Transparency Talk

Category: "Openness" (102 posts)

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.

 

New Guide Helps Human Rights Funders Balance Tension between Risk & Transparency
October 25, 2018

Julie Broome is the Director of Ariadne, a network of European donors that support social change and human rights.  

Tom Walker is the Research Manager at The Engine Room, an international organisation that helps activists and organisations use data and technology effectively and responsibly.

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Julie Broome

Foundations find themselves in a challenging situation when it comes to making decisions about how much data to share about their grantmaking. On the one hand, in recognition of the public benefit function of philanthropy, there is a demand for greater transparency on the part of funders and a push to be open about how much they are giving and who they are giving it to. These demands sometimes come from states, increasingly from philanthropy professionals themselves, and also from critics who believe that philanthropy has been too opaque for too long and raise questions about fairness and access. 

At the same time, donors who work in human rights and on politically charged issues, are increasingly becoming aware of the risks to grantees if sensitive information ends up in the public domain. As a result, some funders have moved towards sharing little to no information. However, this can have negative consequences in terms of our collective ability to map different fields, making it harder for us all develop a sense of the funding landscape in different areas. It can also serve to keep certain groups “underground,” when in reality they might benefit from the credibility that foundation funding can bestow.

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Tom Walker

As the European partners in the Advancing Human Rights project, led by the Human Rights Funders Network and Foundation Center, Ariadne collects grantmaking data from our members that feeds into this larger effort to understand where human rights funding is going and how it is shifting over time. Unlike the United States, in which the IRS 990-PF form eventually provides transparency about grantee transactions, there is no equivalent data source in Europe. Yet, many donors find grant activity information useful in finding peer funders and identifying potential gaps in the funding landscape where their own funds could make a difference. We frequently receive requests from donors who want to use these datasets to drill down into specific areas of interest, and map out different funding fields. But these types of sources of data will become less valuable over time if donors move away from voluntarily sharing information about their grantmaking.

Nonetheless, the risks to grantees if donors share information irresponsibly are very real, especially at a time when civil society is increasingly under threat from both state and non-state actors.  It was in the interest of trying to balance these two aims – maintaining sufficient data to be able to analyse trends in philanthropy while protecting grantees – that led Ariadne to partner with The Engine Room to create a guide to help funders navigate these tricky questions.

After looking at why and how funders share data and the challenges of doing so responsibly, The Engine Room interviewed 8 people and surveyed 32 others working in foundations that fund human rights organisations, asking how they shared data about their grants and highlighting any risks they might see.

Funders told us that they felt treating data responsibly was important, but that implementing it in their day-to-day work was often difficult. It involved balancing competing priorities: between transparency and data protection legislation; between protecting grantees’ data and reporting requirements; and between protecting grantees from unwanted attention, and publicising stories to highlight the benefits of the grantee’s work.

The funders we heard from said they found it particularly difficult to predict how risks might change over time, and how to manage data that had already been shared and published. The most common concerns were:

  • ensuring that data that had already been published remained up to date;
  • de-identifying data before it was published
  • Working with third parties to be responsible when sharing data about grantees, such as with donors who fund through intermediaries and may request information about the intermediaries’ grantees.

Untitled designAlthough the funders we interviewed differed in their mission, size, geographical spread and focus area, they all stressed the importance of respecting the autonomy of their grantees. Practically, this meant that additional security or privacy measures were often introduced only when the grantee raised a concern. The people we spoke with were often aware that this reactive approach puts the burden of assessing data-related risks onto grantees, and suggested that they most needed support when it came to talking with grantees and other funders in an open, informed way about the opportunities and risks associated with sharing grantee data.

These conversations can be difficult ones to have. So, we tried a new approach: a guide to help funders have better conversations about responsible data.

It’s aimed at funders or grantmakers who want to treat their grantees’ data responsibly, but don’t always know how. It lists common questions that grantees and funders might ask, combined with advice and resources to help answer them, and tips for structuring a proactive conversation with grantees.

”There are no shortcuts to handling data responsibly, but we believe this guide can facilitate a better process.“

There are no shortcuts to handling data responsibly, but we believe this guide can facilitate a better process. It offers prompts that are designed to help you talk more openly with grantees or other funders about data-related risks and ways of dealing with them. The guide is organised around three elements of the grantmaking lifecycle: data collection, data storage, and data sharing.

