Transparency Talk

Category: "Openness" (129 posts)

Saying “No” Gracefully: What Grantmakers Should Know
March 25, 2021

EllenFlax
Ellen Flax

Ellen Flax served as the director of a public foundation and as a program officer and consultant at several large family foundations and now works as a philanthropy consultant. Follow her on Twitter @ellenflax or get in touch at ellen@ellenflax.com

What do 2-year-olds and foundation professionals have in common? 

They both say “no” frequently. 

Toddlers have no problem saying “no.” They tend to chant the word many times in a row, often while stomping their feet or throwing a mini temper tantrum. 

Grantmakers, too, often say “no.” Indeed, due to limited resources, they are forced to say “no” far more often than they can say “yes.”  But unlike a toddler, many feel uncomfortable sayingno,” and for good reason. 

“The mere act of rejecting a grant application reinforces the power dynamic and power imbalance between a funder and a nonprofit organization.”

We know (or should know!) that the mere act of rejecting a grant application reinforces the power dynamic and power imbalance between a funder and a nonprofit organization.  While many have shifted to calling the organizations that we fund “grantee partners” as a way of making this relationship less transactional, at the end of the day, funders are consistently playing with a better hand of cards than are grant applicants. 

We also know (or should know!) that every grant application—even if it is completed on a common application platform, or “only” needs to be 500 words in length—represents a real investment of time and effort by a nonprofit and its staff.  And truth be told, the online application systems favored by funders for their efficiency (for the funder’s efficient operations, mind you) have actually increased the workload of nonprofits and their grant writers, who now have to spend countless hours figuring out ways to trim 10 characters or 10 words from an otherwise perfectly fine paragraph so it can fit into an arbitrarily sized answer box.

We also know (or should know!) that every “no” might cause one or more of a nonprofit’s staffers to lose a job, lead to the abrupt end of a successful or worthy program (and the attendant impact on program participants), or, in a worst-case scenario, the collapse of an organization. In an ideal world, the one that foundation professionals believe is the hallmark of a good or strong organization, a nonprofit should have a pipeline of other and/or new potential funders available, or seek multiple grants simultaneously, to support a program. Yet, if the nonprofit is the victim of a string of unlucky breaks, including a pandemic, it may nonetheless wind up in the red, despite taking all the right steps to raise funds and be financially responsible. 

So, what, if anything, can funders do to say “no” in a way that respects the time, effort, and dignity of grantseekers?

Let’s start with the timing of rejection notices. Foundations typically send out rejection letters at the end of a complete grant cycle, after their Board or other decision makers have approved a docket. This is often months after an application was submitted, and perhaps even months after there was a decision to not advance a set of proposals to the next round of review, never mind before the Board gives final approval.  If funders opted to provide notices of rejection in real time, as their internal processes winnow down the number of applications subject to final consideration, they would, at the very least, provide nonprofits with more timely information, enabling them to better plan for contingencies and/or refine their development efforts. 

We should also rethink the contents of the rejection letter. The typical communique is anodyne at best, praising the organization for its good work, and noting that due to heavy competition (which is likely true) that it was not selected for a grant. In an ideal world, a rejection notice should be customized to each applicant, spelling out the reasons for the rejection, and contain an offer for direct feedback about their proposal from a foundation professional. For example, the Bush Foundation’s rejection letter provides applicants with a link to sign up for a one-on-one appointment with a program officer to discuss why their proposal was turned down.  

Like Bush, there are some funders that are able to provide customized assessments—they are fortunate to have sufficient staff time, as well as a reasonably-sized applicant pool. For most funders, however, this type of individualized feedback is aspirational, but not practical, due to limited staff, other competing work priorities, and a large volume of proposals. Further, the unspoken but must-be-acknowledged reality is that fund decision-makers, staff and board members alike, don’t always apply consistent criteria when evaluating and approving grant proposals—and no one wants to be put in the position of telling an applicant that their submission was rejected for a subjective reason.  

On the other hand, if there is, indeed, an objective reason for the rejection, such as a poor evaluation plan or the project falls outside the foundation’s area of interest, then we should do our best to communicate that information proactively. 

If such individualized feedback is not possible, then funders should use other vehicles to share what went into their decision-making process.  This could be in the form of a webinar, a podcast, a blog post, infographics, or a white paper. 

“Nonprofit organizations and funders are necessary partners in the grand human effort to improve our society.”

For example, when I served as the director of a foundation and lacked the ability to respond to each applicant individually, I created a short podcast based on the trends we observed from our latest round of grants, as well as some general tips related to creating a better proposal. This was particularly critical after the foundation changed its priorities in one of our areas of giving, and was able to refine its preferences only after reviewing proposals and learning how the field was actually implementing these types of programs. We shared a link to this recording, which was posted on Box, with the organizations we rejected. While saying “no” was still difficult, the podcast enabled us to provide some level of feedback to the applicants, and indicated that we truly acknowledged the time and effort that these organizations dedicated to their grant writing and program planning.

Nonprofit organizations and funders are necessary partners in the grand human effort to improve our society. When they say “no” to a request, funders owe it to their partners to do so in such a way that is respectful, promotes learning, and provides greater transparency in an often-opaque field.

Spending down? Don’t forget your knowledge!
January 14, 2021

Ashleigh Halverstad Headshot
Ashleigh Halverstad

Ashleigh Halverstadt is the former senior evaluation and learning officer of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, a spend-down foundation that concluded operations in December 2020. In this role, she worked with program staff and grantees to design and implement evaluation strategies, forged partnerships with field-building initiatives to advance philanthropic evaluation practice generally, and, in the Foundation’s final years, led knowledge management efforts culminating in the launch of a Candid Legacy Collection.

On December 31, 2020, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation concluded operations, following 64 years of grantmaking and a 2009 decision to spend down its assets. Throughout its life, and particularly during the spend-down years, the Foundation invested in knowledge creation. As our operations drew to a close, we preserved much of this work in a Legacy Collection hosted through Candid’s knowledge management platform, IssueLab.

S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation logoBuilding and sharing knowledge was a hallmark of the education and environment strategies that animated the Foundation’s 12-year spend down. Like many “systems change” funders, we were working to address entrenched problems of mind-boggling complexity. We knew we could not act—or learn—alone if we wanted to make progress. Solutions only come into focus when social sector actors learn from and with others, especially those closest to the ground.

As our sunset approached, we wondered: What would come of the knowledge we’d produced and supported? During the spend down, we invested more than $80 million in research and evaluation related to our strategic initiatives, and we published a few dozen resources of our own. We worked hard to share knowledge through our website and email distribution, and, more importantly, through our partners. But we knew our website wouldn’t live forever (it is currently expected to remain live for at least one-year post-sunset) and that we wouldn’t be around to support the ongoing knowledge dissemination efforts of our partners.

S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation Legacy Collection
After much consideration, we decided against establishing a formal, comprehensive archive of all our records (read more about that here). We felt a responsibility, however, to create a permanent, publicly accessible home for our knowledge products—and that led us to IssueLab. IssueLab is one of the social sector’s largest open repositories, which already makes it a sensible place to store things. Plus, when a resource is added to IssueLab, it also gets disseminated through knowledge aggregators such as WorldCat (the world’s largest library catalog) as well as other Candid properties and partners. When we learned that Candid was launching the Legacy Collection service, specifically designed for organizations that are closing their doors, we knew it was a good fit.

