Transparency Talk

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August 2014 (5 posts)

Transparency Chat: An Interview on Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability
August 27, 2014

(Chris Gates is executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, and Brad Rourke is a program officer at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Transparency Talk conducted an online interview with them based on their organizations’ new report “Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: a Relationship of Respect and Clarity,” which was released this summer.)


Chris Gates


Brad Rourke

Glasspockets: Thanks to the Kettering Foundation and PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) for hosting and sharing this timely discussion on the needs and pressures of greater foundation transparency and accountability.  The report does a very thorough job of detailing the debate around transparency and accountability and the pain points foundations face around these issues.  But I noticed the report stops short of taking a position.  Does PACE itself have a position on whether increased transparency and accountability are good for philanthropy, or does it plan to issue one at a later date?  Why or why not?

Chris Gates: Our goal was to catalyze a conversation about a complex, textured, and potentially controversial, topic, and we think the paper does that. There is no clean answer here about what the field ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do, but we feel that the time has come for a fresh conversation. Technology has created fundamentally new society-wide expectations about transparency and accountability and philanthropy will have no choice but to think through what this means for our field, how ‘public’ are we?, and how ‘private’ are we?

The fact is that we manifestly live in a world with increased calls for accountability and transparency. Philanthropy needs to respond to this (in the same way any sector needs to respond). It can do so by denying or ignoring it is happening, or it can address the phenomenon directly.

Brad Rourke: Agreed, and I would argue that whether increased transparency and accountability are good for philanthropy sidesteps the point. The fact is that we manifestly live in a world with increased calls for accountability and transparency. Philanthropy needs to respond to this (in the same way any sector needs to respond). It can do so by denying or ignoring it is happening, or it can address the phenomenon directly. The purpose of holding these conversations, and of developing the report, was to try to stimulate the field to address the issue.

: The paper refers to accountability throughout.  Can you explain how you are defining accountability and how is responsibility different from accountability, and what role does transparency have in facilitating either?

Brad Rourke: I think the fundamental point that the paper makes about this is that what people mean by "accountability" varies widely. There's a big gap between an institutional response to the term and what the public means. Organizational leaders typically see "accountability" as a requirement to prove effectiveness: here are the numbers. The point the paper makes is that this is not the only thing that people are asking for when they ask their institutions to be accountable. People want to know that an institution is responsive to them: is there someone there who will answer my questions, or pick up the phone when I call? In a Public Agenda report referred to in the paper, the frustration that the public expresses toward voice mail systems is emblematic. There is literally no one there to answer, and it is infuriating. The gap between an institutional view of accountability (what are the numbers?) and a public one (do they care about me?) is important because the harder an institutional approach works to be accountable, the more it is likely to frustrate a public sensibility. In this respect, transparency can become a complicating factor. Yes transparency is important but in itself it does not add up to accountability – and in fact may work counter to it.

Glasspockets: Much of the debate you outline around transparency and accountability swirls around public vs. private money and foundation leaders expressing concerns about not wanting to be turned into mini-governments and why that isn’t appropriate.  But what about the notion of leading by example by putting a foundation through the same set of standards it expect of its grantees?  Did the idea of a transparency and accountability double standard come up during your discussion? 

Brad Rourke: There was a real concern expressed by almost all participants about this difficulty – that of an increasingly burdensome set of grantmaking standards. Nonprofit leaders were especially vocal about it, but I don't think there was any foundation leader who was blind to the issue. But to be honest, the level of self-awareness in the field really varies, some folks were quite aware that they regularly asked for things like clear goals and specific metrics from their grantees but didn’t hold themselves to the same standard, and others seemed comfortable living by what the field sometimes calls ‘the golden rule’.

Glasspockets: Glasspockets recently reported that only 7.5% of all U.S. foundations have a web site.  And the report begins with the very eloquent statement from an unnamed tech executive that “…inside every device and every piece of software is the DNA of both democracy and transparency.” Can you talk about the role of technology in creating the “accountability society” the report describes and whether there were any discussions around philanthropy needing to adapt to new technologies to fulfill increasing public expectations?

