Transparency Talk

Category: "Credibility" (34 posts)

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

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Janet Camarena

“Because It’s Hard” Is Not an Excuse – Challenges in Collecting and Using Demographic Data for Grantmaking
August 30, 2018

Melissa Sines is the Effective Practices Program Manager at PEAK Grantmaking. In this role, she works with internal teams, external consultants, volunteer advisory groups, and partner organizations to articulate and highlight the best ways to make grants – Effective Practices. A version of this post also appears in the PEAK Grantmaking blog.

MelissaFor philanthropy to advance equity in all communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, it needs to be able to understand the demographics of the organizations being funded (and declined), the people being served, and the communities impacted. That data should be used to assess practices and drive decision making.

PEAK Grantmaking is working to better understand and build the capacity of grantmakers for collecting and utilizing demographic data as part of their grantmaking. Our work is focused on answering four key questions:

  • What demographic data are grantmakers collecting and why?
  • How are they collecting these demographic data?
  • How is demographic data being used and interpreted?
  • How can funders use demographic data to inform their work?

In the process of undertaking this research, we surfaced a lot of myths and challenges around this topic that prevent our field from reaching the goal of being accountable to our communities and collecting this data for responsible and effective use.

Generally, about half of all grantmakers are collecting demographic data either about the communities they are serving or about the leaders of the nonprofits they have supported. For those who reported that they found the collection and use of this data to be challenging, our researcher dug a little deeper and asked about the challenges they were seeing.

Some of the challenges that were brought to the forefront by our research were:

PEAK Grantmaking reportChallenge 1: Fidelity and Accuracy in Self-Reported Data
Data, and self-reported data in particular, will always be limited in its ability to tell the entire story and to achieve the nuance necessary for understanding. Many nonprofits, especially small grassroots organizations, lack the capability or capacity to collect and track data about their communities. In addition, white-led nonprofits may fear that lack of diversity at the board or senior staff level may be judged harshly by grantmakers.

Challenge 2: Broad Variations in Taxonomy
Detailed and flexible identity data can give a more complete picture of the community, but this flexibility works against data standardization. Varying taxonomies, across sectors or organizations, can make it difficult to compare and contrast data. It can also be a real burden if the nonprofit applying for a grant does not collect demographic data in the categories that a grantmaker is using. This can lead to confusion about how to report this data to a funder.

Challenge 3: Varying Data Needs Across Programs
Even inside a single organization, different programs may be collecting and tracking different data, as program officers respond to needs in their community and directives from senior leadership. Different strategies or approaches to a problem demand different data. For instance, an arts advocacy program may be more concerned with constituent demographics and impact, while an artist’s program will want to know about demographics of individual artists.

Challenge 4: Aggregating Data for Coalitions and Collaborations
This becomes even more complex as coalitions and collaborative efforts that bring together numerous organizations, or programs inside of different organizations, to accomplish a single task. The aforementioned challenges are compounded as more organizations, different databases, and various taxonomies try to aggregate consistent demographic data to track impact on specific populations.

These are all very real challenges, but they are not insurmountable. Philanthropy, if it puts itself to the task, can tackle these challenges.

Some suggestions to get the field started from our report include

  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Pilot systems for data collection, then revisit them to ensure that they are working correctly, meeting the need for good data, and serving the ultimate goal of tracking impact.
  • Fund the capacity of nonprofits to collect good data and to engage in their own diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
  • Engage in a conversation – internally and externally – about how this data will be collected and how it will be used. If foundation staff and the nonprofits they work with understand the need for this data, they will more willingly seek and provide this information.
  • For coalitions and collaborative efforts, it may make sense to fund a backbone organization that takes on this task (among other administrative or evaluation efforts) in support of the collective effort.
  • Work with your funding peers – in an issue area or in a community – to approach this challenge in a way that will decrease the burden on nonprofits and utilize experts that may exist at larger grantmaking operations.
  • Support field-wide data aggregators, like GuideStar or the Foundation Center, and work alongside them as they try to collect and disseminate demographic data about the staff and boards at nonprofits and the demographics of communities that are being supported by grantmaking funds.

Grantmakers have the resources and the expertise to begin solving this issue and to share their learning with the entire field. To read more about how grantmakers are collecting and using demographic data, download the full report.

--Melissa Sines

Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: An interview with Kate Fryberg of New Zealand's Te Muka Rau Charitable Trust
August 2, 2018

Te Muka Rau Charitable Trust is the first New Zealand Foundation to join the GlassPockets movement. Kate Frykberg, trustee and philanthropy advisor, explains why.

Katie 2GlassPockets: Why is Te Muka Rau prioritizing foundation transparency?

Kate Frykberg: For us, transparency is simply about being open and honest about who we are, what we do, and how our funds are spent.  I would hate people to wonder if we had anything to hide, and I think this does sometimes happen with foundations that are not transparent.  Additionally, charitable foundations receive tax benefits, so we need to clearly show that we are using that foregone tax for the public good – and that we have achieved at least as much public good as the government would have done with that tax money.