What did it take to actually do it? I spent much of the last year leading the creation of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation Legacy Collection in close partnership with Lisa Brooks, director of knowledge management systems at Candid. For the benefit of anyone considering a similar undertaking, this piece offers a behind-the-scenes look at the process we worked through, and some of the lessons learned along the way.

Compiling knowledge products. First things first: What were we going to put in this collection? We knew it would include all self-published works as well as reports from evaluations of our major initiatives. I took responsibility for compiling these resources; in my role as senior evaluation and learning officer, sitting within a team that also held responsibility for communications, I was deeply familiar with these products and knew right where to find them.

But what else? We supported grantees in countless knowledge-building efforts over the years, but we never had a system for gathering and storing the products of their work. The fastest way to find these resources would have been to ask program staff. But we knew staff didn’t have the bandwidth in our final year of operations to track down all of the knowledge products that had been developed with our funding.

So, we decided to leave it up to staff discretion. Rather than create a Foundation-wide policy about what to include, we invited program staff to identify the resources they felt would be most valuable to highlight—and to submit those resources to me via a shared spreadsheet. I hosted a workshop to orient staff to the Legacy Collection and followed up with written instructions and supporting materials (e.g., draft email copy for reaching out to grantees about the opportunity).

Participation varied, with staff submitting anywhere from 0 to 30 resources. Some expressed a desire to contribute but simply did not have the bandwidth. Others required a little nudging. Many had questions about what was eligible for inclusion, what was worthy of inclusion, how to handle intellectual property, and more. I worked with staff (and in some cases, grantees) one-on-one to navigate their individual circumstances, a process that proved to be more time-consuming than I anticipated.

Lesson learned: Relying on the institutional memory of staff to inventory knowledge products is not an efficient strategy—but it was the best one we had. If we had known years ago that we would be building a Legacy Collection, we could have developed a policy about what would be included and a knowledge management system to support it. For example, we could have collected grantee knowledge products through our grants portal as standard practice, or tagged knowledge-building grants in our database for easy searchability later.

“If we had known years ago that we would be building a Legacy Collection, we could have developed a policy about what would be included and a knowledge management system to support it.”

Respecting intellectual property. As we began to compile knowledge products, one of the tricky things I ran into immediately was the matter of intellectual property. Many of our grantees copyright their work. Copyright law protects against the unauthorized distribution of a knowledge product. This means IssueLab can link to a copyrighted knowledge product, but holding a copy of that knowledge product on its servers without permission can be problematic. Linking to a resource is fine—until that link breaks—so we wanted the contents of our collection to be hosted on IssueLab wherever possible.

We felt a deep responsibility to ensure that we were treating our grantees—and their intellectual property—with respect. Although our standard grant agreement enables the Foundation to use or publish grant-funded work products at its discretion, we didn’t feel right about including grantees’ knowledge products in the Legacy Collection without their consent. We decided to seek grantee approval for every product we wanted to include. In most cases, grantees were delighted to be featured because they want their work to be as widely disseminated as possible. Still, this process added a layer of work for everyone involved and extended our timeline for finalizing the contents of the collection.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ToolkitLesson learned: Copyright often runs counter to our goals in the social sector! Many organizations opt to use open licensing for their work instead (more on our own journey with this below). And some funders encourage their grantees to use open licensing. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has an excellent tool kit on this subject. If we had put an open knowledge policy in place at the Foundation early in the spend down, we would have been better equipped to build the Legacy Collection and to engage with grantees about the various tools available to support easy, permanent access to their knowledge products.

Building and designing the collection. While I coordinated with staff internally to gather knowledge products and grantee approvals, I worked with Lisa to process the incoming materials and create the collection.

Importing knowledge products to a collection is not quite as simple as just uploading the files; someone has to manually develop metadata for each record (i.e., data about the file—publication date, author, abstract, etc.). Candid offers several options for document integration, ranging from do-it-yourself to full service. We opted for full service: I provided Lisa with the files, and her team generated the metadata, which saved me a lot of time. I did review and edit the metadata, though, and in a few cases, I had to consult with program staff or grantees to get it right.

“Importing knowledge products to a collection is not quite as simple as just uploading the files.”

As the collection started to come together, Lisa and I began to meet regularly to talk about thorny issues and how to handle specific files, and to make decisions about the customization of the collection. We created pages describing the Foundation and the collection’s treatment of intellectual property, developed a taxonomy for the contents, and configured the search function. It was a true partnership—Lisa has deep expertise in knowledge management, and it was a luxury to have her sound advice and guidance throughout.

Both document integration and design were complicated by the fact that we were adding material to the collection on a rolling basis up until the Foundation closed. Keeping track of it all was a real challenge, with an inventory that ultimately exceeded 200 items. It also meant that Lisa and I had to revisit the metadata and the taxonomy for the collection multiple times.

Lesson learned: The process of building and designing the collection would have been much simpler if I could have just handed our knowledge products over to Candid in a single batch, and then dealt with metadata and design issues all at once. Real life doesn’t work like that. We built our Legacy Collection inventory iteratively over the course of six months. This required careful organization and constant communication with Lisa to keep track of all the moving pieces.

Open Publishing Policies and Principals
An open knowledge policy and procedure for handling and sharing knowledge products funded and/or produced by your organization.

Applying open knowledge practices. Creation of the Legacy Collection provided an opportunity for us to think deeply about our self-published work and how to make it as freely, easily, and permanently accessible as possible. We benefited immensely from Candid’s thought leadership and resources in this space, and we became advocates for open knowledge. In our final year of operations, we implemented open licensing and digital object identifiers (DOIs) for all of our self-published work.

Prior to 2020, most of our publications made no mention of copyright. I thought this meant they could be distributed and used in any way. But as I later learned from Lisa, original work is automatically protected by copyright when it’s created, even if it’s not marked with a copyright symbol. Without knowing it, we had copyrighted all of our work as “all rights reserved” by default—in direct contradiction to our goals! Since we wanted our resources and lessons learned to be as widely disseminated as possible, we decided to apply Creative Commons licenses to all of our self-published work. Details about the licenses we chose are available here.

Equally important, we wanted this body of work to live on beyond 2020. We don’t know how long its shelf life will be, but as long as folks find it useful, it should be accessible. DOIs make this possible. A DOI provides a unique, permanent, unbreakable link for a digital knowledge product—a real dream for an organization like ours that won’t be around to maintain URLs. I’ve become an evangelist for DOIs and can’t understand why we’re not all using them, especially since Candid provides them for free! DOIs have been ubiquitous in academia for years because they make knowledge products easier to discover and track online. We decided to assign DOIs to all of our publications.

I’m really proud that we implemented open licenses and DOIs, but doing it in our final year of operations was a little tricky. Most of our work was already published by the time we put these decisions into effect, and though not strictly necessary, we made the effort to go back and update each document to include information about its license and DOI. Our communications firm graciously accepted the charge, but for their sake, I wish I’d surfaced the issue earlier.

Lesson learned: Creative Commons licenses and DOIs are incredibly valuable tools for sharing and preserving knowledge, yet they’re underutilized in the social sector. They’re especially essential for organizations that are going out of business and won’t be around to field intellectual property inquiries or maintain URLs. Considering that these practices are free and easy to implement, we should all be using them—and the sooner we start, the easier it will be.

