Transparency Talk

« September 2012 | Main | November 2012 »

October 2012 (4 posts)

Small World, Big Data: 2012 Aid Transparency Index Released
October 26, 2012

David Hall-Matthews is the Director of Publish What You Fund, the global campaign for aid transparency. He was previously a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in International Development at the University of Leeds, where he focused on governance and accountability, including food security, democracy, corruption, colonial administration and the global political economy of development.

Mathews-100I am pleased to have the chance to write for the Glasspockets blog, as I believe it is a powerful online resource that can help increase the understanding of best practices in foundation transparency and accountability. Its products, such as the Transparency Heat Map and Eye on the Giving Pledge, demonstrate the different areas of philanthropic giving that need to be made more transparent. 

Our recently released 2012 Aid Transparency Index shows a slow but steady improvement in global aid transparency, but it also finds that most aid information is still not published. For those not familiar with the Aid Transparency Index, it is a tool used to monitor the transparency of aid donors across 43 different indicators, to track progress and encourage further transparency.

Produced annually, this year’s Transparency Index ranks a total of 72 donors – a combination of bilateral and multilateral agencies, climate finance funds, humanitarian agencies, development finance institutions and philanthropic foundations. This year’s average transparency score rises to 41 per cent – a modest 7 percent rise from 2011.

The UK Department for International Development and the World Bank became the first two organisations to ever receive a ‘good’ rating. Six organisations – including the African Development Bank – also rose in 2012 to join nine others in the ‘fair’ category.

Unfortunately, the poor and very poor groups still contain nearly half of all organisations surveyed – including some of the world’s largest donors, such as France.

In addition to ranking donors, the Index urges all donors to sign and implement the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), which offers a global common standard for publishing aid information. Foreign assistance published to this standard is shared openly in a timely, comprehensive, comparable and accessible way.

As mentioned above, this year we included private foundations in our Index, to recognise the role that foundations play in aid and development. We decided to include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the ranking for specific reasons. The Hewlett Foundation is a prime-mover behind IATI, as one of the original signatories and second organisation to publish to the IATI Registry. The Gates Foundation was included because of its size and impact.

The Hewlett Foundation performed moderately well, increasing its score by 7 percentage points from 2011, to hold 31st place. Hewlett performed well at the activity level, tying 18th overall, due to its regular publication of project level information to IATI.

The Gates Foundation likewise performed moderately, ranking 33rd and scoring above the average for all donors. It performed consistently across all indicators, posting above average scores on the country and activity level indicators. Most information is found in a searchable, comprehensive grants database that could be converted to the IATI format – although it has yet to sign IATI.

While we understand the specific challenges that foundations face, particularly around safety for the NGOs they fund, they must publish to the IATI Registry as with any other development assistance donor. It is important to note that smaller foundations, such as the Indigo Trust, are already publishing to IATI.

Nine of the top 16 ranking donors in our Index have begun publishing to IATI, significantly improving the availability of timely and comparable information. Some of the biggest increases in rankings can be attributed to donors, such as Australia, publishing information via IATI.

But as the Index shows, there continues to be too little readily available information about aid, undermining the efforts of those who both give and receive it. All donors should publish ambitious implementation schedules, in line with the commitments made at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, to start publishing to the IATI registry in 2013. This timeline is essential if donors are to deliver on their Busan commitment of full implementation by December 2015.

The work of organisations like the Foundation Center is crucial to improving the transparency of foreign assistance, and increasing the understanding of the role foundations in international development.

The Gates Foundation has been reviewing what approach to take in its own transparency policies, and we hope they will decide to publish to IATI as well, so that its current activities can be seen alongside the work of other foundations, NGOs and official donors. When all donors are publishing consistently to a common standard, it will help to improve – and demonstrate – the value of their aid. It will also help to encourage other, newer donors to improve their transparency.

For aid to be fully transparent, donors must publish information to IATI. Only then can aid and related development activities be made truly effective, efficient and accountable.

--David Hall-Matthews

Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor…your grants data (Part 1)
October 18, 2012

(Jeff Falkenstein is vice president of data architecture at the Foundation Center.)

