Transparency Talk

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May 2011 (3 posts)

Creating a Value Base for Transparency in Europe
May 25, 2011

(Lisa Jordan is the executive director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, based in the Netherlands. The mission of the foundation is to improve opportunities for children up to age eight who are growing up in socially and economically difficult circumstances. The foundation sees this both as a valuable end in itself and as a long-term means to promoting more cohesive, considerate, and creative societies with equal opportunities and rights for all.)

Lisa Jordan On the eve of the European Foundation Centre's Annual Meeting, I find myself musing over articles regarding issues of transparency and accountability. Helmut Anheier recently wrote an article in Alliance Magazine calling out European foundations for their lack of transparency and accountability ("Nagging issues for Europe's Foundations"). Gerry Salole, chief executive of the European Foundation Centre (EFC), and Luc Tayart de Borms, managing director of the Kind Baudouin Foundation, wrote an eloquent response in the same magazine issue, conceding some charges but also dispelling certain "myths" about the practices of European foundations.

We could actually benefit the most from sharing our basic information with each other because it helps all individual foundations to be more visible; it adds credibility and weight to our actions as a sector... These are not simple issues. With experience in the United States and Europe in prominent foundations and an avowed practitioner of transparency, I am constantly challenged by the complexity inherent in being transparent, never mind accountable. Here are a few examples that showcase that complexity:

Shared norms and values

The challenges we encounter with the principles of transparency and accountability are not unique to the philanthropy community; they cut across the whole of Europe and across every sector. Concepts that rise to the level of being norms require shared values, but it seems transparency and accountability are still being negotiated. I don't know what the view of Europe looks like from Spain or Germany, but from the Netherlands it is pretty apparent that European nations and peoples have not yet agreed on a normative transparency practice. The differences amongst cultures are very large, with the value of transparency assigned quite highly in places like the U.K., and privacy rights and the concomitant willingness to trust valued highly in other cultures. A comparison with the United States on these issues leads to unrealistic expectations because the U.S. has culturally shared national norms and values on transparency and accountability, as well as specific laws for the philanthropy sector to reinforce them. Europe has neither.

Just this week I bumped up against this issue when what I considered to be a "normal" transparency practice—listing how much money the Bernard van Leer Foundation has invested in each project supporting Roma children—was in fact not the shared norm amongst 12 European foundations all supporting Roma communities. Other types of information were shared but the level of investment, not. Shared norms and values are an essential first ingredient to greater transparency.

Defining the stakeholders

Defining the stakeholders whose needs could be met by greater transparency and accountability would be an important, persuasive argument for foundations in Europe to understand the value of creating a common information source about our work and, more critically, the rationale to invest in it. But, the stakeholders demanding greater transparency and accountability from European foundations are not readily identifiable. Is it the beneficiaries? The media? The national governments? These stakeholders continue to firmly identify and operate within a national context. National governments are demanding transparency within their own national borders. Beneficiaries, a primary stakeholder for any foundation, are themselves not identified as Europeans—an important condition to becoming a stakeholder in a European context. And the pan-European media like Euronews is not yet focusing on European civic stakeholders of any sort.

Oddly enough, the key stakeholder that comes to mind is European foundations. It is us. We could actually benefit the most from sharing our basic information with each other because it helps all individual foundations to be more visible; it adds credibility and weight to our actions as a sector; it makes us smarter in our daily actions as we can more easily share knowledge on common themes; and lastly, it keeps us from wasting scarce resources by eliminating duplication of efforts.

Moving forward

The place to watch for greater transparency is in foundation collaborations. The EFC Forum for Roma Inclusion as noted above has just begun to develop a shared database on projects supporting Roma communities. What information is considered "normal" to share becomes an immediate point of discussion and through that discussion standards are developed. Other collaborations like that spearheaded by Mama Cash on gender issues generate an immediate need and value for greater transparency.

Fortunately, we are all much better equipped today to actually improve our practice as technology gains and networks grow. The creation of the EFC and the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) and a common currency help to resolve many of the obstacles formerly making it difficult to gather and compare information across the continent. When we are able to develop common European philanthropic transparency practices we will be in a much better position to address transparency's big sister: accountability.

— Lisa Jordan

Does Transparency Make Foundations More Effective?
May 19, 2011

Bruce Trachtenberg is the executive director of the Communications Network. This post originally appeared on the blog of the Center for Effective Philanthropy as part of the coverage of its 2011 Conference.