Because contexts and grantmaking systems vary dramatically and change constantly, a one-size-fits-all solution is impossible. Instead, we decided to offer guidance on processes and questions that many funders share – from deciding whether to publish a case study to having conversations about security with grantees. For example, one tip that would benefit many grantmakers is to ensure that grant agreements include specifics about how the funder will use any data collected as a result of the grant, based on a discussion that helps the grantee to understand how their data will be managed and make decisions accordingly.

This guide aims to give practical advice that helps funders strengthen their relationships with grantees - thereby leading to more effective grantmaking. Download the guide, and let us know what you think!

--Julie Broome and Tom Walker

Transparency & Start-up Philanthropy: What We Can Learn from Bezos and Zuckerberg
October 11, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

Janet Camarena PhotoIt’s hard to think of a philanthropic institution as a start-up. The phrase “start-up” conjures the image of two geeks in a garage with big dreams but very limited means. But as we all know from breathless news coverage about them, some of these once resource-constrained, scrappy start-ups have gone the distance, hit it big, and now are learning the ropes of managing another kind of start-up—the philanthropy kind.

I was recently reminded of this trajectory when a reporter from CNBC contacted me to ask about Jeff Bezos’ new Day One Fund for a story he was working on about the announcement that Bezos and his wife, novelist MacKenzie Bezos, were establishing a $2 billion philanthropic fund to help support homeless initiatives and early childhood education for low-income children. As a tech reporter, he was asking a lot of good questions to better understand the nature of organized philanthropy.  He wanted to know about things like the structure of the fund, where the funds would come from, what kind of philanthropic vehicle it might be, and the transparency and tax regulations for each kind of vehicle.

I had a strong sense of déjà vu, as I realized I’d had a very similar conversation about 18 months ago when Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced the launch of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). In choosing to structure CZI as an Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), and not a private foundation or nonprofit entity, they launched a global debate that put philanthropic transparency on the map like never before. Unlike private foundations, LLCs are not required to provide details on giving, are able to fund both for profit and nonprofit entities, and there is no transfer of funds to an entity that is regulated to serve the public good. So, suddenly topics usually reserved for the geekiest of foundation geeks--tax code, philanthropic vehicles, and the difference between traditional philanthropy and the LLC approach --were being covered by everyone from The New York Times to San Jose Mercury News.

In Bezos’ case, it’s unclear as of this writing how the Day One Fund will be structured or when we might learn more. But Axios reported last month that according to public records, the couple had “incorporated a nonprofit in Washington State called Bezos Foundation, and someone reserved the name ‘Bezos Day 1 Foundation’ for a nonprofit.”

”Philanthropic transparency is very important to building public trust and credibility for institutional giving.“

The announcement did answer long standing speculation and questions that began more than a year ago, when Bezos started a crowd-sourcing experiment asking the world via Twitter to suggest philanthropic ideas to him at the “intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” The inquiry led to more than 46,000 responses, and much speculation about what the eventual philanthropic mission would be. In his announcement Bezos described two groups within the Day One Fund: The Day 1 Families Fund, which will support homeless support organizations such as Mary’s Place in Seattle; and the Day 1 Academies Fund, which is to fund the launch of a network of Montessori pre-schools for low-income children.

What might be most surprising to Bezos is that though his September announcement puts the focus area questions and speculations to rest, it has created a whole host of new questions about the Fund. This led me to think about our mission at GlassPockets around championing greater philanthropic transparency, and what that might look like for a start-up fund.

