Transparency Talk

Category: "Nonprofit Management" (13 posts)

Glasspockets Goes to Grad School: Using Glasspockets to Teach about Grantmaking Foundations
April 16, 2012


(Mark Hager is associate professor of nonprofit studies in the School of Community Resources & Development at Arizona State University. His research with the Foundation Center and Urban Institute has shed light on how grantmaking foundations spend their money. He is always looking for ways to get his graduate students to think critically about the relationship between grantmaking foundations and their communities.)

Nonprofit management education has grown and taken shape over the last couple decades, and the current number of colleges and universities offering some kind of course in nonprofits runs over 300. Almost 200 of these offer a graduate degree with at least a concentration in nonprofit management. The program at Arizona State University (ASU) is particularly well-developed, with a specific nonprofit studies faculty, and undergraduate and graduate degrees in nonprofit studies. 

Around the country, these programs usually focus on service delivery and general administration in the nonprofit sector. They don’t typically concentrate on the grantmaking side, but courses in this area aren’t totally unusual either. Grand Valley State University has a professional school dedicated to grantmaking, and an assortment of other schools feature courses where students review grant applications, deliberate, and give away real money. ASU has one graduate-level course that gives at least some attention to the grantmaking side, and I’m one of the people who gets to teach it. The class is called Theory and Practice of Philanthropy, and it is one of the required (core) classes in the Master of Nonprofit Studies curriculum

I threw away the old syllabus and re-designed the course from scratch when I arrived at ASU in the fall of 2008. I then fleshed out a dozen or so issues that I felt were important to cover, and we spent a week or so on each one. This semester (spring 2012), I threw out the syllabus again and went back to scratch. Well, almost scratch… I kept some of the best content from the old approach. What is new is that we now spend more time on fewer topics so that students can dig deeper on essential content. Over the course of the semester, we’ll cover three broad arenas: the charitable deduction, high net worth individual and institutional giving, and public expectations of how nonprofits spend their money. This lets us come at the topic of “philanthropy” from three different directions… from the point of view of the individual, the grantmaking foundation, and the nonprofit organization.

Students, even graduate students with experience in the nonprofit sector, usually have little experience with or understanding of grantmaking foundations. We creep up to it slowly, first talking about giving by wealthy donors, then about donor intent, and then about the creation of private foundations. This semester, the culminating exercise for “evaluating” private foundations involved pouring through a private foundation’s website and evaluating the foundation’s standing on the Glass Pockets indicators.  You can see a copy of my assignment sheet here. I thought this assignment worked well, for several different reasons.

For one, students had a concrete reason and a plan for digging around in the public face of grantmaking foundations. Armed with the list of indicators, they scavenged for governance policies, human resource policies, financial information, grantmaking information, performance measurement reporting, and the range of ways that private foundations communicate with their constituencies. When they could not find such things, students reflected on why grantmaking foundations might choose to mute or control certain aspects of their operations.

A second advantage of using the Glass Pockets indicators is that students feel connected to a larger effort. College course assignments are always better when they have real touchpoints with the world of work. Students selected a foundation not currently profiled in “Who Has Glass Pockets?” for this assignment, but many compared their subjects with others in the Glasspockets fold, or made use of the Glasspockets heat map to get a sense of how typical their subjects were in terms of transparency. I cautioned students that the foundations that have thus-far opted into the Glasspockets effort may not be representative of grantmaking foundations generally – they’re likely a good deal more transparent. However, students found new cases that were both more and less transparent than those already in the portfolio of Glasspockets cases.

Thirdly, students had the opportunity to reflect critically on the value of transparency, and how well the Glass Pockets assessment captures the concept. Case studies are good, but I was particularly interested in how the students came to frame the issues more generally. This is a part of the assignment that I will tweak next time. This first time, I felt that too many students accepted the measures and the value of transparency without much question or depth. Next semester, I will encourage them to dig in a bit harder. One idea might be to present the students with a set of arguments about why foundations have no particular reason to be transparent, and then invite students to take a position on Glasspockets’ justifications of the value of transparency. Somehow, I need to get students off the dime, to think more critically on this.

The semester is still unfolding, but one of the nice features of the assignment is that it broaches the topic of transparency and accountability. In the latter part of the course, we’ll take up similar themes, substituting public charities for grantmaking foundations. In this latter segment, students will consider how annual reports, Form 990, and watchdog reports affect how nonprofits act, and how their public sees them. Do we value transparency in private foundations for different reasons than why we value transparency in our public charities? No doubt that’s a question I’ll want to put before these students. 

Since those just learning the ropes of a field can often offer a fresh perspective to those with years of experience, the Glasspockets team offered to feature a selected student’s thoughts on foundations and transparency in a future blog post. After reviewing the submitted work from the students, I was asked to select the student who had presented the most interesting observations about foundations, transparency, and the “Who Has Glass Pockets” indicators. Check back here on Transparency Talk later this month for that post.

Glasspockets Find: Transparency, Public Pressure and Nonprofit Governance
April 12, 2012

Lucy Bernholz has just posted an excellent, thought-provoking piece on her Philanthropy 2173 blog.  She refers to two recent examples of public pressure—with the Komen Foundation and the Gates Foundation as the separate focal points—that led to a change of direction.  She argues that the increasing ease with which public opinion may be expressed quickly demands that all types of nonprofit organizations, including foundations, be prepared to respond.

