Transparency Talk

Category: "Janet Camarena" (20 posts)

GlassPockets Announces New Transparency Levels: Leveling Up Your Practices
March 28, 2019

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Candid.

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Janet Camarena

It's an exciting moment for us here at GlassPockets, and for the field of philanthropy, as we’ve just reached the milestone of 100 foundations committing to work more transparently by participating and publicly sharing their “Who Has GlassPockets?” transparency self-assessment profiles on our website. Yesterday, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) officially became our 100th participant. What you are seeing today is the result of a diligent process that started last summer, as WFF continually worked to improve the openness of its website. With clear pathways to connect directly with staff members, a knowledge center containing lessons learned as well as packaged “flashcards” containing easily shareable bits of information, and a new searchable grants database spanning its 31-year history, WFF is not starting small when it comes to openness. Transparency can be tricky territory for family foundation donors who may be more accustomed to privacy and anonymity when it comes to their giving, so it’s particularly exciting for us to reach the milestone of 100 published profiles thanks to a family foundation enthusiastically embracing a more transparent approach.

When we started with a handful of foundations and fewer than two dozen transparency indicators, it was more experiment than movement. Now that we’ve aggregated data on transparency trends among 100 participating foundations, it’s a good opportunity to pause and reflect on what we are learning from this data that could inform the way forward to a more transparent future for philanthropy.

Transparency Indicators Evolve

GlassPockets Road to 100

Earlier this year I observed that a promising trend we are seeing in the field is that more foundations are developing sections of their websites devoted to explaining how they work, what values they hold dear, and in some cases, how these values inform their work and operations. Among the 100 foundations that have taken and publicly shared their transparency assessments, 42 percent are now using their websites as a means to communicate values or policies that demonstrate an intentional commitment to transparency. As a result we recently added transparency values/policies as a formal indicator to our GlassPockets assessment. But once you have developed such a values or policy statement, how does a foundation live up to it?

That’s where we hope our “Who Has GlassPockets?” assessment will continue to help foundations create a roadmap to transparency. The assessment is not static and has evolved with the field. When we started in 2010, there were 23 transparency indicators based on an inventory of thousands of foundation websites. As we continue to observe website transparency trends, the assessment has now grown to 27 indicators. Aside from the newest indicator for transparency values/policies, based on the kinds of information that foundations are now starting to share, some other new indicators we added since inception are strategic plans, open licensing policies, and use of the Sustainable Development Goals framework(SDGs). And we expect that as the field continues to evolve, this list of indicators will grow as well.

As the list has grown longer, foundations frequently ask us which indicators are the right ones to start with. Some also tell us that they want to participate, but not until they have at least half or even three-quarters of the indicators on the list. Though we applaud striving to be more transparent, the intent of GlassPockets was never that it be considered a “one-size-fits-all” approach, or that we expected that a majority of the indicators be in place to participate. Rather, that the GlassPockets exercise would serve to surface it as a priority, help the foundation evolve its transparency over time, and ideally would be a process the institution revisits on a regular basis, updating the GlassPockets profile with more and more indicators as transparency improves.

New Transparency Levels and Badges

So to help foundations better understand how to get started and how to grow transparency practices over time, we analyzed the data we have been collecting, and some patterns about how transparency evolves in philanthropy are now becoming clearer. We also conducted advisor interviews with a number of GlassPockets participants to better understand what would be most motivational and helpful in this regard. After reviewing everything we’ve learned so far, we have identified three levels through which foundations pass as they chart their course to greater transparency – these represent core, advanced, and champion-level transparency practices that you can view on this chart.

Explore how the Transparency Indicators relate to each level

Core-level transparency practices represent data most commonly shared by participating foundations and are the best place for new participants to begin. Advanced-level transparency practices open up the way you work to the world and represent information shared by about 50 to 70 percent of participating foundations. Champion-level transparency practices, in place at fewer than half of participating foundations, represent information-sharing that is pushing existing boundaries of foundation transparency.

