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March 2012 (5 posts)

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Most Transparent of Them All?
March 28, 2012


David Sasaki, who works with the Omidyar Network (ON) in Mexico City, wrote in his blog last week that he aspires to be the "most transparent grant-maker in philanthropy," publishing his grants data on his personal blog as well as making it available in XML format using the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standards - meaning that anyone, anywhere, can access and repurpose his data. Sasaki has promised that within 15 days of a grant being awarded, he will share via his blog the following information:

  • Amount of grant
  • Date that grant agreement was signed
  • Name and link to receiving institution and other organizations involved in the project
  • Name and link to co-funders
  • Summary of grant
  • Contextual analysis of related issues
  • Metrics to gauge the impact of the grant
  • Date and manner that the relevant project will be evaluated

Omidyar and Sasaki are helping to grow the movement for transparency and accountability in philanthropy with this pledge of open grants data. This is the logical next step for one of the eight founding funders of a global effort called the Transparency and Accountability Initiative donor collaborative (TAI), which aims to empower citizens to hold their governments to account. It has been our experience at Glasspockets that funders seldom mention transparency unless they are speaking about grantees or governments, so it is refreshing to see that Omidyar is committing to play a leading role in grantmaker transparency.

The TAI funders' collaborative states on its web site that one of its aims for government transparency is "...encouraging all those working in this field to learn from their successes and failures so that they can have greater impact in the future." This is exactly what Glasspockets aims to do in fostering greater transparency, specifically among grantmakers. Just recently  Omidyar Network's Glasspockets profile was posted to the Glasspockets website and it shows the different ways in which ON is becoming more transparent as well as steps it could take to fulfill Sasaki's aspiration of becoming "the most transparent grantmaker in philanthropy."

The Glasspockets' assessment was developed by pouring over hundreds of foundation web sites to come up with a set of criteria that constitute the best existing practices in online foundation transparency. Of a total of 23 transparency and accountability elements, Omidyar Network meets 14, including making available online its code of conduct policies, conflict of interest policy, whistleblower procedures, and process by which it sets its executive compensation. But like other foundations, it is lacking what many in the field have found the most challenging: sharing details about things like an assessment of the foundation's overall performance, a centralized knowledge base of lessons learned from previous program evaluations, details about its investment policies, and information about its diversity practices. The Glasspockets Heat Map, portrays the information most and least publicly shared by the foundations and shows that Omidyar is not unique in this regard; as many of the 37 foundations that have volunteered for the Glasspockets assessment also lack these elements.

The most challenging criterion for the field to meet is that of assessing overall foundation performance: only 7 of the 37 grantmakers on the Heat Map have some documentation pertaining to overall foundation performance publicly available online. However, given the emphasis many foundations now place on grantee performance and outcomes, and how such assessments can help inform the course of other funders working in similar fields, it is arguably among the most important criterion. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the Commonwealth Fund, just to name a few, have each posted their overall foundation performance assessments publicly. Most recently Humanity United, founded by Pam Omidyar, used its online annual report as a mechanism to assess its overall performance. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also developed an internal transparency and accountability scorecard that can be used as a helpful reference by other grantmakers aiming to improve their own transparency practices.

The TAI donor collaborative grantmakers well know from their global government transparency efforts, creating a culture of transparency can be a daunting task requiring influential leaders to build momentum. So thanks to Sasaki and the Omidyar Network for kicking off this important conversation, and leading by example.  Philanthropy is most commonly defined as the use of private wealth for public good. Growing numbers of foundations are discovering that transparency is the best means for putting the public in public good.

Help the philanthropy story unfold, submit your Glasspockets profile today.

-- Janet Camarena

Foundation Transparency: We Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
March 19, 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. Her previous post on Transparency Talk reflected on the Trust's becoming transparent.)

In 1998, I had a singular point/counterpoint experience that changed the way I see the world and directly affects the way I view foundation transparency today.


A few years earlier, I had been appointed by Oregon's governor to the Oregon Health Services Commission, (OHSC) the public body that created the prioritized list of medical conditions and treatments for the Oregon Health Plan (and gained national notoriety as "rationing health care.") At the time I was appointed, the Plan had just been turned down for a Medicaid waiver by the federal government because the Department of Human Services said the process that created the list violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was working in disability rights and was added to the Commission to ensure that views of people with disabilities were represented.

Trust is directly and immutably linked to transparency. Foundations have a more secure future if they earn the people's trust.OHSC was and is subject to Oregon's rigorous public meetings law, which requires that all decision-making be conducted in public. We were forbidden to even talk about matters as a group in private. Meetings were all open to the public, including, of course, the press.

