Transparency Talk

Category: "Knowledge Sharing" (124 posts)

Meet Our 100th GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Daphne Moore, Communications Director, Walton Family Foundation
March 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Daphne Moore


Daphne Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Janet Camarena

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

Evolving Towards Equity, Getting Beyond Semantics
December 17, 2018

Mona Jhawar serves as learning and evaluation manager for The California Endowment.

Mona JhawarIn my previous post, I reflected on The California Endowment’s practice of conducting a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Audit and how it helps us to stay accountable to intentionally integrating and advancing these values across the foundation.

We started this practice with a “Diversity and Inclusion” Audit in 2008 and as part of our third audit in 2013, The California Endowment (TCE) adjusted the framing to a “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” Audit. This allowed us to better connect the audit with how the foundation viewed the goals of our strategy and broadened the lens used through the audit process.

While this could be viewed as a semantic update based on changes in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, by 2016 our audit results reflected how TCE described both our core values that lead with principles of DEI and the ultimate outcome of our work that point towards health equity and justice for all. And although we didn’t make a corresponding change to reflect this shift in what the audit specifically assesses, select findings from our most recent audit highlight how not only diversity, but how equity is also being operationalized within the foundation.

Getting beyond the numbers

In some ways, the most straightforward entry point for DEI discussions is to first examine diversity by assessing quantitative representation within the foundation at the board and staff level, among our partners, contractors, vendors, and investment managers. Though it’s a necessary beginning, reporting and reflection, however, cannot stop with counting heads.  While our audit may have started as a way to gauge inclusion through the lens of diversity, it’s become clear that collecting and examining demographic data sets the stage for critical conversations to follow.

Part of the inherent value of reflecting on diversity and representation is in service of getting beyond the numbers to discover what questions the numbers inspire. Questions such as:

  • Who’s missing or overrepresented and why?
  • What implications could the gaps in lived experiences have on the foundation, the strategies used and how our work is conducted?
  • What are the underlying structures and systems that shape the demographics of the foundation and of the organizations with which we partner?

It’s these types of questions about our demographics and diversity that help move us beyond discussions about representation into deeper discussions about equity.

The audit has been a valuable point of reflection and action planning over the past several years. It’s a comprehensive process conducted in partnership with evaluation firm, SPR, that spans an extensive number of sources.

Towards Equity and Inclusion

As TCE pursues our health equity goals, we’ve been able to define and distinguish key differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion. While diversity examines representation, we define equity as promoting fair conditions, opportunities, and outcomes. We also define inclusion as valuing and raising the perspectives and voices of diverse communities to be considered where decisions are being made. For future audits, we’re looking to refine our DEI audit goals to more explicitly focus on equity and inclusion across both our grantmaking efforts and to even more deeply examine our internal policies, practices, and operations. However, here are a few examples from our latest audit that highlight how equity and inclusion currently show up across the foundation outside of our grantmaking.

Equity in hiring

  • Recognizing the impact of structural racism and mass incarceration, TCE followed the lead of partners working to “ban the box” and the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color to change hiring practices. TCE now utilizes a Fair Chance Hiring Policy that opens the door for hiring qualified applicants with a conviction or an arrest and shares open positions with anti-recidivism organizations.

Inclusion and equity in investments

  • In the spirit of inclusion, the criteria for our Program Related Investments (PRIs) integrate whether the PRI will engage the community it is intended to benefit as well as whether the investment will address a known health inequity or social determinant of health.
  • In recognition of structural racism leading to higher rates of incarceration within communities of color, in 2015 TCE announced that we will no longer invest in companies profiting from for-profit prisons, jails, or detention centers.

Equity in vendor selection

  • Operationalizing equity also requires considering how facility operations align with organizational values. In line with our divestment from for-profit prisons, an RFP process identified a vendor-nonprofit team that encouraged hiring formerly incarcerated and homeless community members within our onsite café. We remain committed to this approach.

The Work Ahead

We’ve accomplished a great deal. At the same time, as we evolve towards becoming an equity organization there are areas where we need to put more of our attention.

To move beyond articulating values and to get to deeper staff engagement, audit feedback suggests more staff resources are needed to connect individual functions and roles to our DEI values, including through our performance review process, particularly among non-program staff.

Connected to developing a greater vision regardless of department affiliation, we will soon embark to engage staff across the entire organization to develop a more deeply shared racial equity analysis of our work.  As part of this effort, our board is participating in racial equity trainings and adopted a resolution to utilize a racial equity lens as the foundation develops our next strategic plan.  Building on what we’re learning through our audits, in 2019 we’ll launch this effort towards becoming a racially equitable health foundation that will intentionally bring racial equity to the center of our work and how we operate.