Falkenstein-100To say that Jeff Raikes’ announcement of the launch of Markets for Good  was big news is an understatement. Raikes’ call to improve the philanthropic information infrastructure and support the quality of and access to data speaks to the core of the Foundation Center’s mission and vision. The Center, along with fifteen partner foundations, recently made a big announcement of its own when it launched the Reporting Commitment, a movement to improve the transparency of, and reduce duplication among, foundations through the adoption of common reporting standards and a consistent geographic taxonomy. Needless to say, these two developments have the potential to significantly impact the future of the philanthropic sector.

One of the biggest challenges of our work -- and the critique of our products and services we hear most often -- is directly related to the fact that it’s difficult to get our hands on foundation data quickly enough to make these tools as useful as they need to be for program officers, researchers, academics, grantseekers, and others.

For over fifty years, the Foundation Center has aggregated information on U.S. foundations pulled from publicly available 990-PF tax returns, annual reports, press releases, foundation Web sites, and other information sources. In addition to offering this data through the Foundation Directory Online, the Center features it in its many research reports and issue-based portals, and has taken steps to incorporate it into grants management software as well as reports and portals developed with a number of foundations and other partners. Much of the value the Center adds to the information we collect comes from an intensive review of hundreds of thousands of grants made by foundations from around the world. The Center also identifies the recipients of those grants: who they are, what they do, where they (generally) work, and which populations they (generally) serve. Additional analysis is done to understand the purpose of the grant, the subject area funded, the type of support provided, the specific population and geographic area served by the grant, and the strategy behind it.

One of the biggest challenges of our work -- and the critique of our products and services we hear most often -- is directly related to the fact that it’s difficult to get our hands on foundation data quickly enough to make these tools as useful as they need to be for program officers, researchers, academics, grantseekers, and others. Our response to this criticism has been to encourage foundations to report their grants data directly to us. In 1998, the Center established its eGrant Reporting program, a set of standards for foundations to report data electronically to the Center via participating grants management software systems or through a self-created Excel file. Using the grants management software of their choice, foundations can generate Excel spreadsheets of their grants in a standardized format and e-mail them directly to us. Receiving grants information electronically in a consistent format enables the Center to process and publish the data in a more timely fashion, while giving foundations more control over how the Center represents their grantmaking and communicates their work to the world. The nearly seven hundred and fifty foundations currently participating in this program are able to report their grants in near-real-time and have that data uploaded to all the Foundation Center products and platforms where the data is featured. But while the program has been an important first step toward greater transparency in the sector, we’ve only scratched the surface.

Over the last few years, the Center has been working with its foundation and grant management software partners to make it easier for foundations to report their data to us in a more timely fashion. In 2010, the Center acquired Grantsfire and hGrant, an HTML-based micro-format grant reporting system, and adapted it to fully complement our existing eGrant reporting program. Grant feeds published by any foundation using the hGrant Reporting program are available to the public, for free, at, the Center’s transparency-focused Web site. Indeed, the hGrant system is at the heart of the Reporting Commitment initiative announced by the Center and its fifteen foundation partners.

But the hGrant system is only a start. In the coming months, the Center will be developing xGrant, an XML-based machine-readable version of our eGrant Reporting standard that will allow for a more flexible and easily adapted standard beyond the current hGrant micro-format. We will also be surveying our software vendor partners about their preferred export method. Why offer three ways to report grants data? Because we recognize that foundations do things differently and have varying degrees of capacity, and we want to give them every opportunity to report their grants data in the most convenient way possible.

What’s more, we are working to refine the eGrant reporting standard to align with other global reporting standards, including those developed by the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Why is this important? Because in order to get a holistic picture of how and where philanthropy complements international aid/ bilateral organization/donor government financial flows, our standard needs to align with existing standards. To that end, we invite any and all standard-setting organizations and bodies to share their standards and taxonomies with us so we can map them to the eGrant standard. Creating “crosswalks” between standards will allow for deeper analysis of the full spectrum of development flows and contribute to greater collaboration among public, private, and philanthropic actors.

To demonstrate the usefulness of submitting data to the Center in a standard format, we have been providing participating foundations with free maps of their grants -- maps that can be shared with their boards, staff, or deployed on their Web sites. Maps aside, we firmly believe that foundations which share their grants data via the eGrant Reporting program are also joining a larger conversation around transparency and open data, are putting themselves in a position to teach and learn from each other, and, as articulated by my colleague Larry McGill in the latest issue of Alliance magazine, are taking a significant step toward working more collaboratively and effectively.

