Transparency Talk

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October 2013 (9 posts)

Aid Transparency Data is Growing (and Being Ranked!)
October 31, 2013

(Yinebon Iniya is manager of international data relations at the Foundation Center.)

Iniya-100In almost every corner of the philanthropic world, transparency appears to be the buzzword these days.  Foundations and donors often talk about their efforts to more strategically catalyze change and make an impact, however, while they have great stories to share, the quantifiable outcomes of their efforts are difficult to fully measure and further, in many cases, best practices that may potentially help others become more effective are not shared at all.

So what’s happening in the world of government aid, where there has also been a lot of transparency talk, especially around the looming Millennium Development Goals?

If you were at the Opening Up Aid: Better Data, Better Use forum at the Brookings Institute last week, then you already realize that aid transparency can be summed up in a four letter word.


International Aid Transparency Initiative
IATI stands for the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a bold undertaking that is in its fifth year and continues to push efforts to publish open data in a standard that allows government agencies to tell their story.

The forum was about promoting the progress that has been made during IATI’s five-year period and to display the 2013 Aid Transparency Index (ATI), an online index launched jointly by Oxfam America and Publish What You Fund that measures aid transparency from some of the world’s leading aid agencies in the form of a ranking system that demonstrates which organizations are most and least transparent.

The ATI is a colorful chart that displays the name of the donor and their score. Clicking on the chart brings up the donor profile information and its relevance to IATI. There is specific detail about the scoring, which contains data about what the donor has made available and its score there as well. Users can filter their searches by organization size, type, or initiative. This is all available online, and can be accessed by anyone for free.

Information published on a quarterly basis in extensible markup language (XML) format, is machine-readable and according to David Hall-Matthews, Managing Director of Publish What You Fund, the best format because it is the ”only format that is both comparable and accessible.”

Hall-Matthews, who gave a rousing address about the importance and push for agencies to become more transparent, talked about a data revolution, clearly excited about the potential and commitment many of the groups are making to publish useful data on aid activities.

And the Highest Ranking Aid Transparency Agency is…
He also had the pleasure of announcing the top ranked agency so far, which happens to be the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. based foreign aid agency that since 2004, has been providing assistance in the fight against global poverty. According to Publish What You Fund, which ranked 67 donor organizations, MCC, scored 88.9% overall, narrowly beating organizations like GAVI Alliance, Department for International Development, and United Nations Development Program which also scored high marks. The scoring was based on organizations that are providing “large amounts of accessible, timely, comparable, and comprehensive information about their aid”.

This information is useful to people like Hector Corrales, Director of International Cooperation at the Republic of Honduras’ Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, who made a compelling case when he talked about mutual accountability; a coming together of donors and countries, and the need for the data to be published quarterly so that it could create a friendly competition among the agencies while also reminding them about the areas that need to be improved.

Honduras, an active member of IATI, recently launched an aid management platform, which contains information on all aid activity, including government data. Mr. Corrales praised IATI for its efforts while indicating it was imperative for the “long term transformation of development actors in the field”. After all, in order to be really effective and impactful, having good, searchable, timely, comprehensive data is not only important, it’s vital. He was pleased to announce that Honduras is committed to IATI and its standard.

Aid Transparency Advice and Best Practices
There was also a panel on transparency that featured a list of high-profile aid agencies that are involved in everything from capacity building, development planning, economic growth, political reform to budget and policy. The panel, moderated by Tessie San Martin, President and CEO of Plan USA, included Caroline Anstey, Managing Director of World Bank; Tony Pipa, Deputy Assistant for the U.S. Agency for International Development; Robert Goldberg, Director, Office of U.S. and Foreign Assistance Resources, U.S. Department of State; the aforementioned Hector Corrales; and Sheila Herrling, V.P., Department of Policy and Evaluation, Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Herrling, who was thrilled that MCC climbed from a 9th place ranking to the top of the standings shared how they were able to accomplish the feat along with some best practices;

  1. Declare that you’re going to be transparent and have the political will to be able to overcome fear because you have to be willing to answer questions about your own data and that takes time.
  2. MCC uses data to make decisions on everything so the realization they could not access their own data, coupled with a push from external audiences asking for better data made their decision to publish better information an easy one.
  3. The learning that can be made possible by the volume of data that can be shared in the information space is an important element.

Most of the guests on the panel shared their best practice of having a good group of technical and policy teams working together and agreed that political will and the hunger to see transparency of aid data improve are all important aspects of keeping this movement alive and growing.

