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April 2019 (3 posts)

Book Review: 'Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count'
April 18, 2019

Daniel X Matz is manager and content developer for Candid's GlassPockets.org portal. This review first appeared in Philanthropy News Digest's PhilanTopic blog.

Daniel X MatzBack in 2016, Bill Gates, in the context of his partnership with the Heifer Foundation to donate 100,000 chickens to people around the world living on $2 a day, blogged about how raising egg-laying fowl can be a smart, cost-effective antidote to extreme poverty. As Phil Buchanan tells it in Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, the idea, however well-intentioned, attracted scorn from some quarters, including Bolivia, where the offer was declined — after it was pointed out that the country already produces some 197 million chickens a year. The episode is a pointed reminder that being an effective philanthropist isn't as easy as it might seem.

"If you want to effect lasting change — to move the needle — then you need to dig in and think long-term."

And Buchanan ought to know; as the founding CEO of the Cambridge-based Center for Effective Philanthropy for the past seventeen years, he has worked closely with more than three hundred foundations and scores of individual givers, exploring the landscape of American giving, distilling lessons learned (both successes and failures), and highlighting what works and what doesn't. (Spoiler alert: there's no single answer as to how to give "right," but few are better positioned than Buchanan to frame the question.) In this slim volume, he lays out a framework that can help anyone engaged in philanthropy to be more thoughtful, open-minded, and willing to learn, adapt, and keep trying.

As Buchanan sees it, anyone can be an effective philanthropist, and there is no one best practice to that end, other than to be as engaged as one can be. While much of the advice he shares is better suited for the well-heeled donor or the program officer at an established foundation (those with the time and resources to think through larger issues, consider options, and evaluate methods for learning from their giving), the panhandler's dictum applies: you don't need to be a Rockefeller to help a fella, and you don't need to be a tech billionaire to carve out a smart, sustainable path for your own giving. Certainly, to give is better than not to give, and if all you have the time to do is to write a check, do that. But if you want to effect lasting change — to move the needle, as it were — then you need to dig in and think long-term.

Phil BuchananPhil Buchanan

According to Buchanan, digging in means setting goals, weighing strategies for achieving those goals, evaluating the effectiveness of your giving, and, armed with that information, going back for more. Buchanan's work with CEP has given him special insight into how philanthropists approach their giving, and he's nut-shelled a range of smart propositions designed to help individuals and institutions think more clearly about how and where they give. Take his four types of givers:

  • The charitable banker broadly gives because of precedent or simply because they're asked to, but not really having a goal or focus that informs that giving.
  • The perpetual adjuster always changes who and what they fund but never having a sense of whether that giving is doing any good.
  • The partial strategist connects some of the dots in terms of goals, strategy, and effectiveness, but still keeps much of his/her giving unaligned with those goals (think of the family foundation that strategically works to reduce hunger in its community but allocates half its grants to the unrelated interests of board members).
  • The total strategist is all in on finding approaches that work and is rigorously willing to test strategies toward achieving clear goals.

While most givers start out as charitable bankers, Buchanan wants them to become as strategic as they can be, spending their time, talent, and treasure "maximizing [their] chances of making a difference."

Being strategic isn't quite the same as being on target, however, and the balance of Giving Done Right is a broad-brush effort to tease out the key ingredients of effective philanthropy. For instance:

  • Stop thinking you know everything. "The most effective givers open themselves to the possibility that others are in a better position to identify solutions." Not only do givers need to up their game with respect to understanding the problem they hope to solve, they also need to deepen their understanding of the communities and nonprofits actually doing the work.
  • Stop re-inventing the wheel. "The best givers share what they're learning openly with other funders and those they fund." Chances are you're not the first to want to solve an intractable problem; effective philanthropy means building on what others have learned, supporting their efforts when they work, and collaborating to find new paths when they don't.
  • Take the time to find the right fit. Not every family needs its own foundation; for some a checkbook at the kitchen table will do just fine, for others it's a giving circle, a community foundation, a donor-advised fund, an LLC, or a programmatically focused, professionally staffed foundation. And while Buchanan sees the opacity of DAFs and LLCs as a thorn in the side of the sector's embrace of openness (and conversely views independent foundations as the dark horse in leveraging transparency across the sector) here, the key is understanding which vehicle works best with your goals, and then getting to work.

Ultimately, transparency is at the heart of Giving Done Right, where "clarity, openness, and honesty about goals and strategies, as well as the nitty-gritty of what the giver is learning about what works and what doesn't" are tools that givers of all sizes need at the ready. Effective givers willingly use openness to strengthen relationships between funders, communities, and collaborators, help mitigate redundancy, build consensus, and solve problems.

Giving Done RightBuchanan also has a few dragons to slay, and Giving Done Right starts and ends with an exhortation for givers of all sizes to ignore the misguided lessons embraced by a new generation of wealthy donors. First and foremost is the assumption that nonprofits would be more effective if they were run like for-profit businesses. No one likes bloat or ineffectiveness, but as Buchanan notes, most nonprofits are bare-bones operations that rather miraculously squeeze water from the proverbial stone day in and day out. What's more, most for-profit businesses aren't as efficient as they'd have us believe, relying on a solitary metric — quarterly profit — to measure their success. In addition, Buchanan scolds those who see nonprofits' reliance on philanthropy as "dependency." Without philanthropic support, he writes, tongue firmly in cheek, how would a children's charity keep the lights on, by putting the kids to work? And in any case, he reminds us, the nonprofit sector overall generates nearly $1.7 trillion in annual revenue ($1 in every $10 of U.S. GDP), with 70 percent of that derived from fees and services.

Similarly, Buchanan has no patience for foundations that demand that their nonprofit grantees spend time and money evaluating the impact of their services while being unwilling to fund such work, or for fixating on "overhead" as a measure of nonprofit effectiveness while too often ignoring the full-spectrum cost involved in delivering nonprofit services. And while he's willing to concede that what a successful business tycoon knows about getting rich might (might) provide some insight into how to be an effective philanthropist, it's more likely than not to cloud one's judgment. After all, if the world's problems could be solved by a vigorous application of business acumen, why haven't they?

In Buchanan's view, givers are much more likely to be effective by taking the time to learn what they don't know and proceeding from there. Not everyone embraces that idea. As David Callahan's The Givers showed, the growth of big philanthropy in an era where government is less willing and less capable of affecting social change has become a hotly contested issue. In January, Buchanan, along with Rob Reich (co-director of Stanford's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society), Ben Soskis (Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute), and Anand Giridharadas (Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) engaged in a debate on Twitter during which they laid out their views with respect to the role of philanthropy in present-day America, its influence (both positive and negative) on our politics, and the tendency of Big Anything to generate a handful of winners and lots of losers. That debate is echoed in Giving Done Right, with Buchanan staking out a middle ground where philanthropy is celebrated as a reflection of American idealism and pluralism, where giving is good and smarter giving is better, and where the willingness of philanthropists and nonprofits (the unsung heroes of our more perfect union) to work together to solve seemingly intractable problems is to be commended.

-- Daniel X Matz

More of Daniel's book reviews touching on philanthropy, the arts, and the social sector, can be found on Philanthropy News Digest's Off the Shelf.

Designing for Impact: Using a Web Redesign to Improve Transparency, Equity, and Inclusion
April 11, 2019

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by publicly participating in the "Who Has GlassPockets?" self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

Na Eng
Na Eng

Na Eng is the communications director at the McKnight Foundation, a private family foundation based in Minneapolis.

The McKnight Foundation is proud to be among the early group of foundations that joined the GlassPockets movement and has benefited from its tools and resources. As GlassPockets crosses the threshold of 100 foundation transparency profiles on its website, I wanted to share a personal reflection on how McKnight approaches transparency on our website, and how GlassPockets has been part of that journey.

When I decided on a redesign of our website about a year ago, I knew that there was a great body of knowledge we could tap into by reviewing GlassPockets tools and content, so I scheduled a call with Janet Camarena, who leads the website and initiative to encourage greater foundation transparency. In this new version of our web presence, I wanted to design for transparency from the start. GlassPockets didn´t disappoint, and Janet offered a helpful perspective from her years of observing the paths and barriers faced by our peers on the road to transparency.

While the word transparency can sometimes feel like a clinical term, Janet explained that transparency and openness can humanize institutions through the power of storytelling, and we all know foundations have powerful stories about the impact of their grantees. When I asked her about the common tendency of foundations to embrace a stance of humility, she nodded. She said she often hears that humility can stand in the way of embracing a “GlassPockets approach,” preventing us from seeing storytelling as an act of public service, rather than as self-serving content.

This conversation reaffirmed for me one of the core benefits of foundation transparency: when the public knows more about what foundations fund and how they approach their work, trust is built, advancing the entire field of philanthropy, the nonprofits we support, and our collective impact.

GlassPockets Road to 100

How McKnight Advances Transparency with its Website

A key purpose for our foundation website is pragmatic and impactful transparency. With our web developer, Visceral, we tried to make our site as fun to peruse and simple to navigate as possible, and we packed it with information to help people conduct practical business. For example, we now include all the details on how to seek funding, how to reserve a meeting space, and even the investments we make in our impact investing portfolio. We also have a robust, easy-to-search grants database, which makes us a rarity among national funders. According to the GlassPockets’ Transparency Challenge, only about one of every 100 foundations shares current grants data online. Lists of grants, combined with compelling images and vignettes throughout the site, help others to better understand our organization’s mission.

In addition, I’ve come to realize that providing more information does not necessarily achieve greater transparency. It’s as essential to offer an updated, accurate representation of work—and that means clearing the clutter. (Consider the KonMari method of thanking what no longer has value, and then letting go.) External websites should not be used as an internal digital archiving system. We’ve learned that dated content often caused confusion about our current purpose and identity. However, for scholarly use, we do archive older reports with IssueLab, which has an impressive open knowledge-sharing system.

Digital Accessibility & Linguistic Inclusion

Transparency also requires understanding the needs of diverse audiences and making digital inclusion a priority. When we set out for our site to be more user-friendly for people who are hard of hearing or blind, we commissioned an accessibility audit. And rather than rely on web-based scanners, we asked people who had the relevant disabilities to evaluate its accessibility level. Among the changes, we added closed captioning to all our videos, at little cost. We’ve since expanded closed captioning to more than a dozen languages, all spoken in our home state of Minnesota, including Hmong, Laotian, Somali, Oromo, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and others.

A website can leave people behind or it can inspire more people to advance the mission.

Our efforts toward digital inclusion, which enable transparency for people with different physical and linguistic abilities, are ongoing. We still have much to learn. We´re now learning more about the technical needs of people in low-bandwidth zones in the developing world, rural communities, and even in pockets of metro areas. When most digital communications are designed for able-bodied English language speakers who have access to high-speed internet, significant population groups are cut off from the ideas and opportunities we offer, and we’re deprived of the chance to connect with people who have so much to contribute to advancing our mission.

Our society often thinks of discrimination in terms of individual actions, giving scant attention to systemic barriers. These are insidious obstacles created and maintained, often unintentionally, even by people of goodwill—simply because they’re not aware of the impact of these barriers on those who are not just like them.

The website of an organization that has the power to distribute resources, bestow awards, and select new staff and partners can be an instrument for perpetuating or disrupting inequity. And when a foundation has important ideas to spread—in our case, ideas about advancing a just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive— a website can leave people behind... or it can inspire more people to advance the mission.

Thankfully, we have movements like GlassPockets urging us all to move toward more pragmatic, inclusive, and impactful transparency.

--Na Eng

Don’t “Ghost” Declined Applicants: The Ins and Outs of Giving Applicant Feedback
April 4, 2019

Mandy Ellerton joined the [Archibald] Bush Foundation in 2011, where she created and now directs the Foundation's Community Innovation programs. The programs allow communities to develop and test new solutions to community problems, using approaches that are collaborative and inclusive of people who are most directly affected by the problem.

GlassPockets Road to 100

This post is part of our “Road to 100 & Beyond series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by publicly participating in the “Who Has GlassPockets? self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations over time, promising practices in transparency, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

I’ve often thought that fundraising can be as bad as dating. (Kudos to you lucky few who have had great experiences dating!) Lots of dates, lots of dead ends, lots of frustrating encounters before you (maybe) find a match. All along the way you look for even the smallest sign to indicate that someone likes you. “They laughed at my joke!” or, in the case of fundraising, “they seemed really excited about page five of last year’s impact report!” Not to mention the endless time spent doing online searches for shreds of information that might be useful. This reality is part of the reason why Bush Foundation was proud to be among the first 100 foundations to participate in GlassPockets. We believe that transparency and opening lines of communication is critical to good grantmaking, because both in dating and in fundraising, it can be heartbreaking and crazymaking to try and sort out whether you have a connection or if someone’s “just not that into you.” If only there was a way to just “swipe left” or “swipe right” and make everything a little simpler.

“We believe that transparency and opening lines of communication is critical to good grantmaking.”

I’m not proposing a Tinder for grantmaking (nor should anyone, probably, although hat tip to Vu Le for messing with all of us and floating the idea on April Fool’s Day). But over the past several years, Bush Foundation’s Community Innovation program staff has used a system to provide feedback calls for declined applicants, in the hopes of making foundation fundraising a little less opaque and crazymaking. We use the calls to be transparent and explain why we made our funding decisions. The calls also help us live out our “Spread Optimism” value because they allow us to help and encourage applicants and potentially point them to other resources. This is all part of our larger engagement strategy, described in “No Moat Philanthropy.”

 

Ellertonmandy20152
Mandy Ellerton

How Feedback Calls Work

We use a systematic approach for feedback calls:

  • We proactively offer the opportunity to sign up for feedback calls in the email we send to declined applicants.
  • We use a scheduling tool (after trying a couple different options we’ve landed on Slotted, which is relatively cheap and easy to use) and offer a variety of times for feedback calls every week. Collectively five Community Innovation Team members hold about an hour a week for feedback calls. The calls typically last about 20 minutes. We’ve found this is about the right amount of time so that we can offer feedback calls to most of the declined applicants who want them.
  • We prepare for our feedback calls. We re-read the application and develop an outline for the call ahead of time.
  • During the call we offer a couple of reasons why we declined the application. We often discuss what an applicant could work on to strengthen their project and whether they ought to apply again.
  • We also spend a lot of time listening; sometimes these calls can understandably be emotional. Grant applications are a representation of someone’s hopes and dreams and sometimes your decline might feel like the end of the road for the applicant. But hang with them. Don’t get defensive. However hard it might feel for you, it’s a lot harder for the declined applicant. And ultimately, hard conversations can be transformative for everyone involved. I will say, however, that most of our feedback calls are really positive exchanges.
  • We use anonymous surveys to evaluate what people think of the feedback calls and during the feedback call we ask whether the applicant has any feedback for us to improve our programs/grantmaking process.
  • We train new staff on how to do feedback calls. We have a staff instruction manual on how to do feedback calls, but we also have new team members shadow more seasoned team members for a while before they do a feedback call alone.

 

What’s Going Well

The feedback calls appear to be useful for both declined applicants and for us:

  • In our 2018 surveys, respondents (n=38) rated the feedback calls highly. They gave the calls an average rating of 6.1 (out of 7) for overall helpfulness, 95% said the calls added some value or a lot of value, and 81.2% said they had a somewhat better or much better understanding of the programs after the feedback call.
  • We’ve seen the number of applications for our Community Innovation Grant and Bush Prize for Community Innovation programs go down over time and we’ve seen the overall quality go up. We think that’s due, in part, to feedback calls that help applicants decide whether to apply again and that help applicants improve their projects to become a better fit for funding in the future.
  • I’d also like to think that doing feedback calls has made us better grantmakers. First, it shows up in our selection meetings. When you might have to talk to someone about why you made the funding decision you did, you’re going to be even more thoughtful in making the decision in the first place. You’re going to hew even closer to your stated criteria and treat the decision with care. We regularly discuss what feedback we plan to give to declined applicants in the actual selection meeting. Second, in a system that has inherently huge power differentials (foundations have all of it and applicants have virtually none of it), doing feedback calls forces you to come face to face with that reality. Never confronting the fact that your funding decisions impact real people with hopes and dreams is a part of what corrupts philanthropy. Feedback calls keep you a little more humble.

 

What We’re Working On

We still have room to improve our feedback calls:

  • We’ve heard from declined applicants that they sometimes get conflicting feedback from different team members when they apply (and get declined) multiple times; 15% of survey respondents said their feedback was inconsistent with prior feedback from us. Cringe. That definitely makes fundraising more crazymaking. We’re working on how to have more staff continuity with applicants who have applied multiple times.
  • We sometimes struggle to determine how long to keep encouraging a declined applicant to improve their project for future applications versus saying more definitively that the project is not a fit. Yes, we want to “Spread Optimism,” but although it never feels good for anyone involved, sometimes the best course of action is to encourage an applicant to seek funding elsewhere.

I’m under no illusions that feedback calls are going to fix the structural issues with philanthropy and fundraising. I welcome that larger conversation, driven in large part by brave critiques of philanthropy emerging lately like Decolonizing Wealth, Just Giving and Winners Take All. In the meantime, fundraising, as with dating, is still going to have moments of heartache and uncertainty. When you apply for a grant, you have to be brave and vulnerable; you’re putting your hopes and dreams out into a really confusing and opaque system that’s going to judge them, perhaps support them, or perhaps dash them, and maybe even “ghost” them by never responding. Feedback calls are one way to treat those hopes and dreams with a bit more care.

--Mandy Ellerton

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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

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