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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

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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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