To sum this all up in the words of the Senior Fellow of Brookings and the introductory speaker, George Ingram, “This is a small but important element in the data revolution.”

--Yinebon Iniya

Make Success Open Source, and Bring on the Competition!
October 29, 2013

(Eric Stowe is the founder and director of Splash, an international nonprofit working on smart solutions to the water crisis in developing countries.)

Stowe-100Greater transparency and open source sharing could accelerate the pace of social sector change, but few organizations are able to take this thinking forward. I recently wrote a piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review wherein I suggested that successful organizations in the social sector could finally start to see real traction and systems change if, and when, we open up our internal business strategies to competitors.

Help Entrepreneurs Use Proven Models

The belief behind this is that no one organization, or even a handful, can solve the massive problems we are fighting against. If we open-sourced our work and allowed some of the brilliant entrepreneurs out there to take our respective work further by enabling them to start at step 20, instead of step 1, it would ultimately advance our causes for the better.

No single group has effectively taken proven solutions to global scale to eradicate the very problems they started out to conquer.

If the end goal is true scale toward a solution, not an organization’s scale toward perpetuity, then we need to get a fraction of the growing pool of amazing social innovators away from focusing on the newest unproven solutions—continually building new starting lines toward untested finish lines.

Instead, encourage the sector as a whole to make success open source and scale what works. Why? Because no single group has effectively taken proven solutions to global scale to eradicate the very problem(s) they started out to conquer. I believe this trend will continue unless we methodically and systematically promote theft of our proven and successful models.

Lest it be seen simply as NGO naiveté, I am actually a fan of the market side of the equation. My argument ultimately advocates for more solid competition in the sector, not less. If someone can best us at our game (which they most assuredly can), and force us to either step it up or be put out of business (which they absolutely might), that is a net gain.

Use Risk Capital to Make Success Open Source

How do we take this further, from dialogue to action?

In funding terms, when we collectively talk about “scaling impact,” it usually means “scaling an organization’s footprint.” To funders, I say that lone organizations in any sector simply don’t have, nor have they ever had, the resources to pull it off. Funders should no longer bear the notion that single implementers should carry the burden alone; nor should funders accept organizations that say they can.

In my conversations with successful implementing organizations, most have stated they would be willing to promote imitation of their models by competent third parties. But funding it is incredibly tricky, if not outright impossible, in a field where most grants go the traditional route of project-by-project funding—which leaves little or no room in the budget to strategically document our respective paths to success and, more importantly, promote its imitation by separate organizations.

It is terribly exciting when we think of finally scaling our solutions rather than continually locking them down and walling them off.

If willing organizations could marry their openness to this concept with donors willing to bundle a bit of risk capital in their larger grants, it would open up the space to try this out and catalyze second-mover advantage, rather than hinder it.

Invest in Imitation and Move Toward Real Scale

But what happens if the imitation of a successful model is weak? The donors who will fund global solutions at scale can sniff out the difference between a weak approximation of the gold standard and the real thing. This should mitigate risk for donors at every level within the funding spectrum and ensure that the overall drag from anemic imposters doesn’t result in a net decrease in efficiency, reach, or quality. It will certainly take time to standardize and evaluate the growth of imitators—with all sorts of speed bumps along the way. Sadly, time is on our side, since we aren’t currently solving any singular problem on our own.

From an implementer’s perspective, this is scary ground to cover, because it has the potential to put our brand, our reputation, and our hard-won success at risk. Yet it is terribly exciting when we think of finally scaling our solutions rather than continually locking them down and walling them off.

Aqua_logo_smallFor my part, it is easy to preach this indefinitely without ever acting on it. To supplant that, in the coming years I will try to push my own organization, Splash, to invest up to 5% of our annual funding to nurture second-mover advantage. This will include rigorously documenting and standardizing our strategies, as well as bringing “competitors” into our office to learn our work from front to back—with the intention that we will start to see real growth outside my own organization's abilities and reach. I believe that committing 5% toward nurturing imitation will go much further toward real scale than isolating that same amount to our own program growth ever could.

If we get throttled and crushed in the process by a group that is quicker, smarter, and sharper than us—so be it. To them I say, “Bring on the competition!”

-- Eric Stowe

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Holds Pioneer Pitch Day to Promote Innovation, Transparency, and Entrepreneurship
October 24, 2013

(Emily Keller is an editorial associate in the Corporate Philanthropy department at the Foundation Center.)

