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November 2011 (3 posts)

Glasspockets Find: 2011 Grantee Community Call Hosted by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
November 22, 2011

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation As part of our "Who Has Glass Pockets" transparency and accountability assessments, our Glasspockets team regularly scouts for mechanisms that allow grantmakers to receive ongoing grantee feedback, as well as ways in which grantmakers are using technology to build networks and learning communities.

How does the nation's largest foundation encourage two-way communication and engage with its global grantees? One method is through its second annual Grantee Community Call. I had the opportunity to listen in on the first of two one-hour conference calls (12 hours apart) that were hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on November 21. With more than 600 participants on this call, the session began with CEO Jeff Raikes citing the importance of understanding the perception and the reality of working with the Gates Foundation and the critical role of "smart collaboration" between the foundation and its grantee partners and with other funders. He repeated the foundation's commitment to grantees based on three concepts: quality interaction, clear and consistent communication, and opportunities to provide feedback that will be used to make continuous improvements. Indeed, this Grantee Community Call was a means to put this philosophy into action—and may serve as a good example for other grantmakers with a lot of ground to cover.

Grantees were reassured that the foundation's priorities will not be changing, despite two new leadership additions and the melding of the Global Health Program with the Global Development Program. The foundation also remains committed to the evolving process of breaking down silos in order to integrate and better coordinate the sharing of information across multiple sectors, both internally and with its grantee partners.

The first half of the community call featured presentations by three program directors: Gary Darmstadt, director, Family Health; Vicki Phillips, director, College Ready; and Sam Dryden, director, Agricultural Development. Each, in turn, reinforced the foundation's commitment to constructive, effective relationships by:

  • encouraging grantees to challenge the foundation to strive for continuous improvement at various levels;
  • working together as thought partners;
  • breaking down internal silos to encourage cross-sectional integration; and
  • promoting transparency and welcoming accountability.

The second half of the session was a time for questions and answers. Participants were able to submit questions before the call via an e-mail address and during the call via a special Twitter hashtag and by queuing up with the conference call operator. There was time for nearly a dozen questions from a representative assortment of grantees, including callers from Asia and Africa.

What was perhaps the most impressive take-away was the seemingly genuine and sincere effort of the Gates Foundation to display respect and gratitude to its grantee partners. As Mr. Raikes said in conclusion, [we strive for] "greater impact together." With multiple opportunities for feedback, grantees should not hesitate to engage with the foundation in their mutual goal of improving lives. One very interesting, and rare, feedback mechanism allows grantees to anonymously report issues that raise ethical concerns to EthicsPoint, a service provided by an independent third party.

Finally, the foundation plans to conduct its next Grantee Perception Report, working with the Center for Effective Philanthropy, in the first quarter of 2013.

Recorded versions of the 2011 Grantee Community Calls are now available on the foundation’s web site.

-- Mark Foley

A Bifocal Lens: The Value of Investing in Both Networks and Organizations
November 16, 2011

(Paul Connolly is Chief Client Services Officer of TCC Group, a 33 year-old consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity-building services to foundations, nonprofit organizations, and corporate community involvement programs. In a previous post for Transparency Talk, he wrote about the Packard Foundation's "see through" filing cabinet.)

Paul Connolly

What do the Arab Spring uprisings, the Tea Party, Al Qaeda, and Occupy Wall Street have in common?  They all stem from flexible networks of people and groups, rather than just a single organization. And, they all have powerfully influenced society lately. As technology has enabled more connection and coordination, networks are playing a greater role in tackling social and environmental problems, galvanizing change, and enhancing civil society.  At the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' "Growing Social Impact in a Networked World" conference a few weeks ago, funders discussed how they are changing their perspectives and practices to support and participate in networks.

One foundation leader remarked that observing a network is like looking at a Monet painting: up close, the brushstrokes can be blurry and seem disconnected, but when you stand back, the power of the full and nuanced picture becomes clear. Another speaker advised that funders need to view networks with a different type of lens than what they use for organizations. Networks tend to have more distributed ownership and expertise, less linear decision-making processes, more fluid boundaries, and results that are harder to measure. Funders therefore need to tailor how they assist networks, such as by investing at multiple levels, providing for additional improvisation, letting go of some control, and focusing less on causal attribution of outcomes.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, has provided funding to foster a widespread network of activists across the nation to decrease childhood obesity by improving eating habits and increasing physical activity. In doing so, the foundation has learned that shifting from a mostly one-way broadcast mode to a more robust and interactive dialogue with constituents who are connected to the coalition has required more effort, openness, and trust. Foundation staff members have strived to listen actively to network participants and create authentic feedback loops — both online and in-person — to help advance the collaborative movement.

Likewise, the Jim Joseph Foundation has nurtured Reboot, which aims to engage a younger generation in a vibrant Jewish life through a selective network of a few hundred culturally influential Jewish people. The Foundation's strategy was to get the right mix of people in the right space and then allow for serendipity. With a bold over-arching goal to steer the way, it backs the network's process and does not try to micro-manage the specific means that members choose or the content they produce.

The Packard Foundation studied their existing portfolio of grantees and realized they already had a broad spectrum of models, about a third being networks for wide-ranging causes, with varying types of needs than organizations. As Packard Program Director Stephanie McAuliffe exclaimed, "Our grantee The Ocean Conservancy did not want to strengthen their organization's brand, but the ocean's brand." The Packard Foundation has improved its own network approach through an online wiki, transparently sharing data about certain programs and engaging others in their strategy development and evaluation work. [More about the Packard wiki at Transparency Talk.]

Although networks have many distinctive features, they also coincide with organizations extensively. In fact, many networks are actually collections of organizations, or at least are comprised of individuals who see their participation through a specific organizational perspective. So, networks can be both capable in their own right, as well as reflect the performance of the particular organizations involved. TCC Group's research on nonprofits and coalitions have found that the highest performing ones share such central characteristics as distributed leadership, inclusive mindsets and practices, cross-fertilized programs, learning cultures, and adaptability.

Specifically, we found that the strongest nonprofit organizations:

  • have a clear vision,
  • understand community needs and services well,
  • are deeply engaged and forge alliances with external stakeholders,
  • encourage reflective inquiry, and
  • amplify their impact by not only expanding their own programs, but also disseminating replicable practices and models and by influencing policies and systems.

Our study of coalitions for The California Endowment determined that the most successful ones:

  • have a lucid mutual purpose and value proposition,
  • collaborate and manage conflict well,
  • conduct ongoing assessment,
  • have transparent decision-making processes, and
  • are action-oriented.

Far-sighted grantmakers see that scaling social impact will not happen just by expanding high-performing nonprofit organizations, one at a time. Strong networks will be increasingly needed, too, and their respective efforts will intersect more and more. Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations are still the predominant vehicle for receiving philanthropic support and many networks involve sets of them. To view organizations and networks — the individual brushstrokes as well as the full painting — clearly, rather than through two different sets of optics, funders need better bifocal lenses. Without them, they will be hampered by fuzzy vision and blind spots, reducing their potential to magnify positive change.

There is much more to discover about harnessing the combined potential of organizations and networks. What tools, frameworks, and training are needed to sharpen the needed bifocal vision?  How can we learn more about organizational and network effectiveness and their intersections — and do a better job applying what we already know? How could grantmakers support networks' efforts to build superior shared learning systems and performance measurements within particular fields? With better answer to these questions, funders can help increase social innovation and impact.

— Paul Connolly

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

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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."

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