”If we are being philanthropic, we should be upfront about how we are serving our communities.“

GP: Some assume that transparency is important for larger foundations. Why do you think it's important for smaller foundations as well?

KF: We are a small foundation by New Zealand standards and we are tiny by US standards – but transparency matters whatever the size.  If we are lucky enough to live comfortably, we should, I believe, be philanthropic and share some of what we have.  And if we are being philanthropic, we should be upfront about how we are serving our communities.  Big foundation, small foundation - the concept is the same – it’s just the number of zeros in the dollar figures that are different.

That said, one size does not fit all – so it was important for us that the GlassPockets process did not issue a score that counted against us if we were not sharing all of the indicators. For example, a small foundation like us with no paid staff doesn’t need things like executive compensation processes and whistle blower policies.  So transparency needs to be able to be adjusted to fit values, purpose, and  size.  It’s really just about openness and clarity.

GP: You have lots of experience as a philanthropy consultant and also as the prior Chair of Philanthropy New Zealand. Why is philanthropic transparency important in the New Zealand context?

KF: The New Zealand context is a little different from the United States – for example there is currently no legally required annual payout amount here.  I think this makes it all the more important to open up things and be very clear how much is given and how the community is benefiting.  Additionally, people here are often a little shy about talking about their giving, so transparency can help normalise philanthropy and build the culture of giving.  Finally, unless we are transparent, it is very difficult for the organisations that we might want to support to know about us and decide whether they should try to connect with us.  So transparency also helps our core business of funding public good initiatives.

”…with templates like what GlassPockets offers, this stuff isn’t hard to do.“

GP: How did the GlassPockets assessment help you to improve your foundation and its transparency, and why should your peers also participate?

KF: With the help of the GlassPockets team, a New Zealand version of the transparency guidelines and a self-assessment form was created; we went through that first and made quite a few changes to our website as a result.  Then we did the US GlassPockets assessment and made a few more changes.  But actually both processes were really easy – maybe a day’s work in total to think things through and tweak our website.  Of course, the leaner a foundation is, the faster the process. But, I think it’s a good message for peers to hear– with templates like what GlassPockets offers, this stuff isn’t hard to do. 

GP: Do you have any examples or anecdotes to share regarding how being a transparent funder has helped you to become more effective in your philanthropy?

KF: I think that being transparent has made it easier for organisations working in the space we fund (social cohesion) to find us, to assess how well our values and work fits theirs and then to connect with us.  That said, what helps create effective philanthropy is a much debated question and requires more than transparency alone, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle that helps build the field as a whole. 

GP: Since transparency is always evolving, what are some of your hopes for how you continue to evolve your openness in the future?

 KF: We value continual learning and I think the next thing we will prioritize is to add a place to share what we are learning.  For example, we are a bicultural funder and half our trustees are Māori (indigenous) – there may be something we can share about this journey.   On the GlassPockets assessment there is an item called “knowledge centre” – which sounds a bit grand for us - but actually no matter what size we are, we have lessons and learnings to share.  So ticking off the knowledge centre box by sharing our learnings will probably be our next step.

The IRS just made an important change related to transparency
July 19, 2018

This post originally appeared in Philanthropy News Digest July 19, 2018.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury has announced that the Internal Revenue Service will no longer require 501(c) organizations other than 501(c)(3)s to file personally identifiable information about donors on their Form 990s.

While the procedure does not affect the statutory reporting requirements that apply to tax-exempt groups organized under section 501(c)(3) or section 527, it will exempt associations, labor unions, social welfare organizations, and other groups from having to file Schedule B information with their 990s — though organizations must still collect that information and make it available to the IRS upon request.

According to Treasury department officials, the information was not necessary for the government to enforce tax laws, and the change itself will better protect private taxpayer information. "Americans shouldn't be required to send the IRS information that it doesn't need to effectively enforce our tax laws, and the IRS simply does not need tax returns with donor names and addresses to do its job in this area," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. "The IRS's new policy for certain tax-exempt organizations will make our tax system simpler and less susceptible to abuse."

However, Philip Hackney, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and former IRS attorney, told the NonProfit Times that, from a tax-exemption perspective, the Schedule B requirement was crucial to the agency's federally mandated oversight of the nonprofit sector. No longer requiring the information "does harm to our democracy and harm to the IRS's ability to oversee the tax law generally," he said. And because the IRS is willingly giving up important data related to where money is flowing in a tax-exempt manner from wealthy individuals, Hackney added, "[i]t makes it [easier] for wealthy interests to influence our political system covertly."

What Philanthropy Can Learn from Open Government Data Efforts
July 5, 2018

Daniela Pineda, Ph.D., is vice president of integration and learning at First 5 LA, an independent public agency created by voters to advocate for programs and polices benefiting young children. A version of this post also appears in the GOVERNING blog.