Finally, as we continue to partner with and support community to fight for equity, there are several unanswered, imminent questions we’ll need to tackle. Within the walls of the foundation:

  • How do we hold ourselves to the same equity and inclusion principles that our partners demand of system leaders?
  • How do we confront the contradictions of how we operate as an organization rooted in a corporate or hierarchical design to share power with staff regardless of position, increase decision making transparency, and include those impacted by pending decisions in the same way we ask our systems leaders to include and respond to community?
  • With an interest in greater accountability to equity and inclusion, how do we not only tend to power dynamics but consider greater power sharing through foundation structures and current decision-making bodies both internally and externally?

Herein lies our next evolutionary moment.

--Mona Jhawar

Putting a Stop to Recreating the Wheel: Strengthening the Field of Philanthropic Evaluation
December 13, 2018

Clare Nolan is Co-Founder of Engage R+D, which works with nonprofits, foundations, and public agencies to measure their impact, bring together stakeholders, and foster learning and innovation.

Meg Long is President of Equal Measure, Philadelphia-based professional services nonprofit focused on helping its clients—foundations, nonprofit organizations, and public entities—deepen and accelerate social change.

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Clare Nolan

In 2017, Engage R+D and Equal Measure, with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation launched an exploratory dialogue of funders and evaluators to discuss the current state of evaluation and learning in philanthropy, explore barriers to greater collaboration and impact, and identify approaches and strategies to build the collective capacity of small and mid-sized evaluation firms. Our goal was to test whether there was interest in our sector for building an affinity network of evaluation leaders working with and within philanthropy. Since our initial meeting with a few dozen colleagues in 2017, our affinity network has grown to 250 individuals nationally, and there is growing momentum for finding ways funders and evaluators can work together differently to deepen the impact of evaluation and learning on philanthropic practice.

At the recent 2018 American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference in Cleveland, Ohio, nearly 100 funders and evaluators gathered to discuss four action areas that have generated the most “buzz” during our previous network convening at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference and from our subsequent network survey:

1. Improving the application of evaluation in philanthropic strategy and practice.

2. Supporting the sharing and adaptation of evaluation learning for multiple users.

3. Supporting formal partnerships and collaborations across evaluators and evaluation firms.

4. Strengthening and diversifying the pipeline of evaluators working with and within philanthropy.

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Meg Long

We asked participants to choose one of these action areas and join the corresponding large table discussion to reflect on what they have learned about the topic and identify how the affinity network can contribute to advancing the field. Through crowd-sourcing, participants identified some key ways in which action teams that will be launched in early 2019 can provide a value-add to the field.

1. What will it take to more tightly connect evaluation with strategy and decision-making? Provide more guidance on what evaluation should look like in philanthropy.

Are there common principles, trainings, articles, case studies, guides, etc. that an action team could identify and develop? Could the affinity network be a space to convene funders and evaluators that work in similar fields to share evaluation results and lessons learned?

2. What will it take to broaden the audience for evaluations beyond individual organizations? Create a “market place” for knowledge sharing and incentivize participation.

As readers of this blog will know from Foundation Center’s #OpenForGood efforts, there is general agreement around the need to do better at sharing knowledge, building evidence, and being willing to share what foundations are learning – both successes and failures. How can an action team support the creation of a culture of knowledge sharing through existing venues and mechanisms (e.g., IssueLab, Evaluation Roundtable)? How could incentives be built in to support transparency and accountability?

3. How can the field create spaces that support greater collaboration and knowledge sharing among funders and evaluators? Identify promising evaluator partnership models that resulted in collaboration and not competition.

Partnerships have worked well where there are established relationships and trust and when power dynamics are minimized. How can an action team identify promising models and practices for successful collaborations where collaboration is not the main goal? How can they establish shared values, goals, etc. to further collaboration?

4. What will it take to create the conditions necessary to attract, support, and retain new talent? Build upon existing models to support emerging evaluators of color and identify practices for ongoing guidance and mentorship.

Recruiting, hiring, and retaining talent to fit evaluation and learning needs in philanthropy is challenging due to education and training programs as well as changing expectations in the field. How can we leverage and build on existing programs (e.g., AEA Graduate Education Diversity Internship, Leaders in Equitable Evaluation and Diversity, etc.) to increase the pipeline, and support ongoing retention and professional development?

Overall, we are delighted to see that there is much enthusiasm in our field to do more work on these issues. We look forward to launching action teams in early 2019 to further flesh out the ideas shared above in addition to others generated over the past year.

If you are interested in learning more about this effort, please contact Pilar Mendoza. If you would like to join the network and receive updates about this work, please contact Christine Kemler.

--Clare Nolan and Meg Long

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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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:

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    Foundation Center

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