Transparency Talk

Category: "Government" (36 posts)

Philanthropy and Democracy: Bringing Data to the Debate
October 18, 2018

Anna Koob is a manager of knowledge services for Foundation Center.

Anna-koob_tilemediumAs money and politics become increasingly intertwined, the enduring debate around the role of philanthropy in a democratic society has taken on new life in recent months  (see
here, here, here, and here for prominent examples).

One side of the debate sees the flexibility of foundation dollars as a part of the solution to strengthen struggling democratic institutions. Others contend that foundations are profoundly undemocratic and increasingly powerful institutions that bypass government channels to shape the country--and world--to their will. Regardless of where you stand, a practical starting point is to learn more about what grantmakers are actually doing to affect democracy in these United States.

While foundations are required by law to avoid partisan and candidate campaigning, these limitations still leave plenty of room for foundations to engage with democracy in other ways.

Which funders are working on voter access issues? How much money is dedicated to civic engagement on key issues like health or the environment? Which organizations are receiving grants to increase transparency in government? Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, offers a free public resource to get at the answers to such questions.

Browse More Than 55k Democracy Grants

Launched in 2014 by Foundation Center and updated regularly, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy’s data tool currently includes over 57,000 grants awarded by more than 6,000 funders totaling $5.1 billion dollars across four major categories: campaigns and elections, civic participation, government strengthening, and media.

The tool offers a look at the big picture through dashboards on each of these categories, and also allows you to browse granular grants-level information.  Interested in understanding:

  • The largest funders of campaigns and elections work?
  • Grantmaking in support of civic participation, broken down by population type?
  • The strategies used to affect democracy work?

To paraphrase the slogan of Apple, there’s a dashboard (and underlying data tool) for that!

The site also features a collection of research on U.S. democracy, powered by IssueLab, links to a number of relevant blog posts, and hosts infographics we’ve developed using data from the tool.

What Does the Data Tell Us About Philanthropic Support for Democracy?

Copy of UntitledLess than two percent of all philanthropic funding in the United States meets our criteria for democracy funding, which includes efforts by foundations to foster an engaged and informed public and support government accountability and integrity, as well as funding for policy research and advocacy. It’s a modest amount considering that this subset captures a wide range of topics, including money in politics, civic leadership development, civil rights litigation, and journalism training. Some findings from the data rise to the top:

  1. Funding for campaigns and elections is the smallest of the four major funding categories tracked. While most people might think of elections as the basic mechanism of democracy, this category only constitutes about 12 percent of democracy funding represented in the tool. Civic participation and government each vie for being the largest category with each accounting for about 38 percent of total democracy funding. And relevant media funding accounts for 28 percent. (Note that grants can be counted in multiple categories, so totals exceed 100 percent.)
  • Less than a quarter of funding supports policy and advocacy work. While work to affect policy is often considered front and center when discussing philanthropy’s impact on democracy, the data tool reveals that many funders are working to strengthen democracy in other ways. Supporting civics education for youth, bolstering election administration, strengthening platforms for government accountability, or funding investigative journalism appear as examples of grantmaking areas that strengthen democracy, but have less direct implications for public policy.
  • Funder interest in the census and the role of media in democracy is increasing. Given the turbulence of the last couple of years in the U.S. political system and amid calls for greater philanthropic involvement in strengthening democracy, what changes have we seen in giving patterns? Well, with the caveat that there is a lag between the time when grants are awarded and when we receive that data (from 990 tax forms or direct reporting by foundations), based on reports added to IssueLab and news items posted on Philanthropy News Digest, we are seeing evidence that funders are rallying around some causes to strengthen democratic institutions, including efforts to ensure representativeness in the 2020 census and support for research on media consumption and digital disinformation.

Why Should Funders be Transparent about Their Democracy Work?

Appeals for data sharing in philanthropy often center around the common good -- detailed data helps to inform authentic conversations around who’s funding what, where, among grantmakers, nonprofits, and other stakeholders. But in a field that’s focused on shaping the nature of our democracy and represents funding from both sides of the ideological divide -- including, for example, grantmaking in support of the American Legislative Exchange Council (“dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism”) alongside grants awarded to organizations like the Center for American Progress (“dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas”), democracy funders tend to be especially cautious about publicizing their work and opening themselves up to increased scrutiny and criticism.  

But the reality is that foundation opacity undermines credibility and public trust. Precisely because of criticism about the lack of democracy in philanthropy, foundations should demonstrate intentional transparency and show that they are living their values as democracy funders. Foundations also find that, particularly in a space that’s rife with speculation, there’s a benefit to shaping your own narrative and describing what you do in your own words. It may not make you immune to criticism, but it shows that you have nothing to hide.

How Funders Can Actively Engage: Submitting Grants Data

Copy of Untitled copy 2Grants data in the platform is either reported directly to Foundation Center via our eReporter program or sourced via publicly available 990 tax forms. While we’re able to get our data-eager hands on foundation grants either way, we prefer sourcing them directly from funders as it lends itself to more recent data -- particularly valuable in the current, fast-paced ‘democracy in crisis’ era -- and more detailed grant descriptions.