Keller-100In an innovative approach to sourcing ideas for funding, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) conducted an open call for applicants—in 1,000 characters or less—to share an idea and their vision for how it could change the world. More than 500 individuals and organizations shared submissions, which reflected some of our country’s greatest health challenges: access to quality care, the social determinants of health, leveraging the abundance of data available to improve outcomes and accelerating the current pace of discovery.

Pitch-day-team (1)Last week, a team of health care and science experts from RWJF and other organizations gathered to listen and evaluate the resulting set of groundbreaking health care proposals in front of a live audience as part of an effort to open up the philanthropic application process and increase innovation. This first-ever Pioneer Pitch Day took place at the New York headquarters of AppNexus and consisted of eight fast-paced presentations by finalists, followed by questions from a rotating panel of judges and the audience, for a total pitch time of ten minutes each.

A Catalyst for Transformation and Disruptive Change

"We’re looking for disruptive change versus incremental improvements."

The event was part of an effort to solicit ideas for the foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, launched in 2003 to fund transformative and innovative approaches to dramatically improving health and health care in the US. Lori Melichar, team director for the portfolio, said the event provided her team with an opportunity to clarify the types of proposals they are seeking.

“When we tell people we are looking for innovative ideas that could transform health and health care, they don’t necessarily know what we mean. We’re looking for disruptive change versus incremental improvements,” said Melichar. “We hope that shedding light on the questions we ask when we meet as a team to review a proposal will help applicants develop their ideas and shape the proposals that are shared with us.”

Inquiry as a Means to Help Refine Ideas

Pitch3The judges’ questions helped finalists to refine ideas that incorporated themes of big data, collaboration and aggregation, crowdsourcing, social networks, transparency and accountability, and mobile technology. For example, when presenter Tara F. Bishop pitched a comprehensive and transparent doctor evaluation system incorporating existing patient reviews with qualitative data, Paul Tarini, senior program officer at the foundation, suggested that she needed a data acquisition strategy.

In another presentation, Elise Miller made the case for incorporating the human exposome – a person’s environmental exposures throughout their life – with the human genome to determine personalized health risks and prevention strategies and establish a database for studying correlations between exposure and disease. Nancy Barrand, senior adviser for program development at the foundation, called this a “massive undertaking” and asked Miller how she would chunk it and where she would begin. Judges also noted that people may be unaware of their exposures and big data could be used to gather that information through home addresses.

Opening Up the Foundation to New Participants

The finalists were chosen from 521 applicants who responded to the open call for proposals in September through an online system that allowed applicants the unique opportunity to see the competition and view others’ submissions. The Pioneer Portfolio is the only portfolio at the foundation that accepts brief unsolicited proposals but they are not usually posted publicly. According to Melichar, most of the submissions came from people and institutions that had never applied for funding from the foundation before.

At the end, three winners were chosen to engage in further conversations with the foundation to develop full proposals for funding. They were:

Tracking Medical Student Searches to Gather Data

Not Only Development and co-author of the book Hacking Healthcare, presented Breaking Barriers in Medical Knowledge, an initiative to use medical students’ web browser histories to spread emerging information with the goal of improving medical translation and reducing communication layers between patients and experts. Trotter, a healthcare data journalist and advocate of open data and transparency, has 5,000 medical students committed to donating their data.

Transforming Breast Cancer Screenings

LauraLaura Esserman, MD, MBA, presented Implementing Risk-Based Cancer Screening Using an Adaptive Learning Engine, a proposal to draw on personalized biomarkers and biology to establish a risk-based breast cancer screening process integrated with prevention.

“By profiling tumors that arise, we will learn who is at risk for what type of cancer and facilitate tailoring treatment to biology. Using an adaptive learning model, we can accelerate and implement effective change and precision medicine,” said Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center in San Francisco. Margaret (Peggy) O'Kane of the National Committee for Quality Assurance and Clarence So of Salesforce also contributed to the proposal.

Using Social Networks to Improve Hospital Safety

MedStar HealthSarah Henrickson Parker, Allan Fong, and Raj Ratwani of MedStar Health presented Creating a Social Epidemic of Safety – an initiative to examine the social network of a hospital, identify staff members who influence others, and train them to spread safety information to reduce preventable errors. The team members described their project as a data-driven, multi-pronged approach using sociometrics and offered an example in which a persistent nurse influenced doctors to double-check a patient at the end of a surgery and found a medical sponge that was accidentally left in the patient’s wound; thereby preventing post-surgical complications.

Melichar said the event was educational for the foundation and could be repeated. “We learned a lot from Pitch Day, including ways we can apply elements of the event to other sourcing activities. We haven’t made any final decisions yet, but we think that we will do something like this again in the future,” she said.

What do you think foundations should be doing to open their applications processes to innovative ideas, greater transparency, and new applicants? Please provide your suggestions below.

-- Emily Keller

Glasspockets Webinar Series: Transparency and Technology Tools for Grantmakers
October 23, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Rebecca Herman PhotoPublic expectation about what information is made available online is increasing at a rapid pace—whether you are operating in the public sector, the private sector or the social sector. For grantmakers, emerging online technologies and platforms also provide an array of new opportunities to be transparent about their approaches to philanthropy and the impact of their work.

Over the past few months, in partnership with California Philanthropy and the James Irvine Foundation, Glasspockets offered three webinars to help foundations take advantage of online tools and resources that address timely issues in philanthropy. Our Glasspockets webinar series for grantmakers explored how harnessing the power of transparency can facilitate greater collaboration, reduce duplication of effort, build stronger relationships with stakeholders, and cultivate a community of shared learning:

Check out these webinar recordings for tips on the newest transparency tools:

Equipping Your Foundation for the Age of Transparency and Big Data, presented by Foundation Center President Bradford K. Smith


Watch the webinar»

Are you ready for big data? Big data—the gathering of unprecedented amounts of digital information to understand trends and predict future behavior—is fundamentally changing the way we understand the world and make decisions. This webinar explores how grantmakers can use big data to inform their work. He also discusses how revolutionary changes in technology-fueled transparency, data access and data mining will have a profound impact on foundations of all sizes.

Sample tip: The field of philanthropy resembles an archipelago—islands that are far too isolated from each other, especially in this era of data-sharing. Foundations’ urge to be unique (and create their own “island”) creates disadvantages when it comes to harnessing big data, since each grantmaking program is speaking its own language. Stop trying to be unique!

What Do We Know? Tapping the Social Sector’s Collective Intelligence, presented by Gabi Fitz, Director of Knowledge Management Initiatives, The Foundation Center


Watch the webinar»

Our collective intelligence is one of our most valuable offerings as a field. Access to quality research provides the social sector with the ability to improve programs and strengthen funding initiatives. How can you amplify the impact of the knowledge you create, fund, and produce? This webinar addresses how social sector research can help your organization fulfill its mission; it also provides an introduction to IssueLab, the Foundation Center’s free database of more than 13,000 white papers, case studies, and evaluations.

Sample tip: How can you make your knowledge more accessible? In addition to putting your research on your website and disseminating it to your networks, add a copy to IssueLab—a resource that we see as the public library of the social sector. You many also consider open licensing for your research, so that it to be used more widely. Make sharing research your default, not the exception!

Transparency 2.0: Foundations in the Age of Social Media, presented by Jereme Bivens, former Digital Strategy and Emerging Media Manager, The Foundation Center


Watch the webinar»

Learn how social media tools can help you improve information flow, interact with partners and stakeholders, and operate more transparently. This webinar shares proven techniques to stay on top of industry trends, participate in mission-related conversations, communicate effectively with your teammates, and reduce your e-mail and meeting schedule. The webinar also discusses organizations who are leading in social media, as well as new tools to track and measure your social media campaigns.

Sample tip: Google Analytics gives you information about how many people visit your website, where they are coming from, which pages they went to, and even more. For instance, are they accessing your website from a mobile device, even though your website is not mobile-friendly? There is also a new section in Google Analytics to help you identify which social media platforms are getting people to your website.

If you are interested in other transparency tools, let us know! We thank our Glasspockets webinar series sponsor, The James Irvine Foundation, and our webinar partners: Northern California Grantmakers, San Diego Grantmakers and Southern California Grantmakers.

-- Rebecca Herman

Glasspockets Find: The Gates Foundation Joins the International Aid Transparency Initiative
October 16, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Gates-image-wall-crop2The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become the latest organization to join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), signaling their intention to publish open data on their global development activities. IATI, launched five years ago in Accra, Ghana, aims to make information about aid spending easier to find, use and compare.

"At the end of the day, our goal is the same: to identify common ways we all can share information that will help the development community achieve greater impact."

In his blog post about the announcement—“Information Sharing for Impact”—Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes commented, “To figure out our approach to sharing information, we have taken lessons from what governments and other nonprofits are doing well, while considering the unique aspects of operating a foundation. At the end of the day, our goal is the same: to identify common ways we all can share information that will help the development community achieve greater impact.”

IATI has brought together donors, developing country governments, civil society and aid information experts to agree on a common, open, international standard for publishing more, and better, information about aid. The public can search and download data from the IATI Data Registry, which includes raw data from 189 organizations and counting.

If you’re not ready for IATI’s raw data, you can check out Open Aid Search, a simple search and browsing interface; or Aid View, a prototype visual interface to browse aid activities by donor, country and sector.

The Gates Foundation is one of the first private foundations to become a member of IATI, joining The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in increasing transparency through this global initiative.

-- Rebecca Herman


Glasspockets Find: Fostering Transparency in Mexico’s Philanthropic Sector
October 15, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

If your elected officials suggested eliminating the tax-deductibility of donations and the tax exemption of nonprofit organizations, you might be very motivated to defend the role of philanthropy in civil society. In Mexico, in the face of such a proposal, a broad coalition of organizations joined together in opposition and took aggressive steps to remedy the lack of information about Mexico’s nonprofit sector. Fondos a la Vista (“Funds at a Glance”), launched in January 2013, aims to foster a trustworthy and transparent civil society through its searchable database of more than 22,000 Mexican philanthropies.

"You can see that there have been billions of pesos—hundreds of millions of dollars—donated by donors in Mexico. I think it’s a real cure for pessimism and for cynicism about the sector."

Fondos a la Vista is an online, public resource that provides comprehensive information about domestic donors in Mexico and their philanthropic activity—including the organizations they support (las Organizaciones de la Sociedad Civil, or OSCs). The platform is modeled on Foundation Directory Online and was developed by the Foundation Center in partnership with the Mexico-based Alternativas y Capacidades and the Philanthropy and Civil Society Project at ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México).

A video explaining the mission of Fondos a la Vista and the role it can play in civil society was recently produced by Alternativas y Capacidades in conjunction with the launch of a giving portal on the U.S.-Mexico Foundation website:  

Watch the video»

Michael D. Layton, Director of the Project on Philanthropy and Civil Society at ITAM, states in the video that one of the ways in which Fondos a la Vista can be useful as a transparency tool is to counter misconceptions about the nonprofit sector, such as the idea that people don’t give in Mexico. "Looking at the data in Fondos a la Vista…you can see that there have been billions of pesos—hundreds of millions of dollars—donated by donors in Mexico. I think it’s a real cure for pessimism and for cynicism about the sector. I think it can really give a boost to the nonprofit sector and philanthropy in Mexico."

-- Rebecca Herman

The Brave New World of Good
October 11, 2013

"O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't."
(William Shakespeare)

"Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted."
(Aldous Huxley)

Globe-handsWelcome to the Brave New World of Good. Once almost the exclusive province of nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic foundations that fund them, today the terrain of good is disputed by social entrepreneurs, social enterprises, impact investors, big business, governments, and geeks. Their tools of choice are markets, open data, innovation, hackathons, and disruption. They cross borders, social classes, and paradigms with the swipe of a touch screen. We seem poised to unleash a whole new era of social and environmental progress, accompanied by unimagined economic prosperity.

As a brand, good is unassailably brilliant. Who could be against it? It is virtually impossible to write an even mildly skeptical blog post about good without sounding well, bad -- or at least a bit old-fashioned. For the record, I firmly believe there is much in the brave new world of good that is helping us find our way out of the tired and often failed models of progress and change on which we have for too long relied. Still, there are assumptions worth questioning and questions worth answering to ensure that the good we seek is the good that can be achieved.


The potential of markets to scale good is undeniable. The most successful nonprofit and foundation efforts can only be replicated in multiple locations, while markets routinely attain regional, national, or even global scale. But even "philanthropic investment firms" like Omidyar Network, which was born out of eBay-inspired market zeal, have added outright grants to nonprofits as an essential part of their change strategy. Perfect markets exist only in economic theory. In the real world, avarice, corruption, politics, and power conspire to exclude minorities of all descriptions from their share of market rewards. Social policy and philanthropy, for all their faults, persist precisely because market booms benefit too few and market busts hurt too many.

Open Data

Second only to "good" in terms of marketing genius is the concept of "open data." An offspring of previous movements such as "open source," "open content," and "open access," open data in the Internet age has come to mean data that is machine-readable, free to access, and free to use, re-use, and re-distribute, subject to attribution. Fully open data goes way beyond posting your .pdf document on a Web site (as neatly explained by Tim Berners Lee's five-star framework).

When it comes to government, there is a rapidly accelerating movement around the world that is furthering transparency by making vast stores of data open. Ditto on the data of international aid funders like the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The push has now expanded to the tax return data of nonprofits and foundations (IRS Forms 990). Collection of data by government has a business model; it's called tax dollars. However, open data is not born pure. Cleaning that data, making it searchable, and building and maintaining reliable user interfaces is complex, time-consuming, and often expensive. That requires a consistent stream of income of the kind that can only come from fees, subscriptions, or, increasingly less so, government.

Foundation grants are great for short-term investment, experimentation, or building an app or two, but they are no substitute for a scalable business model. Structured, longitudinal data are vital to social, environmental, and economic progress. In a global economy where government is retreating from the funding of public goods, figuring how to pay for the cost of that data is one of our greatest challenges.


Open-data purists frequently equate open data with innovation. Opening up data to as many brains as possible simply increases the likelihood that something creative, unexpected, and truly innovative will be done with it. We often hear about examples of transit apps, election fraud maps, early warning systems, and the like powered by open data-fueled innovation. But it is probably still too early to declare victory on what seems to be a positive trend, partly because we are invariably attracted to the new, exciting things that catch our attention at the moment. Meanwhile, most innovation that scales in the world is the stuff we never see coming because it is contained in patents purchased and protected deep within the intellectual property vaults of companies like Apple, IBM, and Google. We need to build ways to identify, track, evaluate, and communicate sustainable innovation to assess the true potential of open data.


Hackathons are the tool of choice for transforming open data into innovation. Talented programmers are turned loose, usually on a volunteer basis, to create something cool, useful, and good out of different data streams. This challenges traditional models where expertise is siloed within individual businesses or organizations along with all the tunnel vision and bottom-line pressures that can stifle true creativity. Hackathons are amazing, and the sheer brilliance, energy, and will of brainy programmers to do good is inspiring. But we should not kid ourselves. Relying on intense coding sprints by otherwise overworked programmers may be the "new necessary" in terms of tackling the world's most pressing problems, but it is not sufficient. This highly qualified, high-value form of volunteering is fast becoming a key ingredient in producing lasting change, but seldom is it the entire recipe.


In the brave new world of good, disruption has practically become synonymous with innovation. For those aspiring to emulate the success of a Sean Parker or a Mark Zuckerberg, venerable businesses and nonprofits are often seen as "ripe for disruption." What economist Joseph Schumpeter described as "creative destruction" has always been part of economic progress, as innovation in producing goods and services comes to replace old business models with new. But today, it is almost as if disruption is an end in itself rather than a means. Wait a minute: If we are busy disrupting businesses and organizations right and left, who's going to pay the salaries and benefits of all the programmers required to turn open data into innovation through hackathons?


My favorite example of good is the social enterprise that calls itself just that, "Good," and bills itself as "a community of people that give a damn." It's almost as if a Wall Street financial firm was to label itself "Greed." I follow Good's great infographics, enjoy its positive vibe news stories on my mobile news reader, and really don't have anything against the company except that I don't know much about it. It's privately held and says nothing detailed about itself on its Web site; in fact, this is all I could find out about the company online. Oh, and Good has a dog-friendly work environment. That, in a nutshell, is my greatest concern about the brave new world of good -- its lack of transparency.

For many who inhabit this brave new world, nonprofits and grantmaking foundations are associated with the old way of doing things. Nevertheless, we have a very good idea of what they actually do to create a better world because they are required to tell us in public disclosure documents. Those documents, the IRS Forms 990, though far from perfect, have served as the raw material on which entire information systems have been built by organizations like GuideStar, the Foundation Center, and the National Center for Charitable Statistics to classify, track, measure, and visualize how America's more than 90,000 grantmaking foundations and 1.3 million nonprofits work on everything from adoption to Zambia. We know who's on their boards and staff, where the money comes from, to which organizations it goes, and for what, where, and whom it is destined to benefit. Foundations and nonprofits may not be hip, but they are more transparent.

There is no comparable information source for impact investing, social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, and the like. We have some data -- rankings and ratings, standards, and partial information on impact investing -- only some of which is open and, taken together, is nowhere near comprehensive. So, despite its enormous promise, we are left to understand this brave new world of good through spotty data, case studies, the occasional evaluation, and lots of anecdotes (aka "storytelling"). There is hope on the horizon in the form of Markets for Good, a nascent effort to create a kind of data and information "commons" for the social sector. Funded by -- guess who…foundations (!) -- and backed by some twenty organizations, we now have a platform to bring together the different data streams that enable us to begin to piece together the world of good.

Follow the Money

Several years ago, a Google employee told me: "I want to map all the good in the world." At the time, I remember thinking how monstrously naïve that seemed (though if anyone could pull it off, it would probably be Google.) But today, I see that comment in a different light and find myself yearning for the same thing. If so much of the world is doing good, I want to know about it. I want to count it, measure it, and map it. Some will say -- as they do of philanthropy -- "I don't care how much money is being spent on X, I want to know what's effective." So do I, but we all know that standardizing effectiveness is elusive at best. In the meantime, let's follow the money. We know how much money the world is spending on pet food, weapons and war; let’s try to prove we're spending more on good.

-- Brad Smith

This blog is re-posted from PhilanTopic.

The U.N. Millennium Development Goals: How the Social Sector, Government and Civil Society can Effectively Collaborate on Global Development
October 10, 2013

(Emily Keller is an editorial associate in the Corporate Philanthropy department at the Foundation Center.)


As the 2015 deadline for achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) nears, philanthropic leaders convened at the Ford Foundation on September 27 to discuss methods for effectively collaborating with the social sector, government, and private sector to ensure their work leads to substantive long-term change. Panelists discussed the significance of transparency and accountability in achieving the MDGs.

A lot of the problems we want to solve can’t be easily solved by one sector. Foundations are very nimble and can take risks that governments can’t.

The MDGs, created in 2000, consist of eight goals to fight poverty, hunger, and disease, empower women, protect maternal health and children, and ensure environmental sustainability across the globe. Targets include cutting poverty in half, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, and providing universal primary education. Governments have been tasked with setting and implementing the MDGs, but philanthropy plays a significant role in supporting these processes and helping to shape the post-2015 international development agenda spearheaded by the U.N. That effort has yielded the collection of input from 1.5 million people and counting through a program called A Million Voices: The World We Want.

In his opening remarks, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker praised the United Nations Development Programme for being increasingly inclusive and collaborative in these processes, and he reminded the audience of the philanthropy sector’s unique ability to act independently in addressing social justice and inequality. Walker quoted a friend of his in saying, “You occupy a unique and privileged perch in society, but you don’t use it enough.”

Speakers on the opening panel focused on the importance of seeking participation from under-represented groups, data sharing, and communication between foundations as some of the key ways that philanthropy can support accountability and transparency.

Alexandra Garita, executive coordinator of Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ), and Theo Sowa, chair of the African Grantmakers Network and chief executive officer of the African Women’s Development Fund, called for bringing unheard voices into the conversations about the post-2015 international development agenda.

Garita cited a new U.N. report, “Advancing Regional Recommendations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda: A Consultation with Civil Society,” which calls for accountability and the participation of disenfranchised people in all aspects of policy-making. “I think what philanthropy can really contribute is investing in participation…It would be really great if philanthropy could invest in regional networks of social justice organizations,” Garita said.

Sowa said, “There are still large numbers of people who are excluded from the MDG process. The U.N. has tried to reach people but it’s the usual suspects and large NGOs who are given a voice. We need to be active and proactive in reaching the people who aren’t being reached. I think that there’s still time to do that and there’s a role philanthropy can play in that.”

Panelists at the subsequent breakout session, “Fostering Stakeholder Participation for Transparency and Accountability in Governance Processes,” provided detailed advice to foundation leaders seeking to support the MDGs, including:

Data Sharing and Sector-Wide Communication
Erik Lundsgaarde, senior researcher at the German Development Institute, noted the importance of transparency about “where foundation funding goes and what it’s used for,” and said, “Foundations vary a lot in the information they provide. Going forward, there should be more attention to the usability of funding data and more disaggregation of funding data, especially at the country level.”

Steven Lawrence, director of research at the Foundation Center, said foundations benefit by sharing information about their work in specific issues areas for comparison with other funders. Lawrence also noted the importance of lowering transaction costs to enhance the availability of data.

Direct Funding for Accountability and Transparency
Another way to support this work is to fund programs like the Better Than Cash Alliance, a multi-sector effort to facilitate the market shift from cash to electronic payments globally to increase the inclusion of the poor in the formal financial sector and reduce theft by corrupt employers and governments. Frank DeGiovanni, director of financial assets at the Ford Foundation, said the program is intended to increase transparency through the creation of electronic records while reducing the cost of disbursing benefits for governments. Lundsgaarde said that while foundations deal with accountability issues frequently, funding for governance programs is relatively small compared with more popular issues such as health care.

Develop Cross-Sector Partnerships
DeGiovanni recommended using principles of comparative advantage in establishing programs and partnerships. “A lot of the problems we want to solve can’t be easily solved by one sector. Foundations are very nimble and can take risks that governments can’t. There are inherent advantages to each group. Look for comparative advantages,” DeGiovanni said.

Support Grassroots and Advocacy Organizations
Dr. Wiebe Boer, chief executive officer at The Tony Elumelu Foundation in Nigeria said corporations and foundations that support programs in other continents should look to the organizations on the ground for guidance on how to invest there. “I think we need to start changing who’s telling who how to do things the right way,” he said.

Supporting the MDGs is a complex endeavor since it involves bringing the corporate, government, civil society, and philanthropy sectors together to address issues that have inherent overlap—such as poverty, health care, employment, and climate change. What do you think philanthropy should do to facilitate accountability and transparency in support of the MDGs? Please leave your comments below.

-- Emily Keller

Glasspockets Find: Ask Me Anything
October 3, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Spreddit8You may know the social news website Reddit for its humorous photos, videos and links to articles about hot topics. One of the most popular content areas is IAmA (or "I Am A…"), where users may participate in "AMAs" (for "Ask Me Anything"). AMAs are a forum for interviews on any topic, and there are several live AMAs scheduled everyday. Any Reddit user may post a question or comment and vote topics “up” or “down”, so the collective response informs how the Q&A appears, and how it is ranked within the Reddit site.

The topics and seriousness of the Reddit users’ questions vary widely, but it is great to see some very direct inquiries that touch on challenges in the nonprofit sector.

A few foundations and philanthropic organizations have participated in AMAs in the past few years—most notably Bill Gates, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as reported on our blog earlier this year. Among the recent Reddit AMAs from the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are the Himalayan Cataract Project and Give2Asia. The topics and seriousness of the Reddit users’ questions vary widely, but it is great to see some very direct inquiries that touch on challenges in the nonprofit sector. Here is an excerpt from the AMA with Dr. Matt Oliva, a Himalayan Cataract Project board member:

redishhead: What types of resistance, if any, do you come up against when providing healthcare in other countries with laws and values?

mattoliva: Good question. It is important that US doctors working in other countries work within the current medical system and the local providers. We always get a local medical license if possible. We also strive to "never leave a patient behind" and ensure that the local partner can provide followup if there are any complications. Long term success requires a collaborative relationship with the local medical team and empowering them. If the quality of the service is high, even the poorest people will recognize this quality and seek the service. Many organizations and doctors can do more harm than good with the "fly in/fly out" model of care.

Give2Asia participated in a Reddit AMA about earthquake and tsunami recovery work in Japan that included advice on disaster giving and real-life lessons from the field:

macdaddy0086: How difficult was the whole thing?

give2asia: Every disaster is different, but this was one of the most difficult disasters I’ve worked on. It was a triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear) that affected over 420mi of coastline.

In the beginning, it was made even more complex because many NGOs and NPOs were waiting to hear the government’s response, so there was a fair amount of waiting, and a lack of coordination between them. For a time, they were limiting access to the area, and permits were required to enter. Even the humanitarian response was strictly measured, since the country has such a strong focus on equality. We’d never seen that before in any disaster, and it added a measure of complexity.

Only three days after the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2013 Fellows last month, new fellows Kyle Abraham and Jeremy Denk participated in an AMA. Here is the most popular exchange, as voted on by Reddit users:

aedwards044: What do ya'll intend to do with the Fellowship stipend?

MacArthurFellows [Kyle Abraham]: I still owe over 100k in student loans :-/ I'm hoping to get rid of those completely... Other than that, I'm hoping to work with a financial advisor to see how I can really work on building my company structure for the long haul. We recently found an affordable plan for health care for our company and plan on implementing that as of October 1st. That was already in the works, but now I know that we'll actually be able to pull it off for sometime to come!

Do you think AMAs are a tool that can make philanthropic work more accessible? Let us know if you have participated and what you have learned. And if you would like to read the Reddit AMAs without the extensive comments, I definitely recommend skimreddit.

-- Rebecca Herman

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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."

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