Transparency Talk

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A Trip to Transparency
January 24, 2012

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.)

Meyer Memorial Trust's (MMT) path to transparency began slowly and modestly, first by openly examining the effects of clusters of grants we had made as feature stories in our annual report. Then in the 20th anniversary edition, Charles Rooks – our first and only CEO to that point – gave very candid answers to a series of questions about what had gone on at MMT over the first 20 years, which took us a considerable distance in revealing what went on inside our doors. But our annual report essentially only reached people who already knew us, so its effect was severely limited.

Enter Web 2.0

We got in the habit of expecting to post anything and everything unless someone could provide very compelling reasons not to.The first real progress on our road to transparency and accountability, however, was made possible by the Internet, especially through the interactivity of Web 2.0.

We were relatively early to realize that technology had enormous potential to make foundations better known and understood. In 1996, we were the first foundation in Oregon to launch a website, albeit very simple and crude by today's standards. (No wonder, I created it by reading a book and making mistakes until it worked.) Since then, our site has been through three major iterations, each attempting to raise the bar of our own expectations, but we largely made up what foundation transparency and accountability looked like as we went along.

The first breakthrough in our journey came as we planned remaking our website in 2003, when I came across The Cluetrain Manifesto, which grew out of a conversation posted on the web in 1999 and published as a book in 2000. First big insight: You can't be transparent if you can't admit you're human.

The manifesto begins:

  • "People of the earth...

  • "A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter–and getting smarter than most companies.

  • "These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked.

  • "Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal..."

You could effortlessly substitute the word foundation for companies or corporations in this text in 2000.

In my last post, I explained that MMT's biggest communication challenge in the 1980s and early 90s – as the largest foundation in the Pacific Northwest until technology fortunes created philanthropists with much bigger pockets – was to be perceived as approachable and accessible and trustworthy. 

On our website we addressed that in a number of ways, including:

  • For example, rather than list the academic degrees, awards and other resume builders to show how impressive and distinguished our staff members are and how qualified they are to judge nonprofits, we asked our staff to answer personal questions that revealed something about them as people. Currently we are taking everybody back to high school! Yes, some staff were extremely reluctant to participate, for reasons ranging from fear of stalkers and identity theft (neither happened!) to just feeling exposed and vulnerable. Since "exposed" and "vulnerable" are words I've heard nonprofits use to describe how due diligence and site visits can make them feel, I figured we were getting somewhere!

  • From the beginning in 1996, we included email addresses of individual staff members on our website. (Yes, it meant we all got more spam in our inboxes, which had an associated cost), but it also meant we really and truly were easily reached. Especially when compared with other foundations, whose websites in those days sometimes didn't even list staff members' names. (Later we hired a system administrator who, among many awesome things, reduces our spam to a trickle.)

  • We added to our website "What We Look For" documents that program officers use to evaluate grant proposals for each of our grant programs. Yes, some staff members objected, arguing that "if we do that, nonprofits will just write what we want to see." Well, that might be true, but of course many were already trying to do that, only they were guessing what we were looking for. If we told them, might it be likely that they would actually begin to do those things?

Basically, we got in the habit of expecting to post anything and everything unless someone could provide very compelling reasons not to. Compelling reasons did not include "We've never done that before" or "No other foundation in our area is doing that."

But even more important than what we did was how we did it. Our communications became conversations. We began talking in a human voice. And we found that being authentic (human) goes a long way in creating trust and transparency. How do we know if we are succeeding? Partly from an anonymous survey we did of our news alert email list. Although we certainly have detractors, we generally got very high marks from our community. Some of the comments in the question about voice and tone of communications let us know we were hitting the mark. Note in the sample quotes below how readers positively link an authentic voice with trust and transparency. 

  • "Refreshingly personable, informative & non-bureaucratic - MMT's email is peerless - always written from the heart rather than as if by advertising agency staff writer"

  • "The tone of the MMT e-messages is colorful, sunny, full of character, and positive energy. If I'm feeling down, it's lovely to receive a cheery e-mail from the representative of a major funding entity such as MMT. Such friendly communications counter the energy of the typical 'gods on olympus' voice woven into foundation/trust website/e-correspondence dialogue"

  • Relaxed at times, which is okay since you have tried to become more 'transparent' to the nonprofit community.

The Glasspockets Era

Fortunately, our current website was developed at the same time Glasspockets  launched, which finally gave us a yardstick of 23 practices by which to measure ourselves and identify places in our pockets that still needed cleaning.

The "Who Has Glass Pockets?" criteria helped us identify items we were lacking entirely (e.g., a formal whistleblower policy) so we could develop them, and post those we had but hadn't thought to include (e.g., bylaws). Probably the most helpful service Glasspockets provided was to advise us about how a general purpose responsive foundation like ours can begin to confront the challenge of evaluating its effectiveness. We've conducted user surveys and outside evaluations and added them to our web site and through the Glasspockets web site we have been able to identify other private foundations with a similar all-encompassing approach within a defined region. We continue to challenge ourselves to find more and better ways to judge and report on our effectiveness and share them with Glasspockets so our profile is up-to-date.

Glasspockets also helped us figure out how to report on our past programs and share not only what we learn from our work, but reveal where we fail as well as succeed.

It took several months for us to accomplish every item on the "Who Has Glass Pockets?" list, it was a lot of work and wasn't always a top priority in the day-to-day pressure of deadlines. But can you imagine how happy and proud we were when Janet Camarena, director of the San Francisco office of the Foundation Center and head of the Glasspockets initiative wrote in a July 2010 email, "Congratulations, your pockets are the clearest we've uncovered thus far…"?!

Honestly, I don't understand why any foundation wouldn't want to achieve some of the most basic Glasspockets measures. Can anyone seriously give me reasons for any foundation not to have a web site in 2012? Even small family foundations without staff ought to be able to take the Foundation Center up on its offer to design and host free websites.

Because I think this trip to transparency is just beginning. 

Next month I'll share why I think we are in the earliest stages of opening up and how I look forward to a future where Glasspockets will have a longer list to itemize, giving us all much more shared knowledge we can use to move our field forward and create a better world.

-- 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."

    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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