Transparency Talk

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How Family Foundations Are Opening Up: Part II
January 31, 2019

Elaine Gast Fawcett of PhilanthropyCommunications.com is a philanthropy writer and communications strategist who has managed multi-million dollar grant programs for foundations, is a certified multigenerational family trainer with 21/64, and a Contributing Editor to the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP). This post is the second of a two-part look at some of the key findings about transparency in family foundations from a new NCFP report.

Elaine Gast Fawcett
Elaine Gast Fawcett

Last week I started by identifying some of the key ways in which family foundations are working more transparently than in the past. Strengthening relationships was core to the two practices I identified: being accessible to grant applicants and learning from listening to the community. Here are a few more helpful examples and practices from the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s new guide Transparency in Family Philanthropy: Opening to the Possibilities.

Transparency is…Credibility to Bring Voice to Issues

When Stefan Lanfer came to the Barr Foundation in 2008, it was just over a decade old, and did all of its grantmaking anonymously. “In 2009, Barr’s trustees decided it was time to be more open and transparent about the foundation’s work,” he says.

What drove the decision? “Mission. The board saw the potential to bring more value beyond its grant dollars alone—to elevate the voices and work of our partners, and also to use our own voice to contribute to public debates about the issues we focus on.”

The shift to greater transparency took time. One of the foundation’s core values is humility. For its many years as an anonymous funder, the prevailing view was that “attention ought to be on the community leaders and issues at hand, not us,” says Lanfer, who was tasked with leading the foundation’s communications efforts. “We weren’t interested merely in increasing visibility for Barr. We wanted to know how to use communications to further our mission.”

“We realized there are times when the Barr Foundation lending its voice can be significant to issues affecting our city and region,” he says. “It can spark, frame, and help shift important conversations.”

For example, like many cities, Boston has experienced a huge real estate boom along its waterfront, says Lanfer. “Over the last 10 years, development along Boston’s waterfront has exploded. Meanwhile media coverage and public debate has principally focused on the merits or concerns about individual projects—and not on growing concerns that Boston’s waterfront could end up being walled off from public use. In this context, Barr’s president, Jim Canales, wrote an Op Ed that ran in the Boston Globe, calling for a new conversation, and a different approach. He called for greater ambition and vision to create a waterfront that all can access and enjoy for generations.”

That one Op-Ed precipitated a significant increase in media coverage of the topic. At the same time, Barr launched a new special initiative focused on the waterfront, which has since awarded over $11 million. Yet, it was a willingness to add its voice to the conversation, says Lanfer, that had that first, important amplifying effect. “It drew more attention to the cause and created a momentum that wasn’t there before, and has only continued to build.”

Transparency is…Sharing Mistakes in the Spirit of Learning

“When we started thinking about transparency, it was when we were looking at ways to help communities develop and how they could become more resilient, flexible, and intuitive in their own ways,” says Richard Russell, board member of The Russell Family Foundation (TRFF). “We looked at what was making a difference in the waters of Puget Sound. What we learned was that more than 50 percent of the pollution of Puget Sound comes from the communities surrounding it, and that those communities have a lack of consciousness that they live next to this incredible fjord and are dumping everything in there.”

“We asked ourselves: what is our theory of change? What will make a difference down the road?” says Russell. “We saw an opportunity to build trust and convene community. The more we can be open with each other, the better the quality of our connection.”

One of the ways to be open is to share mistakes, he says. “In our culture, mistakes are taboo. Yet revealing mistakes can be a source of strength,” he says. “We all think we have to protect ourselves. Yet a lot of our nervousness or fears around that are misguided.”

“My parents (George and Jane Russell, founders of TRFF) believed that you can advance progress so much faster if you got the right people in the room and got out of their way. If you try to keep people out of the room or hide mistakes that people are inevitably going to make, it injects more tension into relationships,” says Russell.

In the spirit of its founders, TRFF posts its mistakes. In fact, for years, one of the most it ever posted was on a failed program related investment that it had made to a nonprofit. “The video featured interviews with the executive director of the nonprofit, interviews with me from TRFF, what we had learned, and how we the foundation processed these lessons learned across the silos,” says CEO Richard Woo.

“People don’t learn from each other if they aren’t open,” says Russell. “One of the most valuable things we’ve been able to do as a community leader is to convene people on issues that they aren’t talking about—to get people to let their hair down and talk openly. We all need to be a learning organization.”

Transparency is…Opening Up Online

A website is a minimal transparency tool, says Patrick Troska. “At a minimum, people should be able to find you and get in touch with you, not have their question go into some black hole. We do exist in the public trust and are supposed to be responding to the public—and if we’re not doing that, what are we doing?”

“I hope these stories will inspire family foundations to look at their own transparency practices, and how family foundations—and the communities they serve—can benefit from increased openness.”

Recently, the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota revamped its website to be more community focused. There are now photos from the community, blog posts written by foundation staff and other guest writers, staff contact information, and funding guidelines. The foundation is even considering an interactive map showing where they fund.

The Perrin Foundation in New Haven, Connecticut also recently redeveloped its website. “When we started the process, we found we weren’t as transparent online as we thought we were,” says president Laura McCargar. “On our previous site, we had listed our board chair, but no other board members. We talked about grantmaking areas, but didn’t talk about how we encourage folks to build relationships. We listed our grant partners, but no financials.”

While it’s been a somewhat challenging process to redevelop the website, the “opportunity to discuss together how we publicly represent ourselves has been invaluable.” She says one of the discussion points was about how board members individually wish to be represented on the site. “Some felt photos might make it too much about the family, and others felt it would keep us too much behind a veil if we didn’t put photos up. These are important conversations to have.”

Ultimately, consistent with the GlassPockets transparency self-assessment, it’s up to a family foundation board, perhaps with staff, to decide on the right level of transparency for them, and why. I hope these stories will inspire family foundations to look at their own transparency practices, and how family foundations—and the communities they serve—can benefit from increased openness.

Want more? Download the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s new guide, Transparency in Family Philanthropy: Opening to the Possibilities, which encourages donors, boards, and staff of family foundations (and other giving vehicles) to purposefully consider their choices regarding transparency in grantmaking, governance, and operations. This guide includes a list of questions family foundations can ask themselves as a board to think deeply and develop a transparency strategy.

--Elaine Gast Fawcett

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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:

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    Foundation Center

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