To submit your most recent grants (we’re currently collecting grants awarded in 2017), become an eReporter! Export a list of your most recent grants data in a spreadsheet (all grants - not limited to those relevant to democracy), review the data to make sure there’s no sensitive information and everything is as you’d like it to appear, and email your report to egrants@foundationcenter.org. Submit data as often as you’d like, but at least on an annual basis.

Bringing Tangible Details to Abstract Discussions

At Foundation Center, we often tout data’s ability to help guide decision making about funding and general resource allocation. And that’s a great practical use case for the philanthropic data that we collect -- whether for human rights, ocean conservation funding, the Sustainable Development Goals, or democracy. At a time of increased foundation scrutiny, this publicly-available platform can also provide some transparency and concrete details to broaden discussions. What have foundations done to strengthen democracy? And how might they best contribute in these politically uncertain times? For examples, look to the data.

Have questions about this resource? Contact us at democracy@foundationcenter.org.

--Anna Koob

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

Staff Pick: If a Free Press Can Strengthen Our Democracy, Who Will Strengthen Our Free Press?
September 13, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

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. The series will highlight new research and interviews with top democracy funders and recipients.

Janet Camarena PhotoA free press is central to our democracy, but a strong, robust news operation does not come free. As the collapse of the newspaper industry leaves gutted newsrooms across the country with reduced capacity for news gathering, policy analysis, and original reporting, can the information needs of voters be met? Does the rise of social media, #FakeNews, and ideological media bubbles threaten our democracy by filling gaps in local and national news coverage with misinformation? And can foundation philanthropy help to turn around these troubling trends?

A new report published earlier this summer by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy attempts to answer such weighty questions by analyzing $1.8 billion in foundation giving to journalism and media from 2010 to 2015 to see what we can learn from existing funding priorities and special initiatives. A central finding of the research is that though there is much experimentation and innovation taking place as a result of these investments, it is not enough to address decades of shrinking revenues and shuttered newsrooms. The report also finds that it has fallen to too few national funders to fill the media gaps, and there is an urgent need for greater investment by a more diverse group of funders.

As Transparency Talk continues our series illuminating philanthropy’s role in strengthening democracy through the body of knowledge it has commissioned or produced on the topic, we shine the spotlight on this deep analysis of the impact of foundation funding into journalism and media, and implications for the health of our democracy. This report, and others like it, are all openly available via the new Knowledge Center in the Funding Democracy portal. The Knowledge Center, powered by IssueLab, is an open repository to which any foundation can freely add its knowledge.


STAFF PICK

Funding the News: Foundations and Nonprofit Media

Download the Report

PUBLISHERS

Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Northeastern University's School of Journalism

FUNDERS

Barr Foundation; Heising-Simons Foundation; Media Impact Funders

QUICK SUMMARY

The analysis of more than 6,500 grant makers suggests the money they are pumping into journalism-related ventures is neither advancing the media's democratic function nor filling the gap left by rampant newspaper closures.

FIELD OF PRACTICE

Journalism and Media

WHAT MAKES IT STAND OUT?

NewsMany foundations commission and produce reports assessing the impact of their funding. Sadly, precious few make these kinds of report public, particularly in cases like this in which there is a focus and diligence on identifying the gaps, pain points, and insufficiencies of the existing funding. This comprehensive review of the foundation funding flows offers both a helpful snapshot of the top funders, and funding trends, while also providing an honest assessment of what is needed to improve the effectiveness of these efforts.

The report is arranged into three parts: section one charts the growth of the nonprofit news sector leading up to the 2016 election; section two provides a detailed analysis of 32,422 journalism and media-related grants totaling $1.8 billion distributed by 6,568 foundations between 2010 and 2015; and the final section highlights the report’s main findings and gives the reader a sense of the direction of the field with a look at significant emerging initiatives.

Introductory context also helps clarify the severity of the situation, and after reading the gloomy financial picture of the media landscape it is enough to make anyone wonder how philanthropy alone can turn things around. For example, at the beginning of the Internet era in 2000, ad revenue for print advertising in newspapers reached $67 billion. In 2014, adjusting for inflation, digital and print revenue yielded only $20 billion, meaning that once you adjust for inflation, newspapers were making less revenue than they did in 1950! This field-wide crisis set the stage for a number of resourceful journalists to create a variety of local and national nonprofit digital news start-ups, which were mostly supported by donors and foundations. However, this led to a “Darwinian” ecosystem of support that created more challenges than solutions given the state of competition, local economies, and “the fickleness of funders.”

Other media funding challenges that the report surfaces include:

  • A “Pack Philanthropy” culture in which a few nonprofits are able to quickly scale due to large investments from a number of foundations, leaving others financially vulnerable with too little support;
  • The new field of start-up journalists had little experience running nonprofits and were not savvy at donor cultivation or diversifying revenue streams;
  • The tendency among foundations to finance innovative start-ups with “seed funding” only to move on before the start-up is equipped to overcome the funding deficit;
  • Because foundations tend to generally be risk-averse, convincing them to fund news start-ups is a hard sell;
  • According to an API survey conducted in 2015, 52 percent of funders reported they make media grants in areas where they want to affect public policy, and a third of funders indicated they fund media in order to advance a “larger strategic agenda” indicating there may be pressure on news nonprofits to align their work around the political objectives of their funders;
  • Local news has been particularly hard hit as most small, place-based funders and community foundations lack the expertise or track record in funding local media, and this has led to the creation of “nonprofit media deserts” outside of the large metro areas on the East and West Coasts where most large foundations that support media are based.