Daniela Pineda Photo 2Statistics-packed spreadsheets and lengthy, jargon-filled reports can be enough to make anybody feel dizzy. It's natural. That makes it the responsibility for those of us involved in government and its related institutions to find more creative ways to share the breadth of information we have with those who can benefit from it.

Government agencies, foundations and nonprofits can find ways to make data, outcomes and reports more user-friendly and accessible. In meeting the goal of transparency, we must go beyond inviting people to wade through dense piles of data and instead make them feel welcome using it, so they gain insights and understanding.

How can this be done? We need to make our data less wonky, if you will.

This might sound silly, and being transparent might sound as easy as simply releasing documents. But while leaders of public agencies and officeholders are compelled to comply with requests under freedom-of-information and public-records laws, genuine transparency requires a commitment to making the information being shared easy to understand and useful.

“…genuine transparency requires a commitment to making the information being shared easy to understand and useful.”

Things to consider include how your intended audience prefers to access and consume information. For instance, there are generational differences in the accessing of information on tablets and mobile devices as opposed to traditional websites. Consider all the platforms your audience uses to view information, such as smartphone apps, news websites and social media platforms, to constantly evolve based on their feedback.

Spreadsheets just won't work here. You need to invest in data visualization techniques and content writing to explain data, no matter how it is accessed.

The second annual Equipt to Innovate survey, published by Governing in partnership with Living Cities, found several cities not only using data consistently to drive decision-making but also embracing ways to make data digestible for the publics they serve.

Los Angeles' DataLA portal, for example, offers more than 1,000 data sets for all to use along with trainings and tutorials on how to make charts, maps and other visualization. The portal's blog offers a robust discussion of the issues and challenges faced with using existing data to meet common requests. Louisville, Ky., went the proverbial extra mile, putting a lot of thought into what data would be of interest to residents and sharing the best examples of free online services that have been built using the metro government's open data.

Louisville's efforts point up the seemingly obvious but critical strategy of making sure you know what information your target audience actually needs. Have you asked? Perhaps not. The answers should guide you, but also remember to be flexible about what you are asking. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District is set to launch a new portal later this summer to provide parents with data, and is still learning how to supply information that parents find useful. District officials are listening to feedback throughout the process, and they are willing to adjust. One important strategy for this is to make your audience -- or a sampling of them -- part of your beta testing. Ask what information they found useful and what else would have been helpful.

“When you share, you are inviting others to engage with you about how to improve your work.”

Remember, the first time you allow a glimpse into your data and processes, it's inevitable your information will have gaps and kinks that you can't foresee. And if you are lucky to get feedback about what didn't work so well, it may even seem harsh. Don't take it personally. It's an opportunity to ask your audience what could be done better and commit to doing so. It may take weeks, months or maybe longer to package information for release, making it usable and accessible, but this is an investment worth making. You might miss the mark the first time, but make a commitment to keep trying.

And don't be daunted by the reality that anytime you share information you expose yourself to criticism. Sharing with the public that a project didn't meet expectations or failed completely is a challenge no matter how you look at it. But sharing, even when it is sharing your weaknesses, is a strength your organization can use to build its reputation and gain influence in the long term.

When you share, you are inviting others to engage with you about how to improve your work. You also are modeling the importance of being open about failure. This openness is what helps others feel like partners in the work, and they will feel more comfortable opening up about their own struggles. You might be surprised at who will reach out and what type of partnerships can come from sharing.

Through this process, you will build your reputation and credibility, helping your organization advance its goals. Ultimately, it's about helping those you serve by giving them the opportunity to help you.

--Daniela Pineda

Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking
April 26, 2018

Clare Nolan, MPP, co-founder of Engage R+D, is a nationally recognized evaluation and strategy consultant for the foundation, nonprofit and public sectors. Her expertise helps foundations to document and learn from their investments in systems and policy change, networks, scaling, and innovation. This post also appears on the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ (GEO) Perspectives blog.

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.

Clare Nolan PhotoKnowledge has the power to spark change, but only if it is shared. Many grantmakers instinctively like the idea of sharing the knowledge they generate with others. But in the face of competing priorities, a stronger case must be made for foundations to devote time and resources to sharing knowledge. The truth is that when foundations share knowledge generated through evaluation, strategy development and thought leadership, they benefit not only others but also themselves. Sharing knowledge can deepen internal reflection and learning, lead to new connections and ideas, and promote institutional credibility and influence.

Foundations can strengthen their knowledge sharing practices by enhancing organizational capacity and culture, and by understanding how to overcome common hurdles to sharing knowledge. The forthcoming GrantCraft guide Open for Good: Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking provides tips and resources for how foundations can do just that. My organization, Engage R+D, partnered with Foundation Center to produce this guide as part of #OpenForGood, a call to action for foundations to openly share their knowledge.