Reflecting on what we’ve built. Now that you’ve had a behind-the-scenes tour of what it took to create the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation Legacy Collection, you may be wondering: Was it worth all the trouble? The answer is a resounding YES! Sure, we encountered a few bumps along the way, but the time and resource investments were minimal compared to the benefits of preserving the knowledge we’ve built during our spend down. Contrary to its title, we didn’t create the Legacy Collection to pay homage to the Foundation’s legacy. We did it because we believe that knowledge is power—and that we have a responsibility to make it accessible to all.

Headwaters Foundation Joins GlassPockets
December 3, 2020

Brenda-Solorzano_2020_5764_websize-e1606835694594-600x600
Brenda Solorzano

Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Brenda Solorzano, Chief Executive Officer, Headwaters Foundation

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.

Headwaters Foundation works side-by-side with Western Montanans to improve community health. Its vision is a Western Montana where all people, especially the region’s most vulnerable, are healthy and thriving.

In recognition that the resources of the Headwaters Foundation belong to the communities it serves, its philanthropic investments are designed with community at the center of the work. The foundation supports efforts that address the social determinants of health issues that keep Western Montanans from being healthy. Investments by the foundation prioritize two vulnerable communities, children living in poverty and American Indian communities. Through 2023 its granting programs include:

  • Strategic Initiatives: Supporting multi-year, multi-faceted strategic initiatives that build community capacity to collaboratively address the issues that keep Western Montanans from being healthy
  • GO! Grants: Quick turnaround, high impact, low stress grants for mission aligned organizations in rural Western Montana
  • Policy Grants: Focused on research, policy development and grassroots advocacy, these investments inform Montana health policy conversations

Headwaters Foundation is among our newest GlassPockets participants. In this interview with GlassPockets’ Janet Camarena, Brenda Solorzano, CEO of the Headwaters Foundation, explains why transparency is key to its philanthropic approach.

GlassPockets: 2020 has been a very unpredictable and challenging time for us all, and much of what is happening in philanthropy today stems from responding to multiple crises unfolding from the pandemic and from a nation reckoning with racial injustice. How is Headwaters responding to these unprecedented times, and how has your thinking about transparency, openness, and funder accountability informed your approach?

Brenda Solorzano: The current crises are forcing philanthropy to re-visit why and how we do our work, including us at Headwaters. At Headwaters, we start from a place of trusting that communities know best about the challenges they face and the solutions needed. This is the lens we applied when the dual crises hit Montana. We turned to our grantees and asked them what they needed. They told us they needed resources to address the significant food access and childcare issues elevated by the pandemic. So that is what we provided. They also shared the need to shift their grant priorities and timelines, so we did that too. The basic theme here is that we listened to our grantees and the communities they serve. There is no greater accountability for a funder than to listen to your grantees. This is true always, regardless of whether we are living in a pandemic or not. And while we always take this approach to our work, these times pushed us to ask ourselves what else we could be doing in regards to transparency and accountability. The decision to participate in GlassPockets came as a result of this exploration. It had been on my radar for a while but the crises lit a fire to finally get it done.

GlassPockets: Your website outlines a community-driven, collaborative approach to problem solving. There is growing interest in participatory approaches to grantmaking as one way to mitigate traditional grantee-grantmaker power dynamics that can get in the way, as well as to better learn and value community expertise. Can you share some thoughts about how this approach is leading the foundation in different, more effective directions than otherwise might have been the case with a traditional philanthropic approach?

“The benefits of these elements are that grantees start from a place of partnership and buy-in when they are in control of defining the problem and solution.”

Brenda: Philanthropy has a long history of top-down approaches. This includes defining the problems and solution, determining success, and freedom to shift on a whim. And while there may be some merits to these approaches, they often do not support the critical community work that could more effectively address the big social challenges we face, especially during times of crises. Before I address the benefits of this approach, I want to call out a few points. First, doing work in this way requires ceding power and control by foundation staff and board. It also requires relationship building with grantee partners that is grounded in more than the money. Finally, it requires a shared vision for the change that is desired. The benefits of these elements are that grantees start from a place of partnership and buy-in when they are in control of defining the problem and solution. Grantees are also more honest in sharing when there is a mutual definition of success because they have insight in to how the foundation will define success and have a trusting relationship to work through any challenges that may arise.  Another benefit is that by doing the work this way, grantees can focus on their mission critical work and not have to spend time demystifying the traditional grant application process. From a personal perspective, the way we do the work at Headwaters is more fulfilling than the traditional approaches I took in my previous 15 plus years of grantmaking.

GlassPockets: One of the biggest barriers we encounter when it comes to foundations embracing a more transparent approach is a lack of understanding of the return on the investment of time and effort.  Can you share a story about how opening up and illuminating the work that you are doing has helped you to better achieve your organization’s goals, or advanced your work in some unanticipated way?

“The lack of transparency in philanthropy creates far more unnecessary work on the part of grantees and foundation staff than if you spent some time creating more transparent ways of communicating.”

Brenda: I would counter the narrative by sharing that the lack of transparency in philanthropy creates far more unnecessary work on the part of grantees and foundation staff than if you spent some time creating more transparent ways of communicating. I’ll share a story that exemplifies this. When we launched our grantmaking programs, I met with many nonprofit leaders wanting to access funds from this new foundation. During a meeting with one of these local nonprofit leaders. I shared our website, which includes a clear description of our strategy and grantmaking priorities. I also shared that all of our grantmaking programs were on the website and that there were no other “behind closed door” funds. After reviewing the materials, she came back to me and said that it was clear to her that her organization and their work were not a fit for funding. She noted that she appreciated the clarity and directness of my communication because she would no longer keep pursuing funding from us since it was clear they did not fit into any of the funding programs. She noted that she has a yearly plan to meet with funders or apply for funding from any foundation that she thinks she has even a slight chance of getting funds from. She recognizes that playing this game results in a lot of her time chasing dollars she may not get, but feels that is what foundations’ lack of clarity cause her to do. She crossed us off her yearly foundation visit and thanked me for giving her time to focus on things that had better return on investment for her mission-critical work. I appreciated that I would not have to take another meeting with her and instead could prioritize time with mission- and strategy-aligned grantees.

GlassPockets: How did the GlassPockets self-assessment process help you improve or better understand Headwater's level of transparency, and why should your peers participate?

Brenda: As a trust-based funder, we are continuously asking ourselves how we can better live the values of humility, equity and transparency. The GlassPockets assessment made it clear that we have a long way to go to maximize how we live the value of transparency. I felt pleased that we met some of the expectations, but I quickly realized that there is more information we should be sharing with our grantees and the communities we serve. As a result of this learning, we have added a transparency goal for 2021 and will be building a work plan, so when we re-do our GlassPockets assessment next year, we will rate better than our current assessment indicates. This was a good learning process for me and I realized that relying on my gut to measure our level of transparency was seriously flawed.  I’d encourage my colleagues to do their own GlassPockets assessment because it will clearly identify areas of improvement needed to truly be a transparent funder.

GlassPockets: The Headwaters Foundation is active in the Trust-Based Philanthropy movement. Can you share a bit with us about the Trust-Based approach, why Headwaters is participating, and how transparency and openness play a role within that effort?

“I’d encourage my colleagues to do their own GlassPockets assessment because it will clearly identify areas of improvement needed to truly be a transparent funder.”

Brenda: In any kind of relationship, it is difficult to have a trusting relationship without transparency. This applies to a funder/ grantee relationship and it is why transparency is so critical within the Trust-Based Philanthropy (TBP) approach.  As mentioned above, TBP is grounded in centering values of equity, humility and transparency. These values are critical if foundations aim to have trusting relationships with grantees and/or are hoping to rebalance the power dynamic between themselves and their grantees.

While transparency is a key component of TBP, it is only part of what TBP is all about. TBP is an approach that also requires centering relationships with grantees, collaborating with humility and curiosity, sharing and ceding of power by foundations, and centering equity by changing practices that perpetuate inequities. The theory of TBP is that having a philanthropic approach with all of these components will lead to more effective community-led change efforts that could more effectively create a just society.

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

Brenda: To start with, we need to do better at meeting the GlassPockets criteria around foundation transparency. This will be the low hanging fruit, but something we must improve. A couple of other areas I’d like Headwaters to explore is how we can be more transparent about how we manage and invest our endowment. We are also looking at how we can do better in sharing what we are learning from our work and how to share it with key audiences including grantees, the communities we serve, and the field of philanthropy.

Invitation Only: Closing the Door to Equity?
November 15, 2019

Clairepeeps
Claire Peeps

Claire Peeps is the executive director of the Durfee Foundation, a family foundation that focuses on investing in extraordinary people who are making a better Los Angeles.

This blog also appears in Candid’s GrantCraft blog.

After more than 20 years of grantmaking in Los Angeles County, you’d think our staff at the Durfee Foundation would know all of the eligible nonprofits in our region. But we don’t.

Not long ago, for example, we got a grant request from a car mechanic who had opened his garage to foster youth in the high desert, a couple of hours north of us. Aaron Valencia, founder of Lost Angels Children’s Project, is now among the most innovative and talented leaders in our grant portfolio. But we would never have met him, had we employed an invitation-only application process.  The lesson to those of us in philanthropy: you just don’t know what you don’t know.

Every time Durfee opens an application cycle, we meet eligible nonprofits that we’ve never heard of before.  It hardly seems possible, but it happens, every time. Even with our lean staffing, we think it’s increasingly important to keep the door open, so let me share with you why and how we do it.

As a generalist funder, our grantmaking lens is as wide and diverse as Los Angeles. These circumstances might explain why it would be hard for us to craft a list of ideal grantee partners. But even if we could, we would still prefer the open application process.  California

No matter how much time we spend on the ground, in the community, we can’t possibly keep up with the goings-on of all worthy, high-performing nonprofits. Plus, we’ve heard from so many of them how much they appreciate the opportunity to put themselves forward, and to state their case directly to us. Nonprofit leaders are active change-makers, and they seek agency over their future.

We also hear rueful complaints by leaders who are frustrated by their inability to get in the line of vision of funders whose mission seems to align with their own.  We field a lot of “do you know anyone there?” calls.

Which makes us wonder—what if we looked at the grantmaking process through an equity lens?

At a time when our field is focused on equity and inclusion, an invitation-only application process seems counter-intuitive. Or worse, it can project autocracy, instead of partnership—a sort of opaque “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Imagine what it would feel like to stand at the door of a windowless, locked building to which you seek entry, with no bell to ring.  And yet, that’s very often how foundations present to would-be grantseekers. Why?

"At a time when our field is focused on equity and inclusion, an invitation-only application process seems counter-intuitive."

I recognize that sometimes, invitation-only makes sense.  A place or issue-based initiative, with a specific goal and time horizon, might best succeed in a sustained, collaborative model with a set of close, expert partners.  Or, grantmakers in spend-down mode might choose to bring their work to a close in a deliberate fashion with a select few longstanding colleagues. It can streamline limited resources, reduce the demand on nonprofit leaders’ time while increasing their odds of being funded, and reduce the time foundation staff invest in application review.

While all of this seems great for the nonprofits who find themselves in a funder’s favor, what about those who fall outside their line of vision?

What Do Nonprofit Leaders Say?

The opinions above are my own, and I’m a grantmaker. Knowing that we alone shouldn’t be the ones to decide about our process, the Durfee Foundation sent a survey to approximately 100 nonprofit leaders in Los Angeles to ask their opinion on the matter. The leaders surveyed are recipients of the Durfee Sabbatical Award and are arguably among the strongest nonprofit sector leaders in our region.

We asked two questions:

  1. Do you prefer foundation application processes that are open, or invitation only?; and
  2. Do you think “invitation only” processes help or hinder the work of your organization?—and, in both cases, why?

The results were mixed and thoughtful. Overall, 78% prefer open processes, an overwhelming majority.  Not surprisingly, those who tilt in favor of invitation-only represent larger organizations, but even they recognized the challenge of achieving a spot in the inner circle. Almost all acknowledge the dilemma of a Hobson’s choice – invitation-only is always preferable if you are offered an invitation.

“If I’m in,” said one leader, “of course I prefer the invitation-only application because it increases my odds of getting the grants. But if/when I find myself in need of finding new foundations to fund our work, it seems the likely ones are invitation-only, so I’m stuck.”

Other leaders expressed appreciation for the satisfaction they feel when they work in partnership with funders.  “When we are on the ‘inside,’ it’s of course great! The collaboration with a funder is very rewarding.”

Those circling closed shops while looking for entry were incisive and blunt.

“Invitation-only applications further the funder as an all-powerful source,” said one leader. “They exclude small community-based organizations who are doing great work, but don’t have access to the privileged circles big funders run in. My organizations have been in the select group for some of the biggest foundations. It takes years of relationship-building, and the skill and ability to spend time doing that. Often those most impacted by the issues being funded do not have the time or ability to spend in that way. It’s an equity issue.”

“The open process speaks to me about the receptivity of the foundation," said another. “It tells me the foundation doesn’t think they know about everything that’s going on that might be mission-aligned.”

“Invite-only foundations can perpetuate income/gender/racial inequity in the same way as invite-only clubs,” said a third.

In addition to posing a challenge regarding equal access, some see invitation-only as limiting to experimentation: “Invitation-only, it seems, reduces the ability of the nonprofit organization to innovate and move in a new direction. If, say, our board has decided through strategic planning that we need to engage in green infrastructure when we are known for habitat restoration, how can we telegraph that to a funder that funds in this new area?”

So What’s a Funder to Do? Advice on a Hybrid Approach

The survey results yielded lots of practical suggestions, with nuanced perspective.

“More hybrid approaches are needed,” said one leader.  “Open processes should still be focused and targeted. Before applying, I want to know if my organization’s work is a fit for the foundation.  For those that are invitation-only, I would like to see more mechanisms for opening their processes, like polling current grantees for younger, smaller, newer organizations that deserve a ‘look.’ Another idea might be for grantseekers to have an exploratory interaction with the foundation, like an ‘office hour,’ a ‘meet and greet’ or a systematic process by which foundation officers actively seek out new groups to add to their portfolio.”

“I believe that an open process is perceived by the field as being more equitable," said another, “however, I don’t think this is necessarily true. The ways in which the open applications are vetted is where real equity happens or doesn’t. Who’s making the decision? What are the guidelines? These are the real questions when it comes to equity.”

So, my fellow funders, let’s start there—with these simple and complex suggestions that emerged.

Write Clear Guidelines. This may be the most challenging, but essential practice of them all. Clear guidelines may enable a foundation to shift from invitation-only to open application, without opening the floodgates to impossible numbers of applications. Vague or imprecise guidelines generate vast numbers of unsuccessful applications, and waste valuable time for both grantseekers and reviewers. Clear guidelines help nonprofits take agency in determining whether they are a fit for a grant opportunity or not.

Invite a Letter of Interest. Even if your foundation prefers to work with nonprofit partners by invitation only, offer a letter of interest option or an online platform for nonprofits to introduce themselves, and to get in your line of vision.  Acknowledge that you have received the communication, and let them know what you will do with the information.

Explain Your Selection Process. If you are invitation-only, take the time to explain why. Whether you are open or by-invitation, let grantseekers know how decisions are made, by whom, by what timeline. If there are set opportunities to invite newcomers and expand your portfolio, share when and how.

Durfee uses a peer review process for most of its programs. We’ve found this an excellent way to expand the expertise of our small, generalist staff, and to offer some transparency to our process. Our peer panelists, usually alums of our award programs, bring deep community knowledge to our decision making, and subsequently serve as ambassadors in the field, clarifying and demystifying the foundation’s process to their peers.

Be Available by Phone. In our digital age, this practice might seem old-fashioned, but we’ve found it’s incredibly valuable at Durfee for building relationships. One compassionate, articulate staff person on the phone can right-size an applicant pool by helping applicants determine if they’re a fit. When they’re not, we find we can often point them in helpful directions, offer feedback, and provide a heartfelt thanks for the organization’s work. This really can go a long distance. Regardless of the outcome, the cost of this simple strategy yields dividends in goodwill.

List Board and Staff. All grantseekers deserve to know who has decision-making authority at foundations, which are, after all, tax-exempt public entities. It’s reasonable for nonprofit leaders to consider who’s in the room before investing time in an application, so board and staff should always be listed on a foundation’s website or in print materials.

Acknowledge Funder Fragility. Let’s face it, it’s a real thing. Whatever prompts funder fragility—uneasy power dynamics, concern about being overwhelmed by requests, disinclination to express rejection, deference to our boards, fear of criticism—we often work behind a buffer that separates us from the sector we serve. Most of our decision-making takes place behind closed doors, out of public view.

For those who truly seek anonymity in their grantmaking, a donor-advised fund might be a more appropriate giving vehicle than a foundation.  Indeed, a more honorable one. If you choose to hang out a shingle—if you seek and are awarded IRS status as a private foundation—you owe it to the public to make your grantmaking process reasonably accessible and transparent. That’s also one of the reasons that Durfee was an early adopter to participate in Candid’s GlassPockets transparency initiative to encourage greater openness in philanthropy. We hope our profile there signals our ongoing commitment to working in a trusted and transparent manner.

"If you choose to hang out a shingle—if you seek and are awarded IRS status as a private foundation—you owe it to the public to make your grantmaking process reasonably accessible and transparent."

Build Trust. According to Southern California Grantmakers, only about 30% of its members currently offer an open, accessible application process. Let’s collectively inch that number higher!

I’m hopeful that we are trending in that direction. The recently-launched Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, a national initiative spearheaded by the Whitman Institute, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Headwaters Foundation, seeks to rebalance power in philanthropy by promoting trust-based relationships between nonprofits and foundations. Being responsive, streamlining paperwork and seeking and acting on feedback from nonprofits are among the pillars of best practice that they recommend. Other important endeavors, like California’s Full Cost Project and LA’s Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, prize clarity and candor in nonprofit and funder exchange, and strive to put more strategic decision making in the hands of nonprofit leaders.

It takes two to tango, as they say. But a trusting relationship between nonprofits and funders shouldn’t begin on the dance floor, after funders have chosen their dance partners. It needs to begin much earlier, as they explore shared interests and skills.

And access to the dance floor? The building that houses it needs windows, and a front door with a bell that rings. Or better yet, an open door to a standing invitation.

--Claire Peeps

WEBINAR—#OpenForGood: Sharing Knowledge to Advance Foundation Impact
September 5, 2019

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Meg Long
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Veronica Olazabal
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Lee Alexander Risby

Learn how to go about sharing knowledge to drive broader impact across the social sector. This webinar coming up on September 17th, hosted by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, featuring the inaugural winners of Candid’s #OpenForGood Award, will present best practices and approaches to help your foundation shift to a culture of learning.

The webinar will explore how foundations can take specific steps to better support knowledge-sharing by providing an overview of Candid’s #OpenForGood field scan and how-to guide, and asking participants to identify challenges and possible solutions when it comes to opening up knowledge for the greater good. Recent #OpenForGood award-winning foundations, the Rockefeller Foundation and the C&A Foundation, will share their insights and lessons learned in shifting to a culture of learning.

Building on a recent field scan and interviews with leaders across the globe, we will explore the following questions:

  • Why share knowledge? What are the benefits and for whom?
  • What barriers get in the way of foundations sharing their knowledge, and what are practical strategies for overcoming those barriers?
  • How can knowledge-sharing be used to level power dynamics and advance equity?
  • What role can technology play in helping to simplify the act of knowledge sharing?

REGISTER HERE

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?

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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

Transparency Levels Go Live on GlassPockets
July 25, 2019

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Janet Camarena

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Candid.

Earlier this year, we announced a new Transparency Level framework on GlassPockets that would recognize grantmakers for having Core, Advanced, or Champion-level transparency practices based on how detailed the websites are for each profiled foundation. This announcement coincided with GlassPockets reaching its 100th publicly shared profile when the Walton Family Foundation joined and doubled down on their commitment to transparency by supporting GlassPockets in developing the new tiered-approach to transparency. Now, for the first time in the history of the platform, these levels are publicly visible when viewing the funders profiled on the site.

Each GlassPockets profile now comes complete with a transparency badge denoting the level that funder has attained. We encourage foundations to proudly display this badge on their websites as a way to demonstrate their commitment to transparency. You can get your badge here. Visitors to “Who Has Glass Pockets?” can also sort by transparency level to see which foundations comprise each. This sort feature also lists foundations by the number of transparency indicators they currently have, making it possible to quickly determine which foundations lead the pack when it comes to their online transparency practices.

Currently, the distinction of which foundation has the most transparent website goes to Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), so a big congratulations to RBF for living its values when it says that it “is committed to sharing information to promote understanding of its mission and to advance the work of its grantees. The RBF values transparency, openness, and accountability, and has long provided detailed information about its history, program strategies, grants, impact, governance, operations, and finances.” The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Wallace Foundation, the Brazil Foundation, currently round out the top four foundations on GlassPockets based on the variety of types of data that is shared on their websites.

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The transparency levels are designed to motivate foundations to continue to improve their transparency practices over time, as well as to use the data GlassPockets has collected to create suggested pathways for how transparency can evolve over time. The Core-level transparency practices are a natural entry point for new participants and reveal the data that is most commonly shared by foundations, which tends to be information about what the foundation does. Advanced transparency practices reveal not just what a foundation does, but also reveals how they do it by sharing information about a foundation’s operations. And Champion-level transparency practices push the current boundaries of what most foundations share online.

