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What Does It Take to Shift to a Learning Culture in Philanthropy?
November 20, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

This post also appears in the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog.

Janet Camarena PhotoIf there was ever any doubt that greater openness and transparency could benefit organized philanthropy, a new report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) about knowledge-sharing practices puts it to rest. Besides making a case for the need for greater transparency in the field, the report also provides some hopeful signs that, among foundation leaders, there is growing recognition of the value of shifting to a culture of learning to improve foundations’ efforts.

Understanding & Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice reveals how well foundation leaders understand what is and isn’t working in their foundation’s programs, how they figure this out, and what, if anything, they share with others about what they’ve learned. These trends are explored through 119 survey responses from, and 41 in-depth interviews with foundation CEOs. A companion series of profiles tell the story about these practices in the context of four foundations that have committed to working more openly.

Since Foundation Center’s launch of GlassPockets in 2010, we have tracked transparency around planning and performance measurement within the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” self-assessment. Currently, of the nearly 100 foundations that have participated in GlassPockets, only 27 percent publicly share any information about how they measure their progress toward institutional goals. Given this lack of knowledge sharing, we undertook a new #OpenForGood campaign to encourage foundations to publicly share published evaluations through the IssueLab open archive.

As someone who has spent the last decade examining foundation transparency practices (or the lack thereof) and championing greater openness, I read CEP’s findings with an eye for elements that might help us better understand the barriers and catalysts to this kind of culture shift in the field. Here’s what I took away from the report.

Performance Anxiety

UWW_MAIN_COV_border (1)While two-thirds of foundation CEOs in CEP’s study report having a strong sense of what is working programmatically within their foundations, nearly 60 percent report having a weaker grasp on what is not working. This begs the question: If you don’t know something is broken, then how do you fix it? Since we know foundations have a tendency to be success-oriented, this by itself wasn’t surprising. But it’s a helpful metric that proves the point of how investing in evaluation, learning, and sharing can only lead to wiser use of precious resources for the field as a whole.

The report also reveals that many CEOs who have learned what is not working well at their foundations are unlikely to share that knowledge, as more than one-third of respondents cite hesitancy around disclosing missteps and failures. The interviews and profiles point to what can best be described as performance anxiety. CEOs cite the need for professionals to show what went well, fear of losing the trust of stakeholders, and a desire to impress their boards as motivations for concealing struggles. Of these motivations, board leadership seems particularly influential for setting the culture when it comes to transparency and failure.

In the profiles, Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) President Stephen Heintz discusses both the importance of his board and his background in government as factors that have informed RBF’s willingness to share the kinds of information many foundations won’t. RBF was an early participant in GlassPockets, and now is an early adopter of the #OpenForGood movement to openly share knowledge. As a result, RBF has been one of the examples we often point to for the more challenging aspects of transparency such as frameworks for diversity data, knowledge sharing, and investment practices.

An important takeaway of the RBF profile is the Fund’s emphasis on the way in which a board can help ease performance anxiety by simply giving leadership permission to talk about pain points and missteps. Yet one-third of CEOs specifically mention that their foundation faces pressure from its board to withhold information about failures. This sparks my interest in seeing a similar survey asking foundation trustees about their perspectives in this area.

Utility or Futility?

Anyone who works inside a foundation — or anyone who has ever applied for a grant from a foundation — will tell you they are buried in the kind of paperwork load that often feels futile (which actually spawned a whole other worthy movement led by PEAK Grantmaking called Project Streamline). In the CEP study, the majority of foundation CEOs report finding most of the standard sources of knowledge that they require not very useful to them. Site visits were most consistently ranked highly, with the majority of CEOs (56 percent) pointing to them as one of the most useful sources for learning about what is and isn’t working. Grantee focus groups and convenings came in a distant second, with only 38 percent of CEOs reporting these as a most useful source. And despite the labor involved on both sides of the table, final grant reports were ranked as a most useful source for learning by only 31 percent of CEOs.

”Thanks to CEP’s research, we have evidence of real demand for a greater supply of programmatic knowledge.“

If most foundations find greater value in higher touch methods of learning, such as meeting face-to-face or hosting grantee gatherings, then perhaps this is a reminder that if foundations reduce the burdens of their own bureaucracies and streamline application and reporting processes, there will be more time for learning from community and stakeholder engagement.

The companion profile of the Weingart Foundation, another longtime GlassPockets participant, shows the benefits of funders making more time for grantee engagement, and provides a number of methods for doing so. Weingart co-creates its learning and assessment frameworks with grantees, routinely shares all the grantee feedback it receives from its Grantee Perception Report (GPR), regularly makes time to convene grantees for shared learning, and also pays grantees for their time in helping to inform Weingart’s trustees about the problems it seeks to solve.

Supply and Demand

One of the questions we get the most about #OpenForGood’s efforts to build an open, collective knowledge base for the field is whether anyone will actually use this content. This concern also surfaces in CEP’s interviews, with a number of CEOs citing the difficulty of knowing what is useful to share as an impediment to openness. A big source of optimism here is learning that a majority of CEOs report that their decisions are often informed by what other foundations are learning, meaning foundations can rest assured that if they supply knowledge about what is and isn’t working, the demand is there for that knowledge to make a larger impact beyond their own foundation. Think of all that untapped potential!

Of course, given the current state of knowledge sharing in the field, only 19 percent of CEOs surveyed report having quite a bit of knowledge about what’s working at peer foundations, and just 6 percent report having quite a bit of knowledge about what’s not working among their programmatic peers. Despite this dearth of knowledge, still fully three-quarters of foundation CEOs report that they use what they have access to from peers in informing strategy and direction within their own foundations.

Thanks to CEP’s research, we have evidence of real demand for a greater supply of programmatic knowledge. Now there is every reason for knowledge sharing to become the norm rather than the exception.

--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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