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Through a Glass a Little Less Darkly: Looking Back, Looking Forward 2017-2018
January 17, 2018

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.)

Janet Camarena PhotoIn the spirit of Glasspockets, before we completely erase the past and close the books on 2017, we wanted to identify the highlights of the year from a transparency perspective. Here are last year’s moments and trends that made me think that transparency and openness are not just catching on, but starting to lead to a more permanent culture of transparency, which may signal continued progress in 2018:

E_SDG_Logo_UN Emblem-02#10 - SDGs Catch On: The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. 2017 saw foundations increasingly aligning their funding with the SDGs, and some even using it as a shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress. As foundation strategies become increasingly specialized and strategic, explaining the objectives and the nuances can become a jargon-laden minefield that can make it difficult and time consuming for those on the outside to fully understand the intended goal of a new program or initiative. The simplicity of the SDG iconography cuts through the jargon so foundation website visitors can quickly identify alignment with the goals or not, and then more easily determine whether they should devote time to reading further. The SDG framework also provides a clear visual framework to display grants and outcomes data in a way that is meaningful beyond the four walls of the foundation, and some started taking advantage of this in 2017 to help explain the reach of their work. The GHR Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Tableau Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation each offer inspiring examples of how the SDGs can be used to increase philanthropic transparency, and ultimately understanding of the public good generated from their activities.

Amanda Flores-Witte Photo# 9 - Pain Points See the Light of Day: I noticed a greater willingness among grantmakers to publish reports and blogs not just to enumerate the successes, or business as usual activities, but to also candidly open up about the struggles and pain points along the way. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but some particularly inspired me:

  • A great example comes to us from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s storytelling series on Medium about its adventures in public arts funding. Given the project challenges, Mandy Flores-Witte shared on Transparency Talk that a trusted colleague advised them against opening up about the challenges they encountered, but they saw what could be gained by telling the story from various stakeholder perspectives, and as a result, ended up also producing a great example of why philanthropy needs more storytellers. (Yes, I know I’m cheating a bit here because this is from a 2016 series, but it’s so good that I’m including it anyway!)
  • In terms of formal publications, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation published a very detailed report analyzing the impact of a large-scale, multi-year and multi-sector initiative designed to end and prevent chronic homelessness. Among the report’s findings was the fact that homelessness actually increased during the grant period. At a less learning-focused foundation, this might have been enough to quash its publication.
  • Hanh Cao Yu photoThe California Endowment’s (TCE) chief learning officer, Hanh Cao Yu, lived up to her title by enumerating TCE’s mistakes in a Transparency Talk blog about the pain points the foundation encountered on the road to a health policy systems change.

We hope to see this practice grow in 2018, and that when funders do issue such knowledge that they take the time to share it on an open repository like IssueLab, as part of our #OpenForGood campaign. This practice is a significant one because sharing this knowledge can save other practitioners and funders from repeating costly experimentation and prevents us all from working in the dark.

#8 - Foundation Transparency Movement Builds Globally: The need for greater foundation transparency is not unique to the United States. In fact, the majority of countries outside the United States lack the regulatory structure we have that requires foundation disclosures that we take for granted here, such as transparency about leadership, compensation, grantmaking activities, or even just to verify their very existence. In many regions, this has created urgency around voluntary transparency movements, and some picked up steam by creating their own transparency assessments. In 2017, Australia, Brazil, and New Zealand each launched movements designed to motivate institutional philanthropists to greater transparency. In the case of Australia, the foundations are approaching this from a storytelling lens. And national philanthropic associations in both Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” assessment, developed self-assessments for their own members. Given the dearth of global philanthropic data, we predict more global associations will be emphasizing the importance of voluntary transparency in 2018.

Mac-1024x512-03#7 - Transparency Comes to Competition Philanthropy: While competitions are nothing new in philanthropy, transparency about the competition can often fall short. This was not the case with the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change, as they designed the competition with transparency in mind. The goal was to award $100 million to an organization aiming to make “real and measurable progress on a critical problem of our time.” In the end, after several rounds, the winner was announced at the end of 2017 as a joint effort between Sesame Workshop West and the International Rescue Committee to team up to serve the growing population of child refugees in the Syrian response region.