These new levels represent an optional guide that can be helpful to follow but it is not intended to be viewed as a formal set of requirements. As has always been the case, any foundation at any stage of its transparency journey is welcome to participate and chart its own course. However, to motivate participation and progress, GlassPockets will begin awarding Transparency Badges based on the transparency level attained. These badges will appear on the GlassPockets profile, and will also be made available for use on the foundation’s website. Since it is not a one-size-fits-all, all participating foundations will automatically receive the Core GlassPockets transparency badge, and those who attain Advanced (10-18 indicators) or Champion level (19 or more indicators) will receive a badge denoting the appropriate designation.

Learn About the Transparency Badges

On the Level

Based on the new levels described above, GlassPockets will soon be adding the new Transparency Badges to each profile. So, if it’s been awhile since you reviewed your “Who Has GlassPockets?” profile, or if you’re looking for motivation to improve your transparency, now’s the time to review your existing profile, or submit a new one to see how your foundation stacks up. For existing GlassPockets participants, May 28th is the deadline to review your profile and get any updates or changes in to us before we start making the transparency levels and badges visible on the GlassPockets website the week of June 3rd. To update your profile, you can fill out any new links or corrections on this submission form, or simply email me your changes. As always, new profiles can be added at any time and you can learn more about that process here.

And last, but certainly not least, big thanks and cheers to our existing GlassPockets participants for helping us reach this milestone, and a big welcome to those who will help us reach the next one!

-- Janet Camarena

Join Candid at the PEAK Grantmaking Conference
March 7, 2019

Untitled designIt’s Peak season! PEAK Grantmaking conference season, that is. That time of year many of us look forward to when grants operations professionals get together to compare notes, learn from one another, and take home new ideas and approaches to make their grantmaking practices and process more efficient, effective, and equitable.

Candid Round Table

candidWe are particularly excited about PEAK’s conference this year, because it’s our first time going out into conference land as Candid, so we’re looking forward to getting out there, and doing the usual mixing and mingling, but also listening and learning from questions and ideas you have to share with us. So bring your hopes and dreams about how we transform to our Candid Round Table on Tuesday, March 12th from 3:45-5:15pm. We will also have a Candid booth in the Exhibit Hall, so please stop by and visit!

Beyond the Round Table and exhibiting, we also hope you will also join us for a couple of very timely and topical sessions we’ll be offering.

Ivory Tower No More

First up on Monday, March 11th from 1:30-2:45pm, I’ll be facilitating a session called Ivory Tower No More, which will give participants a sneak preview of both the new PEAK Principles and Practices, as well as the forthcoming GlassPockets Transparency Levels—all in the name of helping your foundation avoid “Ivory Tower Syndrome.” How do you know if you are suffering from this dreaded malady? Have your policies and practices built a moat around your foundation that is as much an obstacle for you as for others?  Learn how to avoid creating practices that work against your foundation’s ability to live up to its commitment to serve the public good. This session focuses on the importance of transparency to effective foundation stewardship, and helps you to understand how to shift toward openness in a way that strengthens your foundation by building bridges instead of moats. Inspiring case studies will be shared by my panel colleagues, Amy Anderson from the Bush Foundation; Mona Jhawar from The California Endowment; and Cheryl Milloy from the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

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Participatory Grantmaking

Then on Tuesday morning, join my Candid colleague, Jen Bokoff along with Arlene Wilson-Grant from the Disability Rights Fund, as they introduce Participatory Grantmaking 101: Inclusive and Effective Strategic Practice. This session highlights findings from our latest GrantCraft guide. Explore the “why” and the “how” of participatory grantmaking, from its benefits and its challenges to its mechanics for recruiting community members, reviewing applications, and making decisions. Hear about the practical, real-world experience of foundations that have been using this approach for years. Presenters will offer both a field-wide view and specific anecdotes from within PEAK Grantmaking member foundations.

Hope to see you in Denver!

--Janet Camarena

A New Year, a New Transparency Indicator: Coming Soon—Transparency Values & Policies
January 3, 2019

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

Janet Camarena PhotoWhen GlassPockets started nine years ago, it was rare to find any reference to transparency in relation to philanthropy or foundations. The focus of most references to transparency at the time were in relation to nonprofits or governments, but seldom to philanthropy. When we set out to create a framework to assess foundation transparency, the “Who Has GlassPockets?” criteria were based on an inventory of current foundation practices meaning there were no indicators on the list that were not being shared somewhere by at least a few foundations. Not surprisingly, given the lack of emphasis on foundation transparency, there were few mentions of it as a policy or even as a value in the websites we reviewed, so it didn’t make sense at the time to include it as a formal indicator.

