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January 2013 (5 posts)

"Million Dollar List" Promotes Transparency Through Publicly Accessible Data
January 28, 2013

Jacqueline Ackerman

(Jacqueline Ackerman is the project coordinator for the Million Dollar List at the Indiana University School of Philanthropy.)

The Million Dollar List is the largest free record of publicly reported charitable donations of $1 million or more made in the United States since 2000.

Million Dollar List

Via an interactive website, the Indiana University School of Philanthropy offers this information as a database available to the general public. Users can download the entire database or portions of it, customize searches for their particular interests, and find trends and statistics about giving at this level at The Million Dollar List provides gift-level philanthropic data, rather than overall information about how much a specific donor gives or a particular nonprofit receives.

On the Million Dollar List website, users can search for information by donor or recipient organization, type of donor or nonprofit, gift size, and date. The interactive website also maps gifts by state for both donors and recipients. The list is the most comprehensive database of its kind, and to date includes more than 68,000 gifts.

The Million Dollar List is useful to a variety of audiences:

Donors value transparency and are driving the trend, requiring more information of themselves, their foundations, and the nonprofits they benefit.

High net worth donors. The Million Dollar List provides high net worth donors and their advisors with a place to better understand and visualize current high-dollar giving and more strategically plan their own giving. They can see which organizations working on causes in which they are interested have received large gifts, and where gaps in funding may exist. The Million Dollar List can also help donors find where other donors are giving at this level, and identify possible opportunities for leveraging their giving or engaging in peer-to-peer learning. For example, a donor wishing to combat domestic sex trafficking used the Million Dollar List to identify other donors who give to organizations addressing this issue. Through the Million Dollar List, this donor was able to connect with others to determine the most effective way to give.

Nonprofits. The Million Dollar List can help nonprofit organizations understand who is giving high-dollar gifts to similar groups, and look at the big picture of giving to specific nonprofit subsectors. An environmental nonprofit in Colorado, for example, could find out which similar organizations donors are supporting at this level and might want to consider developing relationships or partnerships with those organizations to increase their collective impact.

General public and the media. Finally, the Million Dollar List provides a wealth of information about million-dollar-plus giving that is of interest to the general public. The huge amount of data in the Million Dollar List has inspired a number of research projects and forthcoming papers. Basic findings using data from 2000-2010 can be found here.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of the Million Dollar List is that it promotes transparency in philanthropy. Donors value transparency and are driving the trend, requiring more information of themselves, their foundations, and the nonprofits they benefit. About two-thirds of the gifts on the Million Dollar List are from foundations, providing a boost to transparency in giving by foundations of all types.

Donors have provided their own information to the Million Dollar List in order to help provide a clearer picture of patterns and trends in million dollar gifts. At the same time, the Million Dollar List’s transparency offers donors the opportunity to leverage and coordinate their giving in supporting particular organizations or causes.

I invite you to explore the Million Dollar List online to learn more and see how you can use this information.

-- Jacqueline Ackerman


The Power of Sharing: Why VNA Foundation Joined the Reporting Commitment
January 23, 2013

Rob DiLeonardi is Executive Director of the VNA Foundation in Chicago, where he manages its grantmaking program and daily operations. He is co-founder and former Chair of the Board of the Association of Small Foundations (ASF), a national organization of 2,900 grantmaking foundations holding over $60 billion in assets. He has a longstanding interest in foundation transparency and outcome sharing; VNA's website and annual reports have eight times received a Council on Foundations' Wilmer Shields Rich Award for Excellence in Communications.

Rob DileonardiDuring the two decades I've worked for and with small grantmaking foundations, I've addressed problems ranging from healthcare access to domestic violence to homelessness. One of the most vexing problems I've faced over the years, however, relates not to the subject matter of my grantmaking, but rather to the results of it. Time and again, I've helped develop a grantmaking program to address a particular problem, only to find out after the fact that another foundation was funding the identical issue, often with a remarkably similar approach, in the same or a nearby area. We were addressing the same need, often via the same method, but doing so in blissful isolation. In short, we were reinventing the wheel, sometimes only a few miles apart.