Highlights of foundation funding patterns between 2010 to 2015 include:

  • The largest funder of nonprofit media related activities is the Freedom Forum giving nearly $175 million in funding, almost all of which goes to support the museum activities of the Newseum, which it operates;
  • The second largest funder in this area is the Knight Foundation with approximately $133 million in support of a broad array of journalism activities, including being the leading funder for the majority of start-up news nonprofits with $53 million given to such activities, and Knight also accounts for a 20 percent of all grant dollars supporting local/state nonprofit news;
  • Approximately half of all funding was earmarked to established, “legacy” media nonprofits such as public radio and television stations, and long established magazines;
  • An estimated $331 million or 19% of all foundation funding supported mostly newer, digital nonprofit media including national nonprofit news organizations, local nonprofit news organizations, and university-based media;
  • Foundation funding for public media tends to be highly concentrated across a small number of grant recipients. About two dozen recipients accounted for 72 percent of all foundation funding to public media;
  • Ten states accounted for 83 percent of total foundation funding to public media indicating that large regions of the country lack access to nonprofit news apart from what might be provided by public television and radio;
  • Nationally, news nonprofits depended on about two dozen foundations for nearly 70 percent of the grants awarded.

The report provides an open invitation for a greater variety of donors to become involved. The transparency a report like this provides is a good strategy to motivate additional funding for the ambitious goal of sustaining a robust press in order to preserve the health of our democracy.

KEY QUOTE

“A final concern voiced among those we interviewed is that patterns in foundation funding to date reflect ‘elites supporting elites,’ financing those nonprofit journalism initiatives most likely to be consumed by audiences who already read the New York Times or Washington Post and listen to NPR. Our findings specific to the concentration of funding within a few national news nonprofits, the disproportionate focus on the environment and health as subjects, and deep geographic disparities in funding that favors the East and West Coasts all suggest there is merit to these critiques. Apart from these geographic differences and subject biases, several of our interviewees not only expressed concerns that minority and ethnic communities are being underserved, but also that women who found or run news nonprofits are receiving insufficient funding in comparison to their male counterparts, a likelihood that merits further analysis.”

--Janet Camarena

Staff Pick: The Promise and Limits of First Amendment Rights on College Campuses
August 16, 2018

Becca Leviss is a Knowledge Services Fellow at Foundation Center, and an undergraduate student at Tufts University majoring in Sociology.
 
Becca 2Institutions of higher learning are natural places for the open exchange of ideas, debating diverse viewpoints, and learning from people who come from different backgrounds. Yet, in recent years, the issue of free speech on college campuses has at once empowered, and also confused, isolated, and angered students, university administrations, alumni, and the American public.

As a college student myself, this report by Gallup, the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute caught my eye. There’s a running joke about the death of free speech on my campus, and I’ve experienced limitations on both sides of the spectrum: choosing not to speak up during class, feeling offended by thoughtless comments, and tapping into comraderies made obvious by a shared intellectual space. While I acknowledge the difficulties of censorship and seclusion, I cannot ignore the way ideological bubbles have provided a sense of security in my college experience. Likewise, as students, academics, and active citizens, we have an obligation to uphold the tenets of American democracy, but also recognize its nuance and complexity.


STAFF PICK

Free Expression on Campus: What College Students Think about First Amendment Issues

Download the Report

Publisher

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Gallup, Inc.

Funders

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; American Council on Education; Charles Koch Foundation; Stanton Foundation

Quick summary

Young people continue to be at the forefront of ideological movements and change-making in American society. As a result, they are demographically opinionated and invested in First Amendment issues. This report updates a 2016 nationally representative study of college students on the security of First Amendment freedoms to account for rapidly shifting political, social, and ideological arenas following the most recent presidential election. While the study confirms the value and overall perception of relative security of free expression for college students, it finds that students are less likely now than they were in 2016 to say that their rights are secure. Their ideology is also often contradictory: students criticize overly-prohibitive campuses and extreme actions to prevent unpopular speech, but statistically are more likely to value inclusion and diversity over free speech.

Field of practice

Human Rights and Civil Liberties

What makes it stand out?

FgtReading this report serves as an important reminder of the fragility of our liberties in shifting political and social contexts, and how those contexts can impact our perspective of security. The report, a continuation of a 2016 study, investigates the intricacies of First Amendment protections through the perspectives of college students and administrations. As university actors attempt to navigate one of the more contentious issues in an already-contentious time, we gain insight the complexity of a free society by examining it through the eyes of the new generation. Since the data collection began with the 2016 study, the authors are able to compare how respondents’ attitudes changed over time.

The report begins with college students’ views of First Amendment rights. Overall college students are less likely to see First Amendment rights as secure, especially when compared with the 2016 survey. This includes a 21-percentage-point decline in perceived security of freedom of the press and nine-point declines for free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government. The report also looks at how political party affiliation may affect these perceptions. For example, the percentage of Republicans that feel that their First Amendment rights (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, petition) are very secure or secure in the country today has increased in comparison to the 2016 study, while Democrats and Independents’ sense of security has decreased significantly since 2016. The study shows that Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to perceive their First Amendment rights as secure. We see this difference most notably in their views on freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Almost eight in ten Republicans think that the freedom of the press is secure in 2017, in comparison to almost five in ten Democrats. Even fewer Democrats think that freedom of assembly is secure, compared with 74 percent of Republicans. Independents generally fall somewhere in between the perspectives of Republicans and Democrats.

