Transparency Talk

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Transparency & Start-up Philanthropy: What We Can Learn from Bezos and Zuckerberg
October 11, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

Janet Camarena PhotoIt’s hard to think of a philanthropic institution as a start-up. The phrase “start-up” conjures the image of two geeks in a garage with big dreams but very limited means. But as we all know from breathless news coverage about them, some of these once resource-constrained, scrappy start-ups have gone the distance, hit it big, and now are learning the ropes of managing another kind of start-up—the philanthropy kind.

I was recently reminded of this trajectory when a reporter from CNBC contacted me to ask about Jeff Bezos’ new Day One Fund for a story he was working on about the announcement that Bezos and his wife, novelist MacKenzie Bezos, were establishing a $2 billion philanthropic fund to help support homeless initiatives and early childhood education for low-income children. As a tech reporter, he was asking a lot of good questions to better understand the nature of organized philanthropy.  He wanted to know about things like the structure of the fund, where the funds would come from, what kind of philanthropic vehicle it might be, and the transparency and tax regulations for each kind of vehicle.

I had a strong sense of déjà vu, as I realized I’d had a very similar conversation about 18 months ago when Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced the launch of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). In choosing to structure CZI as an Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), and not a private foundation or nonprofit entity, they launched a global debate that put philanthropic transparency on the map like never before. Unlike private foundations, LLCs are not required to provide details on giving, are able to fund both for profit and nonprofit entities, and there is no transfer of funds to an entity that is regulated to serve the public good. So, suddenly topics usually reserved for the geekiest of foundation geeks--tax code, philanthropic vehicles, and the difference between traditional philanthropy and the LLC approach --were being covered by everyone from The New York Times to San Jose Mercury News.

In Bezos’ case, it’s unclear as of this writing how the Day One Fund will be structured or when we might learn more. But Axios reported last month that according to public records, the couple had “incorporated a nonprofit in Washington State called Bezos Foundation, and someone reserved the name ‘Bezos Day 1 Foundation’ for a nonprofit.”

”Philanthropic transparency is very important to building public trust and credibility for institutional giving.“

The announcement did answer long standing speculation and questions that began more than a year ago, when Bezos started a crowd-sourcing experiment asking the world via Twitter to suggest philanthropic ideas to him at the “intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” The inquiry led to more than 46,000 responses, and much speculation about what the eventual philanthropic mission would be. In his announcement Bezos described two groups within the Day One Fund: The Day 1 Families Fund, which will support homeless support organizations such as Mary’s Place in Seattle; and the Day 1 Academies Fund, which is to fund the launch of a network of Montessori pre-schools for low-income children.

What might be most surprising to Bezos is that though his September announcement puts the focus area questions and speculations to rest, it has created a whole host of new questions about the Fund. This led me to think about our mission at GlassPockets around championing greater philanthropic transparency, and what that might look like for a start-up fund.

Philanthropic transparency is very important to building public trust and credibility for institutional giving. This is particularly true for large, highly visible, and new philanthropic initiatives but could be a helpful guide for other emergent philanthropies. So beyond the social media and the press release, what’s a newly minted philanthropist supposed to share? Based on our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” self-assessment tool, as well from the questions we get from reporters and researchers, here are some suggestions of how to think about telling the story of your start-up philanthropy:

  • Even if short on details, establish a website where people can go to look under the hood and learn more details about the work the philanthropy plans to do, how it plans to do it, and how people can stay informed of new developments. Sunlight Giving, which is a philanthropy that started up in 2014 as a result of the sale of WhatsApp to Facebook, and has already joined the GlassPockets transparency movement, made it a point to establish a website and commit to transparency early on.
  • What motivated the establishment of the fund and the issue areas? Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan provide a great example of this as the announcement for the launch of CZI was inspired by the birth of their daughter to whom they dedicated the Initiative’s vision in a “Dear Max” letter format.
  • What is the scale of the giving and what is the source of the funds?
  • How will the fund be structured? Is it a private foundation, a donor-advised fund, a limited liability corporation, or a supporting organization of a community foundation? Of these structures, the private foundation provides the most transparency because of the annual 990-PF filing detailing foundation finances, grants, and payout among other disclosures.
  • Who will be running the fund? And if it’s structured as a nonprofit, who will comprise the board of directors? Is it exclusively family members on the board, or a mix?
  • How and who will select grantees? What will the grantmaking process look like? Since this is not likely to be defined at the start-up stage, share a target date by when you hope to have this information available.
  • How will the funders get input from the communities they seek to serve? And how else will the funders learn about the issues they have identified?
  • Through what mechanism will grants and other announcements be made in the future?

It may seem like a long list, but by opening up the playbook and speaking from the heart, a new philanthropist can inspire others with their vision rather than inspiring the suspicion that inevitably comes with opacity.

--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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