even know the right questions; it is too presumptuous for funders to assume that they can adequately identify the best priorities on their own." Through the Knight News Challenge (which has the tagline "you invent it, we fund it"), the Knight Foundation has been able to identify a variety of off-the-radar ideas for journalism. Innovative projects that have been funded include online town halls, digital courtroom coverage, virtual eyewitness video-editing studios, and hyper-local and data-filled maps for community media web sites.

Over the past year, Pepsico has made $20 million in grants through its Pepsi Refresh campaign based on public internet voting on its funding priorities. This online project has served to build the company's brand and increase customer participation and loyalty, as well as support a variety of good causes.

And while relinquishing some control is an inherent part of these interactive approaches to grantmaking, funders need not give it ALL up. One Case Foundation online program that supports citizen-centered solutions lets the public vote to determine an initial cut, but the foundation staff members make the final recommendations for grants.

Risks of Using Interactive Digital Media in the Nonprofit World

Although the Internet provides enormous opportunity for more openness, accountability, and innovation, technology is a platform for collective engagement but not the solution itself. As Lyons noted, "Crowdsourcing is a surgical tool, not a panacea." The hard work of improving communities remains, and won't be magically managed by crowds. Beyond misconceptions about the role of technology, we must also look to the risks of such 2.0 approaches.

The truth is, crowdsourcing can also misfire. Sometimes crowds are wise, and sometimes they are, er, less wise. The resulting broad input can end up being superficial – the philanthropy equivalent of "cute baby" photo contests or slacktivist-style "bumper-sticker" causes. Berger cautioned that for nonprofits, online marketing of "best stories" or "happy news" too often overshadows hard evidence of proven results. (Charity Navigator's motto is "use your head so your heart does not get broken.")

And although the Internet may feel like a more open and level playing field, power imbalances between funders and grantseekers still exist. Participants in one Case Foundation online grant voting program, for instance, reported being less than completely honest with the foundation because it still controlled the purse strings – and therefore held the financial prospects of these organizations in the balance.

Information Overload?

The ubiquity of online tools raises other questions. There are now 62 online information intermediaries in the nonprofit rating information space. Facebook Co-founder Chris Hughes added to the mix last month when he launched yet another called Jumo. While these resources provide the public with diverse choices, donors have also clearly stated that they want information that is easy to access and understand. Are funders — who financially support many of these sites — contributing to information overload? Is there too much fragmentation and should some of the sites consolidate?

Despite the proliferation of online rating sites for nonprofits, we do not see an excess of such sites for foundations. But such a scenario may not be far off — and would certainly shake things up. Would nonprofits — and funders themselves — benefit from a user-generated review site like Yelp for foundations?

— Paul Connolly

Share This Blog

  • Share This

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

  • Enter your email address:

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

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact: