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August 2012 (7 posts)

Using Facebook as a Catalyst for Collaboration and Participation: A Q&A with Mike Painter
August 30, 2012

Mike Painter is Senior Program Officer for the Quality/Equality Team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Mike PainterAt the start of the year, Steve Downs kicked off our Transparency Talk blog with a great overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) social media strategy and how it has evolved since their early adoption and experimentation stage two years ago. Given the many questions grantmakers have about developing and assessing social media efforts, we are continuing to learn from the road the RWJF staff has traveled by offering a series of interviews with staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to the work. The first of these case studies, on social networking as a learning tool, is available here.

Transparency Talk (TT): First, let's start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the Foundation in light of all these new technologies. How is Web 2.0 changing your job as a Senior Program Officer? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?

Mike Painter (MP): I'm Mike Painter, and I'm an avid social media user (but I don't think I need a twelve step program quite yet). Don't get me wrong, I certainly like and use email, telephone, and video-conferencing a great deal. In my work at RWJF, though, social media, including tools like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, add an important and rich layer of capabilities and collaboration power to my tool set. Before I came to the Foundation I was an RWJF Health Policy Fellow working for a year on Capitol Hill. While in that position, I fairly quickly realized that there were interesting things happening in our office that I wanted to share with others. We didn't have social media tools at the time to power that sharing, so instead I manually put together email distribution lists to help keep people informed. That experience demonstrated to me the power of collaboration technology—even something as simple as an email distribution list. To me, social media is an obvious logarithmic enhancement of that rudimentary sharing and collaboration capability—one that dramatically increases the reach and magnitude of my old distribution list efforts.

TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect medium for collaboration and facilitating discussion. Among your efforts, what initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of social media and collaboration? Share a brief background about the project and how it unfolded.

MP: At RWJF we spend a great deal of time trying to improve American health and health care. To tackle such a complex, gargantuan set of tasks, we need collaborators and partners. We cannot succeed without them. Frankly, we need the ability to find great ideas and terrific people who can do most of that work—the small number of people at our Foundation could never on our own succeed. One way we do that, for example, is to work with leaders across the United States from various regions and sectors—health professionals, consumers, employers, and others—as they restructure health care in their respective local markets. We've used a number of technology platforms to enhance and promote that collaboration. One tool has been particularly promising, our Facebook site called Transformation Has Begun.

We clearly wanted to promote an online and ongoing discussion about improving the quality and cost of health care. Initially, we attempted to host a collaboration network discussion on our RWJF server. We heavily promoted that discussion using RWJF's significant communications assets. We absolutely got attention for that early site—in fact over 10,000 initial views. Unfortunately, though, the only way we generated conversation or debate on that site was when we literally spoon-fed and manually prompted it. We essentially had zero spontaneous conversations and fairly quickly realized the site, itself, was a failure. After a fair amount of internal consideration, we decided to close that first site. Rather than give up on electronic collaboration entirely, we decided to go where people already were—Facebook.

TT: Rather than giving up on your objective, you moved the conversation into a new space. What do you think made this move a successful one?

MP: When we moved this conversation to Facebook, we initially worried that people would not want to mix fun posts about the weekend, parties, kids, and biking with intense policy discussions about transforming health care. Turns out they would. What we found was that people joined the site fairly readily—and almost immediately began generating spontaneous discussions about health care transformation. They shared materials—engaged in spirited debates, all without our ongoing prompting. Clearly, participants liked the format and found it easier to access than our prior server site.

TT: What surprised you the most about the effort?

MP: I think we were all pretty surprised by the stark contrast between the spontaneity on the Facebook site compared to the almost complete lack of interaction on the prior discussion site. It's also interesting that this Facebook conversation seems to have legs. Over a year later, the Facebook site is still going strong. The number of participants has grown steadily. We at RWJF are simply participants among many. We jump into conversations when it makes sense. Sometimes we ask for input about project ideas—other times we highlight interesting materials or issues—or hop into another discussion thread.

TT: Do you have any interesting examples to share about how a conversation that started online via the Facebook page has informed any of your offline work or strategies? Or for those who are skeptical about the "return on investment" offered to grantmakers by social media, what are some specific take-aways for you and your work?

MP: As a member of this Facebook community, we have from time to time asked the group for help.  For example, in 2011 we were developing a new payment reform call for proposals called "Payment Reform Strategies for High Value Care".  Normally, for this sort of project we would devise and craft the call for proposals pretty secretly and quietly—based on internal, non-public discussions among ourselves and our immediate expert advisors.  In this instance, though, we decided instead to get help from our Facebook community colleagues. We essentially crowd sourced the project development—and got a terrific product with a real time, real world sense of what leaders wanted and needed with this sort of payment experimentation. We posed the program design problems to the Facebook community in a series of questions and received a significant number of very helpful comments.  We used those comments to develop the call for proposals—and importantly reported back to the Facebook group as we were developing the project to let them know how their comments were helping us create the new project.  That grant offering ultimately attracted 72 high quality proposals from across the nation.  From those, we ultimately awarded grants totaling almost $1.8 million to four cutting edge payment reform projects.

TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?

MP: We are not saying that any particular social media tool is the single, best answer or approach. Certainly, we hope to see many new and exciting social media approaches—and hope to try them out as well. I think we did learn that it pays to experiment with these tools—to be bold. It turns out the risks were actually minimal and manageable—and the upside was pretty big. Some of us may have had unfounded fears about losing some measure of control of the discussions we were promoting when we moved to Facebook. In our experience, we almost certainly gave away control, but in return we got a glimpse of something much more important and powerful—energized and empowered collaborators willing to work and share with us toward some important common yet tough, big goals—like, for instance, improving health care.

--Mike Painter

Glasspockets Find: Transparency and Impact Reporting at the James Irvine Foundation
August 23, 2012

The James Irvine FoundationThe James Irvine Foundation recently published its new 2011 Performance Report. This takes the ritual of the Annual Report to the next level both technologically and conceptually, as the Irvine Foundation has added the discipline of annually reporting on its overall foundation performance as part of the process of compiling the data that comprise its annual report.

"This online publication represents the latest evolution in our approach to reporting on our impact. While it includes many of the features of a traditional foundation annual report, our aim is to give viewers a deeper look at the Foundation’s progress toward its long-term goals. And this year we’re experimenting with a new online format to make it more inviting and accessible" says Daniel Silverman, Communications Director at Irvine.

The online report features an Introduction as well as four distinct areas: Program Impact, Leadership, Finance and Organization, and 2011 Grantmaking. The report makes great use of infographic and data visualization displays by organizing information into easily digested graphics throughout all of the areas. Take a look at Irvine Foundation's 2011 Performance Report online.

-- Natasha Isajlovic-Terry

A Case for Better (Self-Imposed) Transparency Standards for Foundations
August 22, 2012

(Rick Cohen is the National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and the editor of NPQ's Cohen Report. Prior to joining NPQ, Rick was executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and vice president of the Enterprise Foundation. This entry continues from Monday's post. A version of this blog appeared in NPQ.)

Cohen_100Rather than simply arguing for more or less transparency, a better strategy is to consider the public purposes that might be served by better, proactive standards of disclosure. I suggest the following: 

  1. A better story: Spruill’s charge to the sector is still the ultimate reason, to explain what organized philanthropy is and does, but it is so much more credible when it emerges from the analysis of independent analysts and the public. The glossy annual reports whose cost of writing, design, and printing exceeds many nonprofits’ budgets are not persuasive. They look more and more like corporate advertisements. If philanthropy has a strong story to tell, it should be one that can be told by independent observers examining the data.
  2. Civic engagement: Foundations themselves are relatively unified, regardless of their political leanings, in favor of increased civic engagement, not just in the public arena of government, but in the engagement with communities, in the overall pursuit of community and societal betterment. If foundations are part of a sectoral commitment for advancing the public good, one means is to make more foundation information available, to make citizens and policy makers better “consumers” of foundation products, just as foundations want to help citizens be better consumers and participants in the processes of government and business. 
  3. Foundations in public policy: Increasingly, foundations have been moving into the public policy arena, not simply through their grantmaking, but their direct participation. Foundations partner with government at various levels, notably a recent spate of foundation engagements with the federal government in programs such as the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service and the “Race to the Top” in the Department of Education. In some cities, notably Detroit, where local government has taken a turn toward the dysfunctional, foundations are developing and running programs that in some ways are taking the place of the public sector. As foundations become direct players in the public arena, not simply supporting nonprofits to do so, foundations should be increasing the transparency the public needs about their operations.
  4. Increased accountability: At this time, there is a parallel debate going on about increasing the transparency of government data. Virginia Senator Mark Warner has introduced the DATA Act which would create standardized formats for reporting and publication of government spending data. The Act, as the Sunlight Foundation commented, “could help eliminate much government waste, fraud, and abuse, and make spending oversight much easier.” Better, expanded, standardized data makes oversight easier, it’s that logical.  But so much of the data reported in 990s is not particularly standardized and, when it comes to data on foundation investments, virtually uninterpretable.  That isn’t a reason to drop the data requirement.  It is to improve the reporting and formatting of data so that the public—and oversight agencies—can figure out what it contains. 
  5. Abuse of 501(c) confidentiality:  The nation faces an explosion of organizations—and money—seeking the 501(c) confidentiality for the only purpose of keeping the identities of the players pulling the levers of the political system secret.  Television commentator Dylan Ratigan suggests that “our political system has become an auction in which the highest bidder wins,” but the identities of the bidders are increasingly under wraps.  In other arenas, public agencies such as municipal governments and state universities are creating affiliated nonprofits and foundations with a purpose of reducing or removing a slice of their operations from public scrutiny and oversight.  If this nation is going to pursue greater freedom of information, we will, as Senator Warner suggests, need to have better mechanisms with which to “follow the money.” ( We have to better follow foundation moneys, too. 

Let’s face it that there is no discernible Congressional appetite for playing with the laws and regulations facing foundations right now.  Since foundations are overseen by the Internal Revenue Service—and in some measure by a number of states that have provided at least a semblance of staffing and support for charity oversight functions usually in their AG offices, though state attention only sporadically ever nears private foundations—not much is going to happen.  If there is more money for the Internal Revenue Service, it is logically going to go to expanding its capacity for dealing with its new responsibilities under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, not for oversight and enforcement activities regarding charities.  In general, there’s no money to be made by the IRS for chasing nonprofits and foundations, and like a sports agent looking for a contract, the IRS wants to be shown the money that it can generate through stepped up enforcement. 

Moreover, the IRS is not generally among the more popular of federal agencies.  The outcry against Maine Governor Paul LePage’s denunciation of the IRS as new Gestapo caused him to apologize to Jews, but not to IRS agents who might have been offended, and few in Congress stepped to the plate to defend the IRS.  Ways and Means Committee hearings into IRS operations have been held,  prompted in part by the complaints of Tea Party groups believing that their applications for 501(c)(4) social welfare status were being subjected to politically motivated IRS reviews. 

--Rick Cohen

The Need – and Appetite for – Enhanced Foundation Transparency
August 20, 2012

(Rick Cohen is the National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and the editor of NPQ's Cohen Report. Prior to joining NPQ, Rick was executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and vice president of the Enterprise Foundation. A version of this blog appeared in NPQ.)

Cohen_100It is nearly impossible to think about transparency in the world of philanthropy without putting philanthropy into a societal context. Philanthropy is not a world unto itself, but one that is engaged in extensive interactions with other sectors of the economy and society, particularly important in an era of increasingly crippled institutions and practices of democracy in the U.S.

The political context concerns the flows of secret moneys into the electoral process, obviously an activity prohibited to private and public foundations, but one that increasingly shapes the perspectives of the American public toward nonprofits—and, if they knew what foundations were beyond the television portrayals of philanthropoids as white glove socialites—foundations too. Secret money is the lifeblood of American political campaigns, perhaps brought to a level of self-parody when comedian Stephen Colbert points out that Karl Rove is giving anonymous political money to help keep political giving anonymous. The calls for breaking through the wall of secrecy in political spending are increasing, notably in the District and Appeals Court decisions in Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission

And so it is with foundations and the calls philanthropic leaders face for increased transparency. As Vikki Spruill, the new leader of the Council on Foundations, noted in what appears to be one of her first official communications to the Council’s membership, institutional philanthropy faces “its most critical moment…right now. At a time when our world faces a storm of converging challenges with dwindling resources, philanthropy’s positive impact remains a mystery to far too many…[W]e must seize the imperative to help society better understand philanthropy’s impact and contributions.”   

It is a frequent refrain from foundation leaders, the admonition that foundations have to do a better job at telling their story. But that isn’t transparency. At best, it is managed transparency, telling the story that foundations want public policy decision-makers, the general public, and their specific stakeholders to hear and understand. Transparency, however, is not managed through public relations firms. Can you imagine if the Federal Elections Commission were only to make available the information it thought would tell the story of its “positive impact?” For as miserable and partisanly hamstrung as the FEC is today, the story telling wouldn’t be worth the physical effort of a computer click on “download.”