Some of the most notable shifts in perceptions are in regards to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. While 71 percent of Republican respondents think that their freedom of speech is very secure/secure (an increase of five percentage points), only 59 percent of Democrats responded the same, a decrease of fifteen percent from 2016. Across the board, however, respondents report thinking that the freedom of the press is less secure than it was in 2016, regardless of political ideology.

The report also provides insights into groups that don’t always feel they can speak freely on campus. Female students and students of color, for example, are less likely to feel secure about their First Amendment rights. And, college students are much less likely to believe that political conservatives can freely express themselves, compared with other groups.

The study illustrates college students’ struggles to reconcile the importance of both free speech and inclusion in a democratic society. Although students feel that campus climate stifles their ability to speak freely, they largely support university measures to control speech, like the creation of safe spaces, free speech zones, and campus speech codes. When asked to choose between a diverse, inclusive society and protecting free speech, a slight majority of 53 percent favored the former. Conversely, an overwhelming 70 percent support an open learning environment that exposes students to a variety of speech.

The report also reveals that the debates that may have once happened on campus may now be moving to social media, an increasingly popular medium of expression for young people. Fifty-seven percent of students say that discussions of political and social issues take place mostly over social media, as opposed to public areas of campus. Despite social media’s popularity, however, students fear that it generates negative impacts for expression. 63 percent of students disagree that dialogue over social media is mostly civil and 83 percent fear that it is too easy for people to say things anonymously on social media platforms. These negative attitudes towards ideological expression on social media are only increasing. Most dramatically, the percentage of students that believe social media stifles free speech because users block dissenting opinions has risen 12 points since 2016.

The report closes with a look at students’ perceptions about the limits of free speech. Openness advocates will find this section most interesting as it outlines circumstances under which students feel limits on free speech are appropriate. The study examines student reactions to issues of free speech on college campuses from disinviting controversial speakers to on-campus protests—I can say that I’ve experienced most of them firsthand at my own school. The study found that while students oppose disinviting controversial speakers on campus, they do support it under the threat of violence, although 34 percent of respondents concede that violent reactions are sometimes acceptable. Regardless, more than six in ten students are not even aware of the free speech codes of their respective schools, let alone if their schools have ever had to disinvite certain speakers.

Overall, the “…findings make clear that college students see the landscape for the First Amendment as continuing to evolve,” and reveal the complexity of the ongoing debate on First Amendment rights.

Key quote

“College students generally endorse First Amendment ideals in the abstract. The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump’s candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to upholding First Amendment ideals.”

--Becca Leviss

Staff Pick: Foundation Funded Research Explores How to Improve the Voter Experience
August 9, 2018

Becca Leviss is a Knowledge Services Fellow at Foundation Center.

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.

Becca 2Voting is central to our democracy, providing citizens from all communities direct way to influence the future by conveying beliefs through civic participation. Though foundations by law must be non-partisan, they can and do support democracy in a variety of ways, and we are tracking these activities in our publicly available Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy web portal.  
 
From this data we can see that encouraging broad civic participation is one of the most popular ways in which institutional philanthropy supports our democracy. Specific strategies under civic participation include issue-based participation, civic education and leadership, naturalization and immigrant civic integration, and public participation. So, what have foundations learned from these efforts about how to strengthen our democracy? Today we will zoom in to learn from a foundation-funded report that is openly available, containing findings from data collection on elections and voting patterns, including how well the process is workingand who is included or excluded. 
 
Our latest “Staff Pick” from IssueLab’s Democracy Special Collection, which is comprised of foundation-funded research on the topic, explores an aspect of the voter experience in America that could be improvedWith less than 90 days to go before the midterm elections, we’re pleased to offer this deep dive into an important piece of voting-related research. 
 
Research in the social sector can sometimes feel inaccessible or artificial—based on complex theories and mathematical models and highly-controlled situations. This report, however, presents its research methodology and results in a clear, understandable manner that invites the reader to continue its work to understanding how polling sites can use their resources to both investigate and improve the voter experience.  

STAFF PICK

Improving the Voter Experience: Reducing Polling Place Wait Times by Measuring Lines and Managing Polling Place Resources, by Charles Stewart III; John C. Fortier; Matthew Weil; Tim Harper; Stephen Pettigrew 

Download the Report

Publisher

Bipartisan Policy Center

Funders

Ford Foundation; The Democracy Fund

Quick Summary

Voting is the cornerstone of civic engagement in American democracy, but long wait times and inefficient organization at polling places can undermine the voting process and even discourage citizens from voting altogether. In 2013, President Barack Obama launched the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) to initiate studies and collaborative research on polling place wait times. The PCEA’s work revealed that while wait times and poll lines are a serious issue in the United States, they are also reflective of deeper, more complex problems within the election administration system. This report by the Bipartisan Policy Center summarizes the PCEA’s efforts and highlights how the knowledge gained can produce action and improvement at polling sites. Ultimately, the report emphasizes the need for continued research and innovation in approaching common issues in the voter experience.

Field of Practice

Government Reform

What makes it stand out?

Ne report“Long lines may be a canary in the coal mine,” begins the report,“indicating problems beyond a simple mismatch between the number of voting machines and voters, such as voter rules that are inaccurate or onerous.” Quantitative and qualitative data has shown that long lines at the polls have wide-reaching economic costs of over half a billion dollars in a presidential election, as well as the immeasurable cost of voter discouragement due to polling place problems. These issues are exacerbated at polling sites that are urban, dense, and with large minority populations, where lack of resources and access can disenfranchise the voting population.

While the dilemma of election administration is complex, the report describes a rather straight-forward series of projects by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Bipartisan Policy Center. MIT and BPC collaborated to create a system of data collection on polling lines and polling place efficiency that would be simple and easily implemented by poll workers. The program utilized basic queuing theory: calculating the average wait time of a voter by dividing the average line length by the average arrival time. For fellow (and potential future) researchers, this report spends a meaningful portion of time explaining the significance of each variable, how it is calculated, and how its fluctuation impacts the overall results of the investigation. We are given examples of several successful iterations of the study and their evaluations, as well as insight into certain research choices.

MIT/BPC’s work has found that an overwhelming majority of Election Day polling sites—82 percent—experienced the longest line when the doors first opened. In all, a total of 90 percent of Election Day polling sites have their longest lines within the first two hourly samples (when observed on Hour 0 and Hour 1), with the lines declining at an average rate after that. Similarly, voters experience the longest wait times when the lines were at their longest. This pattern is vastly different from that of early voting sites, where wait time is relatively constant; however, these sites still most commonly experience their longest lines at the beginning of the day (25 percent of the studied population).

The research emphasizes the importance of how to adequately prepare for the length of the longest line. The report suggests that if polling sites adjust worker shifts to accommodate for strong early morning voter turnout on Election Day, they can easily clear the lines within the first few hours of voting, thus saving money and better serving their voters. The report also recognizes the range of its results: in other words, individual precincts have individual needs. Without meaningful research, however, we cannot know how to meet those needs and improve the voter experience. Therefore, as readers (and hopefully fellow voters), we are encouraged by MIT/BPC’s work to take clear and simple action to improve our own polling sites through continued research and investigation. This report exemplifies the importance of making the research and data process transparent and attainable so that we can not only understand its significance, but actively contribute to its efforts. There are many processes that could benefit from this kind of data analysis to improve the user experience. What if foundations analyzed their grant processes in this way? I can’t help but think that there is much that philanthropy can learn from the government from reports like this that show how institutions are opening up data collection to improve the user experience for actors and stakeholders.

Key Quote

“Precincts with large numbers of registered voters often have too few check-in stations or voting booths to handle the volume of voters assigned to the precinct, even under the best of circumstances. Precincts that are unable to clear the lines from the first three hours of voting are virtually guaranteed to have long lines throughout the day. Polling places in urban areas often face design challenges—small, inconvenient spaces—that undermine many election officials’ best efforts to provide adequate resources to these locations.”

--Becca Leviss

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

To Serve Better, Share
May 3, 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.

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.

Daniela Pineda Photo 2We share ideas freely on Pinterest, we easily give our opinions on products on Amazon and we learn from “how-to” videos on YouTube from the comfort of our homes. We even enjoy sharing and being creative by pulling ideas and concepts together.

Often, this is not what happens once we step foot in the office. We may find ourselves more reluctant to embrace sharing what works, learning what doesn’t and then applying these lessons to our work. It’s hard to speak about how things didn’t turn out as expected. It is as if we are saving the treasure of our knowledge for a rainy day, as if it’s a limited resource.

I believe in the power of being #OpenForGood, using knowledge to improve philanthropic effectiveness, in our case, to help create more opportunities and better outcomes for young children.

That’s why I am delighted to participate in a new how-to guide that was just released this week by sharing examples from our journey to opening up our knowledge at First5 LA. As part of Foundation Center’s #OpenForGood movement, the new GrantCraft guide Open for Good: Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking provides tips and resources, including strategies for knowledge sharing. Everyone benefits when organizations strengthen their knowledge sharing practices by enhancing organizational capacity and culture, and by understanding how to overcome common hurdles to sharing knowledge.  

“We can achieve more collectively and individually by sharing information and creating knowledge.”

As a public entity, First 5 LA is uniquely positioned to share knowledge with the field. Our mandate to be transparent serves as a powerful launchpad for sharing knowledge. For example, in our work with communities across Los Angeles County, we work to elevate the voices and perspectives of parents to leaders and lawmakers.

When we create opportunities for parents and policymakers to hear from each other, we are moving beyond a transparency requirement to foster more nuanced conversations on how we can all help improve outcomes for kids.

No matter your type of organization or mission -- foundations, nonprofit, government or business, we can achieve more collectively and individually by sharing information and creating knowledge.

Sharing information about what has worked, what hasn’t, and being open to learning lessons from others is a skill that sharpens your thinking, benefits the field, and helps advance your own goals, while also benefiting those you serve.

