Transparency Talk

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November 2013 (6 posts)

Grantmakers, Go On—Ask!
November 25, 2013

(Jessica Bearman is lead consultant to the Grants Managers Network’s Project Streamline, an initiative to help funders understand and minimize the burden of grantmaking. She blogs as Dr. Streamline at

Bearman-150Improving foundation transparency and accountability can improve relations with grantees and prospective grantees, especially around the application process. Have you ever wondered:

  • Are your grant application requirements sensible and comprehensible to applicants?
  • Does your online application system work well or waste grantseekers’ time?
  • What does your application process cost nonprofits (unfunded and funded) in time and financial resources?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re not alone. But there is no reason to be afraid to ask.

Project Streamling header (640x131)Project Streamline, an initiative of the Grants Managers Network, recently reported that many funders—more than half in our survey sample—don’t seek feedback on their practices from nonprofit grantseekers. Grantseekers reported that, on average, fewer than 15% of their funders had ever asked for input.

This means that funders don’t know the answers to the questions posed above.

Nonprofit grantseekers have learned all too well the perils of unsolicited candor. They often don’t believe that funders want to hear anything critical about practices. As one grantseeker put it, “As far as negative feedback, I don't give it unless they ask for it, or I do not plan to ever approach them again.” Meanwhile, funders seem oddly unwilling to invite constructive critique that would both demonstrate good partnership and improve their systems.

But funders have so much to gain from inviting feedback from grantseekers and grantees; it’s hard to imagine a significant downside to increased transparency. So, go onask!

Although you may have strong relationships with your grantees, they’re not likely to tell you the whole truth unless you ask specific questions in a format that allows them to comment anonymously.

Ask by surveying. I believe that an anonymous survey—either your own or one administered by a third party—is a good place to begin your inquiry. Although you may have strong relationships with your grantees, they’re not likely to tell you the whole truth unless you ask specific questions in a format that allows them to comment anonymously. For example, I worked with a foundation to ask very detailed questions about their budget forms. Grantee comments pointed out confusing sections, which the foundation was then able to clarify. They also decided to stop using budget forms for general operating support grants after receiving consistent feedback that the forms didn’t work for organizations’ budgets.

Ask in conversation. You can also get great insight through focus groups or individual conversations by asking directly for feedback after you’ve granted funding, or when there’s no funding on the table. Again, specificity is critical. “How was the process?” will not get the same type of useful response as, “Did you run into any issues using our online system? How would you suggest we improve it?”

One experienced grantseeker was asked by a funder to review their application, question by question, in a private conference call. She reported that her feedback made a difference; the funder later modified or eliminated requirements that were particularly difficult to manage.

Ask as part of ongoing learning and improvement. Grantseekers can appreciate and respect your interest in improving the grantmaking process, and they will be more inclined to be honest if they know you have a plan to use their constructive comments.

No matter how you do it, asking for input on these practices shows nonprofits that you recognize that applying for and reporting on grants carries an administrative burden. It tells them that you’re serious about minimizing unnecessarily labor-intensive tasks. It also tells them that you’re conscientious about your own learning process and improvement as a funder.

You may need to ask, and ask again, but eventually your nonprofit partners will understand that you truly want to know what they think—especially if you post your questions and share their input publicly. And they will thank you for it.

Tell us about your experiences seeking feedback from applicants and grantees. What worked well for you, and what did you learn?

-- Jessica Bearman

Glasspockets Find: The Hewlett Foundation’s New Transparency Policy, Sharing "Work in Progress"
November 20, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is special projects associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Herman-150Yesterday the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced their new blog, Work in Progress, with an ambitious inaugural post by the foundation’s president, Larry Kramer. A new foundation blog may launch every week—and we certainly enjoy reading them—but it doesn’t always change our outlook on transparency within the field of philanthropy. What makes this blog unveiling noteworthy is that is reads like a manifesto, as Mr. Kramer writes:

“Transparency matters. Being open matters. The Hewlett Foundation and our peers in the philanthropic sector have the great privilege to operate within a system that allows—and even encourages—us to use our resources for the betterment of society as we see it. And with that privilege comes the responsibility to act with the highest ethical standards and commitment to the public good.”

Hewlett-blog-titleThe post culminates in the announcement of the Hewlett Foundation’s new Statement of Purpose on openness and transparency. Here, Mr. Kramer codifies transparency, taking it from a value to a policy—one that states the foundation is starting from new default mode: “To put this commitment to openness and transparency into action, we begin with a presumption that information created by or about the Foundation should be freely available.”

“In being open and transparent, we demonstrate confidence in our strategies, but also show that we are willing to have them challenged.”

The comments section of the Hewlett Foundation’s first blog post is a lively read as well, responding to Mr. Kramer’s call for more discussion and disagreement. As he states, In being open and transparent, we demonstrate confidence in our strategies, but also show that we are willing to have them challenged.”

Among those weighing in to question the status quo is political scientist Robert Reich, who commented, “Transparency is also important, it seems to me, because it confers additional legitimacy on the work of foundations, rightly positioning their work as worthy of public scrutiny and debate. It acknowledges that the activity of private foundations is not in fact private. It is public-facing, aimed at improvements on issues of public concern.” 

To see how the Hewlett Foundation “walks the talk” in the area of transparency, check out its “Who Has Glass Pockets?” profile on our new Glasspockets web site. You can also read our own statement of purpose in the Why Transparency section of the site. We’ll be following all the commentary to see if it leads to wider policy changes across the field and more real dialogue on transparency.

-- Rebecca Herman

Meet the New Glasspockets Web Site
November 14, 2013

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the Center's Glasspockets effort.)

Janet CamarenaToday we are launching a redesigned and enhanced Glasspockets web site that I hope readers to this blog will enjoy exploring or rediscovering. Our goal remains the same as when the site launched in 2010: to champion greater philanthropic transparency in an online world. But the site today is a very different one, much improved by walking the transparency and accountability talk — thanks to our efforts to create a user experience that responds to direct feedback from our stakeholders.

You might be wondering if we really still need Glasspockets to champion transparency at all. And to that I would respond with a resounding "yes." It may be surprising to people to learn that — despite the digital age in which all knowledge seems available at the swipe of a finger on a mobile device — according to our latest data, fewer than 10% of foundations even have a web presence. Many assume that this is probably due to the large quantity of small, unstaffed family foundations that comprise many of the nation's foundations. However, even when we just looked at foundations with assets greater than $100 million, nearly 30% of those also did not have web sites. 

We recognize it's hard for grantmakers to know where to begin with transparency, so with the redesign, grantmakers will more easily be able to find tools they can use and steps they can take to increase their level of transparency in an online world.

So, it is clear, that many who practice institutional philanthropy prefer to do so in "stealth mode," which makes it very challenging from a field-building perspective since it is impossible to comprehensively map the ecosystem for fields and sub-fields. This makes life difficult for grantmakers and grantseekers alike, who then must rely on personal networks rather than complete data sources to connect with colleagues, compare notes, and identify potential solutions that are not replicating someone else's experimentation.

We recognize it's hard for grantmakers to know where to begin with transparency, so with the redesign, grantmakers will more easily be able to find tools they can use and steps they can take to increase their level of transparency in an online world.

Earlier this spring we conducted a user survey, asking questions about the impact of the Glasspockets initiative as well as questions pertaining to the site's content and navigation. We specifically invited the 50 foundations that had used and shared publically our "Who Has Glass Pockets?" assessment tool, our Glasspockets partners, as well as those who had served as guest bloggers to Transparency Talk to give us their input. What we learned from the helpful feedback of the respondents was very encouraging:

  • 100% of respondents believed that it was either somewhat or very important that foundations move toward greater transparency and openness
  • Strengthening credibility and public trust were the most popular reasons grantmakers cited for increasing transparency
  • Nearly 60% reported that Glasspockets had spurred them to increase their level of online transparency by sharing more content
  • More than half of survey takers told us that Glasspockets had helped them make transparency a priority with their staff or board.

We also received helpful feedback in terms of how to think about reorganizing the site, including requests to:

  • Streamline the site so users could more easily find tools to help them with transparency
  • Make the definition of and steps to transparency clearer
  • Offer webinars aimed at how to approach transparency
  • Offer more case studies of how foundations are using new technology platforms to increase openness.

As you explore the new site you will see that this feedback very much informed our approach. For example, we are now presenting Glasspockets with a framework that helps foundations easily chart their transparency course, with a clearer path to participate in and learn from our "Who Has Glass Pockets?" profiles, a helpful step-by-step approach to transparency, recorded webinar content, and greater use of infographics to make the data more accessible and fun.