Brad Rourke: By "accountability society" I think what is meant is the growing public call for accountability that the paper discusses. In this respect, talking about "technology" sharply limits the scope of what are much more sweeping attitudinal changes that have taken hold in society. Technology (which is really just a vague way of saying "the Internet") has accelerated this but the roots of the shift go back at least to the 1970's. After the social revolution that enabled the Civil Rights movement, women's rights, and the antiwar movement, and on the heels of Watergate and other scandals, the long-stable authoritarian was upended. Trust in institutions (all institutions) has fallen steadily since then. So we defer less. Technology (the Internet) has enabled a quicker, more robust lack of deference, especially to "experts." And it has enabled ordinary people to organize more quickly and with less friction.  The conversations that formed the basis of this report did indeed touch on technology, but more by way of critique. It is hard to find an organization leader who would disagree with the idea that "philanthropy needs to adapt to new technologies" but I would argue that this can become a smokescreen as I alluded to in my response to your second questions above.

Glasspockets: In recent years, a number of high profile individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, whom you feature in the report, have taken the Giving Pledge, which publicly declares that they plan to give away more than half of their wealth during their lifetime.  Do you think those who have taken the Giving Pledge should be subject to some kind of transparency and accountability around this promise?

Brad Rourke: I'm not sure I would go so far as to say donors "should be subject." That implies that there's an overarching entity determining what is good and what is not good philanthropy. That said, I see nothing wrong with an individual donor (or any donor) "subjecting themselves to" some outside accountability regime. Indeed, taking such a pledge publicly serves as a kind of accountability device.  Here again we may be looking at a kind of gap between differing views of accountability. It comes back to how people view philanthropic dollars. Some people consider them fundamentally private assets that are being repurposed to provide public good, but they believe in the notion of private nonprofit activity. Others think that once a philanthropic dollar has been created, and a tax advantage realized, that dollar then becomes a quasi-public dollar that should be held to some of the same standards that we hold government spending.

Glasspockets: What are the next steps for PACE and Kettering around this work?

We are holding a webinar on this topic on Thursday, September 4th and funders can sign up for it by visiting the PACE website.

Chris Gates: We are encouraging philanthropic conferences and regional associations of grantmakers to do programming around this topic to promote a safe and civil conversation around a difficult topic. We don’t think that ‘demands’ from the outside will catalyze much change, the field first needs to have a conversation with itself about how we view our work and how we view our role in society. We are holding a webinar on this topic on Thursday, September 4th and funders can sign up for it by visiting the PACE website.

Brad Rourke: In a very real way, this interview is an important next step. The point of the report is to stimulate conversation and so far we have been pleased to see that beginning. I hope the webinar Chris mentions will also be a part of that conversation. 

-- Chris Gates and Brad Rourke

View Funder Transparency Session at Philanthropy New York Now
August 26, 2014

On July 21, 2014, Philanthropy New York held a panel on the benefits of funder transparency. Jen Bokoff of GrantCraft led the conversation, which included: Janet Camarena, project lead of Glasspockets; Sharon Alpert; vice president of programs and strategic initiatives at the Surdna Foundation; and Hope Lyons, director of program management at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Logo-retinaThe panelists weighed the opportunities and challenges of foundations becoming more accessible, and also shared examples of best practices, including how and why to share program and grantee assessments.

A video of this session is now available on Philanthropy New York’s website.

Let us know if your foundation has been inspired by the ideas presented in this video, or if you have effective transparency practices to share. 

WINGS Webinar now available on Global Philanthropic Transparency Trends
August 20, 2014

We often get asked if Glasspockets is just for U.S.-based foundations. The reality is that any foundation can use our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment tool to assess and improve transparency practices, and in addition to the U.S., the assessment has been used by foundations in Africa and Latin America and we hope more will consider its use. 