We must be mindful of the many potential roadblocks to sharing in service of becoming more effective, both inside and outside of our own organizations. Among them: egos and a lack of humility; competition for resources; a lack of incentives to share; and a lack of awareness of what information is shared and what outcomes it produces.

Sharing Sharpens Your Thinking

Failing to see knowledge sharing as part of your job amounts to lost opportunity, lost time, and lost resources. Making the time to find out what others are doing is important. At a minimum, we can feel empowered by the simple knowledge that we aren’t the only ones dealing with the problems we face in our jobs. In a best case scenario, we can adapt that information to our context, and try new ways to do our jobs better.

Open For Good CoverThis notion really hit home for me from a very simple online search when I started a new role. Curious if others were also grappling with similar issues about how to effectively evaluate place-based work, I searched a few sites. In philanthropy, we are fortunate to have impressive open online repositories such as Foundation Center’s Issue Lab, where we can find loads of information.

Indeed, my search led to several pieces on lessons learned from funders of place-based work. I fortunately found a thoughtful report on the topic at hand. But what was most useful, beyond reading the insight gleaned, was that I was then able to reach out to one of the authors to learn exactly what it meant to let the evaluation design evolve with the initiative.

Based on this connection, I refined a step on our learning agenda process to ensure we set the expectation that community voices were consulted earlier, during the planning phase of the project. While we had already planned for inclusion, I learned what types of pitfalls to avoid when structuring community engagement on a long-term evaluation project.

Since reaching out to my colleague, I have continued to learn from him and a broader network of learning practitioners who also value sharing knowledge. This concept of reaching out to others and asking simple questions is simple, and yet so few make the time to do it.

The truth is, great ideas can come from anywhere: a conversation on a commuter train, a session at a conference, or results from a search engine. Sharing, and being open to new ideas, serves to sharpen thinking and can improve your ability to achieve your philanthropic to  goals.

Sharing Benefits the Field

At a more global level, to make an impact on society and change things for the better, share what you know, and be willing to adjust your approach based on what you learn. That’s the approach we embrace at First 5 LA.

This not only helps our organization in our mission, but it sets an example for other like-minded organizations to open their viewpoints on sharing their successes and failures.

“Don’t save your knowledge for a rainy day—it’s an unlimited resource!”

For example, we recently worked with an evaluation partner to restructure the scope of its engagement. This was difficult because the project had been in place for a long time and the restructuring resulted in a more narrow scope. The partner was disappointed that we determined only two of the four initially designed subprojects remained relevant to our work. It could appear we were no longer committed to learn about this investment.

By being open with them, we also heard about their own concerns that the data would be of sufficient quality to conduct rigorous analyses. We listened and came up with a joint approach  to reach out to a different entity to secure an alternative data source. This worked, and now the project has been refocused, new data was secured, and the partner saw firsthand that while the approach changed, we were still committed to learning together.

Sharing information and outcomes is essential to being influencers in our areas of expertise. And learning from others is essential to being assets within our fields. In this case, we landed on an alternative approach to leverage data, and we maintained a productive relationship with our partner. We plan to share this approach broadly so that it can spark new ideas and insights or confirm an approach among other grantmakers grappling with similar issues.

Once we as individuals, managers and organizations can distill and discern knowledge, we can apply it to our own important work for public good, and share it with others to help them with theirs.

Sharing Is a Skill

These sharing efforts should permeate your organization, beyond the C-suite. Leaders must lead by example and encourage staff to see themselves as gatherers – and contributors – of knowledge to their fields.

Ultimately, learning to share information is a skill. To do this, and to glean the best information from data includes sharing it with others both inside and outside of your organization.

But collecting reams of information will do us no good if we do not have a specific plan for the data, and then analyze what it means in a bigger universe – and for those we serve.

At First 5 LA, we take a very pragmatic approach to data collection. First, we work with our programs to identify the specific systems we are trying to impact. Once that is determined, we then create learning agendas, which are tools for us to prioritize the key learning questions that will help us know if we are making progress on behalf of kids in Los Angeles  County.

Our approach requires that we specify how we plan to use those data before we collect it. Data should be tied to specific learning questions.

We are proud of our work and approach to use learning as a strategy, and it is not always easy to let others benefit from what we learn the hard way.

But our work is not ultimately about a singular institution. And you don’t need to save your knowledge for a rainy day—it’s usually an unlimited resource! It’s about huddling under a shared umbrella in stormy weather, and basking together in the sunshine for the ones who need us the most. Those we serve.

--Daniela Pineda

In the Know: #OpenForGood Staff Pick December 2017
December 20, 2017

Gabriela Fitz is director of knowledge management initiatives at Foundation Center.

This post is part of the Glasspockets #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new research and 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.

Gabi Fitz photo

As the #OpenForGood campaign builds steam, and we continue to add to our IssueLab Results repository of more than 400 documents containing lessons learned and evaluative data, our team will regularly shine the spotlight on new and noteworthy examples of the knowledge that is available to help us work smarter, together. This current pick comes to us from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Read last month's staff pick here.


Staff Pick: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

Evaluation of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Chronic Homelessness Initiative: 2016 Evaluation Report, Phase I

Download the Report

Quick Summary

 

In 2011, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation partnered with Abt Associates Inc. to conduct an evaluation of the Hilton Foundation’s Chronic Homelessness Initiative, with the goal of answering an overarching question: Is the Chronic Homelessness Initiative an effective strategy to end and prevent chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County?