New and powerful tools like WASHfunders, a Web portal for funders working to address the world’s water crisis, and Philanthropy In/Sight Human Rights, an interactive mapping tool that displays grant funding for human rights issues, as well as studies like European Funding for Women and Girls are just a few examples of the ways in which foundations and funder coalitions are harnessing taxonomies and standards to forge a shared understanding of their work. The Foundation Center is delighted to contribute to this effort by offering products and services that can help funders and funder coalitions achieve their goals in this area. We encourage you to join us.

--Jeff Falkenstein

Interested in becoming part of the eGrant Reporting community?  We’re glad to have you on board. Either leave a comment below or contact Jeff at

A New Reporting Commitment
October 9, 2012

Darin McKeever is a deputy director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leading the foundation’s Charitable Sector work as a member of the Global Policy & Advocacy division. He serves as an ambassador and primary point of contact within the philanthropic community, monitoring and helping develop foundation positions on policy and regulatory issues affecting the nonprofit sector, and managing relationships and grants with major nonprofit/philanthropic trade associations and research institutions.

Darin-McKeever-100At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we firmly believe transparency is a key ingredient in maximizing impact because it inspires new innovations and leads to opportunities for collaboration.

That's why we are pleased to join 14 other U.S. foundations today in announcing a new "Reporting Commitment" to better share information about our grants in an open format on the Foundation Center's web site.

We are going through exciting times - when “Big Data,” “Open Data,” and social media are revealing a path to new ways of working together in the social sector.

For many years, private foundations in the U.S. have been required to include lists of grants made in their annual filings to the Internal Revenue Service. However, because of filing deadlines as well as return preparation and digitization timelines, the lag between when a grant is approved and when the general public finds out about it can sometimes stretch to 18 months or more. In the annual filings, descriptions are also brief, often without key information like the location where funded activities take place. As a result, the purpose behind the grants can be opaque and making comparisons across foundations and over the course of years is challenging.

Over the last two years, the 15 participating foundations -- together with the Foundation Center -- have worked together to tackle these problems. Each organization has needed to reexamine policies, business processes, coding procedures, technical capabilities, and even culture. This is only a first step; we hope this effort lays the groundwork for further improvements in the precision and availability of information about grantmaking in the U.S.

Of course, widening the availability of grant data doesn't supplant the value of robust web sites, blogs, or the use of social media. The pressures to collect, organize, and publish information also bring additional costs and burdens -- for foundations, but also our grantees and partners. These are important considerations. The relative absence of standard ways of reporting grants or the results of activities makes all this especially challenging.

That's why last week we were also excited to announce our new "Markets for Good" effort , with our partners at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and the progressive financial firm LiquidNet. In many ways, the new Reporting Commitment is a great illustration of what the Markets for Good initiative seeks to accelerate: easier and better ways for social sector organizations to get, share, and use information that contributes to improving lives and communities. Check out the video and join the conversation.

We are going through exciting times - when “Big Data,” “Open Data,” and social media are revealing a path to new ways of working together in the social sector. With the Reporting Commitment announced today, we are taking one more step down that path.

--Darin McKeever

Glasspockets Find: Markets for Good Launches New Site
October 2, 2012

MFG logoIn the quest for signs of transparency in the philanthropic universe, the launch of Markets for Good seems like a particularly promising harbinger of a more transparent future for the social sector as a whole. In this future, social actors will routinely share what they are doing and learning as a matter of course, and in so doing will serve to “connect, align, and accelerate works and ideas already in progress.” Markets for Good is serving as a catalyst to accelerate the arrival of such a future, and its goal is to discover how the social sector can better use and share information to improve outcomes and change lives.

Markets for Good is an effort supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the progressive financial firm Liquidnet to improve the system for generating, sharing, and acting upon data and information in the social sector. Its vision is of a social sector powered by information, where interventions are more effective and innovative, where capital flows efficiently to the organizations that are having the greatest impact, and where there is a dynamic culture of continuous learning and development.

Glasspockets is excited and optimistic about this launch, and we look forward to seeing how transparency practices and values can be a catalyst for a more effective, innovative, and impactful future.

--Janet Camarena

Share This Blog

  • Share This

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

  • Enter your email address:

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: