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Transparency and Accountability in Today's Information Age
October 18, 2011

Jennifer Esterline(Jennifer Esterline joined the KDK-Harman Foundation in the fall of 2006 as its first program officer and was promoted to executive director in 2009. Prior to joining the Foundation, Jennifer served as a resource development director at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and also worked in Mexico for a time on issues related to civil society and philanthropy.)

Before I worked in the world of grantmaking, I raised money for a variety of nonprofit organizations, primarily from foundations. That job was sometimes frustrating because of the lack of transparency of many foundations—particularly smaller, local family foundations. Many of you can probably relate to my experience:  digging for information that usually leaves you feeling more confused than before; making inquiry calls to the foundation that never get returned; and receiving standard rejection letters that tell you nothing about why your request was declined other than the fact that “the foundation had more inquiries than funds available.” Sound familiar?

Bringing that experience with me to the KDK-Harman Foundation, both the staff and leadership of the Foundation vowed to change those “more typical” foundation practices. From the Foundation’s inception, we developed processes that ensured transparency and a feeling of customer service in our grantmaking. We took a strategy straight from the playbook of a much larger and well respected foundation in Texas by disseminating a survey to all of our applicants and grantees, which allows them to evaluate ease of application and reporting processes, the quality of interaction, and the responsiveness and knowledge of staff —whether or not they received a grant.

We also collaborate with other education grantmakers in our region through the creation of the Central Texas Education Funders group—a volunteer-led membership group of foundations that have worked together to create a common application and evaluation report for area nonprofits, learning opportunities around public education,  and even collective grantmaking. This collaboration is meant to ease the application and reporting processes of nonprofits in our region and provide opportunities for learning and sharing among its members and between grantmakers and grantees.

We also adopted many other recommendations from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), among others, that encourage foundations to support capacity building, provide operating support, invest in evaluation and evaluative learning, and establish open and honest dialogue between a foundation and grantees in order to learn from one another’s experiences. Our staff and board realized early on that the effectiveness of the Foundation was completely dependent on the effectiveness of our grantee partners, and as such, we’ve tried very hard to create an environment and relationship with grantees that allows them to have the greatest impact in their communities.

In order to evaluate our effectiveness, we developed a theory of change and a logic model early on that would give both staff and board members a clear picture of what we were trying to accomplish and determine benchmarks to measure progress towards those objectives.  All of these documents are updated regularly and available online on our web site, www.kdk-harman.org.

Assessing performance sounds daunting, but it is well worth the effort.  For small foundations like ours wondering how they should get started with the development of a logic model or other evaluation metrics, here is some specific advice based on our successes and lessons learned along the way:

  • Start small—you don’t have to hire an outside consultant and invest lots of money. Start by bringing your staff and board together during a half-day retreat to talk through elements of a logic model to start a first draft.
  • Collaborate—work with like-minded funders in your area to learn about their evaluation processes.
  • Revisit your performance tools often—logic models are never static, they change over time as the foundation learns more about their areas of expertise and as community needs change.

The staff and trustees of the KDK-Harman Foundation dedicate a lot of time to ensuring that the Foundation is held to the same standards that we expect from our grantees. As a foundation working to break the cycle of poverty through education in Central Texas, we are only as effective as our grantee partners. You don’t have to give away millions of dollars a year to invest in processes that ensure transparency, accountability, and learning within your foundation. Just a simple willingness to learn and an open mind will get you further than you realize.

-- Jennifer Esterline

 

Comments

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Hey Jennifer,

Good information...thanks for sharing! We still miss you at UT. All the best.

Gregory

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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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