Answering that question has not been so easy. And it bears mentioning that this is not one of those reports that strives to prove a certain model is working, but instead provides a suitably complicated picture of an issue that will be an ongoing, multi-agency struggle.  A combination of economic conditions, insufficient and shrinking availability of affordable housing, and an unmet need for mental health and supportive services actually resulted in an increase in homeless people living in Los Angeles County during the time period under study. The numbers even suggest that Los Angeles was further from ending chronic homelessness than ever before. But the story is a bit more complicated than that.

In this final evaluation report on the community’s progress over five years, (January 2011 through December 2015), Abt Associates Inc. found that the collaborative system that had been developed during the first phase of the initiative actually represented a kind of turning point for the County to address chronic homelessness, which was needed more than ever by the end of 2015.

Field of Practice

  • Housing and Homelessness

What kinds of knowledge does this report open up?

This report goes beyond evaluating a single effort or initiative to look at the larger collaborative system of funding bodies and stakeholders involved in solving a problem like chronic homelessness. We often hear that no foundation can solve problems single-handedly, so it’s refreshing to see a report framework that takes this reality into account by not just attempting to isolate the foundation-funded part of the work. The initiative’s strategy focused on a systemic approach that included goals, such as the leveraging of public funds, demonstrated action by elected and public officials, and increased capacity among developers and providers to provide permanent and supporting housing effectively, alongside the actual construction of thousands of housing units. By adopting this same systemic lens, the evaluation itself provides valuable insight into not just the issue of chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County, but also into how we might think about and evaluate programs and initiatives that are similarly collaborative or interdependent by design.

What makes it stand out?

This report is notable for two reasons. First is the evaluators’ willingness and ability to genuinely grapple with the discouraging fact that homelessness had gone up during the time of the initiative, as well as the foundation’s willingness to share this knowledge by publishing and sharing it. All too often, reports that don’t cast foundation strategies in the best possible light don’t see the light of day at all. Sadly, it is that kind of “sweeping under the rug” of knowledge that keeps us all in the dark. The second notable thing about this report is its design. The combination of a summary “dashboard” with easily digestible infographics about both the process of the evaluation and its findings, and a clear summary analysis for each strategic goal, makes this evaluation stand out from the crowd.

Key Quote

“From our vantage point, the Foundation’s investment in Systems Change was its most important contribution to the community’s effort to end chronic homelessness during Phase I of the Initiative. But that does not mean the Foundation’s investments in programs and knowledge dissemination did not make significant contributions. We believe it is the interplay of the three that yielded the greatest dividend.”

--Gabriela Fitz

Apocalypse Later? Philanthropy and Transparency in an Illiberal World
March 6, 2017

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. As recently reported by Nonprofit Quarterly, the National Council of Nonprofits has launched a campaign to get nonprofits to sign a Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship that calls for preservation of the Johnson Amendment in its current form. This blog also appears in PhilanTopic.)

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.

Brad Smith PhotoHow long will it be before nonprofit transparency takes its place alongside diceros bicornis on the endangered species list? Hopefully never, but in a world that's growing more technologically sophisticated and more illiberal, I'm beginning to think that if it's not Apocalypse Now, maybe it's Apocalypse Later.

The value of transparency

Transparency has been a boon to the philanthropic sector, making it possible for organizations like Foundation Center, Guidestar, the Urban Institute, Charity Navigator, and others to create searchable databases spanning the entire nonprofit and foundation universe. Our efforts, in turn, contribute to responsible oversight, help nonprofits raise funds to pursue their missions, and fuel online platforms that enable donors to make better giving choices. Transparency also enables foundations to collaborate more effectively, leverage their resources more efficiently, and make real progress on critical issues such as black male achievement, access to safe water, and disaster response. The incredibly rich information ecosystem that undergirds the American social sector is the envy of others around the globe — not least because it gives us a clear view of what nonprofit initiative can accomplish, how it compares and contrasts with government, and how social, economic, and environmental issues are being addressed through private-public partnerships.

Where we are today

Federal law — U.S. Code, Title 26, Section 6104 — stipulates that public access to Form 990, a federal information form that tax-exempt organizations are required to file annually, must be provided promptly on request at the exempt organization's office or offices, or within thirty days of a written request. However, exempt organizations don't have to provide copies of their Forms 990 if they make these materials broadly available through the Internet, or if the IRS determines that the organization is being subject to a harassment campaign.

“ The social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts.”

In 2015, Carl Malamud, the Don Quixote of open data, dragged transparency into the digital age when he brought suit against the Internal Revenue Service to force it to make the 990s of a handful of organizations that had been filed electronically available as machine-readable open data. Malamud won, and, somewhat surprisingly, the IRS then did more rather than less to comply with the order: as of June 2016, all Forms 990 filed electronically by 501(c)(3) organizations are available as machine-readable open data through Amazon Web Services. As such, they can be downloaded directly in digital form and processed by computers with minimal human intervention. The development represents a victory not only for Malamud but for the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, which has toiled for years to make 990s more accessible. The idea, of course, is that free, open data on nonprofits will enable more innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to use the data in ways that help make the sector more effective and efficient. Since Malamud won his case, the IRS has posted some 1.7 million Forms 990 as machine-readable open data.

Philanthropy in a shifting world

The increasingly illiberal world in which we find ourselves was not made in America: it is a worldwide phenomenon born of globalization, income inequality, technology-driven unemployment, the unprecedented movement of migrants and refugees, and the specter of terrorism. The democratization of information driven by social media and the Internet also has been accompanied by distrust of traditional media, the narrowing of the space in which civil society organizations operate, and growing attempts to restrict thought and behavior. Author William Gibson (credited with inventing the term "cyberspace") presciently (if darkly) described a world we probably all recognize today in his 2003 reflections on George Orwell: "A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and quotidian degrees of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree on it any more readily." Indeed.

The bitter, divisive 2016 presidential election in the United States saw information from the 990s of the Clinton and Trump foundations used to support allegations of influence peddling, self-dealing, and the like. The resulting bad press and subsequent investigations by the New York State Attorney General's office caused both foundations to eventually announce that they planned to wind down their activities.

At the same time that foundations are being subjected to more scrutiny, we see a growing number of high-net-worth individuals turn to alternatives that require little or no transparency in exchange for the tax advantages they receive for their charitable giving. The most common of these are donor-advised funds administered by community foundations or investment firms such as Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab. Community foundations do file 990 tax returns, so information about each grant they award is reported and made available to the public, though without the identity of the donor. With the charitable gift funds sponsored by investment funds, however, information on individual grants remains invisible. Then there are newer, hybrid structures like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the LLC formed by the co-founder of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to "advance human potential and promote equal opportunity." There is no public disclosure requirement for the tax returns of LLCs, which means that any details we learn about the grants made by CZI will be what Zuckerberg, Chan, and their colleagues choose to tell us.

The first step?

So what are the implications of all this for the social sector in the Unites States? The media (traditional and social) has been on fire with stories about the Trump administration's intent to remove information on issues like climate change from government websites. In response, universities and others are rushing to download as much of that data to non-government servers as possible. In the same vein, it would not be difficult for the IRS to suddenly stop posting 990 tax returns as open data, especially given all the "trouble" they caused during the presidential campaign. This might be met by another Malamud-style legal challenge but that would take time to unfold. And if successful, this time around the IRS might comply by releasing only a handful of specific 990s rather than all those that have been digitally filed.

"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment

President Trump also has announced his intent to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision (named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson) in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Repeal of the provision could open the way for huge amounts of so-called dark money — donations from corporations, unions, and individuals aimed at influencing the outcome of elections — to find its way into 501(c)(3) organizations. Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits and foundations, the current recipients of such funds — primarily 501 (c)(4) and (c)(6) nonprofits — are not required to disclose their donors.

I am not a lawyer and may be out on a limb here, but overturning the Johnson Amendment would require an act of Congress, and would not be easy. Yet, if Congress decides to do so, it is not inconceivable that the administration, with the assent of Congress, could then remove the public disclosure requirement for Forms 990 in order (depending on your point of view) to: 1) protect donor privacy as an exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech; or 2) make it more difficult to "follow the money" when it comes to political campaigns.

If this were to happen, it is not entirely clear which constituencies would emerge to fight for the continued provision of Forms 990 as public information. Foundations, in particular, are not universally enthusiastic about having their grants and other information in the public domain for a variety of reasons (including privacy, journalistic scrutiny, and wariness of being swamped by applications for funding). What's more, in recent conversations with foundation leaders, I've heard concerns that when it comes to controversial issues such as immigration or charter schools, having their information made more visible could make them targets for harassment. And, of course, neither nonprofit organizations nor foundations enjoy filling out 990s, which like a lot of tax forms are long, time-consuming, and expensive to complete. Yes, organizations like the National Council of Nonprofits, Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations, and the Philanthropy Roundtable might rally to defend broad public access to Forms 990, but only if their members were firmly behind them.

Transparency and hope

Born in 1956 out of hostile McCarthy-era hearings accusing foundations of supporting "un-American activities," Foundation Center has worked for many years with the Internal Revenue Service and other organizations to build a public information system for philanthropy. GuideStar has done much the same for nonprofit organizations. The cornerstone of these systems has been data contained in the Forms 990. If access to these forms were reduced or eliminated, the transparency of the entire social sector — and with it the promise of greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation — would be an obvious casualty. It also would strengthen the position of those in government and the social sector, both here and abroad, who, for whatever reason, believe the need for donor privacy outweighs the value of transparency. Russell Leffingwell, a Republican banker and trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said it best in 1952 in his testimony to the Cox Commission declaring that his foundation "should have glasspockets." Leffingwell went on to say:

"I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk. If the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back and back and back so that our ignorance of ourselves and our     fellow man and of other nations is steadily reduced, there is hope for mankind, and unless those boundaries are pushed back there is no hope...."

At the end of the day, the social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts. We live in an age, illiberal or not, in which our mission to serve the public good to the best of our ability is powered by technology that allows us to share knowledge as never before. And knowledge is rooted deeply in transparency. Apocalypse later? We can't let that happen.

-- Brad Smith

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
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