If it’s been a while since you’ve updated your GlassPockets profile, or reviewed your website’s transparency practices, now is an excellent time to do so, and you might just level up!

Explore GlassPockets Now

--Janet Camarena

Meet Our #OpenForGood Award Winner: An Interview with Veronica Olazabal, Director of Measurement, Evaluation and Organizational Performance, The Rockefeller Foundation
July 10, 2019

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Veronica Olazabal

This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenforGood series done 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. View more posts in the series.

The Rockefeller Foundation advances new frontiers of science, data, policy, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health, food, power, and economic mobility. In this interview, Veronica Olazabal shares insights with GlassPockets' Janet Camarena about how the foundation’s practices support learning and open knowledge.

GlassPockets: Congratulations on being one of our inaugural recipients of the #OpenForGood award! The award was designed to recognize those foundations that are working to advance the field by sharing what they are learning. Can you please share why you have prioritized knowledge sharing at the Rockefeller Foundation and how this practice has helped you to advance your work? Or put another way, what is the good that has come about as a result?

Veronica Olazabal: We are excited to be an inaugural recipient of the #OpenForGood award! As you may be aware, since its founding more than 100 years ago, The Rockefeller Foundation's mission has been “ to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.” To this end, the Foundation seeks to catalyze and scale transformative innovation across sectors and geographies, and take risks where others cannot, or will not.

While often working in new and innovative spaces, the Foundation has always recognized that the full impact of its programs and investments can only be realized if it measures - and shares - what it is learning. Knowledge and evidence sharing have been core to the organization's DNA dating back to its founder John D. Rockefeller Sr., who espoused the virtues of learning from and with others—positing that this was the key to "enlarging the boundaries of human knowledge." You can imagine how this, in turn, resulted in transformational breakthroughs such as the Green Revolution, the eradication of Yellow Fever and the formalization of Impact Investing.

The-rockefeller-foundationGP: Your title has the word “evaluation” in its name and increasingly we are seeing foundations move toward this staffing structure of having staff dedicated to evaluation and learning. For those foundations that are considering adding such a unit to their teams, what advice do you have about the structures needed to create a culture of learning across the organization and avoid the creation of one more silo? 

VO: Learning is a team sport and to that end, an evaluation and learning team should be centrally positioned and accessible to all teams across a foundation. At the Rockefeller Foundation, the Measurement and Evaluation team engages with both the programmatic and the impact investing teams. We see our role as enablers of good practices around impact management and programmatic learning -- often working with teams in early stage design support, through start-up, implementation and exit. We also work collaboratively with others at the Foundation such as our grants-management and data teams to ensure the “right” M&E data is being captured throughout our grantee’s lifecycle.

Yet, I will be the first to say that building a culture of learning by continuously reaching “over the fence” is a lot of work and might be challenging for a small team, which is the reality for most foundations. Benchmarking data produced by the Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) lands most M&E teams at foundations at around 1.5. So, capacity for culture change is clearly a challenge. My suggestion here is to source evaluation and learning talent that balances the hard technical chops with the softer people skills. I believe you truly need both and if an organization optimizes for one over the other, might experience a series of false starts. A good place to start in sourcing evaluation talent is the American Evaluation Association (AEA).

GP: As you heard during the award presentation, one of the reasons the Rockefeller Foundation was selected to receive this award is because of your commitment to sharing the results of any evaluation you commission, before you even know the outcome. This pledge seems designed to not let negative findings affect your decision about whether or not to share what your learned. We often hear that foundation boards and leaders are worried about reputational issues with such sharing. What would you say to those leaders about how opening up these pain points and lessons has affected Rockefeller’s reputation in the field, and why it’s worth it?

VO: In 2017, The Rockefeller Foundation was pleased to be the first to make all of its evaluations available to IssueLab as part of #OpenForGood. But to the Foundation, being open goes well beyond passively making information available to those seeking it. Being truly open necessarily involves the proactive sharing of lessons so that others can be aware of and leverage from the things that we are learning. To that end, we regularly author blogs, disseminate evaluation reports and M&E learnings via digital channels, and – perhaps most importantly – share back evaluation results with our grantees and partners – so that evaluation is more than a one-way extractive exercise.

"Being truly open necessarily involves the proactive sharing of lessons so that others can be aware of and leverage from the things that we are learning."

Taking sharing one step further, earlier this year, The Rockefeller Foundation adopted a new Data Asset Policy aimed at making the data that we collect as part of our grantmaking freely available to others who could use it to effect more good in the world. The policy is grounded on two core principles: 1) that the data we fund has incredible value for public good and that these assets can serve as fuel for better decision-making; and 2) we commit ourselves to being responsible stewards of these data, which means prioritizing privacy and protection, especially of those individuals and communities we seek to serve. Moving forward, this opens up the ability to amplify our learning even further and in even more innovative ways.

GP: A concern we often hear is that a funder creating a culture of learning leads to an increased burden on grantees who are then asked for robust evaluations and outcomes measures that no one is willing to pay for. Does Rockefeller include funding for the evaluations and reporting or other technical assistance to mitigate the burden on grantees?

VO: Having had the experience of being both a funder and a grantee, I know this is a real barrier to enabling robust learning cultures and evidence-informed decision-making. For this reason, at The Rockefeller Foundation we approach resourcing in a few different ways:

  • First, through embedding resources for evaluation and learning into individual grantee budgets and agreements from the start. This type of funding enables grantees to generate the type of data they need for their own decision-making, learning and reporting.
  • We also often work in a consortia model where we commission an evaluation and learning grantee separately to synthesize learnings across groups of grantees and provide technical assistance as needed. This approach helps decrease the reporting burden for “implementation” types of grantees as it generates what is it the Foundation would like to learn (which could differ from what the grantees and their clients find useful). Here is an example from our Digital Jobs Africa portfolio generated through this evaluation and learning model.
  • Finally, we have also at times, and upon request, seconded our own M&E staff to grantees and partners to help build their M&E muscle and enable them to measure their own impact. While this is rare, we are seeing this request more and more and hence why we value both technical expertise and relationship management skills.

GP: Learning is a two-way street and foundations are both producers and consumers of knowledge. Let’s close this interview with hearing about a noteworthy piece of knowledge you recently learned thanks to another foundation or organization sharing it, and how it helped inform your own work.

VO: There are many opportunities to learn from others. In my current role, I am in continuous engagement with colleagues in similar roles at other philanthropies and regularly meet before or after convenings organized by CEP, GEO and AEA. In addition, as part of my work on the Fund for Shared Insight which is a funding collaborative working to make listening to end-users the norm, my philanthropy colleagues and I often exchange on where we all are in our personal and institutional learning journeys.

Finally, as part of a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-funded Lab for Learning, The Rockefeller Foundation was most recently among a cohort of 15 foundations that took part in a year-long series of convenings to address systemic barriers to learning. Participation here required us to experiment with ideas for supporting learning in our own settings and then sharing our experiences with the group. Through this engagement, we learned about how others were building learning habits in their foundations (written about in Julia Coffman’s post here). More specifically, the measurement and evaluation team was able to introduce Making Thinking Visible and Asking Powerful Questions in our early stage support to program teams to push thinking about assumptions and concrete dimensions of the work. This engagement then helped to structure the foundations of a learning agenda (e.g. theory of change-like tool with clear outcomes, hypotheses, assumptions and evidence) that would be used to anchor adaptive management and continuous improvement once the program strategy rolled out.