New features include an interactive knowledge base of "Who Has Glass Pockets?" transparency profiles, an easy to share PDF of the transparency Heat Map, and an infographic presentation providing an overview of how philanthropy is harnessing social media for greater participation and transparency. Have you ever wondered which foundations have the most Twitter or Facebook activity, or the most YouTube subscribers? Take a look and find out. 

A forthcoming how-to foundation transparency guide done in collaboration with GrantCraft will further help users navigate improving foundation transparency practices. 

You will also find important staples from the original site:

  • Eye on the Giving Pledge offers an in-depth picture of how more than 100 of the world's wealthiest people are participating in the Giving Pledge, in which they have promised to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.
  • Foundation Transparency 2.0 returns in a streamlined format and lets visitors explore the online communications tools that foundations use and provides direct access to foundation blogs, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, and many other digital platforms.
  • The Reporting Commitment shows how America's leading foundations are meeting the challenges of our time. Users can track grants information in near-real-time through interactive maps and download data in open, machine-readable form.

Foundations and their grantees are tackling some of the world’s most complex issues that have no easy answers.  This is good news since it means that foundations are not shying away from the big issues of our time such as climate change, poverty, access to water, and attempting to cure currently incurable diseases. Through the redesigned Glasspockets our hope is that foundations will come to realize transparency is not a burden, but a helpful strategy that serves to accelerate the change they are trying to bring about in the world.

So, have a look around and then leave a comment or send out a tweet. Let us know what you think.

-- Janet Camarena

Tweeting for Good: How to Host a Twitter Chat
November 7, 2013

(Tara Pringle Jefferson is the social media consultant for the Cleveland Foundation.)

Pringle-100Roughly four years ago, when I began managing the Cleveland Foundation's social media accounts, I was inundated with questions from other local nonprofits about how they could better manage their social media.

“It takes too much time. How can I streamline this?"

"I'm not sure what I'm doing."

"Can you help me figure out how to convince our CEO we should have a Facebook page?"

These nonprofit employees were really wondering how to tell their story efficiently. As a community foundation, the Cleveland Foundation saw this as an opportunity to help local nonprofits while also building awareness of philanthropy in greater Cleveland as these groups increased their own social media presence.

To that end, the foundation created monthly meet-ups, where a different nonprofit would host the meeting each time. Attendees would tour the facility, ask questions, and then have a mix-and-mingle where we discussed everything from editorial calendars to online fundraising strategies.

ClevelandFoundationTwitterThese meetings were well attended, with more than 20 nonprofits represented on average. Eventually, the approach shifted to an online format to better accommodate the busy schedules of our most loyal attendees.

Since early 2012, the Cleveland Foundation has met online for our #CLE4Good Twitter chats on the second Monday of every month. Co-hosted with the Foundation Center-Cleveland and local communications firm Ink+ LLC, we spend an hour discussing important topics with our nonprofit community, giving them an opportunity to share best practices on social media, fundraising, and much more. We often have a special guest join us to allow participants to hear from national experts without having to leave their work desk.

As the lead sponsor of these chats, the Cleveland Foundation’s main goal is to give local nonprofits the opportunity to share their stories and get advice about pressing issues. It is easy to forget that social media isn’t about “likes” and clicks; rather, it is about conversations and relationships with real people. These chats are another way for us to connect with the community we serve and to be a resource for those who carry the same desire to improve our region.

For foundations or other nonprofits thinking about creating a similar dialogue on social media, here are a few takeaways:

  • Make the chat accessible. Be sure to spell out exactly what the chat is, its topic, and step-by-step instructions on how to participate. We publish an instructional blog post before each chat so any newcomers so can quickly learn the ropes.
  • Invite a special guest. Thisensures that the chat will be vibrant and full of information, and it also gives participants a chance to ask an expert. We work to invite a special guest to participate whenever possible, to ensure that we're not simply speaking to an empty room. It also helps the conversation ramp up quickly.
  • Use the tools at your disposal to promote the chats. Write a blog post, put a quick blurb in your e-newsletter, or advertise the chat on your organization’s Facebook page. But also remember: a successful chat is the best promotion for the following chat.
  • Track your chats to see where you can improve. Using a site like TweetReach or a social media dashboard like Hootsuite can allow you to see at a glance who has participated and how many followers you have attracted.
  • Keep the momentum going. We encourage all of our participants to follow each other after the chat and continue their conversations. Several participants have thanked us for making these introductions, which reinforces our goal of strengthening the local nonprofit network.