GlassPockets Road to 100A lot has changed in nine years, and it’s clear now from reviewing philanthropy journals, conferences, and yes, even foundation websites that awareness about the importance of philanthropic transparency is on the rise. Among the nearly 100 foundations that have taken and publicly shared “Who Has GlassPockets?” transparency assessments, more than 40 percent are now using their websites as a means to communicate values or policies that aim to demonstrate an intentional commitment to transparency. And demonstrating that how the work is done is as important as what is done, another encouraging signal is that in many cases there are articulated statements on new “How We Work” pages outlining not just what these foundations do, but an emphasis on sharing how they aim to go about it. These statements can be found among funders of all types, including large, small, family, and independent foundations.

We want to encourage this intentionality around transparency, so in 2019 we are adding a new transparency indicator asking whether participating foundations have publicly shared values or policies committing themselves to working openly and transparently. In late January the “Who Has GlassPockets?” self-assessment and profiles will be updated reflecting the new addition. Does your foundation’s website have stated values or policies about its commitment to transparency? If not, below are some samples we have found that may serve as inspiration for others:

  • The Barr Foundation’s “How We Work" page leads with an ethos stating “We strive to be transparent, foster open communication, and build constructive relationships.” And elaborates further about field-building potential: “We aim to be open and transparent about our work and to contribute to broader efforts that promote and advance the field of philanthropy.”

  • The Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation’s Mission and Core Values page articulates a long list of values that “emerge from the Foundation’s long history,” including a commitment to forming strategic alliances, working honestly, “showing compassion and mutual respect among grantmakers and grantees,” and ties its focus on transparency to a commitment to high standards and quality: “The Foundation strives for high quality in everything it does so that the Foundation is synonymous with quality, transparency and responsiveness.”

  • The Ford Foundation’s statement connects its transparency focus to culture, values around debate and collaboration, and a commitment to accountability: “Our culture is driven by trust, constructive debate, and leadership that empowers innovation and excellence. We strive to listen and learn and to model openness and transparency. We are accountable to each other at the foundation, to our charter, to our sector, to the organizations we support, and to society at large—as well as to the laws that govern our nonprofit status.”

  • An excerpt from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Information Sharing Approach” page emphasizes collaboration, peer learning, and offers an appropriately global view: “Around the world, institutions are maximizing their impact by becoming increasingly transparent. This follows a fundamental truth: that access to information and data fosters effective collaboration. At the foundation, we are embracing this reality through a continued commitment to search for opportunities that will help others understand our priorities better and what supports our decision making. The foundation is also committed to helping the philanthropic sector develop the tools that will increase confidence in our collective ability to address tough challenges around the world…..We will continually refine our approach to information sharing by regularly exploring how we increase access to important information within the foundation, while studying other institutional efforts at transparency to learn lessons from our partners and peers.”

  • The Walter and Elise Haas Fund connects its transparency focus to its mission statement, and its transparency-related activities to greater effectiveness: “Our ongoing commitment to transparency is a reflection of our mission — to build a healthy, just, and vibrant society in which people feel connected to and responsible for their community. The Walter & Elise Haas Fund shares real-time grants data and champions cross-sector work and community cooperation. Our grantmaking leverages partnerships and collaborations to produce results that no single actor could accomplish alone.”

  • The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s statement emphasizes the importance of transparency in creating a culture of learning: “The foundation is committed to openness, transparency and learning. While individually important, our commitments to openness, transparency, and learning jointly express values that are vital to our work. Because our operations—both internal and external—are situated in complex institutional and cultural environments, we cannot achieve our goals without being an adaptive, learning organization. And we cannot be such an organization unless we are open and transparent: willing to encourage debate and dissent, both within and without the foundation; ready to share what we learn with the field and broader public; eager to hear from and listen to others. These qualities of openness to learning and willingness to adjust are equally important for both external grantmaking and internal administration.”

These are just a few of the examples GlassPockets will have available when the new indicator is added later this month. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed for updates.

Happy New Year, Happy New Transparency Indicator!

--Janet Camarena

What Does It Take to Shift to a Learning Culture in Philanthropy?
November 20, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

This post also appears in the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog.

Janet Camarena PhotoIf there was ever any doubt that greater openness and transparency could benefit organized philanthropy, a new report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) about knowledge-sharing practices puts it to rest. Besides making a case for the need for greater transparency in the field, the report also provides some hopeful signs that, among foundation leaders, there is growing recognition of the value of shifting to a culture of learning to improve foundations’ efforts.

Understanding & Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice reveals how well foundation leaders understand what is and isn’t working in their foundation’s programs, how they figure this out, and what, if anything, they share with others about what they’ve learned. These trends are explored through 119 survey responses from, and 41 in-depth interviews with foundation CEOs. A companion series of profiles tell the story about these practices in the context of four foundations that have committed to working more openly.

Since Foundation Center’s launch of GlassPockets in 2010, we have tracked transparency around planning and performance measurement within the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” self-assessment. Currently, of the nearly 100 foundations that have participated in GlassPockets, only 27 percent publicly share any information about how they measure their progress toward institutional goals. Given this lack of knowledge sharing, we undertook a new #OpenForGood campaign to encourage foundations to publicly share published evaluations through the IssueLab open archive.

As someone who has spent the last decade examining foundation transparency practices (or the lack thereof) and championing greater openness, I read CEP’s findings with an eye for elements that might help us better understand the barriers and catalysts to this kind of culture shift in the field. Here’s what I took away from the report.

Performance Anxiety

UWW_MAIN_COV_border (1)While two-thirds of foundation CEOs in CEP’s study report having a strong sense of what is working programmatically within their foundations, nearly 60 percent report having a weaker grasp on what is not working. This begs the question: If you don’t know something is broken, then how do you fix it? Since we know foundations have a tendency to be success-oriented, this by itself wasn’t surprising. But it’s a helpful metric that proves the point of how investing in evaluation, learning, and sharing can only lead to wiser use of precious resources for the field as a whole.

The report also reveals that many CEOs who have learned what is not working well at their foundations are unlikely to share that knowledge, as more than one-third of respondents cite hesitancy around disclosing missteps and failures. The interviews and profiles point to what can best be described as performance anxiety. CEOs cite the need for professionals to show what went well, fear of losing the trust of stakeholders, and a desire to impress their boards as motivations for concealing struggles. Of these motivations, board leadership seems particularly influential for setting the culture when it comes to transparency and failure.

In the profiles, Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) President Stephen Heintz discusses both the importance of his board and his background in government as factors that have informed RBF’s willingness to share the kinds of information many foundations won’t. RBF was an early participant in GlassPockets, and now is an early adopter of the #OpenForGood movement to openly share knowledge. As a result, RBF has been one of the examples we often point to for the more challenging aspects of transparency such as frameworks for diversity data, knowledge sharing, and investment practices.

An important takeaway of the RBF profile is the Fund’s emphasis on the way in which a board can help ease performance anxiety by simply giving leadership permission to talk about pain points and missteps. Yet one-third of CEOs specifically mention that their foundation faces pressure from its board to withhold information about failures. This sparks my interest in seeing a similar survey asking foundation trustees about their perspectives in this area.

Utility or Futility?

Anyone who works inside a foundation — or anyone who has ever applied for a grant from a foundation — will tell you they are buried in the kind of paperwork load that often feels futile (which actually spawned a whole other worthy movement led by PEAK Grantmaking called Project Streamline). In the CEP study, the majority of foundation CEOs report finding most of the standard sources of knowledge that they require not very useful to them. Site visits were most consistently ranked highly, with the majority of CEOs (56 percent) pointing to them as one of the most useful sources for learning about what is and isn’t working. Grantee focus groups and convenings came in a distant second, with only 38 percent of CEOs reporting these as a most useful source. And despite the labor involved on both sides of the table, final grant reports were ranked as a most useful source for learning by only 31 percent of CEOs.

”Thanks to CEP’s research, we have evidence of real demand for a greater supply of programmatic knowledge.“

If most foundations find greater value in higher touch methods of learning, such as meeting face-to-face or hosting grantee gatherings, then perhaps this is a reminder that if foundations reduce the burdens of their own bureaucracies and streamline application and reporting processes, there will be more time for learning from community and stakeholder engagement.