Transparency empowers the users, the recipients of information, to hold powerful agencies of government, well-heeled donors to political campaigns, and institutions without direct levers of official accountability to the public somewhat more accountable. When you stage manage transparency, it simply isn’t. Of course that doesn’t mean simply opening the doors of foundations and inviting the public to rifle through file cabinets, but it does mean trying to find ways of making essential information more accessible and reviewable by outsiders. 

How Public Should Private Philanthropy Be?

In the foundation world, the debate du jour is how public private philanthropy is, that is, to what extent the tax exempt dollars of private foundations should be considered in some ways open to public scrutiny. It is an argument that ultimately boxes everyone into a corner. The philanthropic impulse occurs with a donor willing to put some of his or her excess capital to work for what is hoped to contribute to the public good. But in this nation, that occurs with the benefit of the charitable deduction, applicable to the small scale donations of this nation’s generous working people and to the much larger donations of affluent people who create foundations. 

OK, so the funds aren’t quite public dollars—aggrieved constituents cannot ask foundations for administrative redress, they cannot vote foundation trustees out of office, and in all but an incredibility limited number of cases do they even find themselves with standing to litigate a foundation’s grant decisions. And they aren’t quite fully private dollars, else they would be taxed and their managers wouldn’t be filing 990PFs, following IRC rules for executive compensation and self-dealing, or fretting whether President Obama’s annual call for capping itemized deductions including the charitable deduction will depress charitable giving and philanthropic grantmaking.

The Dichotomous Nature of Foundations

Even in their quasi-public identities, foundations have feet planted in two worlds or two cultures, one the private world of a donor, the other a public world of resources afforded a special status by the American public and its elected representatives. It shows in foundations’ postures toward transparency. 

In recent history, the advent of the 990 is one example. Commissions on the future shape and substance of philanthropy have all included encomiums of one sort or another in favor of increased transparency, but statements and actions can sometimes differ. Prior to enactment of the Taxpayer Bill, many foundation leaders were opposed to the liberalization of public access to 990s, and when the law was passed, foundation leaders attempted to find ways of divorcing 990PFs from the public access the law required to nonprofits’ 990s and then worked to delay the applicability of the law to foundations.    

In practice, a similar dichotomous identity occurs, best exemplified by the foundations’ crisis response to the California legislation that would have required a handful of large foundations to simply report on their grantmaking to nonprofits headed by people of color, not make more grants for communities of color, and report on their own staff and board demographics. Foundations fought the bill, known popularly as AB624, tooth and nail, though many of the same foundations are strong supporters of the racial disclosures required of banks in the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, have supported nonprofits demanding similar disclosures of utility companies in front of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and fought strenuously against California’s Proposition 54 initiative which would have generally banned the state from collecting race and ethnicity data. 

Another dimension of foundations’ split thinking on transparency is in their relationship with “stakeholders.” This is more than just a fancied up description of grant recipients whose opinions on how well they are treated by foundation program officers are now solicited de rigeur. Stakeholders are different than insiders such as donors, board members, and staff. The Denver Foundation describes “external stakeholders” as “people who are impacted by your work as clients/constituents, community partners, and others.” Lauren Tulp of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation suggested grantees, community residents, and external experts as potential stakeholders. In some foundation examples, stakeholders have been recruited to participate in foundation grantmaking processes, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and some of the health conversion foundations.

This is now common parlance in the foundation world. Stakeholders with a “vested interest” in the foundation’s work merit inclusion in efforts to assess what the foundation is and should be delivering for various communities with what impact. The concept of stakeholders is common in foundation circles—except when it comes to discussions of transparency, when the circle for inclusion becomes distinctly narrower. Foundations have to come to grips with whether the notion of stakeholders is real or simply a rhetorical device meant to convey a transitory sense of inclusivity.

--Rick Cohen

This post is the first of a two-part series by Rick Cohen. Part two follows on Wednesday, August 22.

Social Networking as a Learning Tool: A Q&A with Jane Lowe
August 8, 2012

Jane Lowe is Senior Program Officer and Team Director for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Jane LoweAt the start of the year, Steve Downs kicked off our Transparency Talk blog with a great overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) social media strategy and how it has evolved since their early adoption and experimentation stage two years ago. Given the many questions grantmakers have about developing and assessing social media efforts, we are continuing to learn from the road the RWJF staff has traveled by offering a series of interviews with staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to the work.

Transparency Talk (TT):  First, let's start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the Foundation in light of all these new technologies. How is Web 2.0 changing your job as a Team Director of the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?