Similarly, our foundation's board and staff have often wondered about latest funding trends. With only a limited number of dollars in our coffers, we want to spend them in the most effective possible way. It would be helpful for us to know exactly where other philanthropic dollars were being directed, both geographically and programmatically, as this knowledge would aid us in filling a gap or funding a complimentary niche -- a favorite strategy to maximize the impact of our grantmaking.

For these reasons, over the years I've tried many different approaches to ensure that the staff of the VNA Foundation is aware of other funders' work and that they are aware of ours. We subscribe to many electronic and hard copy newsletters, periodicals, and reports. We attend local, regional, and national conferences and networking groups. We convene grantmakers and grantees around common challenges, and encourage dialogues about successes -- and failures -- in addressing them. And we work hard to make our website an interactive, timely, and appealing resource. Yet, despite these various efforts, both the grantmaking data we share and that which we receive is often either stale (months or sometimes even years old by the time it reaches end users) or lacking the key details to make it useful.

My interest, therefore, was quickly piqued when I learned of the Foundation Center-supported Reporting Commitment, and the opportunity for the VNA Foundation to become a participant in it. The Reporting Commitment finally allows foundations the opportunity, and the mechanism, to release grant information in a consistent, open, and frequent manner. Although the Commitment's founding participants were large foundations, as soon as I became aware of the initiative I knew there would be value in participation by foundations of VNA's size. Small to medium-sized foundations are far more common in number, size and grantmaking level than their larger brethren. In fact, small foundations account for approximately half of America's total foundation grant dollars, and often provide the kind of essential local support that impacts lives on a daily basis.

In addition, most observers judge foundations by their effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency, not their asset size. Participation by smaller foundations like VNA (foundation philanthropy being one of the few settings in which a $50 million bank account is considered "small") is key, in my opinion, to making the Reporting Commitment's impact felt in more than a handful of sectors.

I am delighted to say that the VNA board of directors immediately saw the value in our participation in the Reporting Commitment, and my colleagues at peer foundations are seeing the light as well. All across the country, every day, foundations large and small are working to bring about small miracles or serve as catalysts for systemic innovation. With the help of the Reporting Commitment, perhaps our field finally has a mechanism by which that work can effectively be shared with colleagues and the public alike.

-- Rob DiLeonardi

Glasspockets Find: Lumina Illuminates Its Own Strategic Planning Process
January 16, 2013

Lumina Foundation

Four years ago, Lumina Foundation launched its first four-year strategic plan based on Goal 2025. The goal was to make it possible for 60 percent of Americans to obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025, to produce the skills set that the nation would demand for a vibrant 21st century economy. Four years on, Lumina has just released its 2013-2016 Strategic Plan.

Transparency is a concept that works best when the benefits are (at least) two-directional. Lumina Foundation is well aware that it cannot achieve Goal 2025 on its own. It can, however, serve as a catalyst for action. Its new strategic plan reflects key lessons learned over the past four years and defines two primary imperatives: mobilizing to reach Goal 2025 and designing and building a 21st century higher education system. At current rates, the nation will fall 23 million degrees and credentials short of Goal 2025. The new plan includes strategies to jumpstart access and success in education beyond high school by focusing on critical segments of society and by engaging key stakeholders including employers, institutions of higher education, and local, state, and federal policymakers.

Mobilizing to Reach Goal 2025

Explore Lumina Foundation's strategic plan»

With a series of short video clips that can be easily shared via social media, Lumina breathes life into what might otherwise be just another routine strategic plan. By taking a periodic evaluation of progress made and plans for next steps - and publicly sharing this information in a compelling manner - the foundation is encouraging its partners, and potential partners, to keep up the good fight and better positioning itself for ultimate success.

A three-page executive summary of the 2013-2016 Strategic Plan is now available. The full plan will be available to download in the coming weeks.

Do you know of examples you’d like to share that illustrate how transparency can help achieve strategic goals?

 -- Mark Foley

The Archives of U.S. Foundations: an Endangered Species, Part 2
January 14, 2013

John E. Craig, Jr., is Executive Vice President & COO of The Commonwealth Fund. He recently presented at a Philanthropy New York event on Why Archives Matter, which was the subject of an earlier blog post here.

Craig_100In an earlier blog, I reported the findings of The Commonwealth Fund’s December 2012 survey of foundations’ current archiving practices. It is of considerable concern that no more than 20 percent of even large foundations (those with assets of $240 million or more) maintain archives, given the importance of historical records to researchers and helping to assure accountability and good management in the sector.

A review of the literature, the survey findings, and conversations with leading archivists and foundation officers suggest ways in which the state of archiving in the foundation sector could be improved:

1. The number of foundations currently maintaining archives is far fewer than it should be, and foundation boards and executives should give more attention to the issue than they do now. Audit and compliance committees of foundation boards should ensure that at least the short-term records-retentions policy required by Sarbanes-Oxley is developed and enforced, and should take an active role in seeing that the question of archiving important records is addressed at the board level.

2. Chief executive officers of foundations should see one of their responsibilities as assessing the foundation’s need for archives and, if the decision is affirmative, delegating clear responsibility for their development and maintenance.

3. Boards and managements should see that resources are set aside as needed to achieve archiving objectives. The 2012 survey reveals that most foundations will find that maintaining archives, if done efficiently, is not a major expense.

4. Every foundation should have a stated archiving policy—even if it is “none”—to ensure that the question has been addressed. Policies should specify what records are to be preserved, the archiving model to be pursued (in-house vs. outsourced), access guidelines and restrictions, and guidelines for paper and electronic preservation. Archiving policies should ensure that the intensity of the archiving effort varies with the potential value of materials to users. The policy should be reviewed every five years to ensure that it keeps up with advances in information storage technology.

5. Archives are a "glasspockets" issue, and the Council on Foundations should be encouraged to include maintenance of archives among its best-practice guidelines for foundations above some minimum endowment size.

6. Outsourcing the archiving function to an external archive center is a viable option that many foundations, including multi-billion dollar ones, should consider. The choice of external center, however, must be made with care, and performance monitored regularly. Important questions include the following: do the foundations or other organizations that are currently donating archival records to the external center share similar objectives and expectations; does the external center have other significant collections that provide a valuable context for the foundation's archive; can the center meet the foundation’s expectations regarding the speed with which records are processed, provided with online finding aids, and opened to researchers; does the archival institution have the capacity to manage the long-term preservation of digital records and to provide access to them?

7. Many foundations, especially small and newer ones, may find that their archiving objectives going forward can be met with cloud-based content management systems (now spreading throughout the foundation community) that can be adapted in various ways for use by external researchers.

8. Two-thirds of larger foundations were established after 1989, but youth should be no excuse for postponing the question of whether to archive or not. Indeed, young foundations are in the enviable position of being on the ground floor on the technology front, often starting out with state-of-the art information systems in which virtually all of their records have always been kept digitally. Under these circumstances, archives are almost a natural byproduct of a good information system, with minimal marginal cost.

9. Spend-down foundations are prone to establish archives, but they often confront the issue only as the date of their sunset becomes imminent. Ideally, the question should be addressed early in their life.

10. Information technology staff of foundations should have as one of their major responsibilities the development of systems within the foundation that advance archiving objectives. They should work closely with the external archive center, when the foundation uses one, to coordinate and promote IT initiatives.

11. An affinity group of foundation officers with responsibility for archives (both in-house and outsourced) would greatly advance the spread of best practices in the sector. Foundations without archives reported in the 2012 survey that if there were a foundation-led group developing archiving standards and guidelines and providing information on consultants and experienced-based advice on technical issues, they would be better equipped to activate nascent plans for establishing archives.

12. Most importantly, consideration should be given to development of archive cooperatives by a consortia of foundations with common interests and archiving objectives. It is doubtful that existing archive centers have the capacity to take on large numbers of new foundation clients. Given the enormous number of foundations, interregional differences, and frequent commonality of interests at the regional level, multiple foundation archive coops might well be easier to launch and operate than a single national one. If the concept were to be judged promising, it could be piloted and capitalized by a few very large foundations in an “early adopter region”—with spread of the model to other regions to follow, if justified by the experience of the pilot.

In giving inadequate attention to the preservation of its historical records, the foundation sector is shortchanging historians and researchers of public policy, social movements, and important institutions and individuals who made a difference in their time. Above all, foundations are shortchanging themselves, by not ensuring that records exist for learning from experience and demonstrating their worth to society.

--John E. Craig, Jr.

The Archives of U.S. Foundations: an Endangered Species, Part 1
January 9, 2013

John E. Craig, Jr., is Executive Vice President & COO of The Commonwealth Fund. He recently presented at a Philanthropy New York event on Why Archives Matter, which was the subject of an earlier blog post here.

Craig_100A foundation’s archives preserve records of the programs, activities, products, governance, people, and history of the organization that may have enduring cultural, historical, research, or institutional value. Yet, despite the important role archives play in a field that focuses on investing in ideas, a recently released survey about foundation record management practices reveals that only a small minority maintain foundation archives, so clearly there is a need to make a case for why foundations should devote resources to archive development and management. There are at least six compelling reasons for why foundations should give their inactive files and historical records serious attention:

1. Historical Research on Social and Economic Developments and Influential Institutions and Individuals.
The late Paul Ylvisaker described philanthropy as “America’s passing gear,” and foundations serve this purpose in numerous ways: by helping to launch movements (such as civil rights, environmental protection, or health care reform); by developing new institutions and strengthening existing ones; by making society more inclusive through support of programs to improve the lot of vulnerable populations; by building up the knowledge base for social improvements and

“…no history of the civil rights movement would be complete without access to the permanent records of the Ford Foundation; no history of the development of the “miracle” rice strains that sparked the Green Revolution… would be complete without the records of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations; and no history of the health care reform legislation of 2010 would be complete without the records of The Commonwealth Fund, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation…”

scientific advancement and, through the support of individual researchers, contributing to the nation’s intellectual capital; and by strengthening the social fabric and physical capital of the communities in which foundations operate. In the hands of good researchers, the records of foundations can provide guidance for future generations in tackling new and continuing social problems. As examples, no history of the civil rights movement would be complete without access to the permanent records of the Ford Foundation; no history of the development of the “miracle” rice strains that sparked the Green Revolution, which helped transform Southeast Asian societies in the 1960s and 1970s, would be complete without the records of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations; and no history of the health care reform legislation of 2010 would be complete without the records of The Commonwealth Fund, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and other national and regional health care philanthropies.

2. Promoting Accountability in the Foundation Sector
The permanent records of foundations help foster accountability among this very privileged group of institutions. Foundations, given their exemption from most federal and state taxes, owe it to the public to provide clear and accessible records of how they have conducted their business and what they have accomplished—records that enable rigorous independent assessments of the impact of foundations’ strategies and programmatic investments.

3. Protecting the Foundation Sector and Defending Institutions from Misinformed Attacks
Individual foundations and the sector as a whole periodically come under attack—by regulators, elected officials, the media, or academics. In the absence of good historical records, foundations are at risk of not being able to make their case for being tax-exempt convincingly, or they may simply be caught flatfooted in being able to produce records of their accomplishments and actual behavior.

4. Facilitating Strategic Planning and Fostering a Learning-from-Experience Culture
Archival records enrich the research base for consideration of foundations’ future directions and help ensure program continuity. The lessons from earlier experience that they hold can help prevent strategic and tactical mistakes by current and future foundation managers.

5. Ensuring Institutional Memory and Sense of Accomplishment
Permanent archives are also a primary source for the institutional memory that is vital to learning organizations, and for the institutional pride that ensures the strong staff morale needed to achieve high performance.

6. Good Management and Administrative Efficiency
Finally, the care given to archives is a beneficial operational discipline, with orderly archives being a reflection of efficient office practices and good management. Inactive records are not allowed to pile up and get in the way of current files and information from inactive files can be achieved quickly when needed.

2012 Survey of Foundation Archives
As important as archives are for good foundation management, a confidential December 2012 survey of the 300 largest foundations conducted for The Commonwealth Fund by Mathew Greenwald & Associates finds that, even among very large foundations, no more than 20 percent maintain archives. The survey findings are reported on The Commonwealth Fund’s Web site. The surveyed institutions account for approximately 52 percent of the foundation sector’s endowment assets, including private, community, corporate, and operating foundations. Among the responding foundations, those with larger endowments, those with larger staffs, and those that are older were found to be more likely to maintain archives.

The survey revealed that only 37 percent of the non-archiving large foundations have formal short-term records-retention policies as required for nonprofits under the 2002 federal Sarbanes-Oxley legislation—suggesting worrisome laxity or informality with respect to institutional record-keeping within the sector.

The 2012 survey found that most large foundations without archives warehouse their historical records, at least for a time (48%), but many simply allow files to accumulate in their offices (Exhibit 1). Twenty percent of this group gave “doubt of the importance of historical records” as a major reason for not maintaining archives, but neither cost nor privacy or confidentiality was identified as a major reason. A sizeable number of foundations cited their youth as contributing to their failure to set up archives, explaining that the issue is either something they have not yet gotten to or have not needed to address thus far.


For large foundations that do have archives, the 2012 survey found that two-thirds manage them in-house; 17 percent place their historical records with independent nonprofit archive centers; 9 percent place records with a historical society, museum, or research library; and 7 percent place them with a university or college archive (Exhibit 2). An example of a very large foundation that historically managed its archives internally but recently switched to the outsourced model is the Ford Foundation. Ford selected as its repository in 2012 the Rockefeller Archive Center, which is the independent archive organization most often used by large foundations, including, since 1985, The Commonwealth Fund.


Many foundations that maintain archives put all important records in them since the foundation’s founding. Foundations generally follow traditional archiving practices in preserving program files, the foundation’s publications, public relations documents, organizational records (for example, board and committee minutes), key administrative records, and, if they produce them, photographs, documentaries, and videos. Most institutions do not archive declined proposals and no longer attempt to keep traditional archival material like officers’ calendars. External archive centers typically do not accept financial or human resources records, owing to lack of space and to processing priorities. Most foundations with archives (80%) are not preserving important e-mail correspondence, and over half are not archiving Web site information.

The survey found that the cost of archives varied with foundation size, age, and the nature of the foundation’s work. For a 94-year old, $650 million foundation with extensive intramural program operations and publications like The Commonwealth Fund, the annual costs of archives is about $100,000. The mean annual cost reported in the survey was $60,000.

Most foundations restrict researchers’ access to their archives, but nearly half will permit access if the research objective is deemed worthwhile (Exhibit 3). About a third (31%) routinely open their archives to researchers. The most common restriction is on access to administrative records.


Like other institutions, foundations see their archiving system at risk of being overwhelmed with the influx of materials. Even so, foundations with archives are staying on top of the paper flow relatively well: two-thirds say that at least 75 percent of records sent to archives have been processed Many foundations with archives are using their own information technology systems to advance archiving objectives, and some are quite advanced in doing so. But for over half, IT system improvements could improve archiving performance. Half of the foundations that currently have archives expect that, over time, their archives will be primarily electronic, and another 40 percent foresee a growing role for IT in their archiving practices (Exhibit 4).


Most foundations with assets under several billion dollars find that outsourcing their archives to an external center is more efficient than attempting to build a professional internal archives unit. The survey found that half of foundations using external archives centers find the services, overall, to be “very good” to “excellent,” and another 35 percent rate the services “satisfactory.” Echoing challenges facing the archiving profession, the chief areas of concern are timeliness in processing materials and using information technology to maximum advantage. Foundations report that researchers are well served by external archive centers.

Clearly, the state of foundation archives is a neglected “glasspockets” issue in the sector. In a follow-up blog, I will present some recommendations for improving the archiving practices of foundations.

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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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