WINGS logoWe recently had a chance to promote this and other transparency tools at a recent global program. The Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), a global nonprofit that “brings together associations and support organizations serving philanthropy in more than 50 countries around the world,” recently called on Janet Camarena of Glasspockets to join global philanthropy colleagues to talk about foundation transparency and accountability trends as part of a webinar featuring WINGS member transparency tools and initiatives. Other featured speakers included Maria Carolina Suarez, executive director of the Association of Corporate Foundations in Colombia (AFE) and Natasha Ibbotson, legal affairs officer for the European Foundation Centre. A recording of the webinar, Global Philanthropy Transparency and Accountability—Practices and Developments, is now available for anyone to watch to become more informed about what is now a global movement to improve foundation transparency.


Grantees Speak About the Philanthropic Funding System
August 14, 2014

(Marc Maxson is an innovation consultant for GlobalGiving and FeedbackLabs.)

MarcMaxson_GG_sweaterI believe that philanthropic foundations could make major progress in serving their target groups if they paid more attention to what grantees were saying about them – but not in the cozy pat-each-other-on-the-back love fest way. I mean listening to real honest feedback. Recently, we at Feedback Labs (as a neutral third party) decided to ask a group of 1,200 organizations to publicly share stories about their experiences with funders. We adopted our community storytelling approach to this task. It emphasizes open-ended narratives with just a few follow-up questions about the story, intermediation (people are a little more likely to say something negative if the boss isn’t in the room), and confidentiality. 

Sample Feedback

I selected these particular comments because the variety of issues addressed illustrates the importance of asking open-ended questions. In this case, the question was “Talk about your experience approaching a grantmaking or funding organization that either did or did not grant you funding. What was your relationship like? Did you receive support from them?” You can add your own story to the collection if you like.  Here are some of the representative highlights from grantee stories about funding agencies and the grantseeking process:

Comments from GlobalGiving partner organizations:

  • This process leaves little room to establish a relationship with the grantmakers because we just fill in a standard form and perhaps attach a project summary and accounts.
  • It was so important for us to understand - who are the decision makers? What are their priorities - what aspects of your project are particularly appealing to this organization given their vision and mission?
  • They were cold bids and we really did not attempt to build any relations with the foundation by writing to them or calling them up to understanding where our shortcomings had been the previous year. This really affected our chance of winning the grants. 
  • We got to meet the Swiss organisation through a common friend who had been following our work for years. 
  • I was nervous when I sent the first email requesting for support to run programmes in Nairobi. They responded positively and made a trip to Nairobi to see the programme first hand.
  • We waited endlessly to get an approval. One of the basic problems in dealing with a large CSR unit is that one has to keep on following up and have one person dedicated to it.

Comments from smaller emerging orgs not yet partnered with GlobalGiving:

  • The grant makers give a lot of hope and we have approached relevant funders, they do not ascertain the real needs but look at the proposal and decide although worthwhile maybe try next time. This disrupts our plans as we have to strain parents and guardians to contribute more.
  • All our requests, in spite of the care which we grant to our documents, are always rejected. 
  • They do not even send feedback to inform you about your proposal and what you can do to improve it. So I have been frustrated as far as fund raising is concerned.
  • It was tiring, stressful having to consult with partners, including government entities where time factor was not always of great concern to them, giving us more pressure as we were pressed for time and had deadlines. We would be promised to be called back only to not hear from persons from whom we required urgent information for weeks. 


There was a rather even mix of both success and failure stories because we explicitly asked organizations to tell one story of each type. In my read of these stories, success is usually associated with building personal ties with the person who signs off on the grant in the foundation. In fact, some storytellers describe the process as being primarily about “who you know.” For a sector that’s been talking a lot about “evidence-based” and “data-driven” lately, it seems that based on this feedback, the most important thing in winning grants is not evidence or data, but rather the social capital of an existing connection. 

This one comment cuts to the heart of the matter: “They funded us for 13 years! A record! Until their South-East Asian representative retired.