Jane Lowe (JL): It's been my experience that using social media has enabled me to get glimmers of ideas that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And these ideas are coming from lots of different sources I wouldn't have heard from or necessarily known about in the past because they're outside my professional network. In general, I feel like I'm in the position to see a greater diversity of viewpoints than I have in the past.

For example, we recently hosted a gathering of foundations and practitioners all committed to improving the lives of young men of color and it was valuable to watch the stream of tweets coming from the event. Reading them in real time and seeing the range of things participants were thinking and worried about really added to the experience for me and will ultimately inform my approach to the work.

TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect vehicle for collective learning. What initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of using social media for collective learning? Share a brief background about the project with us and how it unfolded.

JL: Earlier this year we hosted a webinar that was a follow up to poll results we had released late last year. One of the findings from that poll was that physicians felt as if they're not prepared or able to address the social needs of their patients—having enough to eat, a place to live, a job to go to—and that this is getting in the way of positive health outcomes. The intention of the webinar was to bring people together to move the conversation further along: if physicians don't feel like they are capable, what specifically needs to be done?

Once the webinar wrapped up, we directed participants and the wider field to an online discussion forum to explore these ideas in greater depth and pose new ones. It was great to see such diverse engagement from people who work in medical care, public health, transportation, housing and other fields. We used Twitter to spread particularly interesting ideas and insights and invite new voices in to the discussion, and ultimately heard many perspectives we might not otherwise have uncovered.

TT: What circumstances do you think made this a successful experiment? And reflecting on the experience, what was the biggest reward or outcome from this experience?

JL: While we've been hosting webinars for quite a while now, it and the forum were really excellent vehicles to have a meaningful dialogue with people who are ready to do something, who recognize there's a problem, but who might be unsure about what can be done to address it.

It was a chance to share information about a program we currently support—Health Leads—but also to think about other solutions and to call on others to consider how they could be addressing this gap in their own work. And as I mentioned earlier, it was an opportunity to identify new people and organizations that we may not have known about in the past, but that are informed and committed to addressing an issue that's core to our work at the Foundation. The Vulnerable Populations Portfolio, in particular, relies on developing partnerships with individuals and organizations outside of the traditional worlds of health and health care—including those who work in social services, transportation, urban planning, criminal justice, and more. Social media is an important part of our strategy to learn about, reach, and engage these diverse networks.

TT: That sounds like a very positive experience.  Have you actually uncovered new grantees as a result of these kinds of convenings?  Or other critical partners?   And what, if anything, surprised you most about the experience?

JL: I don't think that I was necessarily surprised, but I think it's notable that the webinar and forum focused on an issue that's going to require a multi-sector approach to be solved. Social media is helping all of us to make connections that could not have happened in the past, to break down silos that serve as obstacles to progress. It makes me hopeful about the solutions that could result from these new relationships and connections.

TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?

JL: I use Twitter more than anything. One of the things I like to do is to monitor the hashtag #violence because so much of the work my team supports deals with the topic. It's fascinating to me to see the wide range of issues being discussed as well as the types of people who are participating. By monitoring it at my desk when I have a few minutes, I can understand trends, identify new research and resources, and discover new thinkers.

I tend to read more than I post because I am primarily interested in using social media to discover new thinking and to understand trends in what people are discussing. So, the best advice I can give is to tell my colleagues to go ahead and jump in, but start by listening. Identify the groups and people you want to connect with and then build your comfort level as a content contributor—but never stop listening.

--Jane Lowe

Glass Pockets
August 3, 2012

(Christopher A. Langston, PhD, is the Program Director of the John A. Hartford Foundation, and is responsible for the Foundation’s grantmaking in support of its mission to improve the health of older Americans. This entry is re-posted from the John A. Hartford Foundation blog.)

Langston_100While our mission to improve the health of older Americans is our passion, we also try to be thoughtful about how we do our work as a foundation and as a part of the nonprofit sector and of society. There are only a few simple national rules (mostly set by the IRS) about how we do our work. So we need to be self-disciplined in our efforts to measure our results, learn from our mistakes, and improve our work.

As part of our commitment to improvement, we participate in philanthropic affinity groups to learn with and from our peers in aging and in health about what they do and how they do it. We look to organizations such as the Center for Effective Philanthropy to get feedback from grantees and analysis regarding best practices in the field. We follow the work of organizations like TCC, FSG, and Bridgespan that try to improve the practice and performance of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

Nonetheless, this work is self-imposed. Private foundations have few, if any, limitations set upon them as to the nature of their giving, the issues they focus upon, or their decision-making processes. There is certainly no requirement for foundations to try to improve their work as there is for hospitals certified by the Joint Commission or physicians renewing their board certifications. Foundation staff are answerable to boards, but boards are answerable only to their consciences (outside of sensational but thankfully rare abuses that draw the attention of the IRS or a State Attorney General). Some see the unconstrained variation of foundations as a problem and seek to impose some general set of priorities or principles on the field.

