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Transparency Chat: IssueLab Boosts Foundation Effectiveness through Knowledge Sharing
February 25, 2015

(Gabriela Fitz is the director of knowledge management initiatives at IssueLab, a service of Foundation Center, 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 Gabriela about the work this grant will fund.)

GfitzJanet 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 knowledge sharing and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Gabriela Fitz: Thanks. We’re really grateful for the chance to focus some of our time and energy on this effort!

The relationship between knowledge sharing and effectiveness is a really basic one. It’s about our ability to learn from our collective experiences and to build on and improve the work we do as a sector. Foundations have helped to create one of the largest examples of collective insight and intelligence that exists: the thousands upon thousands of evaluations and case studies produced by nonprofit organizations on the front lines of service.

The more willing and able foundations are to share this knowledge, the better able we all are to design and deliver services that make a difference in people’s lives. One of the biggest assets foundations have is the knowledge they fund and produce. When they are intentional about sharing that knowledge as a public good, we all benefit.

One of the biggest assets foundations have is the knowledge they fund and produce. When they are intentional about sharing that knowledge as a public good, we all benefit.

JC:  Your specific funded project aims to enable greater openness and broader sharing of knowledge produced and funded by foundations. Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

GF: That’s right. Our project focuses on educating foundations about what we call “open publishing”, and supporting their efforts to adopt practices that better align with the very reasons they fund and publish research in the first place. Our project will focus on helping foundations of all sizes to overcome their own obstacles to greater openness, whether those obstacles are technical, legal, or cultural.

The project will combine technical elements of a social sector publishing system, such as the roll out of IssueLab’s DOI (digital object identifiers) service, which helps organizations better track readership, and the possible adoption and adaptation of a shared data vocabulary called schema, which makes it easier for search engines and repositories to find social sector research. At the same time we will be providing foundations with some of the behavioral and logistical support they might need to open up, including: the drafting of sample grant agreements that encourage open licensing (work which will be done in partnership with our fellow grantees at creative commons); and the forming of a working group of foundation professionals that can help shape these new approaches and shared practices, while also serving as potential models for what it means - and why it matters - to open up.

IssuelablogoThere are definitely opportunities for Transparency Talk’s audience to participate! We would love it. We are very much at a moment where we are all trying to figure this out, together. So we need this to be a bigger conversation, where we hear from folks about what holds them back and/or what motivates and inspires them to adopt more open publishing practices. Transparency Talk could certainly help us capture this conversation but also help us to share what we are learning along the way!

JC: What sort of technological and educational services will you implement with your FSI grant? How will they widen Issuelab’s reach? Finally, how will they expand your transparency efforts?

GF: I already talked a little about the technological and educational elements of the grant but I want to emphasize how truly committed we are to walking the talk of knowledge sharing. We will be sharing our own lessons learned throughout the two-year grant and will develop educational materials based on what we hear and learn from foundations in this first year.  This grant will be a great chance for us, as a service of  Foundation Center, to be as transparent as we can be about what we are learning, what’s working, and what’s not. We want to be as transparent as we are asking others to be.

We certainly hope that the hands-on work we will be doing in supporting foundations, the writing we will be doing about this effort, and the joint efforts of the working group, will build greater awareness about IssueLab’s service and the importance of open repositories in the sector. But we also hope that it will build greater awareness about IssueLab as a project that really belongs to the sector and which represents our collective intelligence and efforts.

JC: This may be the first time many in our audience are reading about and digital object identifiers (DOIs).  Can you tell us a little bit more about them and why they are important to grantmakers?

GF: Sure. Both DOIs and are “technical” solutions that are already being broadly used on the Web and which we believe foundations and nonprofits could really benefit from using.

You may not have heard of DOIs but there are hundreds of millions of them in existence today. In fact, it’s next to impossible to find a published article in a peer-reviewed journal that doesn't have a DOI. They provide a way to start moving toward more accurate knowledge management and knowledge sharing metrics by attaching a permanent, unique identifier to a resource that serves as a persistent and singular link. Essentially a DOI acts as a permanent tracking device when attached to objects—documents, web pages, videos, and other online resources—providing a direct link to details about, and access to, the object itself. 

The relationship between knowledge sharing and effectiveness is a really basic one. It’s about our ability to learn from our collective experiences and to build on and improve the work we do as a sector.

Here's an example of how a DOI can be useful. Right now anyone who wants to know how often a report is being viewed or downloaded has to cobble together analytics from every website where that document might be housed; which in the case of a report produced by four or five organizations … and funded by multiple organizations.... Well you get the point: there are a lot of analytics to synthesize. To help the sector benefit from DOIs, starting this Spring IssueLab will begin issuing DOIs for free to any social sector organization that shares its work through IssueLab. is also a widely mechanism that carries great potential for changing the “findability” of research and other resources online. Co-created by Google, Yahoo, Bing!, and Yandex in 2011, is essentially a data vocabulary with the primary purpose of better describing all manner of Things on the Internet. We already see it at work when we do a search in Google and detailed search results, extracted from websites themselves, shows up in the right hand sidebar. We want to make sure that social sector resources don’t get left out of this content stream! All it takes to use is adding a bit of familiar looking HTML code to the usual code we already include in our Web pages. Doing so can turn a Web page that could only be understood by search technologies in literal terms into, essentially, a database that search engines can mine for semantic meaning. One of the questions our working group will be grappling with is whether we want to augment this vocabulary a bit (like others in the educational sector have done) so that social sector resources carry additional, sector-specific information.

JC:  Given your work on this project is focused on openness, will there be any public-facing elements to it that has the opportunity to reach or include a broad audience of grantmakers or other influencers outside of your networks?

GF: Yes, for sure! We will be writing for blogs and other online venues (hopefully including this one if you’ll have us!) throughout the process. We will be welcoming committed individuals to participate in our working group. And we welcome anyone who is interested in helping their organization to publish and share its research and knowledge more openly to get in touch with us right away. We are eager to work with foundations that want to adopt more open publishing practices, regardless of their size, technical ability, or current level of openness. And of course we welcome any and all grantmakers to freely share their work through IssueLab!

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 a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?

There is no one right way to do openness nor is there one right place to start. Building an infrastructure for openness will require that foundations are active at many points in the same system and in ways that best fit their organizational culture and capacity.

GF: There are several ways in which we plan to address this risk. The first and most important is to allow foundations flexibility, giving them options for how and to what extent they adopt new practices. There is no one right way to do openness nor is there one right place to start. Building an infrastructure for openness will require that foundations are active at many points in the same system and in ways that best fit their organizational culture and capacity. For instance a smaller foundation may adopt a change to its grant agreements whereas a larger and more tech savvy organization would also adopt the use of DOIs.

It is equally important that the solutions and recommendations we are offering can co-exist or be integrated with related initiatives which foundations may have already invested in, e.g. the development of a custom e-library or the funding of a field specific information portal. In order for foundations to adopt shared practices that can benefit us all, these practices also have to work for their own organizations.

When it comes to the topic of knowledge sharing I think it’s too easy to push it to the bottom of the list of priorities. It just doesn’t seem so urgent. But the consequences of our current behaviors are real. Despite our best intentions, the program officer who is considering new areas for investment still can’t do a quick search on what’s already been learned about an issue, problem, or attempted solution. The nonprofit practitioner who is shifting towards an earned income model still can’t easily track down existing models from which to borrow. The evaluator who has been hired to understand the impact of an initiative still has no way to easily review existing evaluations of similar efforts. And the people we as a sector serve, who rely on us to build on and improve the services we deliver, still bear the brunt of our failure to learn from past mistakes and successes.

There are a lot of different things that keep us all from changing – and it’s important to recognize those realities and points of resistance. But it’s also critical that we ask ourselves again and again whether our institutional behaviors are really serving our mission and purpose. By orienting, and re-orienting, ourselves to the change we want to see it follows that we become more change-oriented.

--Gabriela Fitz


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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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