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November 2012 (6 posts)

50 Shades of Transparency
November 29, 2012

(Daniel Matz manages the Glasspockets web site.)

Daniel MatzGlasspockets is turning 50. Well, more like three — in January 2013 — but as of this week, the Glasspockets web site now hosts 50 transparency and accountability profiles. Collectively the foundations that have put themselves to the "Who has glass pockets?" challenge represent $138 billion in assets and more than $6.5 billion in annual giving – close to 15 cents of every foundation grant dollar distributed in the United States. Back in 1952, Russell Leffingwell, then chairman of the Carnegie Corporation, called on the philanthropic community to have glass pockets; that is, to make the work of foundations transparent and to make them accountable to the public and the communities they serve. We now have tangible proof this is happening. Congratulations to the Glasspockets 50 for showing their commitment to transparency and accountability, and meeting the Glasspockets challenge!

... this movement is not just about California or limited to grantmakers with the deepest pockets. Profiled grantmakers hail from 19 states and Washington, DC. And some of the most creative work and most forthright efforts have come from relatively modest quarters.

What exactly is a Glasspockets profile? For the uninitiated, since 2010 we have been cataloging foundations' online transparency and accountability practices — everything from the obvious like contact information and application procedures, to the more demanding like codes of conduct and diversity statements, through to the most challenging activities like making public their grantee feedback and assessing overall foundation performance. We've identified 23 such practices and keep track of them across six types of online communication vehicles (from web sites to blogs to RSS feeds). Together, these indicators help us all see into a foundation; they provide a snapshot of a foundation's "glass pockets." Trends across the sector emerge from aggregated findings displayed as a national Heat Map, the map itself becoming a unique reference tool for other foundations.

Who has glass pockets? Not surprisingly the list includes many of the very largest foundations, many of them at the forefront of the move toward transparency, championing better communication and challenging themselves to ever-greater openness. Some, like the James Irvine Foundation, have even gone so far as to support a statewide initiative to promote transparency among California grantmakers. Thanks, in part, to their support, California grantmakers now represent 40 percent of those foundations with Glasspockets profiles. With such a strong representation of California grantmakers, Glasspockets now features a Twitter feed that opens a window on what California foundations are saying, as well as a California-specific Heat Map showcasing transparency trends among the state's grantmakers. 

But I am also happy to report this movement is not just about California or limited to grantmakers with the deepest pockets. Profiled grantmakers hail from 19 states and Washington, DC. And some of the most creative work and most forthright efforts have come from relatively modest quarters. The Texas-based KDK-Harman Foundation (annual giving of less than $1 million) volunteered to have a Glasspockets profile, demonstrating that even smaller foundations can regularly assess their performance and have a strong voice in larger conversations around transparency. Foundations are increasingly fond of having grantees complete logic models as part of the proposal process. In the case of KDK-Harman, they've applied the logic model to their own work and use it as a way to report on progress and performance to all their stakeholders. In terms of creative energy, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation (annual giving of $4.3 million) produces video annual reports that are a master class on communicating more effectively using digital media technology.

The "Who has glass pockets?" profiles also provide an inventory of foundation communication vehicles, including social media efforts.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was an early adopter of these tools and has been offering insights and advice throughout the year on the Glasspockets Transparency Talk blog about the ways in which social media tools are transforming the work of philanthropy as well as how to measure the impact and value of social media efforts.

These are just three of the dozens of narratives throwing light on the sector-wide push  toward transparency. The Glasspockets 50 also includes regional foundations, health foundations, and community foundations; foundations focused on international giving like Trust Africa, and small foundations like Nebraska's Woods Charitable Fund (whose web site is designed and hosted by the Foundation Center). The varied interests and size of these organizations (Woods has a staff of four) are the real measure of how deep the move to transparency has become.

Join us in being among the first 100 foundations to show the world their Glass Pockets. Submit your profile today or to learn more, contact Janet Camarena in our San Francisco office.

Explore the Glasspockets 50»

-- Daniel Matz

Glasspockets Find: Hewlett’s New Interactive Grants Tool
November 27, 2012

Grants_exploreThese are interesting times, with an accelerating push by some foundations to introduce creative ways to share their data.  A recent entry in the mix is a new interactive grants tool from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  Allowing exploration of the Foundation’s grants and grantmaking trends over time, online visitors can visualize data set to their own customized preferences.  After adjusting various filters, for example, one can visually discover that the foundation awarded $5.68 million in general support for performing arts in the form of 71 grants between $50,000 and $100,000 each during 2010-2012—and all the recipients were in North America.  Learn more about how to use the interactive grants tool by watching this instructional video.  The foundation also follows the best practice of inviting feedback for its new tool.

--Mark Foley

When Knowledge is Power, Knowledge Sharing is Powerful
November 15, 2012

(Gabi Fitz is the director of knowledge management initiatives at the Foundation Center and helps to oversee the recently redesigned and relaunched open archive of social sector research called IssueLab.)

Fitz-100Anyone who's spent time in the social sector knows that the "t" word has a lot of different definitions, dimensions, and interpretations. Posts to this blog alone reveal how deeply and broadly the discussion of transparency extends. Fundamentally all these discussions and efforts circle around two basic ideas: improving accountability and grappling with power. In the case of foundations we often focus on their financial power, asking that they remain accountable to their stakeholders by sharing information about their grantmaking, their financials, their compensation, and the outcomes of their "investments". The idea being that the more we know about what they fund the better able we are to build on these initiatives and hold foundations, and their grantees, accountable to their commitments. (This is one of the reasons why projects like the recently launched Reporting Commitment are so valuable.)

…the fact is that knowledge isn't distributed equally; some individuals and organizations are simply in positions to know more, to have the "10,000 foot perspective", or the insider's view on a particular strategy or initiative.

But equally important is the power that foundations get from what they know. Sure, this is true for any of us, but the fact is that knowledge isn't distributed equally; some individuals and organizations are simply in positions to know more, to have the "10,000 foot perspective", or the insider's view on a particular strategy or initiative. That's why the Glasspockets index doesn't just include online communications efforts but also criteria such as whether a foundation has a Knowledge Center or centralized section of their website that provides access to program evaluations and lessons learned reports. In a knowledge-intensive sector like ours, it matters that foundations not only share information about what they fund but also information about what they find.

In a recent blog post about the importance of the grantee/program officer relationship, the Center for Effective Philanthropy quotes a survey respondent as saying "[The Foundation's] program officers and program staff are extremely knowledgeable and approachable…. We have actually been able to use their depth of knowledge on topic areas complementary to ours in order to develop stronger more valuable products and outcomes." Any of you who have had this kind of relationship are probably nodding your heads right about now. But what about the individuals and organizations who don't have this kind of relationship with their program officer, who haven't been funded yet, or who aren't even looking for funding but are instead looking for information?

Knowledge sharing is often talked about as the "right" thing to do or the most efficient thing to do. It's even sometimes used as a kind of friendly substitute for brand building. But if we acknowledge the power that comes with knowing something, then we can also recognize that knowledge sharing is really about information justice, the equitable distribution of knowledge, and central to improving transparency in the social sector.

Last week the Foundation Center launched its new IssueLab platform, providing open access to more than 11,000 white papers, evaluations, and toolkits from nonprofits and foundations alike. This collection is a big step forward in the effort to gather, index, and share the collective intelligence of the sector. Any foundation or nonprofit can add knowledge to this collection for free and any individual or organization can in turn access those resources for free. So whether your organization has its own knowledge center or not, IssueLab provides an easy-to-use platform for sharing that knowledge with an even broader audience and for sharing the power that comes with knowing what we know.

Next time I will blog about knowledge sharing and transparency in medical grantmaking.

-- Gabi Fitz

All is Not Lost When a Merger Fails: How Collaborative Learning Can Make Organizations Smarter, Stronger, and Better Positioned for Scale. Q&A with Andrew Wolk and Wendy Yallowitz
November 13, 2012

Andrew WolkWendy Yallowitz

Andrew Wolk is founder of Root Cause and Wendy Yallowitz is a program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Vulnerable Populations portfolio (RWJF), which supports social innovations with promising potential to grow to scale. For almost two years, Root Cause helped to guide RWJF grantee More Than Wheels through a facilitated merger exploration with Ways to Work, as both organizations had similar goals of using the purchase of an affordable, fuel-efficient car as a mechanism to help low-income clients get on the path toward financial stability and improved health and well-being. Ultimately, the merger never materialized. From this process, however, derived a framework for "collaborative learning," which allowed both organizations to learn from each other’s models and emerge with stronger, smarter strategies than they would have on their own. The lessons learned are available in "Collaborative Learning: A Case Study on More Than Wheels and Ways to Work," which is available online and as a printed copy at the Independent Sector bookstore. In this interview, Andrew and Wendy shed light on how collaborative learning made a failed merger exploration a success.

Transparency Talk (TT): What is collaborative learning, and what are its origins?

Andrew Wolk (AW): It’s an intentional effort between two organizations to exchange, analyze, and apply knowledge that will lead to better outcomes. More specifically, collaborative learning is a structured, facilitated learning process that allows for in-depth knowledge exchange without the organizational and cultural challenges of mergers. Based on a four-step framework, the process can serve as an alternative to merger discussions - or a "plan B" in the middle of merger talks that aren’t working out.

Wendy Yallowitz (WY): It’s a good time for this type of framework. When you consider how nonprofits continue to grow in number and are continually asked to do more with less, it’s more common for foundations to encourage similar organizations to figure out if there’s a way to optimize resources. Hence, we’re seeing more merger explorations like the one we pursued with More Than Wheels and Ways to Work.

(AW): As for origins, this potential merger brought about the framework. We know from past experience merger talks can present huge barriers, and we were running into some of those things. At a certain point, we decided to take an approach whereby we lifted the pressure of mergers or formal collaborations and partnerships as expectations so that the two organizations could work together to solve problems and grapple with strategic questions.

Collaborative Learning: A Case Study on More Than Wheels and Ways to Work

Download the case study»

TT: What are the benefits of collaborative learning?

(AW): Collaborative learning can accelerate knowledge very quickly in a resource-efficient way, provided both organizations are mutually investing in sharing and learning. We built the framework around four phases, starting with an assessment of need, wherein you ask whether it would be beneficial to look inside another organization to address your own challenges. You have to be willing to look inward at your own gaps in knowledge and share information. So right off the bat, entering this phase pushes you to evolve in some way.

From there you move to establishing trust and facilitation by a neutral third party, which entails conversations, adherence to a collaborative learning scope of work, and relying on a facilitator to help set and make progress against goals. Next is an in-depth exchange and analysis of knowledge — in the case of More Than Wheels and Ways to Work, this involved an immersive exchange of client profiles, program and financial models, and how success is measured. Last up is application of knowledge to challenges faced, which involves applying what you learned to the challenges that originally brought you to the table, and perhaps other areas.

WY: What ended up being really key was facilitation of the learning. If you really want it to work and be more than just an information-gathering exercise, you need a facilitator. Root Cause was able to pull out themes and lessons by asking, "What did we learn from this?" They ensured ideas and opportunities would be carried out.

More Than Wheels

Collaborative learning contributed to a 40% reduction in per-client costs for More Than Wheels, which makes cars available to the working poor.

TT: How does collaborative learning relate to scaling?

WY: This is about scaling impact collaboratively, working with a similar organization that also wants to grow beyond its challenges. For example, as a result of these conversations, Terri [Steingrebe, CEO of More Than Wheels] was able to look at her strategy and see more than one way to scale More Than Wheels. Their initial model was to open physical offices where they saw a need, and that’s evolved after assessing Ways to Work’s affiliate model. Through a new partnership-based model, More Than Wheels can increase the number of people they serve without needing to establish a new client base in new communities or set up new offices. All in all, they expect to lower per-client costs by 40 percent.

Likewise, Ways to Work gained appreciation for More Than Wheels’ one-on-one consumer counseling and financial education, and went on to establish an online financial education course for clients, set higher expectations for financial fitness and education before loan approval, and - based on More Than Wheels’ success -  increase loan amounts beyond original estimates.

TT: Why should funders consider supporting their grantees to participate in collaborative learning?

WY: RWJF has worked to connect grantees to talk about opportunities to work together, but collaborative learning adds a layer of purpose, with goals and outcomes at the helm. So, at the end of the day, we see this as a long-term, cost-effective way to build capacity among those grantees for whom this is an appropriate option. And funding the process, of course, contributes greatly to providing initial resources needed to explore a merger and engage in collaborative learning.

A by-product of this process was building trust with our grantee. I encouraged Terri to have the conversation, but did not push her to merge - that was never a rigid expectation. She never felt awkward coming to me with honest feedback. This helped me gain a real appreciation for the collaborative learning process, which was meaningful.

AW: What we’re seeing is more organizations want to learn from each other. We believe there’s a fundamental culture beginning to build around performance for impact. The nonprofit sector should be having these conversations because, in the end, it’s about whether there’s impact.

 TT: Thanks for sharing this case study with Transparency Talk. Potential mergers and collaborations are often shrouded in secrecy. And the same is true of failed foundation experiments.  Why do you think it’s important to bring these efforts to light? 

 WY: I can speak from the experience of RWJF — I think we’ve long been committed to sharing results of our work with the field, whether those results represented success or failure. We release grantee results reports and evaluation findings as a matter of routine, but I agree that process results such as those stemming from merger and collaboration attempts often are not approached with the same spirit of transparency. As we and the two organizations went through this exploration, such rich learnings were emerging from the deep exchange of information about the models we were looking to merge, including important signals that a merger might not be the right fit for either group. That wasn’t seen as a loss or a wasted effort; rather, it opened our eyes to new possibilities for each group to refine its models and growth strategies that we hope will succeed.  It’s important to share those outcomes widely in hopes that they are of value to other funders and nonprofits wrestling with the various routes they may pursue to grow to scale.

-- Andrew Wolk & Wendy Yallowitz

For Impact’s Sake: The Need for Transparency on Diversity & Equity in Philanthropy
November 7, 2012

(Kelly Brown is Director of the D5 Coalition, a five-year, effort to advance philanthropy’s diversity, equity and inclusiveness.)

Brown-100Philanthropy exists for the common good, and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion helps us live up to that value. In particular, thinking about equity in our grantmaking helps ensure that we are having the greatest impact on the issues identified in our unique missions—by targeting resources to the people in our constituencies with the greatest need.

But to really maximize our impact and hold ourselves accountable to our values, our constituencies, and each other, we also have to track who benefits from our grantmaking and be transparent about the results. If we can do that successfully, we can: 1) better understand whom we are reaching and whom we are missing—and adjust strategies accordingly; 2) leverage public policy or public dollars to fill gaps or create synergy; and 3) connect our work to the work of other foundations that focus on common issues or common consistencies.

As a field, we have a dual problem with both collecting and sharing data on diversity and equity.

Realizing that kind of success, though, is a real challenge. As a field, we have a dual problem with both collecting and sharing data on diversity and equity. Foundations measure internal diversity and the impact of their grantmaking in many different ways—or not at all. And the foundations that do collect this kind of data share it to varying degrees—or not at all. These challenges make it difficult to assess the year-over-year progress of individual foundations, or to draw comparisons among foundations, or between philanthropy and the public sector.  

So what do we do about it? We have to establish a uniform data collection and reporting system, and encourage the whole field to use it. We’re excited by the renewed energy in the field to take on this challenge—the Reporting Commitment is a great recent example.

A key goal of D5 is to improve data collection and transparency as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Last month, we helped convene 15 leaders on this topic in philanthropy and academia to discuss a pilot project to pioneer a collection and reporting system. As this promising work continues—and expands—we will be able to share more information about how to participate.  

In the meantime, the field also has to do the research to figure out what policies and practices are, in fact, the most effective at fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s hard for us to call on foundations to track and be transparent about diversity and equity when we can’t say in the same breath: And if you aren’t happy with where you stand, here are the most effective steps you can take to address it.

To help on that front, D5 just commissioned three organizations to conduct research that will help identify the most effective policies and tools philanthropic leaders can draw upon to help drive meaningful change and also lay the groundwork for gathering the data needed to help track the field’s progress. For more information about the Insights on Diversity research, check out the press release here.

Being transparent about diversity and equity can be intimidating. But I hope the need for it will increasingly be viewed as a pathway to impact—not as an onerous task that could result in scolding if a foundation is behind where it would like to be. This is an opportunity to learn from each other, to find ways to better work together to serve common constituencies, and to better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse world.

--Kelly Brown

Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor…your taxonomies (Part 2)
November 5, 2012

(Jeff Falkenstein is vice president of data architecture at the Foundation Center. In his previous post, Jeff discussed the importance of data standards in improving access to timely and accurate data on foundation activities.)

Falkenstein-100It’s human nature to try to arrange things into categories. In fact, the science of classifying stuff can arguably be traced back to the Neanderthal who decided to put smooth black rocks in one pile and bumpy white rocks in another. Many millennia later, Aristotle (384-322 BC) created a taxis nomia with which to classify all living things by their shared characteristics, work that was greatly advanced by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) in his 160-volume work Naturalis Historia. Today when people think about taxonomies, they’re likely to be reminded of their junior high school science class (SpeciesàGenusàFamilyàOrderàClass…) -- or the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons (Accelerati Incrediblus vs. Carnivorius Slobbius). 

…for the field to continue operating without a shared taxonomy consigns philanthropists to acting within narrow, self-defined fiefdoms that sum to the equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

In the realm of knowledge management, a taxonomy is a structured set of codes used to classify the fields within a standard, which in turn allows for the comprehensive aggregation of similar data. Taxonomies normalize data; indeed, the application of a taxonomic system to data is the critical first step in the process of turning data into information and information into knowledge. Rather than relying on imperfect search engine algorithms or data mining technology to draw inferences from vast amounts of data, taxonomies highlight common themes within data sets and at the same time foster connections between similar but distinct activities.