The companion profile of the Weingart Foundation, another longtime GlassPockets participant, shows the benefits of funders making more time for grantee engagement, and provides a number of methods for doing so. Weingart co-creates its learning and assessment frameworks with grantees, routinely shares all the grantee feedback it receives from its Grantee Perception Report (GPR), regularly makes time to convene grantees for shared learning, and also pays grantees for their time in helping to inform Weingart’s trustees about the problems it seeks to solve.

Supply and Demand

One of the questions we get the most about #OpenForGood’s efforts to build an open, collective knowledge base for the field is whether anyone will actually use this content. This concern also surfaces in CEP’s interviews, with a number of CEOs citing the difficulty of knowing what is useful to share as an impediment to openness. A big source of optimism here is learning that a majority of CEOs report that their decisions are often informed by what other foundations are learning, meaning foundations can rest assured that if they supply knowledge about what is and isn’t working, the demand is there for that knowledge to make a larger impact beyond their own foundation. Think of all that untapped potential!

Of course, given the current state of knowledge sharing in the field, only 19 percent of CEOs surveyed report having quite a bit of knowledge about what’s working at peer foundations, and just 6 percent report having quite a bit of knowledge about what’s not working among their programmatic peers. Despite this dearth of knowledge, still fully three-quarters of foundation CEOs report that they use what they have access to from peers in informing strategy and direction within their own foundations.

Thanks to CEP’s research, we have evidence of real demand for a greater supply of programmatic knowledge. Now there is every reason for knowledge sharing to become the norm rather than the exception.

--Janet Camarena

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

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

New Report Sheds Light on Global Funding Trends by U.S. Foundations
August 23, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center.

Janet Camarena PhotoThose of us in philanthropy often hear that foundations are increasingly rising to the challenge and working to address the world’s most pressing problems, and new data now available demonstrates that in order to fully address these challenges, philanthropic dollars are transcending borders and prior levels of giving. A new report released this month by the Council on Foundations and Foundation Center reveals that global giving by U.S. foundations increased by 29% from 2011 to 2015, reaching an all-time high of $9.3 billion in 2015. Interestingly, despite reaching that new peak in global giving, the report also documents that just 12% of international grant dollars from U.S. foundations went directly to organizations based in the country where programs were implemented.

The State of Global Giving by U.S. Foundations is the latest report in a decades-long collaboration between the two organizations and aims to help funders and civil society organizations better navigate the giving landscape as they work to effect change around the world. A treasure trove of data from prior reports dating back to 1997 is publicly available here.

In terms of transparency and openness, the report offers a helpful data-driven perspective on some of the key global philanthropy debates, issues, and movements of our time. Are you concerned with whether increasing government regulations are preventing foundations from supporting efforts in countries that have enacted tougher funding restrictions? Or, do you want to know how much funding goes to groups on the ground vs. U.S.-based intermediaries? Or, how about getting a better understanding of where the $9.3 billion was spent and how it is advancing the 17 different Sustainable Development Goals? These are just a few examples of the kinds of data and analysis you’ll find in the new report.

Increased Restrictions on Foreign Funding

Global GivingAs governments around the world continue to pass legislation that places increasing restriction on civil society, these restrictions can complicate direct grantmaking to local organizations by U.S. foundations. Between 2012 and 2015, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law found that almost 100 laws constraining the freedoms of association or assembly were proposed or enacted across more than 55 countries. And, perhaps of most concern to foundations, 36% of these laws limited intentional funding of local civil society groups. Common restrictions affecting international funding include: governmental pre-approval of all grants coming from foreign sources; routing of all foreign funding through government entities; or enacting funding caps or taxation.

Despite the growth of these potentially chilling restrictions, surprisingly the report data did not show a correlation between the funding flows to a specific country and its level of restrictions as ranked on the “Philanthropic Freedom” index. However, it’s important to note that this kind of analysis may be more accurate over time. Since this study used grants data from 2014-2015, it could be likely that the effects of recently enacted legislation on philanthropy would surface in future grant years after the laws take full effect. Based on the currently available data, what is clear is that when we look at the top recipient countries that most benefit from U.S. foundation funding, some of these high ranking recipient countries are the ones with very challenging legal environments. Of course, philanthropic funding flows are always determined by a multitude of factors, but this raises questions to explore, such as why are certain countries with difficult legal environments high on the recipient list while others are not?

Intermediary Giving vs. Local Support

Representatives from NGOs, and advocates of community-based groups have long pushed for increased philanthropic capital to flow directly through these groups rather than through large, U.S-based intermediaries. And growing movements like #ShiftThePower have continued to build momentum around direct investments in communities. However, perhaps due to the aforementioned increasing restrictions on foreign funding, the new report reveals that foundations continue to favor funding through U.S.-based intermediaries, and:

  • Direct grants to local organizations were substantially smaller in size, averaging just under $242K, while grants to intermediaries averaged just over $554K; and
  • In terms of dollar amount, U.S.-based intermediaries received $20.5 billion in total, while non-U.S. intermediaries received $10.5 billion, and direct support tallied $4.1 billion.
  • By number of grants, nearly 49,000 grants during this four-year period went to U.S. intermediaries, 7,514 went to non-U.S. intermediaries, and 16,948 grants were awarded directly.

Progress on Sustainable Development Goals

Readers of this blog might recall that last year around this time we added the Sustainable Development Goals to our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” transparency self-assessment framework. This allowed us to document examples of funders using this shared, multi-sector language to convey their priorities and ultimate goals of their work. The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Some foundations have started aligning their funding with the SDGs, and some even using it as a shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress.

GlassPockets currently has tracked examples from corporate, community, independent, and family foundations that are using the SDG framework as a means to better communicate their work. Now, thanks to the new report, we now also have data about how philanthropic grantmaking is making progress on the SDGs, as well as trend data based on the Global Goals:

  • The Global Goals that represented the largest share of global grant dollars were Good Health & Well Being ($17 billion); Gender Equality ($4.9 billion); and Zero Hunger ($3.6 billion).
  • And among the Global Goals that showed the greatest reduction in grant support over the time period covered by the report were Affordable & Clean Energy which declined by 40 percent; Quality Education which dipped by 31.4 percent; and Clean Water & Sanitation which dropped by more than 30 percent.

It’s important to note that the SDGs formally did not go into effect until January 2016, and the data from this report begins from 2011. Still, the distribution of foundation funding by SDGs during the five year period before will serve as a baseline for tracking U.S. philanthropic efforts toward the achievement of the global goals.

With mounting challenges that transcend national boundaries, it’s increasingly important to understand how funds are being allocated to tackle global issues. Now, thanks to this report, we have a window into the scope and growth of institutional philanthropy as a global industry.

--Janet Camarena

Illuminating Philanthropy’s Role in Strengthening Democracy
July 12, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for 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. 

“Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.”
--
extract from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789

Democracy Collection Square Images (1)Transparency and democracy are inextricably linked. Thomas Jefferson’s many quotable quotes, including the one above, emphasize the link between a well informed electorate and a healthy democracy. And some of the earliest forms of organized philanthropy in America, which funded libraries and universities, worked to fulfill this ideal of nurturing a well-informed populous by providing access to information and education. While the Founding Fathers wrote about the need for a literate population, they could not have imagined the digital literacy needed to navigate today’s information landscape. So, what does it mean to be a funder who wants to strengthen democracy in the present day? What are the tools, strategies, and funding trends across democracy funders? And what are they learning from their work?

To be able to answer these questions, in 2015, Foundation Center launched a free web portal, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, containing grants data, statistical information, and grantmaker profiles. This portal continues to be updated as new grants data becomes available, and currently contains more than $4 billion in grants data awarded to related topics. And last week, IssueLab debuted a new related knowledge collection on American Democracy, which includes social sector research on election and campaign administration, voting access and participation, government performance and perceptions, and the role of media in civil society. As midterm elections are nearly upon us, we are certain this will be a valuable resource for democracy-related information backed by evidence and data.

It’s in this spirit that Transparency Talk turns its attention to a new series illuminating philanthropy’s role in strengthening democracy through the body of knowledge it has commissioned or produced on the topic. Between now and the November elections, we will be highlighting selected knowledge from the collection, as well as featuring interviews with top-ranked democracy funders.  Below is our first “Staff Pick” from the American Democracy collection. It seems fitting to kick off the series with a look at how informed our electorate is when it comes to recognizing the difference between opinions and facts.


STAFF PICK

Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News, by Amy Mitchell; Jeffrey Gottfried; Michael Barthel; Nami Sumida

Download the Report

PUBLISHER

Pew Research Center

FUNDERS

Ford Foundation; John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Open Society Foundations; The Pew Charitable Trust; Knight Foundation's Trust, Media and Democracy initiative.

QUICK SUMMARY

In today's fast-paced and complex information environment, news consumers must make rapid-fire judgments about how to internalize news-related statements – statements that often come in snippets and through pathways that provide little context. A new Pew Research Center survey of 5,035 U.S. adults examines a basic step in that process: whether members of the public can recognize news as factual – something that's capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it reveal even this basic task presents a challenge. The main portion of the study, conducted Feb. 22 and March 8, 2018, measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements.

FIELD OF PRACTICE

Journalism & Media

WHAT MAKES IT STAND OUT?

Who doesn’t love a pop quiz? To make the survey come to life, readers can put themselves to the opinion vs. fact test. Try it here to test your ability to tell opinion from fact.

Beyond assessing your own abilities, there is much to be learned from the report itself about the forces shaping public perceptions, and raises the question about whether we are experiencing a new kind of literacy divide. The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. The study also digs into the demographics behind the data to reveal that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion.

Republicans and Democrats found common ground in this study as participants who identified with one of these political parties were more likely to think news statements were factual when they appealed to their side – even if they were opinions.

Trust in those who do the reporting also matters in how factual statements are interpreted. Almost four out of ten Americans who have a lot of trust in the information from national news organizations (39%) correctly identified all five factual statements in the quiz, compared with 18% of those who have not much or no trust.

Also, reinforcing the idea that we are in a new phase of literacy in our evolution, digitally savvy Americans were found to be much more likely to correctly identify factual and opinion statements, with the divide between the very digitally savvy and those who are not savvy standing out as “particularly stark.” The level of digital savviness was based on frequency of internet use and confidence in using digital devices. About three times as many very digitally savvy (35%) as not savvy Americans (13%) classified all five factual statements correctly, with the somewhat savvy falling in between (20%). And about twice as many classified all five opinion statements correctly (44% of the very digitally savvy versus 21% of the not digitally savvy).

KEY QUOTE

“At this point, then, the U.S. is not completely detached from what is factual and what is not. But with the vast majority of Americans getting at least some news online, gaps across population groups in the ability to sort news correctly raise caution. Amid the massive array of content that flows through the digital space hourly, the brief dips into and out of news and the country’s heightened political divisiveness, the ability and motivation to quickly sort news correctly is all the more critical.”

If your organization commissions or produces related literature, we welcome you to add to our collection here.

--Janet Camarena

The Risky Business of Foundation Opacity
May 23, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center.

Janet Camarena PhotoIn case there was ever any doubt that foundation philanthropy suffers from an opacity problem, a recent Foundation Review article, Foundation Transparency: Opacity — It’s Complicated, by Robert J. Reid, helps settle the matter through research findings that confirm the existence of “significant opacity.” From the lack of foundation websites and annual reporting, to perpetual insider control, and a desire to keep a low public profile, the author’s research confirms what many of us have been saying for years--that there is much room for improved transparency in the field.

The problem is, one can read the entire article, and not get the message that opacity is a problem, and a risky one at that. In our networked world of social media, open data, and audience-generated reviews, sending a message that transparency or opacity are operational approaches of choice is dangerous and much higher risk than encouraging donors to discover and tell their own story, lest others tell it for them.

History also confirms that philanthropic freedom is most at risk from an opaque approach than from a transparent one. Foundations learned this lesson the hard way in the 1950’s during McCarthyism, when two separate congressional commissions were formed to investigate foundation activities. Since there was no central place containing information about institutional philanthropy, no aggregate industry data, no collective data about the grants they were making, foundation leaders spent years telling their stories one foundation at a time, giving testimony to defend their work against accusations that they were committing “Un-American” acts.

It became clear to the foundation leaders who were called to testify that it was this lack of public understanding of institutional philanthropy that led to the suspicions and accusations they were facing, and that as a result of opacity, they may lose the philanthropic freedom that the tax laws allowed. As a result of this crisis, foundation leaders established Foundation Center as an organization devoted to providing transparency for the field of philanthropy. During his testimony, Russell Leffingwell, at the time chair of the Carnegie Corporation, said: “The foundation should have glass pockets,” so that anyone could easily look inside foundations and understand their value to society, and inspire confidence rather than suspicion. This is both the origin story for Foundation Center and for our Glasspockets website and initiative to champion greater foundation transparency.

“...existing and emerging technologies and networks are making foundation opacity obsolete...”

The lessons in this history couldn’t be more relevant to today’s operating environment where existing and emerging technologies and networks are making foundation opacity obsolete, and more importantly, creating conditions that actually serve to strengthen philanthropy such as facilitating feedback loops, peer benchmarking, and stakeholder input. Though foundations can continue to practice what Reid refers to as “opaque practices” or “situational transparency,” it’s important that foundations also understand that they do so at their own peril, because due to new user-review tools and open data platforms that didn’t exist previously, the relative level of transparency and opacity are rapidly slipping out of their control. Let’s review a few of these new tools that are poised to shake up the quiet, insular world of foundations.

Open 990-PF

990-PF graphicBeginning in 2016, the IRS started releasing e-filed Forms 990 and 990-PF as machine-readable, open data. Because the data is now not only open, but digital and machine-readable this means that anyone from journalists to researchers to activists can aggregate this data and make comparisons, correlations, and judgments about philanthropy at lightning speed, all without input from foundations and regardless of how opaque they may prefer their activities to be. Investment practices, demographics of beneficiaries, and compensation practices are examples of 990 data that can get easily turned into compelling narratives about foundations. This has institution-wide implications for foundations, from governance practices to grants data and from staffing to investment management and communications strategy.  Foundation administrators who have not been looking at their foundation’s 990-PF with an eye to the story that it tells about their work, probably should. Because of how the open 990-PF has the potential to transform foundation transparency, Glasspockets has devoted an ongoing blog series to providing guidance and helpful examples to prepare foundations for this new age of open data.

GrantAdvisor

Phil goalsIndustries as diverse as restaurants, travel, retail, health, and even nonprofits have had the blessing and curse of receiving unfiltered user feedback via online review sites for many years now, so it’s hard to believe that until 2017 this was not the case for philanthropy. With the launch of GrantAdvisor.org last year, now foundations can view, for better or worse, what their stakeholders really think—and so can anyone else. (For transparency’s sake, I currently serve in an advisory role to this platform.) Anyone can register to give feedback, and once a foundation receives more than five reviews their profile goes live on the site for the world to see, whether the foundation wants it there or not, so opacity here is not an option the funder controls. Given the power dynamic, reviews are anonymous, and foundations are able to post responses. A profile with emoji-symbols invites users to rate foundations on two principal metrics: the length of time it takes to complete a foundation’s application process, and a smiley/frowning face rating what it’s like to work with the particular funder.

So far, enough reviews have been submitted to provide 69 foundations with unfiltered feedback, and participation is steadily growing. And, more than 130 foundations have registered to receive alerts when feedback is posted, has yours? And some, which Reid may refer to as “transparency enthusiasts,” are even inviting their grantees to leave them a review on GrantAdvisor. These foundations understand that this kind of transparency about how applicants can provide feedback, and the open, unfiltered way in which it’s collected, can actually serve to strengthen and improve foundation policies and practices.

These are just a couple of emerging platforms that exist that are specific to philanthropy itself. When you zoom out to think about the entire universe of user generated content that is now easily available to all, from blogs to Twitter and employee-review sites like Glassdoor, it’s clear that while you can choose opacity, opacity may not choose you, because opacity as we all know it is over. To think otherwise is to risk adopting practices that don’t actually mitigate risk, but rather promote a false sense of security while only serving to limit effectiveness. So don’t make the mistake of thinking transparency is too complicated, or that opacity is the convenient and safer choice, because it’s actually not a choice at all, but a risky and ultimately obsolete way of working.

--Janet Camarena

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

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