Knowledge Sharing GraphTo produce the guide, we conducted interviews with the staff of foundations, varying by origin, content focus, size, and geography. The participants shared their insights about the benefits of sharing knowledge not only for others, but also for their own organizations. They also described strategies they use for sharing knowledge, which we then converted into concrete and actionable tips for grantmakers. Some of the tips and resources available in the guide include:

  • A quiz to determine what type of knowledge sharer you are. Based upon responses to questions about your organization’s capacity and culture, you can determine where you fall within a quadrant of knowledge sharing (see visual). The guide offers tips for how to integrate knowledge sharing into your practice in ways that would be a good fit for you and your organization.
  • Nuts and bolts guidance on how to go about sharing knowledge. To take the mystery out of the knowledge sharing process, the guide breaks down the different elements that are needed to actually put knowledge sharing into practice. It provides answers to common questions grantmakers have on this topic, such as: What kinds of knowledge should I be sharing exactly? Where can I disseminate this knowledge? Who at my foundation should be responsible for doing the sharing?
  • Ideas on how to evolve your foundation’s knowledge-sharing practice. Even foundation staff engaged in sophisticated knowledge-sharing practices noted the importance of evolving their practice to meet the demands of a rapidly changing external context. The guide includes tips on how foundations can adapt their practice in this way. For example, it offers guidance on how to optimize the use of technology for knowledge sharing, while still finding ways to engage audiences with less technological capacity.

The tips and resources in the guide are interspersed with quotes, audio clips, and case examples from the foundation staff members we interviewed. These interviews provide voices from the field sharing tangible examples of how to put the strategies in the guide into practice.

Want to know how your foundation measures up when it comes to knowledge sharing? We are pleased to provide readers of this blog with an advance copy of Chapter 2 from the forthcoming Guide which includes the quiz referenced above. Want to learn more? Sign up for the Foundation Center’s GrantCraft newsletter and receive a copy of the Guide upon its release. And, for those who are attending the GEO conference next week in San Francisco, visit us at our #OpenForGood pop-up quiz station where you can learn more about what kind of knowledge sharer you are.

--Clare Nolan

Increasing Attention to Transparency: The MacArthur Foundation Is #OpenForGood
April 17, 2018

Chantell Johnson is managing director of evaluation at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 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.

Chantell Johnson photoAt MacArthur, the desire to be transparent is not new. We believe philanthropy has a responsibility to be explicit about its values, choices, and decisions with regard to its use of resources. Toward that end, we have long had an information sharing policy that guides what and when we share information about the work of the Foundation or our grantees. Over time, we have continued to challenge ourselves to do better and to share more. The latest refinement of our approach to transparency is an effort toward increasingly sharing more knowledge about what we are learning. We expect to continue to push ourselves in this regard, and participating in Foundation Center’s Glasspockets  and #OpenForGood movements are just a couple of examples of how this has manifested.

In recent years, we have made a more concerted effort to revisit and strengthen our information sharing policy by:

  • Expanding our thinking about what we can and should be transparent about (e.g., our principles of transparency guided our public communications around our 100&Change competition, which included an ongoing blog);
  • Making our guidance more contemporary by moving beyond statements about information sharing to publishing more and different kinds of information (e.g., Grantee Perception Reports and evaluation findings);
  • Making our practices related to transparency more explicit; and
  • Ensuring that our evaluation work is front and center in our efforts related to transparency.

Among the steps we have taken to increase our transparency are the following:

Sharing more information about our strategy development process.
The Foundation's website has a page dedicated to How We Work, which provides detailed information about our approach to strategy development. We share an inside look into the lifecycle of our programmatic efforts, beginning with conceptualizing a grantmaking strategy through the implementation and ending phases, under an approach we refer to as Design/Build. Design/Build recognizes that social problems and conditions are not static, and thus our response to these problems needs to be iterative and evolve with the context to be most impactful. Moreover, we aim to be transparent as we design and build strategies over time. 

“We have continued to challenge ourselves to do better and to share more.”

Using evaluation to document what we are measuring and learning about our work.
Core to Design/Build is evaluation. Evaluation has become an increasingly important priority among our program staff. It serves as a tool to document what we are doing, how well we are doing it, how work is progressing, what is being achieved, and who benefits. We value evaluation not only for the critical information it provides to our Board, leadership, and program teams, but for the insights it can provide for grantees, partners, and beneficiaries in the fields in which we aim to make a difference. Moreover, it provides the critical content that we believe is at the heart of many philanthropic efforts related to transparency.

Expanding the delivery mechanisms for sharing our work.
While our final evaluation reports have generally been made public on our website, we aim to make more of our evaluation activities and products available (e.g., landscape reviews and baseline and interim reports). Further, in an effort to make our evaluation work more accessible, we are among the first foundations to make all of our evaluation reports publicly available as part of Foundation Center's #OpenForGood campaign.

Further evidence of the Foundation's commitment to increased transparency includes continuing to improve our “Glass Pockets” by sharing:

  • Our searchable database of grants, including award amount, program, year, and purpose;
  • Funding statistics including total grants, impact investments, final budgeted amounts by program, and administrative expenses (all updated annually);
  • Perspectives of our program directors and staff;
  • Links to grantee products including grant-supported research studies consistent with the Foundation's intellectual property policies;
  • Stories highlighting the work and impact of our grantees and recipients of impact investments; and
  • Center for Effective Philanthropy Grantee Perception report results

Going forward, we will look for additional ways to be transparent. And, we will challenge ourselves to make findings and learnings more accessible even more quickly.

--Chantell Johnson 

Transparency and the Art of Storytelling
June 28, 2017

Mandy Flores-Witte is Senior Communications Officer for the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. 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.

Mandy Flores-WitteFoundations are uniquely poised to support higher-risk projects, and as a result, failures can happen. Recently, I was searching online for examples on how to share the story about a grant that had some unexpected outcomes and found that, while the field strives to be transparent, it can still be a challenge to learn about initiatives that didn’t go as planned.

Communicating about a project doesn’t always have to happen in a scholarly report or detailed analysis, or by hiring experts to produce an evaluation. Sharing what you learned can be as simple as telling a story.

Embracing the Facts and Checking Our Ego

"Sharing stories can help you reach people in a way that statistics cannot."

When the Rainin Foundation funded our first public art installation in San Francisco’s Central Market, a busy neighborhood undergoing a significant economic transformation, we knew it was an experiment with risks. The art installation’s large platform, swing, and see saw were designed to get neighborhood residents, tech workers, customers of local businesses, and visitors — people spanning the economic spectrum—to interact. There’s no doubt that the project succeeded at bringing people together. But after seven months, it was relocated to a different part of the city because of complaints and safety concerns about the types of people and activities it attracted.

These issues were addressed at several community meetings—meetings that helped build stronger relationships among project stakeholders such as city departments, businesses, artists, local nonprofits, and neighbors. We were disappointed that the project did not go as planned, but we were amazed to see how one public art installation could spark so many conversations and also be a platform for exposing the city’s social issues. We knew we had to share what we learned. Or put another way, we saw an opportunity to be #OpenForGood.

Selecting a Medium for Sharing

Rainin Foundation - Block by Block
The Kenneth Rainin Foundation hosts "Block by Block," a public music and dancing event. Credit: Darryl Smith, Luggage Store Gallery

We considered a formal assessment to communicate our findings, but the format didn’t feel right. We wanted to preserve the stories and the voices of the people involved — whether it was the job fair hosted by a nearby business to help drug dealers get out of the "game," the woman who sought refuge at the installation from domestic violence, or the nonprofit that hosted performances at the site. These stories demonstrated the value of public art.

We decided the most engaging approach would be to have our partners talk candidly about the experience. We selected Medium, an online storytelling platform, to host the series of "as told to" narratives, which we believed would be the most authentic way to hear from our partners. Our intention was to use the series as a tool to start a conversation. And it worked.

Taking Risks is Uncomfortable

The Rainin Foundation intentionally supported art in the public realm — knowing the risks involved — and we thought the discussion of what happened should be public, too. It was uncomfortable to share our missteps publicly, and it made us and our partners vulnerable. In fact, just weeks before publishing the stories, we were cautioned by a trusted colleague about going forward with the piece. The colleague expressed concern it could stir up negative feelings and backfire, harming the reputation of the foundation and our partners.

We took this advice to heart, and we also considered who we are as a foundation. We support cutting-edge ideas to accelerate change. This requires us to test new approaches, challenge the status quo, and be open to failure in both our grantmaking and communications. Taking risks is part of who we are, so we published the series.

Jennifer Rainin, CEO of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, shares the year's pivotal moments in Turning Points: 2015.

We’ve applied a transparent approach to knowledge-sharing in other ways as well. To accompany one of our annual reports, the foundation created a video with Jen Rainin, our chief executive officer, talking about the foundation’s pivotal moments. Jen read some heartfelt personal letters from the parents of children suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease, explaining how their children were benefitting from a diet created by a researcher we support. Talking about scientific research can be challenging and complex, but sharing the letters in this way and capturing Jen’s reaction to them enabled us to humanize our work. The video was widely viewed (it got more hits than the written report), and has inspired us to continue experimenting with how we share our work.

Start Talking About Impact

I encourage foundations to look beyond formal evaluations and data for creative ways to be #OpenForGood and talk about their impact. While reports are important to growth and development, sharing stories can help you reach people in a way that statistics cannot. Explore new channels, platforms and content formats. Keep in mind that videos don’t have to be Oscar-worthy productions, and content doesn’t have to be polished to perfection. There’s something to be gained by encouraging those involved in your funded projects to speak directly and honestly. It creates intimacy and fosters human connections. And it’s hard to elicit those kinds of feelings with newsletters or reports.

What are your stories from the times you’ve tried, failed, and learned?

-- Mandy Flores-Witte

Warren Buffett Has Some Excellent Advice for Foundations That They Probably Won't Take
March 16, 2017

(Marc Gunther writes about nonprofits, foundations, business and sustainability. He also writes for NonprofitChronicles.com. This post also appears in Nonprofit Chronicles.)

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

Marc GuntherWith a collective $800 billion in assets under management, America’s big foundations spend vast sums of money to buy investment advice. They’re getting little, if anything, of value in return.

Their own investment offices, and the Wall Street banks, hedge funds, private equity firms and consultants they hire, when taken together, deliver investment returns that lag behind market indexes, all evidence indicates.

These foundations would do better to call an 800 number at Vanguard or Schwab and buy a diversified set of low-cost index funds.

So, at least, argues Warren Buffett, one of the great investors of our time. In his latest letter to investors in Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett writes:

When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.

The limited data available about foundation endowments bears him out.

It’s not possible to prove that Buffett’s advice would enable foundations to improve their returns–and thus have more money to devote to their grant-making. Most foundations don’t disclose the financial performance of their endowments.

Of the 10 largest grant-making foundations in the US, only two — the MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — publish investment returns on their websites. MacArthur’s disclosure is exemplary. (So is its performance, perhaps not coincidentally.) I emailed all ten and got nowhere with the rest.

The best evidence about how foundations are managing their endowments comes from an annual study published by the Council on Foundations and Commonfund, a nonprofit asset management fund that serves foundations, colleges and nonprofits. Their most recent survey, which covers the 10-year period from 2006 through 2015, found that returns averaged 5.5 percent per year for 130 private foundations and 5.2 percent per year for 98 community foundations.

Further insight can be gleaned from Cambridge Associates, an investment firm whose clients include foundations, universities and wealthy families. Cambridge tracked the performance of 445 of its endowment and foundation clients and found they generated average annualized returns of 4.97 percent for the 10-year period ending June 30, 2016. (These returns should not be considered Cambridge’s performance track record, a spokesman told me.)

High pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns for foundations.

By contrast, Vanguard’s model portfolio for institutional investors, a mix of passively invested index funds, with 70 percent invested in stocks and the rest in fixed income securities, delivered 5.81 percent over the 10-year-period through 2015, and 6.1 percent for the 10-year period ending on June 30, 2016, according to Chris Philips, head of institutional advisory services at Vanguard. (All figures for investment returns are net of fees, meaning fees are taken into account.)

That may appear to be a small edge for Vanguard. But when institutions are investing hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars, small gains compounded over time add up to big money. Money, again, that could be better spent on programs.

Actually, it’s worse, because the figures reported by the Council on Foundations and CommonFund do not include the salaries that foundations pay to their in-house investment offices. The chief investment officers are often the highest-paid executives at foundations, and their deputies do well, too.

Why, then, do foundations continue to pay high salaries and high fees in the pursuit of market-beating returns, when so many fail?

They should know better. It’s no secret that passive approaches to investing outperform most active money managers, once fees and trading costs are taking into account. In 2005, Buffett wrote that “active investment management by professionals – in aggregate – would over a period of years underperform the returns achieved by rank amateurs who simply sat still.”

Taking aim at hedge funds, with their high expenses, Buffett then offered to bet $500,000 that no investment professional “could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees.”

Only one — one! — investment pro took the bet. Not surprisingly, Buffett will win the bet, by a very comfortable margin. And yet foundations and those who advise them are pouring more, not less, money into hedge funds.

Everyone Wants to Be Special

Buffett has a theory about why those in charge of foundations entrust their endowments to active money managers and hedge funds:

The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.

In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars.

Vanguard’s Chris Philips has a similar theory:

There is this perception that by going index you are ceding that you do not have any skill and you are going to be average in the marketplace. That doesn’t feel good. As humans, we want to be good. We don’t want to be average.

Foundation executives may be especially prone to believe that they deserve better than “average” investment advice. By dint of their position, they are often told that they are wiser, funnier and better-looking than average.

Jeffrey Hooke, a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and a former investment banker, says the trustees of foundations who serve on their investment committees are likely to favor active asset management.

The people on the boards tend to be in the business. They’re private equity executives, they’re stockbrokers or they’re in hedge funds. They’re totally biased in favor of active managing because that’s how they’ve made their living.

Hooke has researched public pension funds and found that they, too, underperform the markets by choosing active managers. Investment officers don’t want to talk themselves out of a job, he says:

They are never going to walk into the boardroom and say, ‘Hey, it just isn’t working.’ They’ve got wives, they’ve got mortgages they’ve got kids.

These investment officers aspire to be the rare bird who can consistently outperform the market, like David Swensen, the storied portfolio manager at Yale. (I profiled Swensen in 2005 for the Yale Alumni Magazine.) But Swensen, like Buffett, says that identifying the best asset managers is exceedingly difficult. In a 2009 interview, Swensen told me that investors who rely on “low-cost, passively managed index funds” and rebalance regularly will “end up beating the overwhelming majority of participants in the financial markets.” Buffett has said that in the course of his lifetime he has identified only about 10 investment professionals who can beat the markets over time; there are about 87,000 foundations in the US.

Pay for Performance?

In fairness, the foundation trustees and investment officers labor under a peculiar burden. They are obligated by law to give away five percent of their assets every year. So if they want to exist in perpetuity, they must earn in excess of five percent on their investments, which is a tall order. Of course, no foundation is entitled to live forever. If some spend down their assets, well, new foundations come along all the time.

Most foundations, though, aim to survive in perpetuity, and chase superior returns, at a cost. Consider, for example, the Ford Foundation, which, with assets of $12.2 billion (as of 12-31-2015), is the second-biggest foundation in the US, behind the behemoth Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2015, the Ford Foundation’s highest-paid employee was vice president and chief investment officer Eric Doppstadt, who was paid $2.1 million. He was followed by  director of public investment Michael Walden at $1,017,061, director of private equity Sherif Nahas at $972,362 and director of hedge funds William Artemenko at $955,479. All were paid more than Darren Walker, Ford’s president, whose compensation was $788,542, according to Ford’s Form 990-PF filing,

Then there were Ford’s outside asset managers. In 2015, they included Silchester International Equity Management which was paid $2.2 million, Wellington Energy Investment Advisor, which collected just under $2 million and Eagle Capital Management, which got $1 million.

How did they perform? “Sharing the investment returns is outside of our policy,” says Joshua Cinelli, Ford’s chief of media relations, by e-mail.

In this, Ford is typical. At the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, chief investment officer John Moehling was paid $2.3 million, and three other investment professionals earned more than $1 million. All were better paid than Packard’s chief executive, Carol Larson. Packard, too, will not disclose its returns.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and MacArthur Foundation all pay their chief investment officer more than their top executives. The argument for doing so, presumably, is that these investment professionals could make as much money or more in the private sector.

But, again, with the exception of MacArthur and Kellogg, the foundations won’t say whether their investment officers and their outside asset managers are delivering market-beating performance.

What we do know is that high pay for money managers does not necessarily translate into superior returns. Interestingly, when pension-fund critic Jeff Hooke analyzed data from 33 state pension systems, he found that the 10 states with the highest fee ratios achieved lower return rates than those that spent the least.

Transparency and Accountability

Foundation endowment returns could probably be calculated by going through years of IRS filings. Unfortunately, the Form 990-PF tax form for foundations is “seriously flawed,” “unwieldy” and “unintelligible to the many lay readers, including trustees and journalists,” according to longtime foundation executive John Craig.

In a 2011 blog post for the Foundation Center, Craig lamented the fact that investment performance is not solicited on the Form 990:

Since their endowments are the only source of income for most foundations and effective endowment management is a challenge for many foundations, this is an egregious omission—equivalent to not requiring for-profit corporations to report their earnings on tax returns and financial statements.

I asked Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, which promotes transparency through its laudable Glasspockets initiative, why foundations won’t disclose their investment returns. “They don’t report it because it’s not required,” he said, “to state the obvious.”

Smith went on to say that foundations may be “worried about perverse incentives that could be created by a ranking.” If foundations compete to generate the best investment returns, he explained, they could feel pressured to take on risky investments. During the Great Recession, some foundations that pursued aggressive investment strategies had to sell highly-leveraged, illiquid investments at a loss. 

Still, I wonder if there’s a simpler explanation for the lack of disclosure: Foundation staff and trustees don’t want to be held accountable for mediocre results.

If MacArthur and Kellogg are exemplary in their disclosure — Kellogg kindly arranged a phone interview with Joel Wittenberg, its chief investment officer —  the Gates and Bloomberg foundations are unusually opaque. Gates Foundation money is housed in a separate trust and is reportedly managed by Cascade Investments, which also manages Gates’ personal fortune. (Buffett is a trustee of the Gates Foundation, and presumably keeps an eye on the endowment.) Bloomberg’s philanthropic and personal wealth are reported to be managed by Willett Advisors. Cascade and Willett have access to some of the world’s top money managers, and may have a shot at outperforming the averages.

This isn’t a new issue. Testifying before Congress in 1952, Russell Leffingwell, the chairman of the board of the Carnegie Foundation, famously said:

We publish our investments. We have to be very careful about our investments because we know that others, some others, take investment advice from our list of investments. Well, that is all right. We think the foundation should have glass pockets.

The bottom line: America’s foundations, as a group, are taking money that could be devoted to their programs – to alleviate global poverty, to improve education, to support medical research or promote the arts — and transferring it to wealthy asset managers. They should know better, and they do.

--Marc Gunther

Glasspockets Find – Can the Silicon Valley Giving Code Be Cracked?
December 21, 2016

The fast and furious pace of Silicon Valley’s tech innovation culture has also given rise to burgeoning new wealth, and yes, new philanthropy.  From 2008 to 2013, total Silicon Valley-based individual giving increased 150%, from $1.9 billion to $4.8 billion, according to a new report. But how do established nonprofit groups make contact with the new philanthropic powerhouses in the neighborhood?

“Just blocks away from the region’s booming tech companies but (local nonprofits) aren’t sure how to attract Silicon Valley’s philanthropy to their causes.”

This question is at the heart of the new report, “The Giving Code: Silicon Valley Nonprofits and Philanthropy,” documenting the rising challenge local Silicon Valley nonprofits face in attracting funding from some of the world’s most generous funders – right in their own backyard.  Despite this wealth of local resources, about 30% of the community-based organizations focused on providing local safety net support – such as homelessness, poverty, troubled public schools – reported higher deficits than the national average.

The authors noted the region is developing an “emerging giving code – an implicit set of strategies and approaches shared by Silicon Valley’s individual, corporate, and institutional philanthropists alike.”  This approach to giving is “widely shared among the region’s new philanthropists” and heavily influenced by technology and business. 

Giving Code Report CoverWith support from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Open Impact gathered data from more than 300 Silicon Valley stakeholders, such as wealthy residents and their advisors, nonprofit executives, corporate and private foundation giving officers, and thought partners across all sectors. 

A key issue raised in the report: Although Silicon Valley philanthropists give funds to local issues and causes, most but most are earmarked for private schools, universities and hospitals rather than for community-based organizations. 

The report stated, “These nonprofits are struggling to keep pace with exponential increases in demand for their services, lack the capacity and the funding to gain real traction, or are themselves in financial distress.  Some have offices just blocks away from the region’s booming tech companies—but they aren’t sure how to attract Silicon Valley’s philanthropy to their causes.  The support they need to have more systemic impact is often right next door, but it is not a door they know how to open.”

Silicon Valley Demographics

Although the Silicon Valley boasts a growing number of millionaires and billionaires, many of its 2.6 million residents are facing financial distress due to the high cost of living. About 29.5% or 800,000 people rely on public or private assistance.  The median sale price of a home in 2015 was $830,361, and in some neighborhoods, homes are two or three times that price.  Since 2011, rents have increased 27%, which is 227% higher than the national average.

Many of Silicon Valley’s community-based organizations operate on a small scale and are doing their best to meet the needs of a growing displaced and vulnerable population.  These organizations have little time, capacity or resources to advocate for systemic change – which appeals to many philanthropists seeking strategic impact.

Barriers to Local Giving

The report identified barriers to local giving:

  • The small size of community-based nonprofits, which have minimal capacity to partner with foundations, corporations and individual donors in the ways philanthropists expect or meet requirements that come with large grants.
  • The cultural divide between the new Silicon Valley donor and traditional nonprofits. Many Silicon Valley donors have business backgrounds and prefer a “return on investment”; they believe they will have more impact in a developing country, where costs and barriers are often low.
  • Knowledge and information gaps – local nonprofits do not know how to make contact with the new donors on the philanthropic scene; and new philanthropists lack awareness of local nonprofits and local needs.
  • Social network and experience gap – community-based nonprofit leaders and new philanthropists “don’t move in the same social circles.”
  • Mindsets and language gap – nonprofit leaders speak a kind of “moral language that emphasizes social responsibility, social justice, equity and the common good” and they use jargon like “empower,” “transformation,” and “theory of change.” Meanwhile, new philanthropists and donors speak in the language of “business, efficiency, and bottom-line profits… they talk about the ‘biggest bang for the buck’ not just in business but in their philanthropy.”

The authors noted that the combination of these gaps – knowledge and information gap, social network and experience – contribute to and reinforce an empathy gap that is felt by both sides.  Therefore, wealthy tech entrepreneurs don’t understand nonprofit leaders, and vice versa, which may lead to judgment and ultimately make it more difficult to “recognize how their work, their passions, their skills, and insights might align for the betterment of their shared local community.”

This report also captures hope amidst struggle.  This hope may be best manifested by the funder of the report, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which was one of the very first Silicon Valley philanthropies to emerge in the region.  The foundation was established in 1964 following the birth of the Hewlett-Packard Company, which was ahead of the curve, i.e. the now familiar trajectory of moving from garage shop tinkering to tech powerhouse. Today, despite being a large, global foundation, the Packard Foundation maintains an active grantmaking program that supports local communities.

The report concluded that potential opportunities to develop a more effective and collaborative Giving Code will “spark the creation of an even more powerful Silicon Valley giving code: one that works on behalf of all the region’s residents.”

--Melissa Moy

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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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