Transparency Talk

Category: "Open Applications" (2 posts)

Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Chris Langston, President & CEO, Archstone Foundation
August 8, 2019

GlassPockets Road to 100

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have joined us in building a movement for transparency that now surpasses 100 foundations 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.

Since its inception in 1985 as a healthcare conversion foundation, Archstone Foundation has responded to the implications of changing demographics by supporting innovative responses to the emerging and unmet needs of older adults. The Foundation has funded a wide range of grantees making important contributions in critical, yet often overlooked areas of need.

Today, the Foundation focuses its grantmaking on four major areas:

  • Enabling older adults to remain in their homes and communities;
  • Improving the treatment of late-life depression;
  • Developing innovative responses to the family caregiving needs of older adults; and
  • Expanding the health care and broader workforce needed to care for, and serve, the rapidly growing aging population.

Archstone Foundation is among our newest GlassPockets participants. In this interview with GlassPockets’ Janet Camarena, Chris Langston, President & CEO of the Archstone Foundation, explains why transparency is central to its philanthropic efforts.

GlassPockets: Archstone Foundation was born out of a healthcare conversion, when a nonprofit HMO became a for-profit corporation. Do you think transparency is more important for healthcare conversion foundations to demonstrate that these dollars are being used for public good? Or are there other reasons that you are prioritizing philanthropic transparency?

Langston_hi_Staff_Photos_3.0_165_165_c1_c_t_0_0
Chris Langston

Chris Langston: I’m sure the public is more interested in what’s going on with healthcare conversion foundations, as the funds are more clearly a public trust because they derived from the tax advantages given to the nonprofit parent. As an older, smaller conversion, the public has long since forgotten the origin of the endowment, but what we do is still supported by the taxpayers granting favorable treatment to the endowment. Nevertheless, to my mind, conversions or foundations born of a wealthy individual’s gift (or other source) have the same obligation to transparency. Foundations are granted tremendous autonomy in what and how they do their work and, beyond some very broad IRS regulations, are only accountable to their boards. As a consequence, I think that we owe the public great visibility into what we do and how we do it. I believe that the great diversity of foundations is a strength in the sector, and I oppose external mandates regarding subject matter, limited lifespan, payout rates, or other aspects of foundation discretion. So, the only remaining constraint is public scrutiny of our process and our work.

GP: We often hear concerns that transparency takes a lot of time and resources, so it's really more relevant for large foundations. Why would you say transparency and openness should be a priority for even foundations comprised of a small team? How have you benefited from your efforts to open up your work?

CL: I see the GlassPockets standards as a floor and not one that takes a great deal of effort to keep shiny. We share through our website our current grants, our strategic plans, our governance documents, and financial reports. Even small foundations need to have these tools and structures and sharing them digitally is no burden. These things change relatively slowly and in the modern era are relatively easy to keep up to date.

Moreover, I’ve worked at two other foundations previously, one which started as not very transparent because of inattention to communicating to the public and one which had historically gone to great lengths to be opaque – the Atlantic Philanthropies during its anonymous giving phase. In neither case did our lack of transparency make our work better – I think it made it worse. We got less constructive engagement from the field, we got less alignment between us and grantees, and we didn’t benefit from the extra energy that comes from knowing that your successes and failures are going to be visible for all to see.

GP: Your commitment to openness includes maintaining a responsive grantmaking program with an open RFP that can be submitted on an ongoing basis. At a time when many foundations are putting up walls by shifting to invite only grantmaking, this is notable in that you are maintaining this kind of openness with a very small program team made up of three officers. Why has it been important to maintain the open RFP, and what is your advice to keeping it manageable for lean teams?

CL: Actually, we are right now reviewing our responsive grantmaking program and could very well stop or constrain it. While having an open RFP mechanism is one kind of openness, I am more committed to having an open-door policy. I think it is a legitimate strategic decision as to whether a foundation takes grant applications by invitation only, has a monthly letter of intent review (as we currently do), or something in between. What’s more important is that there be regular opportunities whereby grantseekers can learn from foundation staff about foundation priorities and strategies for change and where foundation staff can learn about the needs and interests of nonprofits in the field and the people in need.

”The GlassPockets process is a thoughtful and well-structured way of getting started in opening up to the public, what largely belongs to the public, even if it is held in trust for them by us on the inside.”

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?

CL: The GlassPockets process is a thoughtful and well-structured way of getting started in opening up to the public, what largely belongs to the public, even if it is held in trust for them by us on the inside. Providing the information helps you in many ways – it helps you be sure that you even have all the tools, policies, and procedures of a modern nonprofit (e.g., conflict of interest, committee charters, etc.). It helps you whenever you have a twinge of conscience at the thought of making something public, in so far as that is telling you that you are doing something that you don’t feel good about – something that doesn’t pass the “would you want to see it on the front page of the paper test.” And the process is part of creating a culture of openness and honesty among and between board, staff, and grantees. Creating this kind of culture is an enormous project undermined by fear, norms of silence, and power differentials – but I think it is critical for effective grantmaking.

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

CL: Having earned a GlassPockets designation now at a second organization, it is this issue that really interests me – how can we take further steps in transparency. While it is scary and a long-term project to build a shared understanding and the will to change, I hope to make much more information public – for example, grant proposals (at least the funded ones), evaluations, board minutes, budgets, and more. The federal grantmaking process at the National Institute of Health already does much of this. When I think about government processes, I expect all of that transparency and more -- and yet government is at least nominally subject to the control of the voting public. Since foundations do not make their grantmaking or staffing decisions subject to elections, shouldn’t we be even more transparent than government?

Fundamentally, the issue is that among funders and nonprofits, we spend a lot of time not just “reinventing the wheel” but more accurately, reinventing the flat tire. It is not that there is more knowledge or skill on one side or the other of the grantmaking table, it’s that there isn’t enough truth and light illuminating the conversation. And as the party with the power of the purse, it is incumbent on us to go first to change the dialogue if we want to have better results.

--Chris Langston & Janet Camarena

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions
April 5, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(Christie George is the director of New Media Ventures, a mission-driven venture firm and donor collaborative supporting progressive startups.  New Media Ventures supports companies and organizations that – through the use of new media and technology – build advocacy movements, tell new stories and drive civic engagement.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation.  The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

Christie-George1-163x164

If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants.

“...If you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects.”

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities. 

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches:

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous
impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to
reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have New Media Ventures logoat least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: CoWorker.org hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; Vote.org got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us.

--Christie George

 

Share This Blog

  • Share This

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

  • Enter your email address:

About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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

Categories