But an additional real winner in this example was also transparency. As is often the case with competition or even ordinary grant programs, the demand for worthy ideas far outstrips the supply of grant dollars. The potential solutions in the proposals are wasted since they usually do not see the light of day, and those agencies must then source new prospects, re-package those requests to other funders, or give up. In response to these realities, the MacArthur Foundation partnered with Foundation Center to bring greater visibility to those ideas, with three goals in mind: drive investment in proposals that merit it; facilitate collaboration and learning between organizations working on similar problems; and inspire funders and organizations working for change to do things differently. As a result, there is now an open database of solutions ready for others to learn from and support, the 100&Change Solutions Bank.

Relationships Matter Practices-1#6 - Transparency Recognized as Key to Effective Grantmaking: A common concern we often hear is that funders don’t want to just “do transparency for transparency’s sake”—they want to do it because it leads to better and more effective grantmaking. 2017 was notable in that several industry groups took up the charge and leveraged member and client experience to demonstrate how transparency leads to more effective philanthropy, which should help foundations justify spending time on transparency efforts in 2018. The National Center for Family Philanthropy featured webinars and a blog series to reinforce the idea that transparency is appropriate for family foundations too. In April, we were happy to see that transparency topped GuideStar’s list of practices philanthropy should adopt to overcome common challenges. And in November, the Center for Effective Philanthropy published Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success. And guess what? The report found that transparency is key to healthy grantee/grantmaker relationships and particularly well-suited to addressing the power imbalance inherent in the relationship. Now that the ROI question has been put to rest, we expect to see more foundations prioritizing transparency in 2018.

Reedyjenniferford-cropped#5 - No Moat Philanthropy: Listing transparency among a list of cultural values or stating that one’s institution is aiming to create a culture of openness is a good place to begin, but Jen Ford Reedy’s excellent blog series about the Bush Foundation’s efforts is a great reminder to the field not to start and stop with elegantly written values statements. The blog series shares detailed steps and strategies foundation leaders can use to move their foundation toward greater openness. Ford Reedy’s blog series also deserves attention because it offers the field helpful advice on how working more openly can serve to help the field become more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

Phil goals#4 - GrantAdvisor Breaks Through Insular Foundation Culture: Industries as diverse as restaurants, travel, retail, health, and even nonprofits have had the blessing and curse of receiving unfiltered user feedback via online review sites for many years now, so it’s hard to believe that until 2017 this was not the case for philanthropy. With the launch of GrantAdvisor.org in April, now foundations can view, for better or worse, what their stakeholders really think. Anyone can register to give feedback, and once a foundation receives more than five reviews their profile goes live on the site. Given the power dynamic, reviews are anonymous, and foundations are able to post responses. An engaging profile with emoji-symbols invites users to rate foundations on two principal metrics: the length of time it takes to complete a foundation’s application process, and a smiley/frowning face rating assessing what it’s like to work with the particular funder. So far, enough reviews have been submitted to provide 49 foundations with unfiltered feedback. And perhaps more importantly, more than 130 foundations have registered to receive alerts when feedback is posted, so it’s an encouraging sign that the field is listening. As more reviews get published, this will continue to scale in 2018, and it will be interesting to see the kinds of changes foundations make in response.

990-PF graphic#3 - Open Data & Open 990-PFs Set the Stage for Change: Open, machine-readable 990-PFs actually became a reality in 2016, but 2017 represented the first full year of their availability and allowed some interesting experimentation to take place. For the uninitiated, though the IRS 990 and 990-PFs have always been public documents, they weren’t made digitally available as open data until April 2016 when the IRS started making digitally available all electronically filed 990 and 990-PF documents. Since the data is now not only open, but digital and machine-readable, this means that anyone from journalists to researchers to activists can aggregate this data and make comparisons, correlations, and judgments about philanthropy at lightning speed, all without any input from foundations. Throughout 2017, agencies like Foundation Center, GuideStar, and academic research institutions that use data from the 990s to analyze the field experimented with the usability of the data for new analytic tools. Here at Foundation Center, we prototyped investment transparency and financial benchmarking tools, while others also experimented with using the new treasure trove of open data in innovative ways. For example, a start-up company called Foundation Financial Research is compiling 990-PF benchmarking data on foundation endowment investment performance. Though there are technical glitches to be worked out, it is likely that over time the data will become more reliable and comprehensive leading to more such comparative tools. A recorded webinar by Digital Impact reviewed the challenges and opportunities of this new age of open philanthropic data, and a webinar and blog series on Transparency Talk outlines specific considerations for private foundations.

Paradise Papers graphic
Source: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

#2 - Paradise Leaked: I should preface this one by saying that Glasspockets remains committed to advocating for voluntary transparency and the inclusion of this particular item should not be taken to mean that we are shifting to advocating forced entry! The “Paradise Papers” refers to a set of 13.4 million financial documents, originating from the Bermuda-based law firm Appleby, detailing investments held in offshore accounts often in paradise-like locales. Leaked to German reporters from Süddeutsche Zeitung, who then shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the documents name more than 120,000 people and companies, including many prominent individuals ranging from the likes of Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II, to celebrities like Madonna and Bono, and to government officials like U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. The “Paradise Papers” also include offshore financial holdings of philanthropists like Open Society Foundations founder, George Soros and Simons Foundation founder, Jim Simons. You can read more here about that. But in terms of our work at Glasspockets, the headline to this story is not that high-net worth individuals hold large sums of money in offshore bank accounts—that is really old news. But coming on the heels of the Equifax leaks, which exposed vulnerabilities in one of the nation’s largest credit data reporting agencies and could impact upwards of 143 million American households, the subsequent Paradise Paper leaks further demonstrated that there is no longer any impenetrable fortress for our financial data. Couple these vulnerabilities with the interest in the activities of high-net worth individuals, and you have a perfect storm of motive and opportunity.

So, the take away here is not to live under the false sense of security that data systems can be reinforced and your offshore accounts are safe from prying eyes. Rather, assume that at some point, this will all be disclosed, so why not be proactive and explain long term philanthropic aims? There are valid reasons why donors establish funds and foundations outside of the United States, such as funding projects in countries where it doesn’t have diplomatic relations or for long-range planning so payout rates don’t force rash decisions. If these challenges, visions and strategies are not explained, others can fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. Many foundations have a history section of their website; the new era of leaks suggests that it may be time to add a future directions section. 2018 will likely bring more massive data breaches and leaks—are you ready?

Open Democracy Infographic1_tw#1 - Foundations Take a Stand: Traditionally, foundations are more comfortable writing checks to support others to take the microphone rather than using their institutional voice to speak out. 2017 saw a departure from this practice with many foundations finding their voice as a result of the current political climate. Funder groups banded together to issue open letters, CEOs blogged and foundation staff tweeted to reinforce commitment to issues or population groups that were in the political line of fire. Here at Foundation Center, we continued to improve our open, nonpartisan web portal that explores philanthropy’s role in U.S. democracy. Given the response of foundations in 2017, I’m betting we will see support for movement building of all Communications-network-logo-1-1persuasions grow this year. And speaking of speaking out, given this trend of foundations taking a stand, the Communications Network’s recent conference focused on just this topic and they have crafted some helpful tips on how to navigate institutional communications about politically charged issues of the day.

So, what am I missing?  The drawback of a list like this is that inevitably something that should be included gets left off.  And we want to continue to use this space to highlight emerging trends and excellent examples of transparency at work in philanthropy, so please share any thoughts, self-promotion, or suggestions below.  We have a whole year of blog content ahead of us to fill and welcome audience input.  Happy 2018!

-- Janet Camarena

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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

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

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