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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


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The power relationships beewten funder and fundee are inherent; one has the power to decide much of the future of the other. On the other hand, is a social network that potentially levels the playing field, but it's like the Bill Gates question. when he walks into a bar, the average net worth of all the people inside skyrockets. it's hard to have a conversation that doesn't take that into account. All the efforts on transparency that venture philanthropy funds try to bring to the table address transparency around impact and efficiency on their impact; the investee side. But what about transparency on the capital sources?Omidyar is spending his own money and is perhaps more transparent than many foundations. But unless a funder has as it's fiduciary responsibility giving money back to investors to do good with again, what are the incentives that force transparency around decisions or performance within the funding vehicle, whether foundation or social venture fund?What would move the meter on this issue? How could philanthropy be re-envisioned or re-engineered bring in some of the transparency that is built into the traditional capital market?If it's a structural problem, technology alone won't solve it. But that transparency is part of a broader shift in the zeitgeist, that the technology is just enabling. To exist in this new world do funders who have their own pool of money really have to act differently?

Missteps in corporate pahtinlhropy. joined Stanford for the Nonprofit Innovation Award. They proceeded to give the prize (matching $790,000 in online donations) to the one nominee that is based on online donations, serves schools in the US, and had built a program to support schools affected by Katrina.The result of this design is that DonorsChoose (one of the ten fine candidates) now claims the "most innovative" crown, even though it was merely fortunate to be the recipient of a number of supporting circumstances.Issues to explore: 1) transparency. Amazon had people vote with their gifts. They will not release the results of the nine organizations that did not win. If I gave to KaBoom, hoping my gift would be matched, I would want to know how it did (and how another org beat it). 2) accountability. The organizations in the contest were not given the names of the donors until after the three month contest was over. As a result many were not able to thank donors for gifts given months before. Also, Amazon withheld email addresses in a contest that many saw as a chance to build online donors. 3) match of process with intent. Stanford assembled a worldclass selection committee and narrowed nearly 1,000 entries to ten innovative finalists. Amazon then put those ten into an online "give-off" to see which was the most innovative. Perhaps they should have celebrated the group of innovators and encouraged gifts to the pool. Perhaps they should have asked for votes on some substantial criteria and given a "peoples' choice" award.I have posted a few items on this contest. See and .Also, you seem to be the victim of some posting spam. See the comments on these two stories..

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the blog Heather! And for advocating the Glasspockets approach to the MJF Foundation! Definitely agree that opening up philanthropy to public view only serves to improve its effectiveness.

Great piece, Janet! Loved the last paragraph especially. Transparency and accountability are very important in this and other processes, now more than ever. Interesting HEAT MAP, though some of those foundations have a long way to go. What is the rough part about performance assessment? Seems like a no-brainer; I'd also like to see more about executive compensation -- and where those executives come from, in terms of potentially bringing agendas along with them. Seeing the "inside" workings of anything is what truly builds trust and a commitment to long-term dependability. I'm going to encourage MJF Foundation to volunteer for this analysis...

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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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