Transparency Talk

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Transparency Chat: Why Transparency Matters, and What It Takes
December 18, 2014

PhilbPhil Buchanan is the president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy, which recently received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Phil Buchanan about the work this grant will fund.

Janet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Phil Buchanan: We see in our surveys of grantees that one of the most important dimensions in their views of foundations is the perception that foundations are clear about their goals and strategies. They are looking for specificity about what foundations are trying to do, how they are trying to do it, and how they fit in. They’re not especially concerned about 990-PFs, annual reports, or charter documents – but they care about the specifics of the work, and what foundations are learning about what is and isn’t working. All of that affects grantees’ abilities to be effective in pursuit of shared goals. So I think openness and effectiveness often go hand in hand.

CEP LogoJC: Your specific funded project is a research project and publication entitled, “Foundation Transparency: Why It Matters and What It Takes”.  Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be. Also, when do you expect the report to be available?

PB: We’ll be analyzing our data set of grantee perceptions of foundations on several questions about transparency that we added to our grantee survey in recent years. This will allow us to profile the exemplars. What do they do? Why do they do it? We’ll also look at foundations’ attitudes and practices with respect to transparency and we’ll connect those to the grantee experience. We can also examine the relationship between grantees’ perceptions of transparency and their perceptions of foundations’ impact – what is the connection? Our report on results will be available in early 2016.

JC: One of the assumptions about any data related to philanthropy and perceptions is that there is a positivity-bias among those grantees who have received funds and a negativity-bias among those how have been declined support.  How does CEP overcome that challenge in its work?

I think almost all powerful institutions can be resistant to change. But what we have seen is that foundations can – and often do – change in response to relevant data about how they are doing. Colleagues influencing colleagues – that is a powerful part of the change equation.

PB: As critical as nonprofits can be of funders in general – and they can be – they of course tend to rate the specific foundations that fund them toward the high end of an absolute scale on most dimensions. That’s not surprising – they’re getting crucial funding from these institutions. But there is meaningful variation within the range of average ratings that foundations receive. That’s why comparative data is so crucial. We are able to compare results across hundreds of foundations whose tens of thousands of grantees we have surveyed. That way a foundation can understand what are really strengths and what are weaknesses – or, in the euphemistic jargon of today, “opportunities for improvement.”

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?​

PB: I think almost all powerful institutions can be resistant to change. But what we have seen is that foundations can – and often do – change in response to relevant data about how they are doing. That’s been the inspiring part of our work at CEP for the past 13 years. We have seen, and evaluations have confirmed, that foundations change practice in response to our research reports and assessment tools – and that those changes are experienced as positive by grantees. Not all the time, and not every foundation. But a meaningful number. There are some ways to make it easier for foundations, including sharing exemplars of various types from which they can learn. Colleagues influencing colleagues – that is a powerful part of the change equation.

-- Phil Buchanan


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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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