Evidence of a lack of respect

Most mentioned proposal content only to say that they felt a well-written proposal had been ignored. Others complained about a lack of feedback after being rejected. More than one complained about never even being told they were rejected. The funder just went silent. This is why I think the work of FeedbackLabs is so important. There are many ways to create funder transparency and accountability, but simply creating feedback loops in which the grantmaker actively listens and responds to grantees and rejected applicants would likely lead to greater change and effectiveness for all concerned.

Corporate social responsibility
It also bears mentioning that there were a few corporate social responsibility (CSR) stories about being courted when the company wanted to show an influential person that the company was being charitable, but once the meetings were over, the effort was abandoned and promises of funding dashed. We don’t often hear about this side of corporate philanthropy.  And while, of course, it is possible that the companies in question may have had valid reasons for declining support, the collective stories from the field illustrate an unfortunate but common thread of grantees who emerge from the grantseeking process feeling disrespected.  In fact, in one of the follow-up survey questions, storytellers checked the box for “respect” more often than nine other tags for what their story was about:

Ttlak graphic
 One of our story visualizing tools. Larger icons mean that this group of storytellers tagged their stories as being related to this topic (e.g. respect) more often than in tens of thousands of our benchmark stories.

But it is important to note that not everyone feels this way. Many storytellers went out of their way to talk about how wonderful it was that a funder would consult them on issues from time to time. If that kind of two-way respect was commonplace in the philanthropic sector, then there wouldn’t be so many exclamation points at the ends of sentences about it.

This is just a little taste of a much larger report in the works that will be available later this year.

You can see many of these stories at or follow this link for only the grantee stories we mentioned.

-- Marc Maxson

Metrics to Promote RWJF’s Culture of Health
August 7, 2014

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

6a00e54efc2f80883301a511bd210d970cWhat does being healthy mean to you? Does it mean not being sick, or does it mean you’re thriving? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, America’s leading health and health care-focused philanthropy is investigating how to promote a culture of health nationwide.  In its most recent episode of the Foundation’s Pioneering Ideas podcast, Alonzo Plough, Vice President of Research-Evaluation-Learning and Chief Science Officer at RWJF, discusses the metrics he and his team are developing to measure health on the national, community, and individual levels.

As Alonzo explains in the podcast segment, finding metrics to study and ultimately change America’s culture of health is a huge challenge. “Culture is about the deepest thing one can change in society,” he says: analyzing culture, which is inherently diverse, is a complex undertaking. But Alonzo and his team were undaunted.

He wants to shift the understanding of “being healthy” from the absence of illness to something much more holistic and positive. Being healthy is, of course, not being sick, but it’s so much more: it’s being in shape, eating well, improving family dynamics, and engaging in your community.

Plough and his team are developing thirty or forty measures, which were lumped into various “buckets,” the first being, “Valuing Health and Social Cohesion.” He wants to shift the understanding of “being healthy” from the absence of illness to something much more holistic and positive. Being healthy is, of course, not being sick, but it’s so much more: it’s being in shape, eating well, improving family dynamics, and engaging in your community. That’s where the social cohesion aspect of this measure comes in: when communities work together to promote a culture of health, they thrive. By standardizing an understanding of being healthy, from the individual to the neighborhood to the state and national level, a greater percentage of the population has the opportunity to thrive.

The second “bucket” focuses on cross-sectional partnerships to improve health. Plough wanted to look at how communities were combining their assets—schools, hospitals, libraries, etc.—to thrive. For example, schools and health care centers can work together to organize free vaccination drives for students. Again, Plough is also looking at the concept of healthfulness through a broader lens: if neighborhoods concentrate on improving their well-being by building parks and preserving open space, or even ushering in green grocers and farmers markets, they will be much better off.

After listening to the Pioneering Ideas episode, my understanding of health, both in my home and in my community at large has expanded. I recognize now that having a farmer’s market blocks away from my home, where I can interact with my neighbors and local farmers is not only a civic asset, but a health benefit, as well.

How has your foundation worked to develop metrics for complex issues?  And have you considered sharing these metrics via blog or podcast?


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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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