Transparency Talk

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Turning Inside Out
November 10, 2011

Marie Deatherage

(Marie Deatherage has directed communications at Meyer Memorial Trust since 1996. She has also worked as a program officer, college professor, researcher, disability rights advocate, journalist, editor and publisher. She has degrees from the University of Chicago and University of Oregon and has never met a disruptive technology she didn't like.)

Before I began working for a foundation, I had never dared approach one. Even though I was executive director of a struggling nonprofit that sorely needed money, we couldn't muster up the courage to fill out a grant application.

Then on my third day at Meyer Memorial Trust (MMT) -- the largest private foundation in the Pacific Northwest at the time -- I marveled to our executive director, Charles Rooks, "OMG, you really want to give money away. You really, really do. I had no idea!"

I had thought of foundations as moated fortresses that operate by a secret rich-people code that a mere working class mortal like me could never crack. No point thinking about applying for a grant; I wouldn't even know how to act.

I had pictured a bunch of enormously wealthy dudes, sitting around a table made from the rarest of tropical woods in a tastefully-appointed cloistered conference room, playing Jenga with wads of cash.

Some of my off-put views came from what I heard others say. I'll never forget being in a meeting with a group of influential Oregonians, hearing one of them say, "The only way to get a grant from Meyer Memorial Trust is to play golf with one of their trustees." Who wouldn't be intimidated?

But when I began to work for Meyer Memorial Trust, I was shocked by how wrong my perceptions were. I quickly learned that most staff members came from anything but privileged backgrounds. Even more stunning, as I got to know the five trustees, I discovered their back stories were just about as humble as my own. Wow.

I was baffled. Why did things look so different on the inside and outside? It took me a while to realize that my mistaken imaginings had largely been created in a vacuum, and it was an absence that allowed them to flourish. Because I had never been presented with an opportunity to see inside a foundation for myself, it was all too easy to conjure up a worst case scenario. And if the only weapon against misperceptions on the outside is to get inside, one person at a time, it's going to take a very long time to reach the tipping point. To put it another way, that's one heck of a lot of golf.

So when I became responsible for communication at MMT, I welcomed the opportunity to use what I understood about being outside to help make the inside of Meyer Memorial Trust visible and accessible to more than one person at a time. And my own experience of breaking down (mis)perceptions helped me to see what a powerful tool transparency can be.

Over the next 15 years, MMT's communications transformed. Our first efforts gradually let the light in, but the Internet gave us the tools to take the doors down. In 2010, we discovered the Foundation Center's Glasspockets initiative and ultimately earned the distinction of having the "clearest pockets" of any participating foundation. [View MMT's Glasspockets profile.]

In the weeks to come I'll write more about our foundation's journey towards transparency and accountability, and why turning inside out doesn't have to hurt.

-- Marie Deatherage

Comments

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Thank you for the very kind and thoughtful comments! Jenn, the power dynamic has not been broken, but I think it might be bending a bit :) Still miles to go before we sleep. And I think your side note is so true, Tierney. I don't know why so often we default to secrecy or opacity? Grant, you are doing this work every day and making a big difference. Keep on.
Marie

Marie, thank you so much for being so open about your organization. I'm almost a year into my foray into philanthropy (also a communicator, here), and the power dynamic is one I struggle with. I'm glad to hear that you've been able to break it down.

Really interesting observations, thanks for sharing. It's great to hear about the Glasspockets initiative and I look forward to hearing more about your journey to transparency.
On a side note, I think the same pattern is often true between the public and nonprofits (or even between nonprofits) - lots of room for growth here!

I love how accessible MMT are and I hear this echoed from nonprofits all the time. Sadly, I also hear the misconceptions about philanthropy all the time too. In some cases this is based on actual experiences with some foundations, but no group wants to be perceived according to their poorest functioning members, foundations included. Removing barriers is so very key to being truly instrumental in making a difference.

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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

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

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