--Veronica Olazabal & Janet Camarena

Meet Our #OpenForGood Award Winner: An Interview with Lee Alexander Risby, Head of Effective Philanthropy & Savi Mull, Senior Evaluation Manager, C&A Foundation
June 19, 2019

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Lee Alexander Risby

This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenforGood series done 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. View more posts in the series.

C&A Foundation is a European foundation that supports programs and initiatives to transform fashion into a fair and sustainable industry that enables everyone – from farmer to factory worker – to thrive. In this interview, Lee Alexander Risby and Savi Mull share insights with GlassPockets' Janet Camarena about how the foundation’s practices support learning and open knowledge.

GlassPockets: Congratulations on being one of our inaugural recipients of the #OpenForGood award! The award was designed to recognize those foundations that are working to advance the field by sharing what they are learning. Can you please share why you have prioritized knowledge sharing at the C&A Foundation and how this practice has helped you to advance your work?

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Savi Mull

Savi Mull: For almost five years, C&A Foundation has been dedicated to transforming the fashion industry into a force for good. A large part of that work includes instilling transparency and accountability in supply chains across the industry. From the start, we also wanted to lead by example by being transparent and accountable as an organization, sharing what we were learning whilst on this journey, being true to our work and helping the rest of the industry learn from our successes and failures.

Lee Alexander Risby: Indeed, from the beginning, we made a commitment to be open about our results and lessons by publishing evaluations on our website and dashboards in our Annual Reports. After all, you cannot encourage the fashion industry to be transparent and accountable and not live by the same principles yourself. Importantly, our commitment to transparency has always been championed both by our Executive Director and our Board.

Savi: To do this, over the years we have put many processes in place.  For example, internally we use after-action reviews to gather lessons from our initiatives and allow our teams to discuss honestly what could have been done better in that program or partnership.  We also do third party, external evaluations of our initiatives, sharing the reports and lessons learned. This helps us and our partners to learn, and it informs initiatives and strategies going forward.

The Role of Evaluation Inside Foundations

GP: Your title has the word “evaluation” in its name and increasingly we are seeing foundations move toward this staffing structure of having staff dedicated to evaluation and learning. For those foundations that are considering adding such a unit to their teams, what advice do you have about the structures needed to create a culture of learning across the organization and avoid the creation of one more silo?

SM: I believe it is essential to have this type of function in a foundation to drive formal learning from and within programs. But at the same time, it is an ongoing process that cannot be driven by one function alone. All staff needs to be responsible for the learning that makes philanthropy effective – not just evaluators.

LAR: To begin, we were deliberate in building a team of evaluation professionals to promote accountable learning. We started hiring slowly and built the team over time. What I looked for with each new member of the team, and I am always looking for, is an evaluator with more than just skills, they also need the influencing, listening, communication and negotiating skills to help others learn. Evaluations have little effect without good internal and external communication.

”For us, it was important to be a critical friend, listener, and enabler of learning and not the police.”

The evaluation function itself has also evolved over the last five years. It started off as a monitoring, evaluation and learning function (MEL) and is now Effective Philanthropy. From the start, the function was as not set up as an independent department but created to help programmatic teams in the design of appropriate monitoring and evaluation for the programs, and facilitators and advisors on strategy. However, it has not always been a straight-forward process from the inside. In the first years, we had to spend a lot of time explaining and persuading staff of the need for evaluation, transparency and learning and the benefits of doing so. We wanted to avoid a strong independent evaluation function as that can reduce learning by placing too much emphasis on accountability. For us, it was important to be a critical friend, listener, and enabler of learning and not the police.

SM: So, the first bit of advice is that evaluators should be supportive listeners, assisting programmatic teams throughout the design and implementation phases to get the best results possible. They should not come in just at the end of an initiative to do an evaluation.

LAR: The second piece of advice is on positioning, support, and structure of evaluation within a foundation.  Firstly, it is critical to have is to have the buy-in of the leadership and board for both evaluation and transparency. And secondly, the evaluation function must be part of the management team and report to the CEO or Executive Director. This gives reporting and learning the appropriate support structure and importance.

The third piece of advice is to consider not creating an evaluation function, but an effective philanthropy function. Evaluation is done for learning, and learning drives effectiveness in grant-making for better results and long-term impacts on systems.

SM: The final piece of advice is to take guidance from others outside your organization. The whole team has consulted broadly with former colleagues and mentors from across the evaluation community as well as experienced philanthropic professionals. Remember you are part of a field with peers whose knowledge and experience can help guide you.

Opening Up Pain Points

GP: One of the reasons the committee selected C&A Foundation to receive the award is because of your institutional comfort level with sharing not just successes, but also being very forthright about what didn’t work. We often hear that foundation boards and leaders are worried about reputational issues with such sharing. What would you say to those leaders about how opening up these pain points and lessons has affected C&A Foundation’s reputation in the field, and why it’s worth it?

LAR: I would say this. The question for foundation boards and leaders is straightforward: do you want to be more effective and have an impact? The answer to that will always be yes, but it is dependent on learning and sharing across the organization and with others. If we do not share evaluations, research or experiences, we do not learn from each other and we cannot be effective in our philanthropic endeavors.

"There is a benefit to being open, you build trust and integrity – success and failure is part of all of us."

The other question for boards and leaders is: who does philanthropy serve? For us, we want to transform the fashion industry, which is made up of cotton farmers, workers in spinning mills and cut and sew factories, consumers and entrepreneurs, to name a few – they are our public. As such we have the duty to be transparent to the public about where we are succeeding and where we have failed and how we can improve. We do not think there is a reputation risk. In fact, there is a benefit to being open, you build trust and integrity – success and failure is part of all of us.

SM: Adding to what Lee has said, being open about our failures not only helps us but the entire field. Some of our partners have felt reticent about our publishing evaluations, but we always reassure them and stress from the beginning of an evaluation process that it is an opportunity to understand how to they can improve their work and how we can improve our partnership, as well as a chance to share those lessons more broadly.

Learning While Lean

GP: Given the lean philanthropy staffing structures in place at many corporate foundations, do you have any advice for your peers on how those without a dedicated evaluation team might still be able to take some small steps to sharing what they are learning?

SM: Learning is a continuous process. In the absence of staff dedicated to evaluation, take baby steps within your power, such as implementing after-action reviews, holding thematic webinars, or doing quick summaries of lessons from grants and/or existing evaluations from others. If the organization’s leadership endorses learning, these small steps are a good place to start.

GP: And speaking of lean staffing structures, a concern we often hear is that a funder creating a culture of learning leads to an increased burden on grantees who are then asked for robust evaluations and outcomes measures that no one is willing to pay for. Does C&A Foundation include funding for the evaluations and reporting or other technical assistance to mitigate the burden on grantees?

SM: The foundation has a Monitoring and Evaluation Policy that lays out the role of the programmatic staff and partners as well as of the dedicated Effective Philanthropy Team. C&A Foundation partners are generally responsible for the design and execution of self-evaluation - to be submitted at the end of the grant period. External evaluation budgets are covered by the foundation and do not pose a financial burden on partners at all. They are included in the overall cost of an initiative, and when needed we have an additional central evaluation fund that is used to respond to the programmatic team’s and partner’s ad hoc demands for evaluations and learning.

