Transparency Talk

Category: "5 Questions" (11 posts)

Meet Our #OpenForGood Award Winner: An Interview with Veronica Olazabal, Director of Measurement, Evaluation and Organizational Performance, The Rockefeller Foundation
July 10, 2019

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Veronica Olazabal

This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenforGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood. View more posts in the series.

The Rockefeller Foundation advances new frontiers of science, data, policy, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health, food, power, and economic mobility. In this interview, Veronica Olazabal shares insights with GlassPockets' Janet Camarena about how the foundation’s practices support learning and open knowledge.

GlassPockets: Congratulations on being one of our inaugural recipients of the #OpenForGood award! The award was designed to recognize those foundations that are working to advance the field by sharing what they are learning. Can you please share why you have prioritized knowledge sharing at the Rockefeller Foundation and how this practice has helped you to advance your work? Or put another way, what is the good that has come about as a result?

Veronica Olazabal: We are excited to be an inaugural recipient of the #OpenForGood award! As you may be aware, since its founding more than 100 years ago, The Rockefeller Foundation's mission has been “ to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.” To this end, the Foundation seeks to catalyze and scale transformative innovation across sectors and geographies, and take risks where others cannot, or will not.

While often working in new and innovative spaces, the Foundation has always recognized that the full impact of its programs and investments can only be realized if it measures - and shares - what it is learning. Knowledge and evidence sharing have been core to the organization's DNA dating back to its founder John D. Rockefeller Sr., who espoused the virtues of learning from and with others—positing that this was the key to "enlarging the boundaries of human knowledge." You can imagine how this, in turn, resulted in transformational breakthroughs such as the Green Revolution, the eradication of Yellow Fever and the formalization of Impact Investing.

The-rockefeller-foundationGP: Your title has the word “evaluation” in its name and increasingly we are seeing foundations move toward this staffing structure of having staff dedicated to evaluation and learning. For those foundations that are considering adding such a unit to their teams, what advice do you have about the structures needed to create a culture of learning across the organization and avoid the creation of one more silo? 

VO: Learning is a team sport and to that end, an evaluation and learning team should be centrally positioned and accessible to all teams across a foundation. At the Rockefeller Foundation, the Measurement and Evaluation team engages with both the programmatic and the impact investing teams. We see our role as enablers of good practices around impact management and programmatic learning -- often working with teams in early stage design support, through start-up, implementation and exit. We also work collaboratively with others at the Foundation such as our grants-management and data teams to ensure the “right” M&E data is being captured throughout our grantee’s lifecycle.

Yet, I will be the first to say that building a culture of learning by continuously reaching “over the fence” is a lot of work and might be challenging for a small team, which is the reality for most foundations. Benchmarking data produced by the Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) lands most M&E teams at foundations at around 1.5. So, capacity for culture change is clearly a challenge. My suggestion here is to source evaluation and learning talent that balances the hard technical chops with the softer people skills. I believe you truly need both and if an organization optimizes for one over the other, might experience a series of false starts. A good place to start in sourcing evaluation talent is the American Evaluation Association (AEA).

GP: As you heard during the award presentation, one of the reasons the Rockefeller Foundation was selected to receive this award is because of your commitment to sharing the results of any evaluation you commission, before you even know the outcome. This pledge seems designed to not let negative findings affect your decision about whether or not to share what your learned. We often hear that foundation boards and leaders are worried about reputational issues with such sharing. What would you say to those leaders about how opening up these pain points and lessons has affected Rockefeller’s reputation in the field, and why it’s worth it?

VO: In 2017, The Rockefeller Foundation was pleased to be the first to make all of its evaluations available to IssueLab as part of #OpenForGood. But to the Foundation, being open goes well beyond passively making information available to those seeking it. Being truly open necessarily involves the proactive sharing of lessons so that others can be aware of and leverage from the things that we are learning. To that end, we regularly author blogs, disseminate evaluation reports and M&E learnings via digital channels, and – perhaps most importantly – share back evaluation results with our grantees and partners – so that evaluation is more than a one-way extractive exercise.

"Being truly open necessarily involves the proactive sharing of lessons so that others can be aware of and leverage from the things that we are learning."

Taking sharing one step further, earlier this year, The Rockefeller Foundation adopted a new Data Asset Policy aimed at making the data that we collect as part of our grantmaking freely available to others who could use it to effect more good in the world. The policy is grounded on two core principles: 1) that the data we fund has incredible value for public good and that these assets can serve as fuel for better decision-making; and 2) we commit ourselves to being responsible stewards of these data, which means prioritizing privacy and protection, especially of those individuals and communities we seek to serve. Moving forward, this opens up the ability to amplify our learning even further and in even more innovative ways.

GP: A concern we often hear is that a funder creating a culture of learning leads to an increased burden on grantees who are then asked for robust evaluations and outcomes measures that no one is willing to pay for. Does Rockefeller include funding for the evaluations and reporting or other technical assistance to mitigate the burden on grantees?

VO: Having had the experience of being both a funder and a grantee, I know this is a real barrier to enabling robust learning cultures and evidence-informed decision-making. For this reason, at The Rockefeller Foundation we approach resourcing in a few different ways:

  • First, through embedding resources for evaluation and learning into individual grantee budgets and agreements from the start. This type of funding enables grantees to generate the type of data they need for their own decision-making, learning and reporting.
  • We also often work in a consortia model where we commission an evaluation and learning grantee separately to synthesize learnings across groups of grantees and provide technical assistance as needed. This approach helps decrease the reporting burden for “implementation” types of grantees as it generates what is it the Foundation would like to learn (which could differ from what the grantees and their clients find useful). Here is an example from our Digital Jobs Africa portfolio generated through this evaluation and learning model.
  • Finally, we have also at times, and upon request, seconded our own M&E staff to grantees and partners to help build their M&E muscle and enable them to measure their own impact. While this is rare, we are seeing this request more and more and hence why we value both technical expertise and relationship management skills.

GP: Learning is a two-way street and foundations are both producers and consumers of knowledge. Let’s close this interview with hearing about a noteworthy piece of knowledge you recently learned thanks to another foundation or organization sharing it, and how it helped inform your own work.

VO: There are many opportunities to learn from others. In my current role, I am in continuous engagement with colleagues in similar roles at other philanthropies and regularly meet before or after convenings organized by CEP, GEO and AEA. In addition, as part of my work on the Fund for Shared Insight which is a funding collaborative working to make listening to end-users the norm, my philanthropy colleagues and I often exchange on where we all are in our personal and institutional learning journeys.

Finally, as part of a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded Lab for Learning, The Rockefeller Foundation was most recently among a cohort of 15 foundations that took part in a year-long series of convenings to address systemic barriers to learning. Participation here required us to experiment with ideas for supporting learning in our own settings and then sharing our experiences with the group. Through this engagement, we learned about how others were building learning habits in their foundations (written about in Julia Coffman’s post here). More specifically, the measurement and evaluation team was able to introduce Making Thinking Visible and Asking Powerful Questions in our early stage support to program teams to push thinking about assumptions and concrete dimensions of the work. This engagement then helped to structure the foundations of a learning agenda (e.g. theory of change-like tool with clear outcomes, hypotheses, assumptions and evidence) that would be used to anchor adaptive management and continuous improvement once the program strategy rolled out.

--Veronica Olazabal & Janet Camarena

Meet Our #OpenForGood Award Winner: An Interview with Lee Alexander Risby, Head of Effective Philanthropy & Savi Mull, Senior Evaluation Manager, C&A Foundation
June 19, 2019

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Lee Alexander Risby

This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenforGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood. View more posts in the series.

C&A Foundation is a European foundation that supports programs and initiatives to transform fashion into a fair and sustainable industry that enables everyone – from farmer to factory worker – to thrive. In this interview, Lee Alexander Risby and Savi Mull share insights with GlassPockets' Janet Camarena about how the foundation’s practices support learning and open knowledge.

GlassPockets: Congratulations on being one of our inaugural recipients of the #OpenForGood award! The award was designed to recognize those foundations that are working to advance the field by sharing what they are learning. Can you please share why you have prioritized knowledge sharing at the C&A Foundation and how this practice has helped you to advance your work?

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Savi Mull

Savi Mull: For almost five years, C&A Foundation has been dedicated to transforming the fashion industry into a force for good. A large part of that work includes instilling transparency and accountability in supply chains across the industry. From the start, we also wanted to lead by example by being transparent and accountable as an organization, sharing what we were learning whilst on this journey, being true to our work and helping the rest of the industry learn from our successes and failures.

Lee Alexander Risby: Indeed, from the beginning, we made a commitment to be open about our results and lessons by publishing evaluations on our website and dashboards in our Annual Reports. After all, you cannot encourage the fashion industry to be transparent and accountable and not live by the same principles yourself. Importantly, our commitment to transparency has always been championed both by our Executive Director and our Board.

Savi: To do this, over the years we have put many processes in place.  For example, internally we use after-action reviews to gather lessons from our initiatives and allow our teams to discuss honestly what could have been done better in that program or partnership.  We also do third party, external evaluations of our initiatives, sharing the reports and lessons learned. This helps us and our partners to learn, and it informs initiatives and strategies going forward.

The Role of Evaluation Inside Foundations

GP: Your title has the word “evaluation” in its name and increasingly we are seeing foundations move toward this staffing structure of having staff dedicated to evaluation and learning. For those foundations that are considering adding such a unit to their teams, what advice do you have about the structures needed to create a culture of learning across the organization and avoid the creation of one more silo?

SM: I believe it is essential to have this type of function in a foundation to drive formal learning from and within programs. But at the same time, it is an ongoing process that cannot be driven by one function alone. All staff needs to be responsible for the learning that makes philanthropy effective – not just evaluators.

LAR: To begin, we were deliberate in building a team of evaluation professionals to promote accountable learning. We started hiring slowly and built the team over time. What I looked for with each new member of the team, and I am always looking for, is an evaluator with more than just skills, they also need the influencing, listening, communication and negotiating skills to help others learn. Evaluations have little effect without good internal and external communication.

”For us, it was important to be a critical friend, listener, and enabler of learning and not the police.”

The evaluation function itself has also evolved over the last five years. It started off as a monitoring, evaluation and learning function (MEL) and is now Effective Philanthropy. From the start, the function was as not set up as an independent department but created to help programmatic teams in the design of appropriate monitoring and evaluation for the programs, and facilitators and advisors on strategy. However, it has not always been a straight-forward process from the inside. In the first years, we had to spend a lot of time explaining and persuading staff of the need for evaluation, transparency and learning and the benefits of doing so. We wanted to avoid a strong independent evaluation function as that can reduce learning by placing too much emphasis on accountability. For us, it was important to be a critical friend, listener, and enabler of learning and not the police.

SM: So, the first bit of advice is that evaluators should be supportive listeners, assisting programmatic teams throughout the design and implementation phases to get the best results possible. They should not come in just at the end of an initiative to do an evaluation.

LAR: The second piece of advice is on positioning, support, and structure of evaluation within a foundation.  Firstly, it is critical to have is to have the buy-in of the leadership and board for both evaluation and transparency. And secondly, the evaluation function must be part of the management team and report to the CEO or Executive Director. This gives reporting and learning the appropriate support structure and importance.

The third piece of advice is to consider not creating an evaluation function, but an effective philanthropy function. Evaluation is done for learning, and learning drives effectiveness in grant-making for better results and long-term impacts on systems.

SM: The final piece of advice is to take guidance from others outside your organization. The whole team has consulted broadly with former colleagues and mentors from across the evaluation community as well as experienced philanthropic professionals. Remember you are part of a field with peers whose knowledge and experience can help guide you.

Opening Up Pain Points

GP: One of the reasons the committee selected C&A Foundation to receive the award is because of your institutional comfort level with sharing not just successes, but also being very forthright about what didn’t work. We often hear that foundation boards and leaders are worried about reputational issues with such sharing. What would you say to those leaders about how opening up these pain points and lessons has affected C&A Foundation’s reputation in the field, and why it’s worth it?

LAR: I would say this. The question for foundation boards and leaders is straightforward: do you want to be more effective and have an impact? The answer to that will always be yes, but it is dependent on learning and sharing across the organization and with others. If we do not share evaluations, research or experiences, we do not learn from each other and we cannot be effective in our philanthropic endeavors.

"There is a benefit to being open, you build trust and integrity – success and failure is part of all of us."

The other question for boards and leaders is: who does philanthropy serve? For us, we want to transform the fashion industry, which is made up of cotton farmers, workers in spinning mills and cut and sew factories, consumers and entrepreneurs, to name a few – they are our public. As such we have the duty to be transparent to the public about where we are succeeding and where we have failed and how we can improve. We do not think there is a reputation risk. In fact, there is a benefit to being open, you build trust and integrity – success and failure is part of all of us.

SM: Adding to what Lee has said, being open about our failures not only helps us but the entire field. Some of our partners have felt reticent about our publishing evaluations, but we always reassure them and stress from the beginning of an evaluation process that it is an opportunity to understand how to they can improve their work and how we can improve our partnership, as well as a chance to share those lessons more broadly.

Learning While Lean

GP: Given the lean philanthropy staffing structures in place at many corporate foundations, do you have any advice for your peers on how those without a dedicated evaluation team might still be able to take some small steps to sharing what they are learning?

SM: Learning is a continuous process. In the absence of staff dedicated to evaluation, take baby steps within your power, such as implementing after-action reviews, holding thematic webinars, or doing quick summaries of lessons from grants and/or existing evaluations from others. If the organization’s leadership endorses learning, these small steps are a good place to start.

GP: And speaking of lean staffing structures, a concern we often hear is that a funder creating a culture of learning leads to an increased burden on grantees who are then asked for robust evaluations and outcomes measures that no one is willing to pay for. Does C&A Foundation include funding for the evaluations and reporting or other technical assistance to mitigate the burden on grantees?

SM: The foundation has a Monitoring and Evaluation Policy that lays out the role of the programmatic staff and partners as well as of the dedicated Effective Philanthropy Team. C&A Foundation partners are generally responsible for the design and execution of self-evaluation - to be submitted at the end of the grant period. External evaluation budgets are covered by the foundation and do not pose a financial burden on partners at all. They are included in the overall cost of an initiative, and when needed we have an additional central evaluation fund that is used to respond to the programmatic team’s and partner’s ad hoc demands for evaluations and learning.

The Effective Philanthropy team does provide technical assistance to partners and foundation staff upon request. The guidance ranges from technical inputs related to the theory of change development to the design of baseline and mid-line data collection exercises. The theory of change work has been really rewarding for partners and ourselves. We all enjoy that part of the work.

GP: Learning is a two-way street and foundations are both producers and consumers of knowledge. Let’s close this interview with hearing about a noteworthy piece of knowledge you recently learned thanks to another foundation or organization sharing it, and how it helped inform your work.

Learning Leads to Effectiveness

C-a-foundation (1)LAR: In the moving from a more traditional MEL approach to effective philanthropy we looked at the work of other foundations. This included learning from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and others. We had discussions with a number of peers in the field. We also asked Nancy MacPherson (formerly Managing Director of Evaluation at Rockefeller) and Fay Twersky (Director of Effective Philanthropy at Hewlett) to review our Effective Philanthropy strategy when it was under development. Their feedback and advice helped a lot. In the end, we decided to begin to build out the function in a similar way to the Hewlett Foundation. But there are some differences. For example, our evaluation practice is currently positioned at a deeper initiative level, which is related to the field context where there is a significant evidence gap across the fashion industry that needs to be filled. Concomitant to this is our emphasis on piloting and testing and that goes hand-in-hand with the demand for evaluative thinking, reporting, and learning.

Our team has also been influenced by our own successes and failures from previous roles. That has also inspired us to embrace a slightly different approach.

SM: In terms of where we are at the moment, we still oversee performance monitoring, evaluation, and support to the program teams in developing theories of change and KPIs; but we are also building out organizational learning approach and are in the process of hiring a Senior Learning Manager. Lastly, we are piloting our organizational and network effectiveness in Brazil, which is being led by a colleague who joined the foundation last year.

LAR: We are also in the midst of an Overall Effectiveness Evaluation (OEE) of C&A Foundation’s first 5-year strategy. In general, this is not a type of evaluation that foundations use much. As well as looking at results, the evaluators are evaluating the whole organization, including Effective Philanthropy. For me as an evaluator, it has been really rewarding to be on the other side of a good question.

We are learning from the OEE as we go along and we decided to create ongoing opportunities for reporting/feedback from the process rather than waiting until the very end for a report. This means that program staff can be engaged in proactive discussions about performance and emerging lessons in a timely way. The OEE is already starting to play a vital role to inform the development of the next 5-year strategy and our organization. But you will surely hear more on that evaluation process later as it will be published. There is always room for improvement and learning never stops.

--Lee Alexander Risby and Savi Mull

Meet Our #OpenForGood Award Winner: An Interview with Craig Connelly, Chief Executive Officer, The Ian Potter Foundation
June 12, 2019

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Craig Connelly

This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenforGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood. View more posts in the series.

The Ian Potter Foundation is an Australian foundation that supports and promotes excellence and innovation working for a vibrant, healthy, fair, and sustainable Australia. In this interview, Craig Connelly shares insights with GlassPockets' Janet Camarena about how the foundation’s practices support learning and open knowledge.

GlassPockets: Congratulations on being one of our inaugural recipients of the #OpenForGood award! The award was designed to recognize those foundations that are working to advance the field by sharing what they are learning. Can you please share why you have prioritized knowledge sharing at the Ian Potter Foundation and how this practice has helped you to advance your work? Or put another way, what is the good that has come about as a result?

Craig Connelly: The Ian Potter Foundation decided to invest in our research and evaluation capability primarily to improve the quality of our grantmaking. We believe that evaluating our grantees and the work that we fund through measuring and evaluating outcomes enables us to understand the extent to which our funding guidelines are achieving the intended outcomes. This results in a more informed approach to our grantmaking which should improve the quality of our grantmaking over time.

A core part of this includes being completely transparent with our grantees and with the broader sector. To do anything otherwise is not being consistent with our expectations of our grantees. We are asking our grantees to be partners, to pursue a strategic relationship with them and that requires open and honest conversation. Therefore, we need to be an open, honest and transparent funder and demonstrate that in order to win the trust of the organizations we fund.

Examples of this transparency are the learnings that we glean from our grantees that we share with the broader sector. We’re getting very positive feedback from both funders and grantees on the quality of the learnings that we’re sharing and the value that they add to the thought processes that nonprofit organizations and other funders go through.

The-ian-potter-foundationGP: Increasingly we are seeing foundations move toward a structure of having staff dedicated to evaluation and learning. For those foundations that are considering adding such a unit to their teams, what advice do you have about the structures needed to create a culture of learning across the organization and avoid the creation of one more silo?

CC: Anyone in a research and evaluation role needs to be an integral part of the program management team. The research and evaluation process informs our grantmaking. It needs to assist the program managers to be better at what they do, and it needs to learn from what the program managers are doing as well. You don’t want it to be a silo, it is just another function of your program management team. It is an integral part of that team and it is in constant communication both with the program management team and with grantees from day one.

GP: As you heard during the award presentation, one of the reasons the Ian Potter Foundation was selected to receive this award is because of how you prioritize thinking about how stakeholders like grantees might benefit from the reports and knowledge you possess. We often hear that while there is a desire to share grantee reports publicly, that there are reputational concerns that prevent it or that to scrub the reports of sensitive information would be too time consuming, yet you do it for all of your portfolios. What are your tips for how to keep this a manageable process?

CC: The initial work to compile and anonymize our grantee learnings required some investment in time from our Research & Evaluation Manager and communications team. To make this task manageable, the work was tackled one program area at a time. Now that a bank of learnings has been created for each program area, new learnings are easily compiled and added on a yearly basis. This work is scheduled at less busy times for those staff involved. The Ian Potter Foundation is also looking at ways learnings can be shared directly from grantees to the wider nonprofit sector. One idea is to create a forum (e.g. a podcast) where nonprofits can share their experiences with their peers in the sector.

GP: A concern we often hear is that a funder creating a culture of learning leads to an increased burden on grantees who are then asked for robust evaluations and outcomes measures that no one is willing to pay for. Does The Ian Potter Foundation include funding for the evaluations and reporting or other technical assistance to mitigate the burden on grantees?

"...we need to be an open, honest and transparent funder and demonstrate that in order to win the trust of the organizations we fund."

CC: One of the benefits that we found at The Ian Potter Foundation of having a Research & Evaluation Manager becoming an integral part of our process is that our authorizing environment – our board and the committees responsible for program areas – have become very comfortable including funding evaluation for all of our grants. We now also understand what it costs to complete an effective evaluation. We often ask grantees to add more to their budget to ensure a good quality evaluation can be completed as part of the grant.

GP: Learning is a two-way street and foundations are both producers and consumers of knowledge. Let’s close this interview with hearing about a noteworthy piece of knowledge you recently learned thanks to another foundation or organization sharing it, and how it helped inform your own work.

CC: Yes, we have a couple of examples I can point to. The first comes from our Education Program Manager, Rikki Andrews, who points to the creation of the Early Childhood Impact Alliance (ECIA) through a grant to the University of Melbourne. The purpose of the ECIA is to convene, connect and increase understanding of research and policy among early childhood philanthropic funders, to ensure there is more strategic and concerted philanthropic support of research and its application.

Additionally, the Foundation’s Senior Program Manager, Dr. Alberto Furlan, explains, ‘We are in the process of learning from organizations we partner with all the time. In the last few years, program managers have been prioritizing extensive site visits to shortlisted applicants to discuss and see the projects in situ. In a ‘big country’ such as Australia, this takes a considerable amount of time and resources, but it invariably pays off. Such visits highlight the importance of relationship building deep and honest listening when partnering with not-for-profits. The Foundation prides itself in being open and approachable and site visits greatly contribute to understanding the reality of the day-to-day challenges, and successes, of the organizations working on the ground.’

--Craig Connelly & Janet Camarena

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.”

 

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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

Meet Our 100th GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Daphne Moore, Communications Director, Walton Family Foundation
March 27, 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 over time, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

The Walton Family Foundation (WFF) is a family-led foundation in operation since 1987. The children and grandchildren of founders, Sam and Helen Walton, lead the foundation and work to create access to opportunity for people and communities. WFF works in three areas: improving K-12 education, protecting rivers and oceans and the communities they support, and investing in its home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta.

The Walton Family Foundation is our newest and 100th foundation to join GlassPockets. Daphne Moore, communications director, explains why transparency is a key aspect of WFF’s long-term approach to grantmaking.

GlassPockets: Congratulations on being the foundation that got us to the 100th profile mark! And to start on a transparent note, I also want to acknowledge and thank the Walton Family Foundation for marking its participation with an investment in the field by supporting enhancements to our GlassPockets platform, including the development of a new tiered framework so that foundations can more easily chart a path to working transparently. What can you tell us about why the Walton Family Foundation is prioritizing transparency, both at the foundation and at the field level?  

Daphne Moore: Thank you! The new, tiered framework is a smart approach to encouraging participation, and we were eager to be part of its development because the tiers make it easier to get started. Transparency can serve three valuable purposes: Transparency increases trust, something that is important when working with grantees as well as other funders and partners; it helps find alignment and where we can work together with others while lessening the duplication of efforts; and it helps to foster feedback from grantees and other collaborators encouraging new ideas and fresh thinking. It is a “push and pull” dynamic. The foundation has become more proactive in telling its own story. But that alone is one-sided. It’s also important for us to pull others into our work. The best ideas can come from anywhere, so we want to stay open to new thinking from all over and create pipelines to tap into that thinking.

Daphne Moore


Daphne Moore

GP: Family foundations cite a number of barriers to working transparently. Some say that they are reluctant to turn toward transparency because of a fear of risk to the family, while for others it can have more to do with an organizational culture that thinks of the foundation as "private family business." How did transparency become one of the values WFF leaders embraced?  

DM: In 2017, as we passed our 30th anniversary as a foundation, we wanted to articulate our mission, vision and values in a fresh way and in a way that resonates with our staff, our grantees and other stakeholders. We launched an effort to revisit and reflect on what drives our work. Board members and other Walton family members played a big part in that process by participating in interviews, workshops and even forming an advisory committee. We also sought and received significant input from a broad group of stakeholders – both internal and from grantees and sector leaders. We launched new language defining our mission and vision along with a simple, yet powerful, set of values. You can read about them on our website. One of those values is being OPEN. We want to be open about who we are and to ideas from anywhere. Platforms like GlassPockets are definitely part of living out that value.

GP: We often hear concerns that transparency takes a lot of time and resources. Why would you say transparency and openness should be a priority? How have you benefitted from your efforts to open up your work?  

DM: The more we ingrain transparency in our work, the less effort it becomes. It’s a muscle that you develop over time. Transparency takes a lot of the mystery out of philanthropy. That’s a good thing. It makes sense to be open about the strategy that goes into our grantmaking, who we’re working with and what we’re working for. We believe those closest to the problems we’re trying to solve are also those closest to the solution. The more we can provide insight into the work, the better we get at carrying out our mission and the better the chances of success.

GP: How did the GlassPockets self-assessment process help you improve or better understand your organization's level of transparency, and why should your peers participate? And related to this, you are joining as part of the new, advanced transparency level. Were the new GlassPockets Transparency Levels helpful or motivating to you?  

DM: GlassPockets is not the only way to be a transparent organization, but it’s a great way to put a stake in the ground and signal to both internal and external audiences that transparency matters and is important. The process showed us that transparency isn’t as complicated as we sometimes think, and the important thing is to start. The new Transparency Levels make participation less intimidating and foster a sense that this is truly a journey. We hope the levels inspire others to take our approach – just get started!

GP: The Walton Family Foundation website has quite a few entry points for visitors to learn about your work and what you're learning from it. You have sections devoted to stories, another to sharing knowledge, and another to communicating compelling facts via online flashcards. Can you talk about this framework and how you distinguish between each type of content, and why each is important to advancing your work?  

DM: Each section of our website showcases different aspects of the work we do. They open windows into the organization. With our Stories section – our blog – we’re trying to highlight the work of our grantees and the people committed to making a positive change in their communities. There’s such a broad scope to our work and some very powerful stories to tell. The blog also gives Walton family members, our leadership team and our program officers an opportunity to share their experiences and perspective on what we do, how we do it and why we do it. The Knowledge Center provides an opportunity for us to highlight what we have learned and what we’re learning from others. To have the greatest impact, we need to know what works, what doesn’t and how to be better in our grantmaking. Our Strategy, Learning and Evaluation Department takes a strategic approach to learning, which guides our decision making and planning. Through flashcards, we aim to break down complex issues into ‘snackable’ segments that can be easily consumed at a glance and shared on social media. The newest element of our website is one we’re excited about. We have launched a searchable online grants database, so visitors will be able to learn more about grants we have made going back 30 years.

GP: Since ideally, transparency is always evolving and there is always more that can be shared, what are some of your hopes for how Walton Family Foundation will continue to open up its work in new ways in the future?

DM: We’re thinking about doing this in several ways. First, and most directly related to GlassPockets, we expect to continue to add indicators to our profile. Look for us to do this throughout the next year. Another way is rethinking how we describe our work. When you’re focused on tackling some of the biggest challenges, you tend to focus on process and policy. You have to do that – it’s how you create systemic change. But process and policy are not what drives our work. It’s people – students, teachers, farmers, fishermen, entrepreneurs and artists. It’s also the Walton family members that lead us and the values that motivate them to want to create positive change for people and communities. So look for more about what drives the foundation and the impact that changes lives today and lasts for generations.

--Janet Camarena

Meet Our Newest GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Dawn Hawk, Chief Operating Officer, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation
March 26, 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 over time, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF), a grantmaking public charity, was established in 1991 to test new approaches to grantmaking. PVF has developed an expertise in “grassroots giving” through which it aspires to transform philanthropy, making it more responsive and collaborative to better meet community needs. In partnership with grassroots leaders, PVF identifies needs that can be met with philanthropic support, and then devises program ideas to help tackle the issues head on. From this drive to address unmet needs came the idea of immediate-response grants, in which PVF provides funds within a 48-hour turnaround. These immediate-response grant programs have benefitted teachers as well as social workers and juvenile court judges who work with youth in foster care.

Philanthropic Ventures Foundation is among our newest GlassPockets participants. Dawn Hawk, chief operating officer, explains why transparency is an essential component of PVF’s community and relationship-focused approach to grantmaking.

GlassPockets: Why is transparency an important value to informing how Philanthropic Ventures Foundation operates?

Dawn Hawk: For PVF, transparency is more than displaying organizational policies. Transparency is relationships with our partners – our grantee partners and donors. Transparency is related to trust. It takes one to develop the other. And trust comes from deeply understanding the work and challenges of our grantees.

Because our grantees’ success is important to us, we visit them regularly, we learn from them, and we help them tell their story, via our blog, newsletter, and social media. One key role we play for our donor advised funds is to advise our donors on giving with impact, and we want to introduce them to nonprofits with outstanding leadership and fresh ideas. Thus we feel it is important to profile our grantees on our website and in conversations.

We aren’t focused on transparency around what we will fund as we haven’t conducted a strategic thinking process that sets our funding areas in stone. We are more focused on modeling a risk-taking approach, and advocating for more responsiveness from our foundation colleagues, to free up the time our nonprofit partners now spend on writing proposals.

Dawn

Dawn Hawk

GP: Since you are in the unique role of both grantmaking and fundraising, that gives you a unique vantage point. What is one or two pieces of information you wish more foundations would have transparently on their websites?

DH: All organizations searching for support want to be able to determine if their work is a fit for a foundation’s giving focus, so having open program guidelines clearly stated is key. One of the most difficult statements for a grantseeker to understand is “we do not accept unsolicited proposals” and PVF will never state that. To us transparency also means accessibility. If you are doing good work, we want to know about it, which is why we pride ourselves on being out in the community more than in our offices, and when in the office we always pick up the phone.

And yet, PVF also struggles with communicating our “giving focus” on our website because we provide such a wide range of services: giving creative grantmaking advice to our donor advised fund clients; modeling responsive grantmaking through our immediate response grant programs for teachers and social workers; administering awards programs for innovative startup partners wishing to make an impact without establishing a stand-alone foundation; serving as a fiscal depository for projects that do not yet have their tax-exempt status but are otherwise ready to begin their charitable work.

While PVF’s immediate response grant programs and awards programs provide an easy entry point for grantseekers who fit the eligibility guidelines, there is no streamlined way for a grantseeker to understand the giving focuses of our many donor advised funds. This is a common problem with community foundations. We’d love to open this discussion and hear how our fellow community foundations address this. For PVF we make a point to profile the work of outstanding leaders and programs working in the community, as these are the programs we also hope will inspire and motivate our donors to give support. At a time when local grassroots solutions are more important than ever, we feel it is our role to inform donors about important, critical work happening in their back yard and to encourage them to “give local."

GP: How did the GlassPockets self-assessment process help you improve or better understand your foundation's level of transparency, and why should your peers participate?

DH: It has been helpful to become aware of all the avenues of transparency. The featured categories allow a foundation to conduct a self-audit to be able to present a more complete profile of their work. Since the GlassPockets assessment looks at a number of indicators across the whole foundation, deciding to do the assessment helped us to focus on transparency as a team. We are viewing the GlassPockets process as an ongoing process – we are on the road!

GP: Do you have any examples of how being a transparent funder has led you to become more effective in your philanthropy?

DH: Of course, having transparent up front information about what you fund will answer a grantseekers’ questions, and minimize the research time a nonprofit must invest. And making ourselves transparent and accessible helps us better understand their time constraints and how to structure our grantmaking processes in a way that supports our partners rather than creates a burden. As a result, we prioritize streamlined application processes out of respect for our grantees’ time and to free them up to focus more on their mission than on fundraising. In essence, transparency and accessibility lead to processes based on empathy and respect. PVF has always allocated a modest amount of grant funding to enable us to model responsive grantmaking, giving critical intervention funding when it is needed, making grants without formal applications from nonprofits, and providing support based on knowledge of the program and its impact.

GP: Since ideally, transparency is always evolving and there is always more that can be shared, what are some of your hopes for how Philanthropic Ventures Foundation will continue to open up its work in new ways in the future?

DH: In our role as an intermediary, transparency is also about helping to create a culture of learning among our donors. We continually work with our donor advised fund clients to keep them informed about local issues, such as the inequality gap, lack of housing, and displacement. We convene nonprofits and funders around these issue areas, providing forums for engagement where they can meet as equals to discover and advance new ideas to address our biggest problems, and we share these discussions online.

We help donors with a funding goal – for example, to support young people to implement community service projects – to turn these funding ideas into long-running, high-impact programs with open applications – like the Bay Area Inspire Awards Program which we have administered for five years. And of course we always endeavor to make our program application process streamlined and the decision announcement timeline short!

--Janet Camarena

Open Road Alliance Joins GlassPockets
February 21, 2019

Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Maya Winkelstein, Executive Director, Open Road Alliance

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, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

Open Road Alliance (ORA) is a private philanthropic initiative that serves the social sector by keeping impact on track in an unpredictable world. Open Road was founded in 2012 by psychologist and philanthropist Dr. Laurie Michaels to address the need for contingency funds and the absence of risk management practices in philanthropy. ORA provides both short- and long-term solutions to unexpected challenges that arise during project implementation, so that impact and finite resources can be maximized across the social sector. To meet immediate needs, ORA offers fast, flexible funding to nonprofits and social enterprises facing discrete, unexpected roadblocks during project implementation.

In addition to its investment portfolio, Open Road promotes the long-term, sector-wide adoption of better risk management practices. In collaboration with peers, ORA conducts research, develops tools, and generates data on approaches to financial and non-financial risk management.

Open Road Alliance is among our newest GlassPockets participants. Maya Winkelstein, executive director, explains why transparency is central to its philanthropic efforts.

GlassPockets: As a donor-advised fund (DAF), Open Road is voluntarily being more transparent than what's required, so why are you prioritizing transparency? Is it part of your strategy?

Untitled design
Maya Winkelstein

Maya Winkelstein: Transparency is key to our investment strategy and to our mission of Keeping Impact on Track. We believe that honest, transparent conversations - particularly in the donor-grantee relationship - are critical to mitigating risk and preserving impact.

As for being a DAF, we chose that structure because it’s very flexible and keeps our administrative costs down - meaning we can put more of our assets directly into our grant and loan portfolios. We’re focused on impact, the rest is just logistics!

GP: We often hear concerns that transparency takes a lot of time and resources, so it's really more relevant for large foundations. Why would you say transparency and openness should be a priority for even foundations comprised of a small team? How have you benefited from your efforts to open up your work?

MW: We believe in a customer service approach to philanthropy where our customers are
our grantees and potential grantees. This ethos is embodied in our customer service credo which outlines how we do business. We exist to serve them, not the other way around. I think this is how philanthropy should be -- no matter the size of your organization. Given this core ethos, it would be impossible for us to provide “good service” without transparency and honesty. That’s what makes it a priority for us.

We have also found that integrating transparency into our criteria, our decision-making process, timelines, expectations, and definitions of impact makes for more effective partnerships. Being honest accelerates relationship development and given that the organizations we work with are coming to us with a challenge laid bare, there’s a built in requirement and responsibility for mutual transparency and candor. It’s an invaluable piece of the Open Road puzzle.

GP: How did the GlassPockets self-assessment process help you improve or better understand your organization's level of transparency, and why should your peers participate?

MW: We are grateful to have the opportunity to participate in GlassPockets. Not only so that peers and partners have insight into Open Road, but the process afforded us the opportunity to evaluate how accessible we are to potential applicants or peers seeking resources. It has inspired us to include more ways to engage with Open Road on our contact page, and to highlight feedback received and how to give us feedback, by providing a link to our profile on GrantAdvisor.

GP: Feedback mechanisms are often something that foundations struggle with. Open Road Alliance has been able to provide such a mechanism by becoming an early adopter of GrantAdvisor, an open platform where grantees and applicants can anonymously review your foundation. Why is this important and what have you learned from your participation?

MW: We’re big fans of GrantAdvisor, and I’ve been lucky enough to serve as a member of their National Leadership Panel for three years. I think it’s a platform that’s long overdue. It’s important to us because anonymous feedback is honest feedback. GrantAdvisor.org offers the opportunity to hear directly from our most important stakeholders (i.e. grantees).

As an ED, I also use it as a management tool. I regularly check recent reviews to see how our investment team is doing - if we are living up to our customer service credo. If we get a bad review or critical feedback, we use that to have a conversation internally and assess if we need to make a change. Every enterprise needs unfettered feedback from its customers. GrantAdvisor gives us that.

GP: Since ideally, transparency is always evolving and there is always more that can be shared, what are some of your hopes for how Open Road Alliance will continue to open up its work in new ways in the future?

MW: As a small team we don’t always have the bandwidth to report on our impact. We’re currently in the process of hiring a data scientist who will be instrumental in analyzing our portfolio, the impact we’ve had on individual projects and the sector, and, frankly, what we could be doing better. With increased capacity, we’re looking forward to sharing that data more regularly!

--Janet Camarena

Creating a Culture of Learning: An Interview with Yvonne Belanger, Director of Evaluation & Learning, Barr Foundation
November 8, 2018

Yvonne Belanger is the director of learning & evaluation at the Barr Foundation and leads Barr's efforts to gauge its impact and support ongoing learning among staff, grantees, and the fields in which they work.

Recently, Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center, interviewed Belanger about how creating a culture of learning and openness can improve philanthropy. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.


YvonneGlassPockets: More and more foundations seem to be hiring staff with titles having to do with evaluation and learning. You’ve been in this role at the Barr Foundation for just about a year, having come over from a similar role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Why do you think roles like this are on the rise in philanthropy, and what are your aspirations for how greater capacity for evaluation and learning can benefit the field?

Yvonne Belanger: I think the spread of these roles in strategic philanthropy comes from increasing recognition that building a stronger learning function is a strategic investment, and it requires dedicated expertise and leadership. My hope is that strong evaluation and learning capacity at Barr (and across the philanthropic sector generally) will enable better decisions and accelerate the pace of social change to make the world more equitable and just.

GP: What have been your priorities in this first year and what is your approach to learning? More specifically, what is Barr’s learning process like, what sources do you learn from, how do you use the learnings to inform your work?

YB: At Barr, we are committed to learning from our efforts and continuously improving. Our programmatic work benefits from many sources of knowledge to inform strategy including landscape scans, academic research, ongoing conversations with grantees and formal site visits, and program evaluations to name a few. During this first year, I have been working with Barr’s program teams to assess their needs, to sketch out a trajectory for the next few years, and to launch evaluation projects across our strategies to enhance our strategic learning. Learning is not limited to evaluating the work of our programs, but also includes getting feedback from our partners. Recently, we were fortunate to hear from grantees via our Grantee Perception Report survey, including specific feedback on our learning and evaluation practices. As we reflected on their responses in relation to Barr’s values and examples of strong practice among our peers, we saw several ways we could improve.

GP: What kinds of improvements are you making as a result of feedback you received?

YB: We identified three opportunities for improvement: to make evaluation more useful, to be clearer about how Barr defines success and measures progress, and to be more transparent with our learning.

  • Make evaluations more collaborative and beneficial to our partners. We heard from our grantees that participating in evaluations funded by Barr hasn’t always felt useful or applicable to their work. We are adopting approaches to evaluation that prioritize grantee input and benefit. For example, in our Creative Commonwealth Initiative, a partnership with five community foundations to strengthen arts and creativity across Massachusetts, we included the grantees early in the evaluation design phase. With their input, we modified and prioritized evaluation questions and incorporated flexible technical assistance to build their capacity for data and measurement. In our Education Program, the early phase of our Engage New England evaluation is focused on sharing learning with grantees and the partners supporting their work to make implementation of these new school models stronger.
  • Be clearer about how we measure outcomes. Our grantees want to understand how Barr assesses progress. In September, we published a grantee guide to outputs and outcomes to clarify what we are looking for from grantees and to support them in developing a strong proposal. Currently, our program teams are clarifying progress measures for our strategies, and we plan to make that information more accessible to our grantees.
  • Share what we learn. To quote your recent GrantCraft Open for Good report, “Knowledge has the power to spark change, but only if it is shared.” To maximize Barr’s impact, we aim to be #OpenForGood and produce and share insights that help our grantees, practitioners, policymakers, and others. To this end, we are proactively sharing information about evaluation work in progress, such as the evaluation questions we are exploring, and when the field can expect results. Our Barr Fellows program evaluation is one example of this practice. We are also building a new knowledge center for Barr to highlight and share research and reports from our partners, and make these reports easier for practitioners and policymakers to find and re-share.

GP: Clearly all of this takes time and resources to do well. What benefits can you point to of investing in learning and knowledge sharing?

YB: Our new Impact & Learning page reflects our aspiration that by sharing work in progress and lessons learned, we hope to influence nonprofits and other funders, advance field knowledge, inform policy, and elevate community expertise. When you are working on changing complex systems, there are almost never silver bullets. To make headway on difficult social problems we need to view them from multiple perspectives and build learning over time by analyzing the successes – and the failures - of many different efforts and approaches.

GP: Barr’s president, Jim Canales, is featured in a video clip on the Impact & Learning page talking about the important role philanthropy plays as a source of “risk capital” to test emerging and untested solutions, some of which may not work or fail, and that the field should see these as learning opportunities. And, of course, these struggles and failures could be great lessons for philanthropy as a whole. How do you balance this tension at Barr, between a desire to provide “risk capital,” the desire to open up what you are learning, and reputational concerns about sharing evaluations of initiatives that didn’t produce the desired results?

YB: It’s unusual for Foundations to be open about how they define success, and admissions of failure are notably rare. I think foundations are often just as concerned about their grantees’ reputation and credibility as their own. At Barr we do aspire to be more transparent, including when things that haven’t worked or our efforts have fallen short of our goals. To paraphrase Jim Canales, risk isn’t an end in itself, but a foundation should be willing to take risks in order to see impact. Factors that influence impact or the pace of change are often ones that funders often have control over, such as the amount of risk we were willing to take, or the conceptualization and design of an initiative. When a funder can reflect openly about these issues, these usually generate valuable lessons for philanthropy and reflect the kind of risks we should be able to take more often.

GP: Now that you are entering your second year in this role, where are the next directions you hope to take Barr’s evaluation and learning efforts?

YB: In addition to continuing and sustaining robust evaluation for major initiatives across our program areas, and sharing what we’re learning as we go, we have two new areas of focus in 2019 – people and practices. We will have an internal staff development series to cultivate mindsets, skills, and shared habits that support learning, and we will also be working to strengthen our practices around strategy measurement so that we can be clearer both internally and externally about how we measure progress and impact. Ultimately, we believe these efforts will make our strategies stronger, will improve our ability to learn with and from our grantees, and will lead to greater impact.

 

An Interview with Jennifer Humke, Senior Program Officer, MacArthur Foundation…On How Bottom-Up, Citizen-Made Media Strengthens Democracy
September 19, 2018

Jennifer Humke is senior program officer for Journalism and Media at the John D. and Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation. Jennifer focuses primarily on grantmaking in participatory civic media as part of the journalism and media team. In this role, she makes grants to enable more individuals and groups to use participatory media for social change.

Recently, Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center, interviewed Humke about how supporting citizen-made media can improve our democracy. This post is part of the GlassPockets’ Democracy Funding series, designed to spotlight knowledge about ways in which philanthropy is working to strengthen American democracy.

Jennifer Humke 2GlassPockets: The MacArthur Foundation has long supported media. How has the way that the MacArthur Foundation thinks about the connection between journalism, media, and a healthy democracy changed over the years?

Jennifer Humke: MacArthur has invested in media for more than three decades. The first grants made in the 1980s focused on supporting independent and diverse perspectives on broadcast television and documentary film to ensure a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints were contributing to and represented in the media.

Of course, the world and the media have changed and evolved enormously since then, introducing new opportunities and new challenges. Our grantmaking also has evolved as a result, but we still hold strong to the fundamental belief that a high-functioning democracy is dependent upon a well-informed and engaged American public.

”Investments are designed to strengthen our democracy by supporting just and inclusive narratives that inform, engage, and activate Americans to build a more equitable future.“

Today, our Journalism and Media program makes grants totaling approximately $25 million each year to support nonfiction storytelling (primarily documentary film), investigative and accountability reporting (primarily through the support of national nonprofit newsrooms), and participatory citizen-made media (and I use the term citizen in the broadest sense to include everyone living in this country). Investments are designed to strengthen our democracy by supporting just and inclusive narratives that inform, engage, and activate Americans to build a more equitable future.

A priority of this grantmaking is to ensure all Americans, and especially those from historically marginalized groups, are able to have their voices heard and help us move toward a more inclusive and pluralistic American society.

GP: While on the topic of inclusion and pluralism, more foundations are developing initiatives around diversity, equity, and inclusion. How is the lens of racial equity informing your grantmaking strategies and practices?

JH: When Julia Stasch became President of the MacArthur Foundation, she charged all of us -- her staff -- to lead with a commitment to justice in all that we do. This included everything from elevating the voices of those who are not always heard in policy discussions to ensuring that our grantmaking considers and supports a broad diversity of organizations and helps to address historic and structural inequities. You can read an update by Julia Stasch about MacArthur’s “Justice Imperative” here.

The Journalism and Media program has an explicit focus on inclusion. Our grantmaking focuses on amplifying the voice and influence of often excluded and under-represented individuals, organizations, and communities, and on facilitating leadership opportunities for people of color.

Macarthur foundationGP: “Elevating the voices of those who are not always heard in policy discussions” makes me think of young people today. Since the students who survived the Parkland High School shooting have so effectively organized around gun control, there seems to be growing interest in youth movements and youth organizing. Yet, when I look at Foundation Center’s historic data about the populations served by most foundation democracy grants, youth-focused democracy grants have received less than 1% of funding. Is this changing at MacArthur? Do you think this is changing field-wide?

JH: MacArthur does not have a strategy to support youth movements and youth organizing. But our grantmaking in participatory civic media was deeply influenced by findings from a research initiative MacArthur supported to explore new strategies and approaches for preparing young people to be good citizens in a digital world. Called the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, it was a nearly decade-long effort, carried out by an interdisciplinary group of academics and practitioners, who worked together on a range of intersecting projects. One of the Network’s main insights was that young people are as engaged today -- if not more so than in any era in the past – in civic and political activity, but that it looks different today. Young people are not engaging through traditional civic and political institutions, but rather their engagement and participation is reflected through their media making online.

”Young people are not engaging through traditional civic and political institutions, but rather their engagement and participation is reflected through their media making online.“

The fact is that most young people, especially youth of color and from other marginalized groups, do not believe that many of our country’s institutions care about or are interested in meeting their needs. As a result, their organizing and engagement is taking place in spaces where they are better able to influence policy, culture and institutions, and that is oftentimes online and fueled and scaled using social media and other digital technologies.

The March for Our Lives is a prime example. The scale, reach and pace of that effort to organize youth in support of gun control happened largely outside the realm of adults, and it was made possible by new media tools, practices and platforms. It was the result of a highly distributed network of young people who together were able to shift public debate and, in some cases, sway multinational corporations to change their policies in support of the young people’s demands, through their media making and organizing online.

It is clear that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have become the new public sphere, and our grantmaking is designed to enable inclusive and equitable participation in our democracy through these platforms and practices. We are supporting a number of youth-focused organizations -- such as Youth Speaks, Youth Radio and Voto Latino -- in part, because young people have been historically marginalized from public debate, but maybe more importantly, because they tend to be the leaders in using participatory media for social change. 

GP: It’s interesting to hear about some of the organizations in your portfolio. To help bring your work to life a bit more, can you describe some of the new grants you are making as part of your Participatory Civic Media grantmaking? And how does this complement the other longer-standing parts of the program?

JH: The participatory civic media strategy is the newest part of our Journalism and Media Program. It encompasses the media produced, remixed, and circulated by individuals and small groups to express their lived experiences, viewpoints, and concerns with the goal of influencing policy and culture. A significant hallmark of this type of media making is its low barrier to participation. Advancements in technology and communications have dramatically expanded the ability of non-experts to use media and storytelling for social change. Today, anyone with a smartphone can help to shine a light on long-ignored issues, such as police brutality or violence against immigrants. These are issues that have been marginalized from public debate for decades, if not longer, because they disproportionately affect communities that hold little political power, and as a result do not have access to traditional gatekeepers of news and information. New media platforms, tools, and practices are enabling bottom-up citizen participation in our democracy by knitting together the individual voices of those from marginalized communities that, together, have significant influence over public debate and agenda setting.

We are supporting organizations and activities that are doing work in various ways at the national level to create more opportunities for individuals and groups, especially those that have been historically marginalized from inclusion or representation in mainstream media, to contribute to public dialogue.  This ranges from improving the media making and media literacy skills and knowledge of youth in news deserts across the country (with grants to organizations such as Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute and Utah’s SpyHop,) to supporting storytelling initiatives that amplify the voices of under- and misrepresented communities (examples include, Pillars Fund, Define American and The Opportunity Agenda.) The goal of this grantmaking is to increase civic participation in our democracy, largely through the making, sharing, circulating, and critiquing of media online.

”Social media platforms have disrupted traditional news business models, diverting most ad revenue away from publishers and into the coffers of large technology platforms.“

Of course, we recognize the negative impacts these new platforms and practices are having on our democracy. Social media platforms have disrupted traditional news business models, diverting most ad revenue away from publishers and into the coffers of large technology platforms. At the same time, the participatory nature of these platforms has empowered extremists and hate groups to spread and, in some cases, mainstream misinformation and lies. These, of course, are messy problems with no simple answer. We have entered into this space with great humility, making a small number of exploratory grants – to organizations such as The Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Data & Society – to examine the dynamics of these problems with the goal of identifying interventions and seeding and building alliances and processes to address them.

GP: What you’re referencing reminds me that #FakeNews is a hashtag that has grown in prominence since the presidential election. Since working toward a more informed citizenry is at the heart of much of your Journalism and Media portfolio, how has the aftermath of the election and what we’ve learned about how misinformation played a role, affected your grantmaking moving forward?

JH: As a foundation, we spent a lot of time post-election reflecting on whether our grantmaking strategies were addressing the most pressing issues in our fields of operation. The spread of false and misleading information and the role it played in the election was of great concern to us in the Journalism and Media Program. As I mentioned earlier, we have made some new grants since the election to more deeply explore the role large technology platforms have played in spreading lies and amplifying hate, but we also believe that our continued investments in the range of efforts we have supported over the years to ensure all Americans are well-informed and highly engaged is the most important contribution we can make to strengthening our democracy in the current media environment. We will continue to support nonprofit newsrooms and independent documentary filmmakers to create and distribute rigorously researched and nuanced news and narratives and support individuals and citizen groups to use participatory media to engage civically. Together, we believe, these strategies work to hold power to account, uncover injustices, and result in more just and inclusive narratives that reflect the needs and aspirations of all Americans. 

--Janet Camarena

Bringing Knowledge Full Circle: Giving Circles Shape Accessible and Meaningful Philanthropy
June 21, 2017

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is a Lecturer in Business Strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Founder and President of the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation, Founder and Board Chairman of Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood. View more posts in the series.

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen PhotoNathalie Morton, a resident of Katy, TX, was passionate about giving back to her suburban Houston community. However, she felt her lack of philanthropic experience might hinder her effectiveness. 

After initial conversations with her friends and neighbors, she discovered that they shared her desire to give locally and, like herself, lacked the financial ability to make the large contributions that they associated with high-impact philanthropy. After initial online research, Nathalie learned that a giving circle is a collaborative form of giving that allows individuals to pool their resources, knowledge and ideas to develop their philanthropic strategy and scale their impact. Nathalie then discovered the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation’s (LAAF.org) Giving Circles Fund (GCF) initiative, an innovative online platform that provides an accessible and empowering experience for a diverse group of philanthropists to practice, grow and scale their philanthropy by giving collaboratively.

“Philanthropists have an imperative to share the research and rationale behind their philanthropic decisions for the greater good.”

With LAAF support, Nathalie was inspired to create the Cinco Ranch Giving Circle to pool her community members’ resources for the greater good. In its first year, this circle of over 30 families has come together to invest thousands of dollars in local nonprofits — all through donations as modest as $10 per month. Every member found that sharing time, values, wisdom and dollars not only deepened their relationships with one another but also that the measurable impact they could have together far exceeded that which they could achieve alone. This experience empowered Nathalie and her fellow giving circle participants to see themselves as philanthropists and develop their practice in a collaborative environment.

Nathalie’s story is just one of myriad ways that the giving circles model has made strategic philanthropy more accessible. Two years ago, I wrote a post on this same blog about how funders should have not only glass pockets but also “glass skulls,” underscoring that philanthropists have an imperative to share the research and rationale behind their philanthropic decisions for the greater good of all who are connected to the issue.  Or put another way, giving circles can help donors of all sizes become #OpenForGood. GCF allows philanthropists, like Nathalie, to do just that — by empowering givers at any level to make their thinking and decisions about social impact more open and collaborative.

LAAF logoA lack of financial, intellectual and evaluation resources are barriers to entry for many people who want to give in a way that matters more. That’s why I’ve committed the past two decades to not only redefining philanthropy — I believe that anyone, regardless of age, background or experience, can be a strategic philanthropist — but also to providing highest quality, free educational resources (MOOCs, teaching materials, case studies, giving guides) to empower anyone to make the most of whatever it is they have to give. Although most GCF individual monthly contributions are in the double digits, the impact of our giving circles is increasingly significant — our circles have given over $550,000 in general operating support grants to nonprofits nationally. By design, giving circles amplify individual giving by providing built-in mechanisms for more strategic philanthropy, including increasing

  • Transparency: Giving circles are effective because they are radically transparent about their operations, selection processes, meeting etiquette, voting rules, etc. We have found that giving circles grow and flourish when members understand exactly how the circle works and their role in its success. In addition, all of our circles publish their grants on their GCF pages, so that current and prospective members have insight into each circle’s history, portfolio and impact.
  • Democracy: GCF giving circles have a flat structure, in which everyone has an equal vote — regardless of their respective donations’ size. With LAAF support and a comprehensive portfolio of resources, group leaders facilitate meetings — ranging from casual meetups to knowledge sharing and issue ecosystem mapping gatherings to nonprofit nomination and voting sessions. Even in multigenerational giving circles where members are able to give at different levels, all of their members’ voices, perspectives and opinions hold equal weight.
  • Accessibility: Giving circles require a lower level of financial capital than other philanthropic models. A 2014 study has shown a higher rate of participation in giving circles for Millennials, women and communities of color — reflecting the spectacular pluralism that makes philanthropy beautiful. [1] On our GCF platform, we host multiple college and high school circles that have started teaching their members to carve out philanthropic dollars even on a minimal budget. Additionally, most of our circles are open to the public, and anyone can join and actively participate (yes, that includes you!).
  • Risk-tolerance: With more diverse participants and lower amounts of capital, GCF giving circles are more likely to give to community-based or smaller organizations that typically struggle to secure capital from more established philanthropies, thus meeting a critical social capital market need.

The power of collectively-pooling ideas, experiences and resources, as well as sharing decision-making, inspired me to found Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2) in 1998. What began as a small, local giving circle has grown into the second largest venture philanthropy partnership in the world. More importantly, its experiential education model — grounded in the principles listed above — has influenced the philanthropic practice of hundreds of now highly strategic philanthropists who respectively have invested hundreds of millions of dollars globally.  To this day, being a partner-member of the SV2 giving circle continues to inform how I give and evolve my own philanthropic impact.  Now, powered by the GCF platform, technology gives all of us the ability to scale our own giving by partnering with like-minded givers locally, nationally and globally so we can all move toward an #OpenForGood ideal. The mobilization of givers of all levels harnesses the power of the collective and demonstrates that the sum of even the smallest contributions can lead to deeply meaningful social change.

--Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen

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[1] https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Giving-Circles-Popular-With/150525

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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.

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