As more information becomes more accessible to more people, organizations should expect to engage in a civil conversation—with supporters and critics.  The old-school broadcast model is fading fast.  Transparency is a tool that foundations can embrace to anticipate and react to the public response to their decisions, and in the process build trust.

-- Mark Foley

A Bifocal Lens: The Value of Investing in Both Networks and Organizations
November 16, 2011

(Paul Connolly is Chief Client Services Officer of TCC Group, a 33 year-old consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity-building services to foundations, nonprofit organizations, and corporate community involvement programs. In a previous post for Transparency Talk, he wrote about the Packard Foundation's "see through" filing cabinet.)

Paul Connolly

What do the Arab Spring uprisings, the Tea Party, Al Qaeda, and Occupy Wall Street have in common?  They all stem from flexible networks of people and groups, rather than just a single organization. And, they all have powerfully influenced society lately. As technology has enabled more connection and coordination, networks are playing a greater role in tackling social and environmental problems, galvanizing change, and enhancing civil society.  At the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' "Growing Social Impact in a Networked World" conference a few weeks ago, funders discussed how they are changing their perspectives and practices to support and participate in networks.

One foundation leader remarked that observing a network is like looking at a Monet painting: up close, the brushstrokes can be blurry and seem disconnected, but when you stand back, the power of the full and nuanced picture becomes clear. Another speaker advised that funders need to view networks with a different type of lens than what they use for organizations. Networks tend to have more distributed ownership and expertise, less linear decision-making processes, more fluid boundaries, and results that are harder to measure. Funders therefore need to tailor how they assist networks, such as by investing at multiple levels, providing for additional improvisation, letting go of some control, and focusing less on causal attribution of outcomes.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, has provided funding to foster a widespread network of activists across the nation to decrease childhood obesity by improving eating habits and increasing physical activity. In doing so, the foundation has learned that shifting from a mostly one-way broadcast mode to a more robust and interactive dialogue with constituents who are connected to the coalition has required more effort, openness, and trust. Foundation staff members have strived to listen actively to network participants and create authentic feedback loops — both online and in-person — to help advance the collaborative movement.

Likewise, the Jim Joseph Foundation has nurtured Reboot, which aims to engage a younger generation in a vibrant Jewish life through a selective network of a few hundred culturally influential Jewish people. The Foundation's strategy was to get the right mix of people in the right space and then allow for serendipity. With a bold over-arching goal to steer the way, it backs the network's process and does not try to micro-manage the specific means that members choose or the content they produce.

The Packard Foundation studied their existing portfolio of grantees and realized they already had a broad spectrum of models, about a third being networks for wide-ranging causes, with varying types of needs than organizations. As Packard Program Director Stephanie McAuliffe exclaimed, "Our grantee The Ocean Conservancy did not want to strengthen their organization's brand, but the ocean's brand." The Packard Foundation has improved its own network approach through an online wiki, transparently sharing data about certain programs and engaging others in their strategy development and evaluation work. [More about the Packard wiki at Transparency Talk.]

Although networks have many distinctive features, they also coincide with organizations extensively. In fact, many networks are actually collections of organizations, or at least are comprised of individuals who see their participation through a specific organizational perspective. So, networks can be both capable in their own right, as well as reflect the performance of the particular organizations involved. TCC Group's research on nonprofits and coalitions have found that the highest performing ones share such central characteristics as distributed leadership, inclusive mindsets and practices, cross-fertilized programs, learning cultures, and adaptability.

Specifically, we found that the strongest nonprofit organizations:

  • have a clear vision,
  • understand community needs and services well,
  • are deeply engaged and forge alliances with external stakeholders,
  • encourage reflective inquiry, and
  • amplify their impact by not only expanding their own programs, but also disseminating replicable practices and models and by influencing policies and systems.

Our study of coalitions for The California Endowment determined that the most successful ones:

  • have a lucid mutual purpose and value proposition,
  • collaborate and manage conflict well,
  • conduct ongoing assessment,
  • have transparent decision-making processes, and
  • are action-oriented.

Far-sighted grantmakers see that scaling social impact will not happen just by expanding high-performing nonprofit organizations, one at a time. Strong networks will be increasingly needed, too, and their respective efforts will intersect more and more. Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations are still the predominant vehicle for receiving philanthropic support and many networks involve sets of them. To view organizations and networks — the individual brushstrokes as well as the full painting — clearly, rather than through two different sets of optics, funders need better bifocal lenses. Without them, they will be hampered by fuzzy vision and blind spots, reducing their potential to magnify positive change.

There is much more to discover about harnessing the combined potential of organizations and networks. What tools, frameworks, and training are needed to sharpen the needed bifocal vision?  How can we learn more about organizational and network effectiveness and their intersections — and do a better job applying what we already know? How could grantmakers support networks' efforts to build superior shared learning systems and performance measurements within particular fields? With better answer to these questions, funders can help increase social innovation and impact.

— Paul Connolly

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

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