Philanthropic transparency is very important to building public trust and credibility for institutional giving. This is particularly true for large, highly visible, and new philanthropic initiatives but could be a helpful guide for other emergent philanthropies. So beyond the social media and the press release, what’s a newly minted philanthropist supposed to share? Based on our “Who Has Glass Pockets?” self-assessment tool, as well from the questions we get from reporters and researchers, here are some suggestions of how to think about telling the story of your start-up philanthropy:

  • Even if short on details, establish a website where people can go to look under the hood and learn more details about the work the philanthropy plans to do, how it plans to do it, and how people can stay informed of new developments. Sunlight Giving, which is a philanthropy that started up in 2014 as a result of the sale of WhatsApp to Facebook, and has already joined the GlassPockets transparency movement, made it a point to establish a website and commit to transparency early on.
  • What motivated the establishment of the fund and the issue areas? Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan provide a great example of this as the announcement for the launch of CZI was inspired by the birth of their daughter to whom they dedicated the Initiative’s vision in a “Dear Max” letter format.
  • What is the scale of the giving and what is the source of the funds?
  • How will the fund be structured? Is it a private foundation, a donor-advised fund, a limited liability corporation, or a supporting organization of a community foundation? Of these structures, the private foundation provides the most transparency because of the annual 990-PF filing detailing foundation finances, grants, and payout among other disclosures.
  • Who will be running the fund? And if it’s structured as a nonprofit, who will comprise the board of directors? Is it exclusively family members on the board, or a mix?
  • How and who will select grantees? What will the grantmaking process look like? Since this is not likely to be defined at the start-up stage, share a target date by when you hope to have this information available.
  • How will the funders get input from the communities they seek to serve? And how else will the funders learn about the issues they have identified?
  • Through what mechanism will grants and other announcements be made in the future?

It may seem like a long list, but by opening up the playbook and speaking from the heart, a new philanthropist can inspire others with their vision rather than inspiring the suspicion that inevitably comes with opacity.

--Janet Camarena

“Because It’s Hard” Is Not an Excuse – Challenges in Collecting and Using Demographic Data for Grantmaking
August 30, 2018

Melissa Sines is the Effective Practices Program Manager at PEAK Grantmaking. In this role, she works with internal teams, external consultants, volunteer advisory groups, and partner organizations to articulate and highlight the best ways to make grants – Effective Practices. A version of this post also appears in the PEAK Grantmaking blog.

MelissaFor philanthropy to advance equity in all communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, it needs to be able to understand the demographics of the organizations being funded (and declined), the people being served, and the communities impacted. That data should be used to assess practices and drive decision making.

PEAK Grantmaking is working to better understand and build the capacity of grantmakers for collecting and utilizing demographic data as part of their grantmaking. Our work is focused on answering four key questions:

  • What demographic data are grantmakers collecting and why?
  • How are they collecting these demographic data?
  • How is demographic data being used and interpreted?
  • How can funders use demographic data to inform their work?

In the process of undertaking this research, we surfaced a lot of myths and challenges around this topic that prevent our field from reaching the goal of being accountable to our communities and collecting this data for responsible and effective use.

Generally, about half of all grantmakers are collecting demographic data either about the communities they are serving or about the leaders of the nonprofits they have supported. For those who reported that they found the collection and use of this data to be challenging, our researcher dug a little deeper and asked about the challenges they were seeing.

Some of the challenges that were brought to the forefront by our research were:

PEAK Grantmaking reportChallenge 1: Fidelity and Accuracy in Self-Reported Data
Data, and self-reported data in particular, will always be limited in its ability to tell the entire story and to achieve the nuance necessary for understanding. Many nonprofits, especially small grassroots organizations, lack the capability or capacity to collect and track data about their communities. In addition, white-led nonprofits may fear that lack of diversity at the board or senior staff level may be judged harshly by grantmakers.

Challenge 2: Broad Variations in Taxonomy
Detailed and flexible identity data can give a more complete picture of the community, but this flexibility works against data standardization. Varying taxonomies, across sectors or organizations, can make it difficult to compare and contrast data. It can also be a real burden if the nonprofit applying for a grant does not collect demographic data in the categories that a grantmaker is using. This can lead to confusion about how to report this data to a funder.

Challenge 3: Varying Data Needs Across Programs
Even inside a single organization, different programs may be collecting and tracking different data, as program officers respond to needs in their community and directives from senior leadership. Different strategies or approaches to a problem demand different data. For instance, an arts advocacy program may be more concerned with constituent demographics and impact, while an artist’s program will want to know about demographics of individual artists.

Challenge 4: Aggregating Data for Coalitions and Collaborations
This becomes even more complex as coalitions and collaborative efforts that bring together numerous organizations, or programs inside of different organizations, to accomplish a single task. The aforementioned challenges are compounded as more organizations, different databases, and various taxonomies try to aggregate consistent demographic data to track impact on specific populations.

These are all very real challenges, but they are not insurmountable. Philanthropy, if it puts itself to the task, can tackle these challenges.

Some suggestions to get the field started from our report include

  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Pilot systems for data collection, then revisit them to ensure that they are working correctly, meeting the need for good data, and serving the ultimate goal of tracking impact.
  • Fund the capacity of nonprofits to collect good data and to engage in their own diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
  • Engage in a conversation – internally and externally – about how this data will be collected and how it will be used. If foundation staff and the nonprofits they work with understand the need for this data, they will more willingly seek and provide this information.
  • For coalitions and collaborative efforts, it may make sense to fund a backbone organization that takes on this task (among other administrative or evaluation efforts) in support of the collective effort.
  • Work with your funding peers – in an issue area or in a community – to approach this challenge in a way that will decrease the burden on nonprofits and utilize experts that may exist at larger grantmaking operations.
  • Support field-wide data aggregators, like GuideStar or the Foundation Center, and work alongside them as they try to collect and disseminate demographic data about the staff and boards at nonprofits and the demographics of communities that are being supported by grantmaking funds.

Grantmakers have the resources and the expertise to begin solving this issue and to share their learning with the entire field. To read more about how grantmakers are collecting and using demographic data, download the full report.

--Melissa Sines

Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: An interview with Kate Fryberg of New Zealand's Te Muka Rau Charitable Trust
August 2, 2018

Te Muka Rau Charitable Trust is the first New Zealand Foundation to join the GlassPockets movement. Kate Frykberg, trustee and philanthropy advisor, explains why.

Katie 2GlassPockets: Why is Te Muka Rau prioritizing foundation transparency?

Kate Frykberg: For us, transparency is simply about being open and honest about who we are, what we do, and how our funds are spent.  I would hate people to wonder if we had anything to hide, and I think this does sometimes happen with foundations that are not transparent.  Additionally, charitable foundations receive tax benefits, so we need to clearly show that we are using that foregone tax for the public good – and that we have achieved at least as much public good as the government would have done with that tax money.

”If we are being philanthropic, we should be upfront about how we are serving our communities.“

GP: Some assume that transparency is important for larger foundations. Why do you think it's important for smaller foundations as well?

KF: We are a small foundation by New Zealand standards and we are tiny by US standards – but transparency matters whatever the size.  If we are lucky enough to live comfortably, we should, I believe, be philanthropic and share some of what we have.  And if we are being philanthropic, we should be upfront about how we are serving our communities.  Big foundation, small foundation - the concept is the same – it’s just the number of zeros in the dollar figures that are different.

That said, one size does not fit all – so it was important for us that the GlassPockets process did not issue a score that counted against us if we were not sharing all of the indicators. For example, a small foundation like us with no paid staff doesn’t need things like executive compensation processes and whistle blower policies.  So transparency needs to be able to be adjusted to fit values, purpose, and  size.  It’s really just about openness and clarity.

GP: You have lots of experience as a philanthropy consultant and also as the prior Chair of Philanthropy New Zealand. Why is philanthropic transparency important in the New Zealand context?

KF: The New Zealand context is a little different from the United States – for example there is currently no legally required annual payout amount here.  I think this makes it all the more important to open up things and be very clear how much is given and how the community is benefiting.  Additionally, people here are often a little shy about talking about their giving, so transparency can help normalise philanthropy and build the culture of giving.  Finally, unless we are transparent, it is very difficult for the organisations that we might want to support to know about us and decide whether they should try to connect with us.  So transparency also helps our core business of funding public good initiatives.

”…with templates like what GlassPockets offers, this stuff isn’t hard to do.“

GP: How did the GlassPockets assessment help you to improve your foundation and its transparency, and why should your peers also participate?

KF: With the help of the GlassPockets team, a New Zealand version of the transparency guidelines and a self-assessment form was created; we went through that first and made quite a few changes to our website as a result.  Then we did the US GlassPockets assessment and made a few more changes.  But actually both processes were really easy – maybe a day’s work in total to think things through and tweak our website.  Of course, the leaner a foundation is, the faster the process. But, I think it’s a good message for peers to hear– with templates like what GlassPockets offers, this stuff isn’t hard to do. 

GP: Do you have any examples or anecdotes to share regarding how being a transparent funder has helped you to become more effective in your philanthropy?

KF: I think that being transparent has made it easier for organisations working in the space we fund (social cohesion) to find us, to assess how well our values and work fits theirs and then to connect with us.  That said, what helps create effective philanthropy is a much debated question and requires more than transparency alone, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle that helps build the field as a whole. 

GP: Since transparency is always evolving, what are some of your hopes for how you continue to evolve your openness in the future?

 KF: We value continual learning and I think the next thing we will prioritize is to add a place to share what we are learning.  For example, we are a bicultural funder and half our trustees are Māori (indigenous) – there may be something we can share about this journey.   On the GlassPockets assessment there is an item called “knowledge centre” – which sounds a bit grand for us - but actually no matter what size we are, we have lessons and learnings to share.  So ticking off the knowledge centre box by sharing our learnings will probably be our next step.

Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: C&A Foundation reflects on becoming accountable from the inside out
July 26, 2018

C&A Foundation is the first European foundation to sign up for GlassPockets. Sarah Ong, Programme Manager, Supply Chain Innovation and Transformation, explains why.

Untitled design (89)Disclosure of transparent data is one of the C&A Foundation’s major strategies to improve conditions in the garment industry. We believe transparency is an essential tool to increase accountability in apparel production and much of our support is focused on enabling partners to disclose and use transparent data on supply chains and working conditions. Discovering GlassPockets, it only seemed right to practice what we preach and make our own way of working transparent too. Our Executive Director, Leslie Johnston explains:

"Joining GlassPockets was an important first step, allowing us to apply our deep commitment to transparency to ourselves while also learning from others how else we can be more open."

"C&A Foundation is working hard to positively transform one of the world’s most opaque industries: fashion. To do so, we believe in the power of transparency which can move hearts, change minds, and nudge action. It is therefore equally important that we embrace transparency in how we operate. Joining GlassPockets was an important first step, allowing us to apply our deep commitment to transparency to ourselves while also learning from others how else we can be more open. We still have work to do but are grateful for initiatives like GlassPockets that enable more accountability in the philanthropic sector.”

One of the things we’ve found from the transparency work we support is that disclosure is more useful when it is made in a standardised way, so that performance can be compared against peers and over time. It is for this reason we believe it’s important to disclose through our new GlassPockets profile, as well as on our own website.

Untitled design (90)As a relatively new foundation we are still on a transparency journey. We began by making our external evaluations public, and last year the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conducted our first anonymous partner survey. CEP then used the survey results to benchmark our performance against 300 other funders, which we made a priority to publish on our website. The results were like holding up a mirror to our own performance. We learned that our first few years as a global foundation have not always been easy on our partners, particularly as we have been developing our processes and strategy. Reflecting on the results, we have identified two priorities for improvement:

  • Improving the transparency and efficiency of our processes: Survey respondents rated the foundation lower than typical on the clarity and consistency of its communications. The feedback showed we need to be more transparent on what we do and don't fund, and on how our grantmaking process works.
  • Improving our quality of relationship with partners: While foundation staff have higher than typical contact with survey respondents, we received lower than typical ratings for understanding of our partners' contexts. Simply, we need to listen better.

Publishing the results of our CEP benchmarking, was our way of taking them seriously, holding ourselves accountable and letting others hold us accountable to act on what we heard. We hope the changes we have made, and the process of being transparent will have improved the quality of our relationships with our partners and the change we can achieve together.

"We still have work to do but are grateful for initiatives like GlassPockets that enable more accountability in the philanthropic sector."

Participating in GlassPockets is the next step on our transparency journey. Completing the disclosure has highlighted several more areas where we can be more transparent, and we plan to add to our disclosures over the coming months. For example, we realised that we do not disclose our diversity data or diversity values and policies, which is an oversight since gender equity is so central to our work. We hope this disclosure encourages partners and those in the communities where we work to help us get better in how we do what we do. Our doors are open for your feedback.

--Sarah Ong

The IRS just made an important change related to transparency
July 19, 2018

This post originally appeared in Philanthropy News Digest July 19, 2018.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury has announced that the Internal Revenue Service will no longer require 501(c) organizations other than 501(c)(3)s to file personally identifiable information about donors on their Form 990s.

While the procedure does not affect the statutory reporting requirements that apply to tax-exempt groups organized under section 501(c)(3) or section 527, it will exempt associations, labor unions, social welfare organizations, and other groups from having to file Schedule B information with their 990s — though organizations must still collect that information and make it available to the IRS upon request.

According to Treasury department officials, the information was not necessary for the government to enforce tax laws, and the change itself will better protect private taxpayer information. "Americans shouldn't be required to send the IRS information that it doesn't need to effectively enforce our tax laws, and the IRS simply does not need tax returns with donor names and addresses to do its job in this area," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. "The IRS's new policy for certain tax-exempt organizations will make our tax system simpler and less susceptible to abuse."

However, Philip Hackney, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and former IRS attorney, told the NonProfit Times that, from a tax-exemption perspective, the Schedule B requirement was crucial to the agency's federally mandated oversight of the nonprofit sector. No longer requiring the information "does harm to our democracy and harm to the IRS's ability to oversee the tax law generally," he said. And because the IRS is willingly giving up important data related to where money is flowing in a tax-exempt manner from wealthy individuals, Hackney added, "[i]t makes it [easier] for wealthy interests to influence our political system covertly."

What Philanthropy Can Learn from Open Government Data Efforts
July 5, 2018

Daniela Pineda, Ph.D., is vice president of integration and learning at First 5 LA, an independent public agency created by voters to advocate for programs and polices benefiting young children. A version of this post also appears in the GOVERNING blog.

Daniela Pineda Photo 2Statistics-packed spreadsheets and lengthy, jargon-filled reports can be enough to make anybody feel dizzy. It's natural. That makes it the responsibility for those of us involved in government and its related institutions to find more creative ways to share the breadth of information we have with those who can benefit from it.

Government agencies, foundations and nonprofits can find ways to make data, outcomes and reports more user-friendly and accessible. In meeting the goal of transparency, we must go beyond inviting people to wade through dense piles of data and instead make them feel welcome using it, so they gain insights and understanding.

How can this be done? We need to make our data less wonky, if you will.

This might sound silly, and being transparent might sound as easy as simply releasing documents. But while leaders of public agencies and officeholders are compelled to comply with requests under freedom-of-information and public-records laws, genuine transparency requires a commitment to making the information being shared easy to understand and useful.

“…genuine transparency requires a commitment to making the information being shared easy to understand and useful.”

Things to consider include how your intended audience prefers to access and consume information. For instance, there are generational differences in the accessing of information on tablets and mobile devices as opposed to traditional websites. Consider all the platforms your audience uses to view information, such as smartphone apps, news websites and social media platforms, to constantly evolve based on their feedback.

Spreadsheets just won't work here. You need to invest in data visualization techniques and content writing to explain data, no matter how it is accessed.

The second annual Equipt to Innovate survey, published by Governing in partnership with Living Cities, found several cities not only using data consistently to drive decision-making but also embracing ways to make data digestible for the publics they serve.

Los Angeles' DataLA portal, for example, offers more than 1,000 data sets for all to use along with trainings and tutorials on how to make charts, maps and other visualization. The portal's blog offers a robust discussion of the issues and challenges faced with using existing data to meet common requests. Louisville, Ky., went the proverbial extra mile, putting a lot of thought into what data would be of interest to residents and sharing the best examples of free online services that have been built using the metro government's open data.

Louisville's efforts point up the seemingly obvious but critical strategy of making sure you know what information your target audience actually needs. Have you asked? Perhaps not. The answers should guide you, but also remember to be flexible about what you are asking. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District is set to launch a new portal later this summer to provide parents with data, and is still learning how to supply information that parents find useful. District officials are listening to feedback throughout the process, and they are willing to adjust. One important strategy for this is to make your audience -- or a sampling of them -- part of your beta testing. Ask what information they found useful and what else would have been helpful.

“When you share, you are inviting others to engage with you about how to improve your work.”

Remember, the first time you allow a glimpse into your data and processes, it's inevitable your information will have gaps and kinks that you can't foresee. And if you are lucky to get feedback about what didn't work so well, it may even seem harsh. Don't take it personally. It's an opportunity to ask your audience what could be done better and commit to doing so. It may take weeks, months or maybe longer to package information for release, making it usable and accessible, but this is an investment worth making. You might miss the mark the first time, but make a commitment to keep trying.

And don't be daunted by the reality that anytime you share information you expose yourself to criticism. Sharing with the public that a project didn't meet expectations or failed completely is a challenge no matter how you look at it. But sharing, even when it is sharing your weaknesses, is a strength your organization can use to build its reputation and gain influence in the long term.

When you share, you are inviting others to engage with you about how to improve your work. You also are modeling the importance of being open about failure. This openness is what helps others feel like partners in the work, and they will feel more comfortable opening up about their own struggles. You might be surprised at who will reach out and what type of partnerships can come from sharing.

Through this process, you will build your reputation and credibility, helping your organization advance its goals. Ultimately, it's about helping those you serve by giving them the opportunity to help you.

--Daniela Pineda

The Risky Business of Foundation Opacity
May 23, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open 990-PF

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

GrantAdvisor

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

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

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

--Janet Camarena

Building Our Knowledge Sharing Muscle at Irvine
May 17, 2018

Kim Ammann Howard joined the James Irvine Foundation as Director of Impact Assessment and Learning in 2015. She has more than 20 years of social impact experience working with nonprofits, foundations, and the public sector to collect, use, and share information that stimulates ongoing learning, and change.

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.

Kim Ammann HowardHaving recently spent two days with peer foundation evaluation directors, I am savoring the rich conversations and reflecting on how shared knowledge benefits my own thinking and actions. It also reminds me of how often those conversations only benefit those inside the room. To really influence the field, we need to build our knowledge sharing muscle beyond our four walls and usual circles. A new report from the Foundation Center, Open for Good: Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking, aims to help funders do just that, and I was happy to contribute some of The James Irvine Foundation’s own journey to the guide.

When I joined the Foundation at the end of 2015, there was already a commitment to transparency and openness that established knowledge sharing as part of the culture. It was something that attracted me to Irvine, and I was excited to build on the types of information collected and disseminated in the past, and to figure out how we could grow.

Open For Good CoverOur Framework

In 2016, we launched our new strategy, which focuses on expanding economic and political opportunity for California families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty. This presented an opportune moment to articulate and set expectations about how impact assessment and learning (IA&L) is integrated in the work. This includes defining how we assess our progress in meeting our strategic goals, how we learn, and how we use what we learn to adapt and improve. We developed a framework that outlines our approach to IA&L – why we think it’s important, what principles guide us, and how we put IA&L into practice.

While the IA&L framework was designed as an internal guide, we decided to make it available externally for three reasons: to honor the Foundation’s commitment to transparency and openness; to hold ourselves accountable to what we say we espouse for IA&L; and to model our approach for colleagues at other organizations who may be interested in adopting a similar framework.

What We’re Learning

We’ve also dedicated a new portion of our website to what we are learning. We use this section to share knowledge with the field – and not only the end results of an initiative or body of research but also to communicate what happens in the middle – to be transparent about the work as we go.

For example, in 2017, we spent a year listening and learning from grantees, employers, thought leaders, and other stakeholders in California to inform what would become our Better Careers initiative. At the end of the year, we announced the goal of the initiative to connect low-income Californians to good jobs with family-sustaining wages and advancement opportunities. It was important for us to uphold the principles of feedback set in our IA&L framework by communicating with all the stakeholders who helped to inform the initiative’s strategy – it was also the right thing to do. We wanted to be transparent about how we got to our Better Career approach and highlight the ideas reflected in it as well as the equally valuable insights that we decided not to pursue. Given the resources that went into accumulating this knowledge, and in the spirit of greater funder collaboration, we also posted these ideas on our website to benefit others working in this space.

As we continue to build our knowledge sharing muscle at Irvine, we are exploring additional ways to communicate as we go. We are currently reflecting on what we are learning about how we work inside the foundation – and thinking about ways to share the insights that can add value to the field. Participating as a voice in the Foundation Center’s new Open for Good guide was one such opportunity, and the stories and lessons from other Foundations in the guide inspires our own path forward. 

--Kim Ammann Howard

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
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