On this life changing day, the Commission was considering whether and where to place in the prioritized list the recently voter-approved "Death with Dignity" legislation that had become law in Oregon. (In a nutshell, if you have a terminal illness with less than six months to live and meet other eligibility requirements, you can get medication to self-administer to end your life on your own terms and time.) Oregon was first in the land to pass this legislation, as it had been the first state to legislate a prioritized list. Our hearing took place not long after vigorous and sometimes acrimonious debate leading to the election, before a standing-room-only crowd, which included very vocal protesters. Print and broadcast media were out in force.

After listening to testimony and discussing and debating the issue, each of us had to declare our position and give reasons for voting the way we did. Explaining our views was awkward, even gut-wrenching. I would call it one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in public, not only because I was the only dissenting vote, for reasons that were hard to explain. Our votes were reported in the media, and I subsequently got a number calls at home from people I didn't even know.


When that meeting ended, I literally walked two blocks to the foundation office where I had begun working. Another meeting was underway there, with trustees deciding whether or not to fund grant proposals that were up for review that month. But this meeting was being held behind closed doors. Often there were no specific reasons given about why some proposals were funded and others not.

The contrast stunned me. The philanthropy decisions weren't more important. They weren't more difficult. They weren't more uncomfortable. In fact, they seemed much less so on each count than what I had just experienced.

So why this difference? At one time, of course, public bodies made decisions behind closed doors too. But at some point, the Oregon public demanded accountability and transparency, pointing out that sunlight is the best disinfectant. But foundation decisions were and are, for the most part, still happening in the dark.

Taxpayer-enabled resources

Foundation assets are, of course, IRS-approved resources. For the special treatment of not paying taxes, people are permitted to direct money for the public benefit. Who decides what constitutes "public good" and/or whether resources are actually benefiting the public? Well, in the past it's pretty much been the people with the money.

The pace of the move to accountability and transparency we've seen in government settings has greatly quickened with the Internet, because above all else, the net shifts the balance of power by eliminating gatekeepers and obstacles that have restricted communication and information exchange. More and more, people take for granted they have a right to look inside institutions and organizations. See, for example, recent moves toward more accountability for the nonprofit sector through legislation and questions about exemptions from property taxes.

Lately we've seen that the public expects foundations to exercise fairness and to be able to provide rational reasons for their grantmaking decisions. See under: Susan G. Komen Foundation.

The emergence of Glass Pockets in 2010 has been a crucial part of that shift, and much openness (e.g., making public user surveys, third party evaluations, governing and tax documents, etc.) has been achieved at Meyer Memorial Trust and other Glass Pockets-participating-foundations since the meeting I described above in 1998. But I believe a whole lot more transparency - and disruption it will cause - is coming.

One reason I've heard for foundation secrecy is the same reported by Sean Stannard-Stockton in a Tactical Philanthropy blog post:

  • "...Foundations tell me that they are not transparent about their grantee analysis because they do not want to risk hurting the nonprofit."

Sean went on to show what happened when the nonprofit FORGE opened itself entirely to public scrutiny in the face of a fiscal crisis, resulting in financial solutions and pro bono donations that made the organization stronger.

Sean held its executive director up as an example of leadership because she recognized that "criticism can only make her stronger. She wants to learn and get better because she cares about her cause more than she cares about her organization...Even if that means publicly taking advice from people who might tell her she should do some things differently."

Here's the thing: no matter what reasons foundations give for secrecy, even if philanthropy finds ways to justify it internally, doesn't the secrecy itself invite the public to wonder if the real secret is that the foundations can't defend their processes? Or that it's just easier and more comfortable for them to keep it on the down low. Do foundations want to invite those suspicions?

Democracy Needs Transparency

In addition to making corruption much more difficult, one of the most valuable rewards that has come from public meetings laws is that it has shown us we are courageous enough and tough enough and collectively wise enough to go through a process that is awkward, clumsy - even painful - and emerge stronger than ever. Even though that public discussion and vote was one of the most tortured things I've ever done because it was in public, I came out of the experience with a much greater appreciation for the delicious taste of democracy. I felt it made me a better person. I felt it made Oregon a better place. It gave me more trust in humanity.

We the people can handle messiness, clumsiness, embarrassment, complications, making mistakes and some chaos now and then. Seeing inside builds trust. Trust is directly and immutably linked to transparency. Foundations have a more secure future if they earn the people's trust.

Imagining the transparent future that is now possible reminds me of the scene in Back to the Future when Marty McFly sees the audience reaction after he does an epic guitar solo on stage: "You might not be ready for this, but your kids are gonna love it." So if you doubt me, read the We, the Web Kids manifesto.