In the 1980s, the Foundation Center, working with the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) at the Urban Institute, helped develop the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE), a taxonomic system used by the IRS, GuideStar, TechSoup Global, and the NCCS to classify nonprofit organizations. An expanded version of the NTEE is used by the Foundation Center to classify both foundation grants and grant recipients; by organizations like VolunteerMatch to track volunteering opportunities; and by many private foundations to classify, benchmark, and track their own grantmaking activities. The Center and many of its partners also use supplemental taxonomic systems. The Center has developed taxonomies for population groups, types of support, auspices, and geographic-area served -- collectively known as a Grants Classification System (GCS) -- to provide a more complete picture of U.S. foundation activities. 

Admittedly, none of these taxonomies is perfect. No social sector taxonomy is. And the challenge is even greater in the realm of global data collection, where the Center is working to develop a taxonomy that can be applied to philanthropic activities of widely varying nature while building in enough depth and detail so that it’s useful to researchers, policy makers, grantseekers, and other foundations without sacrificing user-friendliness. But for the field to continue operating without a shared taxonomy consigns philanthropists to acting within narrow, self-defined fiefdoms that sum to the equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

Working with affinity groups, regional associations, taxonomists, geographers, and experts from particular sectors, the Center has developed deeper subject coverage on many topics, including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), human rights, and disability and sexuality issues. Our partners in this evolving work include organizations like the Disabilities Funders Network, the International Human Rights Funders Group, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, the Getty Research Institute, the D5 Coalition, the Mission Investors Exchange, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) , the China Foundation Center, the Centre for Social Impact, Grupo de Institutos Fundações e Empresas (GIFE), Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía (CEMEFI), and the many foundations who supply data via our eGrant and hGrant Reporting programs.

Moreover, to better meet the sector’s needs, we have been engaged in a comprehensive revision of our Grants Classification System and plan to release a new version of the GCS in beta in the third quarter of 2013. We’ve been working hard to make this an open and collaborative process, and we encourage our partners and other stakeholders, including affinity groups, regional associations, and foundations, to share with us their own taxonomies and send us their feedback to help develop a tool that will better serve the entire sector.

Developing a comprehensive taxonomy that reflects the realities of a rapidly globalizing world is just a start, however.  After all, what good is a taxonomy if no one uses it? Our next challenge is to help more foundation leaders understand that the application of a structured taxonomy to their grants data turns it into searchable information; that that information can then be harnessed to answer questions from staff, trustees, foundations doing similar work, and even reporters and the general public; that it can be used to create data dashboards and reports;  that it can be used to break down program and information silos within large institutions and foster collaboration with others; and that it can help highlight who among their grantees is really effective. To put it another way, the application of a taxonomic system to data is nothing less than the critical first step in transforming masses of raw data into usable, sharable knowledge.

We know it isn’t going to be easy to get everyone onboard. And we also know that one reason foundations and affinity groups have hesitated to adopt the GCS taxonomy in the past is its overwhelming size (For starters, the taxonomy has more than 1,300 codes). So this is what we’re telling foundations and other entities which share that concern: Use only the codes and terms that are relevant to your work. If, for example, your foundation only provides funding for the arts, or funding for animal welfare, or higher education, use only those terms that apply to your work and ignore the others.  Or, if the very idea of doing your own data coding causes you to break out in hives, just tell us in your own words as specifically as possible what and who your grants are for, and we'll do the coding for you.

While we hope that more organizations will adopt or adapt the revised system when it’s released  in 2013, we understand that it can’t be all things to all people. Other taxonomies like OECD’s DAC-CRS system, or the U.S. government’s Standard Industrial Classification or North American Industry Classification System, will continue to be used. Over time, our plan is to develop “crosswalks” from those taxonomies to the GCS system, creating in effect a comprehensive social sector thesaurus that enables greater data comparability, greater discovery of intra- and inter-sectoral trends, greater knowledge and learning opportunities, and more collaboration among funders, nonprofits, governments and other social sector actors. The Center continues to encourage an open dialogue as we strive together to make the taxonomic system a tool and resource for all.

We are already working with the Hewlett and Gates foundations, LiquidNet for Good, and all our other Markets for Good partners to improve the social sector infrastructure through the development of more useful standards and taxonomies. Won’t you join us as we forge a movement around better data for a better world?

--Jeff Falkenstein

Has your foundation experienced challenges with applying a taxonomy to your work? Either leave a comment below or contact Jeff at

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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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