For any nonprofits who are interested in seeing one of our #CLE4Good chats in action, follow @CleveFoundation and join us on November 11 at noon EST for a discussion on how nonprofits can improve their donor relationships, or on December 9 at Noon EST, topic to be determined.

-- Tara Pringle Jefferson


Glasspockets Find: Tracking the Performance of Global Impact Investment Portfolios
November 5, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is special projects associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Herman-100In the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog today, Lisa Kleissner, president of the KL Felicitas Foundation, called for more transparency in impact investing and highlighted benefits of sharing impact performance data. Kleissner’s article, Creating a Better Future Through Transparency, accompanies the release of a report detailing the financial performance of the KL Felicitas Foundation’s impact investment portfolio over the past seven years. The report, titled Evolution of an Impact Portfolio: From Implementation to Results, was published by Sonen Capital and can be downloaded online (registration required).

Kleissner commented in her article that the report’s goal is to help fill the gap in performance data on impact investments. If there is more transparency in financial and impact performance, Kleissner argues, investors who are interested in positive social impact can learn from different investment approaches. Impact investors and social entrepreneurs may also be interested in exploring the Toniic network, which Kleissner co-founded as a global impact investing platform. As impact investing and social entrepreneurship continues to increase, we look forward to hearing more ideas about how to share outcomes and lessons learned in this burgeoning field.

-- Rebecca Herman

Glasspockets Find: Blue Shield of California Foundation shares Health Care research through live webcast

(Rebecca Herman is special projects associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Herman-100Foundations produce reports and issue briefs every day—and we love them for it. However, not everyone has the time or inclination to read every worthwhile report that funders work so hard to produce. Some foundations take it upon themselves to find new and proactive ways to share their new-found knowledge with stakeholders, colleagues, practitioners and policymakers who can effect change in the field.

The Blue Shield of California Foundation hosted an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on October 23 to discuss findings and issues raised in its latest report on a timely topic, “Building Better Health Care for Low-Income Californians,” which was developed as part of its Strengthening the Safety Net program.

The foundation’s event at the National Press Club featured a panel discussion with experts in health care delivery, community health centers and health law and policy. Guests who could not attend in person could watch the event online through live webcast, and the program concluded with a question-and-answer session that was open to those attending virtually or in person. The recorded webcast is now available online:

Watch the video»

One particularly memorable moment was when an attendee asked the panelists what kind of research on health care policy they would like to see undertaken in the future. One panelist, Dr. Ron Yee, chief medical officer of the National Association of Community Health Centers, said he would like to understand how co-pays and deductibles will affect low-income patients accessing the health care system, which was also a question raised by an audience member. Dr. Yee commented, “I know from the front line, how my patients handle their money, the little money they have… Even a $10 co-pay is a big deal for my patients.” 

“You know we’re getting serious when we’re talking about money."

Peter Long, president & CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation remarked, “You know we’re getting serious when we’re talking about money. You know it’s not a theoretical conversation anymore, when people are talking about payment, and about what it looks like, and the end outcomes.… To me that’s very successful, in a progression of a conversation, when we’re starting to get to a point where you take human aspiration and needs, their real experience, and then what the heck do we do with them.”

Another panelist, Dr. Kavita Patel of the Brookings Institution, noted in closing, “I’m very excited to see this study escape the traditional research/beltway/policymaker circles. It is one of the few studies that has this generalizability for regular viewing audiences. What’s wonderful about that is…that movement will often precede policy changes or the public sector doing something.”

On the Blue Shield of California Foundation’s web page for “Building Better Health Care for Low-Income Californians” you can find the PowerPoint presentation from the event and an executive summary of its October 2013 research report. You can also download the entire report and find other issue briefs and research on health care in the foundation’s extensive publications section.

To gain audiences and knowledge beyond each individual funder’s own connections, we encourage all foundations to post their research, reports, white papers and case studies on the Foundation Center’s IssueLab website, which aims to gather, index and share the collective intelligence of the social sector. For those interested in health care policy, be sure to delve into IssueLab’s new special collection of research on the Affordable Care Act.

-- Rebecca Herman

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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