Foundations can resist these inevitable future changes or we can welcome them. I can't wait to discover which foundation will utterly embrace the future and be the first to livestream trustee meetings. In my next Transparency Talk installment, I'll share a few more dreams about how open and trustworthy foundations might become.

A foundation director once told me that grantmaking and sausage-making are two processes I didn't want to witness. Prior to his declaration, I had heard it as law-making and sausage-making.

Government down, foundations next? And I'm pretty sure it's no longer safe to bet the farm on sausage either.

-- Marie Deatherage

RWJF: Thoughts on Putting the Social in Social Networking
March 12, 2012

(Erin Kelly is the social media manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Follow her on Twitter.)

Erin Kelly

As my colleague Steve Downs indicated in a January post here on Transparency Talk, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is "a couple of years into our journey and we reap the benefits of being more open and engaged every day." How serendipitous that as I started to draft an outline for this post, I stumbled upon "The Promise of Social Media" on Forbes, where the authors surmise, "Based on our extensive field research--we believe social media is likely to be one of the most significant forces reshaping management and business over the next decade and more." Here's my perspective on how one philanthropy is navigating this vast ocean and a few early observations from these efforts in the pursuit of making new things possible.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Participate

Philanthropy can embrace this networked age to work collectively to reach our shared goals.

Many of us (staff at RWJF) are engaged on social media platforms sharing research and insights into the areas we work, revealing the results of grantmaking and evaluations, and touting the efforts of our grantees and partners. Steve affirmed this last month, as "a fundamental part of any RWJF staff member's job [is] to remain up to date with the latest developments in the field." Web 2.0, the introduction of social tools, has offered us greater opportunity for two-way lines of communication and engagement. When I want to gather intel, I share an update on my LinkedIn wall, or post a status update on Google+ or Facebook, soliciting input on my half-baked idea or venting the latest dilemma stumping me. When the Vice President of Research and Evaluation wants to learn what research really resonated with the public, without an internal bias, he invited "the people formerly known as the audience" to RWJF's web site to vote and comment. (words in quotation taken from @chiefmaven's visit to the Foundation in October 2011.

What have we learned? Set aside time to practice using the platforms to demonstrate the value of such efforts first-hand. "It sounds really simple," Steve says, "but it's very hard to know what social media really means until you do it. Conducting small, focused online experiments allow staff to learn about the potential for social media within their work." Staff members are encouraged to tweet during "learning sessions." These sessions have been part of our DNA for a long time; outside experts are invited to speak at the Foundation to share a dialogue with staff about a subject matter related to our mission. Our physical walls no longer hold back wisdom; at the same time this helps serve as a wading pool to help us, particularly new staff, build more confidence in these tools and mindset.

Be Vocal; Encourage Others to Join In

The Vulnerable Populations Portfolio was just beginning to investigate the area of trauma. Instead of approaching this through more traditional avenues, such as commissioning a scan, Program Officer Kristin Schubert hosted an online discussion to gain a better understanding of how different stakeholders viewed chronic trauma, particularly its impact on healthy development among adolescents. The program work is still being developed, but the discussion forum affirmed for Schubert that various audiences were thinking about and approaching trauma very differently and that no one at present is approaching trauma in a holistic way. While this effort provided an opportunity for RWJF staff and current grantees that work within adolescent systems to uncover real-time research, models and practice in the field, it also facilitated a network weaving opportunity for anyone involved in the issue to connect with peer-experts in youth neuroscience research.

What have we learned? To do our work better--e.g. develop strong, impactful programs--we need to be honest about what we know and what we don't know about a new area of interest. And when soliciting the input of others, it is critically important to be as specific as possible in the requests for engagement. Be clear about the information you are seeking and what you want others to contribute, so everyone involved walks away more knowledgeable and you attain the goal you set out to accomplish.

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Senior Program Officer, Mike Painter, wondered: Could we provide a social networking site (SNS) for a group of thought leaders working to improve health care across the country--patients, consumers, physicians, policy-makers, employers, health plan leaders, anyone with a genuine interest in improving the quality of care--to have open, honest discussions on a range of quality related topics? In the past, Painter has relied upon being a member of an existing listserv, which may seem limiting and constrictive given the environment we engage in today 24/7 with seemingly limitless platforms that offer farther reaching networking tools. From an original invite to leaders within the Aligning Forces for Quality initiative, the group has welcomed more and more people with similar goals and interests. The collective now has access to new perspectives and ideas, a treasure trove of experts and expertise to learn from, and a means to collaborate with one another. Almost one year in, Transformation has Begun is still going strong with more than 600 members on Facebook.

