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September 2014 (4 posts)

“Plugging In” to the Power of Philanthropy’s Big Data: Building a path for foundations to join the Reporting Commitment
September 30, 2014

(Suki O'Kane is the director of administration at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.)

Okane-150The Walter & Elise Haas Fund (W&EHF)  clocks in as the 19th member of Foundation Center’s Reporting Commitment. The journey there was filled with creativity, innovation, collaboration, and some clever lines of code. Along the way, we reaffirmed our commitment to philanthropic transparency, began reporting  real-time grants data, raised the profile of our grantmaking with communication to big data initiatives, and — now — want to make the same possible for  our peers: the technology we developed to accomplish these good things has been published as a free, open source plug-in for WordPress called Open hGrant. This source code provides a way for foundations to share their grantmaking activity with the world, in real time, while also allowing the funder to publish it in searchable form on its own web site.  That’s right, you can have a searchable database of your grants activity, and a reporting mechanism all in one.

What motivated our foundation to do these things?

We reaffirmed our commitment to philanthropic transparency, began reporting real-time grants data, raised the profile of our grantmaking with communication to big data initiatives, and — now — want to make the same possible for our peers.

To a large degree, sharing what we do and know while learning from others is simply a habit of mind at W&EHF. Our executive director Pam David champions cross-sector work and community cooperation. Our grantmaking leverages public-private partnerships and collaborations to produce results that no single actor could accomplish alone.

Initiatives like the Reporting Commitment attract us for their ability to help us make sense of the philanthropic landscape. They help us answer perennial questions about who is doing what, where. We coupled this habit with our intent to increase the transparency of our work — among our teams and trustees, with the communities we serve, and with our peers.

Hearts and minds we had. All we were missing were bits and bytes. Oh, that.

How did we get it done?

It might not be a surprise to hear that the technological solutions for publishing grant data to the web are, to put it mildly, diverse. Even when we find a searchable grants index on the web, we can be fairly sure it’s not presented in an easily accessed format. Our taxonomies differ from those of our peers. Our websites are developed on different platforms. We focus on different data outcomes. These factors made a common, off-the-shelf solution seem out of reach.

When we sat down with our long-term partners at Mission Minded to brainstorm how to grapple with this, one thing became clear: whatever we found to crack the techno-nut of real-time grants data reporting should be simple and shareable.  We were well aware of the tendency in our field to develop solutions to common challenges in isolation, with proprietary tools. Brad Smith’s post to the PhilanTopic blog takes this on directly, a “data dilemma” by his reckoning, with some bold recommendations for philanthropy.

Foundation Center also had a critical resource to share with us: the hGrant microformat. One of the critical engines of Foundation Center’s data initiatives, this way of marking up grants data on the web is open to any individual or institution seeking to collect, catalog, map, and analyze giving. We welcomed Foundation Center to the project team and set about creating a technology tool that allowed any other grantmaker of any size to openly publish giving data to the web in a searchable, standardized way.  

The result is Open hGrant for WordPress, a simple plug-in for philanthropy’s Big Data that is spurring a new community of funders to participate in transparency and open data initiatives. We encourage our peers to investigate this free tool or to watch a recent demo from the Grants Managers Network.

To learn how your organization can help build a richer data set that drives effective collaboration, strategic decision making, and a more engaged philanthropy sector, contact Foundation Center for more information about the Reporting Commitment or reach out to the growing community of hGrant users for support.

-- Suki O'Kane

Lessons in Foundation Transparency from Philamplify
September 22, 2014

(Caitlin Duffy is the project assistant for Philamplify at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @DuffyInDC on Twitter and join the #Philamplify conversation. This post was originally published on the GrantCraft blog.)

Duffy2_180_180_s_c1If a foundation sees itself as accountable to the communities it serves, how can it be as transparent as possible about key decisions that affect those communities? While voluntary disclosure of financial information online is commendable and sorely needed in philanthropy, funders must expand their mindset of openness. There is a need for a comprehensive approach to transparency that goes beyond figures on a website; foundation leadership, from board members to staff, need to think critically about how to communicate their approaches and solicit feedback.

At the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), the complex relationship between transparency and accountability is at the center of Philamplify. Philamplify is a new initiative that brings honest feedback to grantmakers by conducting rigorous assessments of some of the country’s top foundations. To prepare these reviews, our team combs through publications, searches online databases, reviews publicly available foundation documents, surveys hundreds of grantees, and interviews a wide array of stakeholders. In evaluating whether a foundation operates transparently, we look for disclosure of key information on the funder’s website and through other avenues, such as Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative. We publish the final assessments on, where readers can engage in a discussion about the findings and recommendations, thus opening the conversation beyond the confines of a typical foundation assessment to everyone whose lives are touched by grantmakers.

LogoDuring the first round of assessments, many surveyed grantees spoke of how much they appreciate transparent communication with funders. Grant recipients consistently requested “three C’s” relevant to transparency: convene, collaborate, and communicate. Such calls for increased contact with foundation staff are evidence of grantee interest in a partnership that goes beyond financial support. Transparency plays an important role in such a relationship. As shown by the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent report, Foundation Transparency: What Nonprofits Want, nonprofits want more transparent communication about learning, assessment, and impact.