Bruce Trachtenberg

The subject of foundation transparency – especially to whom and for what purpose – can sometimes be murky. While there's no doubt that foundations should be transparent – and I can't imagine anyone disagreeing with that – to me it's not simply a question of whether transparency is a good thing. But rather, what additional benefits accrue to foundations that are transparent? Are they more effective? Are they better known? Are they better liked or is their work more appreciated? Put another way, is the right starting point for a conversation about transparency a question like, "Does being transparent make foundations more effective?," or should we be asking, "Is it possible to be an effective foundation without also being transparent?"

At a May 10th panel at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conference, a group of wise and experienced foundation and nonprofit hands tackled the question on the role of transparency in foundation operations. The presenter, Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, was ably backed up by commentators Paul Brest, president, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Diana Aviv, president and CEO of Independent Sector, and moderator Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

There's what might be called a moral imperative for foundations to be transparent. As Smith said, "Foundations are created to serve the public good, and they need to explain what they do in terms the public can understand." That includes being clear about their purpose and demonstrating their performance. Notably, Paul Brest pointed out the risk to foundations that aren't transparent. Only by being transparent can foundations get meaningful feedback about their work. Not surprisingly, Diana Aviv reminded the audience that one of the benefits of foundations behaving transparently is that it helps grantees understand their standing with the organizations that fund them, and can even be helpful in understanding the reasons why they get turned down for funding.

As a group, they did a valuable service by not limiting themselves to trying to answer that question exclusively about a link between transparency and effectiveness. Instead, in their comments – and in queries from the audience – the session raised many other companion questions that could themselves be individually debated in subsequent sessions. Those questions ranged from:

  • How do you define transparency?
  • What is the relationship between transparency and accountability?
  • Is transparency always the most effective strategy?
  • What are the costs as well as administrative burdens to transparent organizations
  • Is there a role for foundation boards in setting parameters of transparency?
  • Whose job is it to ensure a foundation is transparent?

But at the heart of the conversation was an almost a priori belief that the more that foundations openly share information about their work with the public, policymakers, grantees, and other funders, etc., the better they are able to advance their missions.

The ultimate question – Does being more transparent make you a more effective organization? – is one that has to be viewed through the lens of what makes for an overall effective foundation strategy. In other words, transparency can't be an end unto itself. But, instead, if there is an organizational commitment to behaving transparently and if foundations are willing to share what goes on inside, that can serve as the basis or starting point for all sorts of other activities that would be otherwise impossible without it.

For instance, it's unlikely that the motivation (not to mention the costs) in creating web sites, publishing grant data, sharing CEP grantee perception reports, or tweeting, blogging or having a presence on Facebook – plus all the other means and methods that Foundation Center tracks on its Glasspockets web site – is because a foundation decides it wants to be transparent. Rather, foundations that behave that way believe that the information they share (and how they share it) can contribute to advancing their work.

Stated another way, the path to effectiveness comes from a clear and thoughtful foundation strategy that includes the need to share information, communicate strategically, and be open to public scrutiny as an essential way of doing business.

At the outset, I said this topic can sometimes still be a murky one. That point was reinforced by Paul Brest who said his foundation, at times, sees the need to be less open about its strategies. For example, he maintains that there's no benefit when working in areas such as climate change or family planning to let your opposition know your strategy so they can use it against you.

Similarly, Diana Aviv noted that too much information – especially if it's not categorized or presented in a useful way – can create confusion.

Once again, it all comes down to identifying your goal and the most effective strategy to get you there.

No harm being transparent about that.

—Bruce Trachtenberg

Jeff Jarvis on Publicness and the Radically Transparent Foundation
May 11, 2011

(This podcast first appeared as part of Philanthropy News Digest's Talking Philanthropy series.)

In the latest installment of their monthly podcast series, hosts Larry Blumenthal and Bill Silberg talk to media expert Jeff Jarvis about his notion of the "radically transparent foundation" — a concept he put forward in a session at this year's Council on Foundation's annual meeting. Larry and Bill caught up with Jarvis after the meeting to discuss the reasons foundations need to embrace this growing trend of "publicness." Jarvis is director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism and author of the BuzzMachine blog.


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Total running time: 15 minutes

Do you know of a foundation that is radically transparent? Please let us know.

— Daniel Matz

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

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