What have we learned? Find ways to meaningfully engage in existing communities or networks. The right platform may not be the one you build. We tried this when the group launched--we built the platform--but the interaction was not as high as anticipated. Once the space moved to a SNS people were already engaged in (Facebook), membership and engagement catapulted. Also, ensure you have clear terms of use, including general etiquette guidelines, from the beginning. According to a recent PEW Internet report, 85 percent of SNS-using adults say people are mostly kind, but nearly 50 percent have witnessed mean or cruel behavior by others at least occasionally. Offer concrete etiquette guidelines to foster a pleasant and supportive SNS experience.

Be Ready and Willing to Learn

Before letting go of the notion that the platform had to be ours, the Foundation enabled comments on The Foundation welcomes comments on every piece of content posted, such as press releases, issue briefs, evaluations, and videos. Getting ready for this required significant internal coordination to ensure we had representation from all areas of our operations and a robust framework for moderation. While we were ready (and eager) for a sizable number of comments, it seems that the opportunity for commenting may not be as natural on our site when compared to the more conversational nature of blogging.

What have we learned? Do not assume that a new behavior or means of interaction--e.g. public commenting on your material--will be accepted by your audience. People may not turn out or may be less willing to jump in to offer public comments on an academic article or other published works. While the Foundation was ready for action, the website averages one to two comments a week.

Bundle Your ROI Stories

As Lucy Bernholz and Jim Canales point out in this insightful post, knowing what constituents are focused on or discussing at a given moment is vital to our work. We are no longer limited to having a discussion with those in the room; anyone holding a tablet or smart phone is now part of the conversation. The Foundation is excited to witness the next big, bold breakthrough bound to transpire when multidiscipline thought leaders and unconventional perspectives mingle in the large community.

If you ask staff who lived the activities summarized above, using social technologies has had an overall positive impact on the way we work allowing us to surface a variety of ideas, gain valuable input into team strategies and help disseminate knowledge. Most importantly, these experiences have reinforced the notion that philanthropy can embrace this networked age to work collectively to reach our shared goals. We still have a ways to go. As a learning organization ever focused on assessing impact, we are still tinkering with how to evaluate these investments in social networking.

Do any of these lessons ring true for your organization? Do you see social media reshaping your work? Share your story of how new ways of communicating, convening, or collaborating have galvanized your organization in the comments below.

-- Erin Kelly

Glasspockets Find: Rasmuson Foundation Listens and Changes in Response to Grantee Survey.
March 7, 2012

(A version of this post first appeared in Philanthropy News Digest.)

Rasmuson FoundationResponding to the results of a 2011 grantee perception report prepared by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Alaska's Rasmuson Foundation has announced changes to its grant programs. Sharing the results of the survey on its blog, the foundation reinforced the ethos of being open to its grantees, responsive to their needs, and public about its decision-making process.

The CEP survey sought input from 272 Rasmuson grantees about, among other things, the foundation's impact on grantees' fields of interest and communities, the foundation's grant application process, and the kind and level of assistance provided by the foundation "beyond the check."

There was lots of good news: grantees reported that the foundation had "significant positive impact" in local communities (more so than 87 percent of all funders in the CEP dataset), that it was perceived as influential, and that its staff was more "helpful" than staff at many of its peers. In addition, respondents said the foundation's non-monetary assistance (strategic planning advice, facilitation, convening, and training opportunities) was rated among the highest.

Interestingly, Rasmuson was also public about the not so good news: the foundation ranked below its peers in terms of the "responsiveness of staff" -- a finding the foundation attributes in part to program staff transition over the past three years and its failure to notify grantees about staff changes affecting their projects and key contacts.

In response, the foundation reports on its blog that it will simplify its grant programs, reducing the number of grant types it administers by collapsing a number of existing programs into two. In the future, the foundation's Tier 1 grants will support requests for less than $25,000, while its Tier 2 grants will support requests over $25,000. The foundation also will allow Tier 1 applications to be completed online and will accept proposals for needs beyond capital such as technology upgrades, capacity-building initiatives, program expansion, and creative works.

Find more on Glasspockets

The Foundation Center's Transparency 2.0 tool has links to more than two-dozen grantee surveys and reports that foundations (in whole or in part) are making public.

Have you seen other examples of foundation openness and responsiveness to grantee feedback?

-- Daniel Matz

The Importance of Foundation Messaging: An Interview with Foundation Center President Brad Smith
March 1, 2012

Foundation Center President Brad Smith was recently interviewed by PhilanthroMedia's Susan Herr for the Communications Network about the responsibility of and opportunity for foundations to communicate what they do and why they do it. In an ever-more crowded media environment, Smith emphasizes, it is vital for foundations to keep repeating their messages and not shy away from talking about their aspirations to build a better world and how they’re working to make that happen.



Watch the video»

Read the Communications Network blog post»

-- Daniel Matz

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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.

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