When a funder engages in meaningful transparency, grantees and other philanthropic stakeholders benefit by better understanding the foundation’s mission, operations, strategies, activities, and performance.

For example, grantees of the Philamplify-assessed Daniels Fund often spoke of the actual and potential value of site visits, e-mails, and phone calls with program officers and opportunities to speak with executive leadership. In regards to positive aspects of the partnership, one grantee wrote, “The Daniels Fund is one of the few funders that make an effort to visit with us, communicate with us on a regular basis, and maintain a relationship based on mutual concern for the populations we serve.” However, some grantees conveyed concern about the apparent disconnect between program officers and executive leadership, particularly regarding the grant renewal process.

In our assessment of the William Penn Foundation, grantees and stakeholders expressed confusion over recent changes in leadership and strategic direction about which the foundation communicated ineffectively. Sample feedback included comments such as, “The status of the Foundation's recent strategic planning process could have been better communicated” and “The recent leadership transitions have raised question for the future of funding in this sector.” In July, Nonprofit Quarterly reported that the foundation’s managing director resigned, marking another major leadership change in less than six months. In such instances, the lack of transparency about what drove these major decisions unsettled grantees and influenced the perceptions of other important stakeholders, including peers.

In philanthropy, robust, authentic discussion and constructive debate challenge us all to improve and help ensure that we hold each other accountable to the public good. Grantees are vested in the success of their funders, and as evidenced by Philamplify’s findings, they offer valuable lessons for the sector. When a funder engages in meaningful transparency, grantees and other philanthropic stakeholders benefit by better understanding the foundation’s mission, operations, strategies, activities, and performance.

How does your foundation maintain transparent, two-way communication with grantees and the communities they serve?

-- Caitlin Duffy

Rethinking Transparency – It’s Not a Dirty Word
September 15, 2014

(Krystian Seibert is the policy and research manager with Philanthropy Australia. This post was originally featured on the ProBono Australia news website.)

Seibert-150At Philanthropy Australia’s 2014 National Conference last week, one of the most favourably received presentations was that of Brad Smith, President of the Foundation Center.

The Foundation Center is an US organisation whose mission involves advancing knowledge about philanthropy in the US and around the world.

Much of its work focuses on consolidating and analysing data, and it maintains a very comprehensive database on US and, increasingly, global grantmakers and their granting activity.

One of its key initiatives is ‘Glasspockets’ – which champions philanthropic transparency, and provides the data and resources which foundations need to understand the value of transparency, be more open in their own communications, and help shed more light on how private wealth is serving the public good.

Having met with Brad prior to his presentation, we knew in general terms what he would be speaking about. What we didn’t know was how the audience would respond. Would they be captivated by his message about the benefits of an open philanthropic sector which proactively shares information about what it does? Or would they be concerned by his challenge to some of the norms under which philanthropy has traditionally operated in Australia?

Brad’s message was that transparency is a good thing and should be facilitated and encouraged. But often the philanthropic sector doesn’t respond that well to the word ‘transparency’ – you could say that it’s a bit of a dirty word. To be honest, since I started with Philanthropy Australia, I have been a bit hesitant to use the word for fear of being misunderstood.

One reason for this is that for too long we have let transparency be defined for us, by others.

Transparency has been viewed through the paradigm of regulation and compliance, and associated with unwanted intrusion on the privacy of donors... But this is only one paradigm through which to view transparency, and it’s not the paradigm we should be focusing on. Put bluntly – it’s time to take back transparency.

Transparency has been viewed through the paradigm of regulation and compliance, and associated with unwanted intrusion on the privacy of donors. Applying this paradigm, transparency is viewed as necessary because it may improve ‘integrity’, prevent wrong doing and therefore maintain public confidence. It has a very negative connotation.

But this is only one paradigm through which to view transparency, and it’s not the paradigm we should be focusing on. Put bluntly – it’s time to take back transparency.

One key message which I took out from Brad’s presentation was that improving transparency in Australian philanthropy is an opportunity and not a threat.

In my view, there are three particularly important benefits from improving transparency.

Firstly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy makes it much harder to plan and coordinate giving – it stands in the way of the effective allocation of limited philanthropic resources, so they tackle the issues and areas of real need.

Imagine if there was detailed information available that mapped granting across different cause areas and locations, over time? This would be a valuable tool which philanthropic organisations could use to inform their granting strategy.

Better information will enable a more strategic approach to philanthropy, helping ensure that there is less duplication and more coordination and collaboration between philanthropic organisations.

This will increase philanthropy’s impact.

Secondly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy makes it much harder to understand, measure and improve performance. Whilst not yet widespread, philanthropic organisations can and do undertake evaluations of the programs and initiatives they support, with a view to seeing how things have worked or haven’t worked, and to learn from experiences.