However, I think autonomy (and therefore diversity) of foundations with regards to mission and method is a good thing. It makes our society richer and more resilient, just as an ecology with more variation in plants and animals is more robust under stress than one with less biodiversity. Still, I wonder–what does a foundation owe to the broader society that grants it both tax advantages and this autonomy? In addition to our own commitment to be serious about our work, I think we should also commit to transparency. If we are open about our governance, finances, policies, and processes, we show that we are open to feedback. We are also more likely to adhere to our own standards simply by virtue of knowing that others know our goals.

To that end, we recently put on our 6-month-old, redesigned website a new section on Governance and Policies, found under the “About” menu on the navigation bar. We included our charter and bylaws as well as policies and procedures. We are also completing the collection of additional documents and resources we need to participate in the “glass pockets” transparency program run by the Foundation Center. We welcome scrutiny and comments from the public and especially from our grantees and the older Americans whose lives we hope to improve.

-- Chris Langston

Taking Private Philanthropy Public: Eye on the Giving Pledge
August 1, 2012

Word Cloud of recurring themes in Giving Pledge commitment letters

Recurring themes in Giving Pledge commitment letters


Explore the Eye on the Giving Pledge»

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the Center's Glasspockets effort.)

Janet Camarena

Two years have passed since Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates launched the effort known as the Giving Pledge to convince the world’s wealthiest people to commit more than half of their assets to philanthropy.  In June 2010 four families had made the commitment, and by August 2010, 36 more had joined them.  Since then, the list has more than doubled, with 81 families now participating. Given the high profile and high-net-worth of those involved, the surrounding coverage was filled with much excitement, promise, and fanfare.  As philanthropy is often considered a private, family affair, one might compare it to taking a private company public, as these private individuals go on record with a very public commitment to making significant charitable contributions during the course of their lifetimes.  Something we might call a Public Philanthropic Offering (PPO) instead of the traditional IPO.   So the bells have been rung, the names have been added to the online Giving Pledge list, what’s next?

Because the Foundation Center’s Glasspockets site focuses on philanthropic transparency, we have launched a new feature, Eye on the Giving Pledge, designed to help track the charitable activities of the Pledgers, as well as to provide a glimpse into their characteristics. Who has signed?  In which industries did they make their fortunes?  Where are they based? What are their philanthropic interests and pet causes? “Eye on the Giving Pledge” provides a way to follow how those who have signed on are, through their foundations and personal giving, fulfilling their pledge.

The Gates’ and Buffett have undertaken a noble goal here to use their influence and considerable network to drive more dollars to philanthropy, and that should be celebrated and praised.  In addition to the leadership they have demonstrated with the Pledge itself, they also provide an excellent model for the participants of the Giving Pledge, in making a foundation the principle vehicle to express their philanthropy.  Through the Gates Foundation, the public can readily access a complete record of giving via the 990-pf, determine whether giving is limited to pre-selected organizations, read press releases detailing information about noteworthy gifts, read Bill Gates’ annual letter reflecting on the successes and sometimes even failures of the foundation’s giving, and most recently, even access a new podcast featuring the staff of the foundation sharing insights about how the foundation is evolving its strategy.

Of course, as private citizens, many Pledgers will pursue other vehicles for giving that do not have the same reporting requirements as foundations, and we have done our best to capture examples of that from public sources of information. Since we expect there will be gaps in our coverage due to the inherent challenges of tracking individual giving, we provide an online form inviting our audience to help us surface additional knowledge.

With a combined net worth of roughly $400 billion, the commitments made by the current 81 participants could bring an estimated $200 billion or more to charity over time, potentially representing a dramatic increase in philanthropic giving.  In addition to those tangible potential benefits, in a world in which lists routinely rank people in terms of accumulated wealth, it has been refreshing to see a movement designed to encourage those who are on such lists to celebrate the next gift—not just the next deal—and to go on record committing to use their private wealth for public good. Or, put another way, encouraged to celebrate their next PPO. Because shouldn’t the giving be as celebrated as the Pledge?

-- Janet Camarena

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  • 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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