In another presentation at our National Conference, Dr Diana Leat focused on some recent research undertaken with colleagues at the Queensland University of Technology, commenting that many of the evaluations which are done are just sitting in foundation offices around Australia – they aren’t disseminated and so nobody else is getting the opportunity to learn from them. This made me think of Brad referring to US foundations as ‘islands of information’ in his presentation the day before – a very good analogy.

Imagine if we built bridges between these islands of information? This would involve making evaluations more accessible, with philanthropic organisations sharing their evaluations more widely so that others can learn from their experiences, both good and bad. That kind of knowledge exchange could help philanthropic organisations build on the work of others. Again, this will increase philanthropy’s impact.

Thirdly, the current ‘data deficit’ in Australian philanthropy means that we aren’t sharing stories of philanthropy that show how private wealth is serving the public good as much as we could be. Therefore, the broader public but also government and media don’t fully understand the transformative work philanthropy does every day in our communities.

It’s not simply a question of ensuring appropriate recognition for philanthropy. Rather, if we want to increase giving in Australia, we need to ensure there is broader awareness about why giving is important and how it can and does lead to positive change.

Imagine if you could visit a website, and zoom in on a map showing the grants made in your local area? That would be an amazing way of demonstrating the impact of philanthropy.

When I look at the benefits from improving transparency, I think that it’s an opportunity that’s not to be missed. It’s not about regulation and compliance. It’s not about losing privacy for donors – some donors will understandably want to be discreet about their giving, and should be allowed to do so.

Rather it’s about Australian philanthropy making a decision to be more open about sharing data and information, to learn from one another and achieve better collective outcomes, and to develop the systems and frameworks to facilitate and enable this voluntary knowledge exchange.

It’s certainly an area Philanthropy Australia is actively exploring – because it’s critical to growing philanthropy’s impact across our communities. Watch this space.

-- Krystian Seibert

Foundation Transparency: Are Foundations and Nonprofits Seeing Eye to Eye?
September 4, 2014

(Ellie Buteau is the Vice President of Research, and Ramya Gopal is the Associate Manager of Research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. This post shares CEP's latest research from "Transparency, Performance Assessment, and Awareness of Nonprofit Challenges: Are Foundations and Nonprofits Seeing Eye to Eye?")

Ellie Buteau

Ramya Gopal

Nonprofit CEOs value foundation transparency and believe it contributes to their effectiveness. "Openness, which [foundations] require of us, would be very helpful in creating a good working relationship,"

Nonprofit and foundation leaders have starkly different views about the importance of foundations being transparent. That's what we learned when we surveyed nonprofit and foundation CEOs about their attitudes on this issue. Nonprofit CEOs value foundation transparency and believe it contributes to their effectiveness. "Openness, which [foundations] require of us, would be very helpful in creating a good working relationship," says one nonprofit CEO. But the majority of foundation CEOs don't see transparency as crucial to impact.

We found that 91 percent of nonprofits agree that "Foundations that are more transparent are more helpful to my organization's ability to work effectively" but only 47 percent of foundation CEOs agree that "Foundations would be able to create more impact if they were more transparent with the nonprofits they fund."

47% of foundation CEOs believe increased foundation transparency has positive consequences for nonprofits.

Why might nonprofit and foundation CEOs have such different attitudes toward foundation transparency?

First, foundations may not share nonprofits' understanding of transparency. To nonprofit CEOs, foundations are transparent when they are "clear, open, and honest about the processes and decisions that are relevant to nonprofits' work." Transparency is not only about what information foundations share - which Glasspockets helps to track through its transparency indicators - but how effectively foundations have communicated that information to nonprofits.

Foundations may also think they are transparent enough. But nonprofit leaders' assessment of foundations' transparency suggests they could do better: on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 indicates "not at all transparent" and 7 indicates "extremely transparent," nonprofit CEO respondents on average rate the overall transparency of their foundation funders a 4.7. One nonprofit CEO says, "I don't think there is intent to be less transparent, but often times Foundations may assume we know things about their programs, opportunities and goals we don't really know."

Nonprofit CEOs also tend to think foundations are not transparent enough about what has not worked in foundations' experiences - but fewer foundation CEOs see it that way. We found that 88 percent of nonprofit CEOs believe foundations should be more transparent about this, but only 61 percent of foundation CEOs disagree that, "Foundations do a good job of publicly sharing what has not been successful in their experiences." Perhaps nonprofits see this issue differently because they clearly understand how they could use such knowledge. "One of the best learning tools is to see what has not worked. Learning from foundations and their other grantees would be very instructive," says one nonprofit CEO.

61% of foundation CEOs believe foundations could be more transparent about what has not worked in their experiences.

While there are some examples of foundations actively working to be more open - notably The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation with its "Work in Progress" blog and Darren Walker's efforts to build a culture at the Ford Foundation where "openness is held in as high regard as our intellectual curiosity, our rigor and our commitment to the values we share" - too few foundation leaders seem to recognize the need, from nonprofits' perspective, for greater transparency.

-- Ellie Buteau and Ramya Gopal

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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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