The Effective Philanthropy team does provide technical assistance to partners and foundation staff upon request. The guidance ranges from technical inputs related to the theory of change development to the design of baseline and mid-line data collection exercises. The theory of change work has been really rewarding for partners and ourselves. We all enjoy that part of the work.

GP: Learning is a two-way street and foundations are both producers and consumers of knowledge. Let’s close this interview with hearing about a noteworthy piece of knowledge you recently learned thanks to another foundation or organization sharing it, and how it helped inform your work.

Learning Leads to Effectiveness

C-a-foundation (1)LAR: In the moving from a more traditional MEL approach to effective philanthropy we looked at the work of other foundations. This included learning from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and others. We had discussions with a number of peers in the field. We also asked Nancy MacPherson (formerly Managing Director of Evaluation at Rockefeller) and Fay Twersky (Director of Effective Philanthropy at Hewlett) to review our Effective Philanthropy strategy when it was under development. Their feedback and advice helped a lot. In the end, we decided to begin to build out the function in a similar way to the Hewlett Foundation. But there are some differences. For example, our evaluation practice is currently positioned at a deeper initiative level, which is related to the field context where there is a significant evidence gap across the fashion industry that needs to be filled. Concomitant to this is our emphasis on piloting and testing and that goes hand-in-hand with the demand for evaluative thinking, reporting, and learning.

Our team has also been influenced by our own successes and failures from previous roles. That has also inspired us to embrace a slightly different approach.

SM: In terms of where we are at the moment, we still oversee performance monitoring, evaluation, and support to the program teams in developing theories of change and KPIs; but we are also building out organizational learning approach and are in the process of hiring a Senior Learning Manager. Lastly, we are piloting our organizational and network effectiveness in Brazil, which is being led by a colleague who joined the foundation last year.

LAR: We are also in the midst of an Overall Effectiveness Evaluation (OEE) of C&A Foundation’s first 5-year strategy. In general, this is not a type of evaluation that foundations use much. As well as looking at results, the evaluators are evaluating the whole organization, including Effective Philanthropy. For me as an evaluator, it has been really rewarding to be on the other side of a good question.

We are learning from the OEE as we go along and we decided to create ongoing opportunities for reporting/feedback from the process rather than waiting until the very end for a report. This means that program staff can be engaged in proactive discussions about performance and emerging lessons in a timely way. The OEE is already starting to play a vital role to inform the development of the next 5-year strategy and our organization. But you will surely hear more on that evaluation process later as it will be published. There is always room for improvement and learning never stops.

--Lee Alexander Risby and Savi Mull

Meet Our #OpenForGood Award Winner: An Interview with Craig Connelly, Chief Executive Officer, The Ian Potter Foundation
June 12, 2019

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Craig Connelly

This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenforGood series done 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. View more posts in the series.

The Ian Potter Foundation is an Australian foundation that supports and promotes excellence and innovation working for a vibrant, healthy, fair, and sustainable Australia. In this interview, Craig Connelly shares insights with GlassPockets' Janet Camarena about how the foundation’s practices support learning and open knowledge.

GlassPockets: Congratulations on being one of our inaugural recipients of the #OpenForGood award! The award was designed to recognize those foundations that are working to advance the field by sharing what they are learning. Can you please share why you have prioritized knowledge sharing at the Ian Potter Foundation and how this practice has helped you to advance your work? Or put another way, what is the good that has come about as a result?

Craig Connelly: The Ian Potter Foundation decided to invest in our research and evaluation capability primarily to improve the quality of our grantmaking. We believe that evaluating our grantees and the work that we fund through measuring and evaluating outcomes enables us to understand the extent to which our funding guidelines are achieving the intended outcomes. This results in a more informed approach to our grantmaking which should improve the quality of our grantmaking over time.

A core part of this includes being completely transparent with our grantees and with the broader sector. To do anything otherwise is not being consistent with our expectations of our grantees. We are asking our grantees to be partners, to pursue a strategic relationship with them and that requires open and honest conversation. Therefore, we need to be an open, honest and transparent funder and demonstrate that in order to win the trust of the organizations we fund.

Examples of this transparency are the learnings that we glean from our grantees that we share with the broader sector. We’re getting very positive feedback from both funders and grantees on the quality of the learnings that we’re sharing and the value that they add to the thought processes that nonprofit organizations and other funders go through.

The-ian-potter-foundationGP: Increasingly we are seeing foundations move toward a structure of having staff dedicated to evaluation and learning. For those foundations that are considering adding such a unit to their teams, what advice do you have about the structures needed to create a culture of learning across the organization and avoid the creation of one more silo?

CC: Anyone in a research and evaluation role needs to be an integral part of the program management team. The research and evaluation process informs our grantmaking. It needs to assist the program managers to be better at what they do, and it needs to learn from what the program managers are doing as well. You don’t want it to be a silo, it is just another function of your program management team. It is an integral part of that team and it is in constant communication both with the program management team and with grantees from day one.

GP: As you heard during the award presentation, one of the reasons the Ian Potter Foundation was selected to receive this award is because of how you prioritize thinking about how stakeholders like grantees might benefit from the reports and knowledge you possess. We often hear that while there is a desire to share grantee reports publicly, that there are reputational concerns that prevent it or that to scrub the reports of sensitive information would be too time consuming, yet you do it for all of your portfolios. What are your tips for how to keep this a manageable process?

CC: The initial work to compile and anonymize our grantee learnings required some investment in time from our Research & Evaluation Manager and communications team. To make this task manageable, the work was tackled one program area at a time. Now that a bank of learnings has been created for each program area, new learnings are easily compiled and added on a yearly basis. This work is scheduled at less busy times for those staff involved. The Ian Potter Foundation is also looking at ways learnings can be shared directly from grantees to the wider nonprofit sector. One idea is to create a forum (e.g. a podcast) where nonprofits can share their experiences with their peers in the sector.

GP: A concern we often hear is that a funder creating a culture of learning leads to an increased burden on grantees who are then asked for robust evaluations and outcomes measures that no one is willing to pay for. Does The Ian Potter Foundation include funding for the evaluations and reporting or other technical assistance to mitigate the burden on grantees?

"...we need to be an open, honest and transparent funder and demonstrate that in order to win the trust of the organizations we fund."

CC: One of the benefits that we found at The Ian Potter Foundation of having a Research & Evaluation Manager becoming an integral part of our process is that our authorizing environment – our board and the committees responsible for program areas – have become very comfortable including funding evaluation for all of our grants. We now also understand what it costs to complete an effective evaluation. We often ask grantees to add more to their budget to ensure a good quality evaluation can be completed as part of the grant.

GP: Learning is a two-way street and foundations are both producers and consumers of knowledge. Let’s close this interview with hearing about a noteworthy piece of knowledge you recently learned thanks to another foundation or organization sharing it, and how it helped inform your own work.

CC: Yes, we have a couple of examples I can point to. The first comes from our Education Program Manager, Rikki Andrews, who points to the creation of the Early Childhood Impact Alliance (ECIA) through a grant to the University of Melbourne. The purpose of the ECIA is to convene, connect and increase understanding of research and policy among early childhood philanthropic funders, to ensure there is more strategic and concerted philanthropic support of research and its application.

Additionally, the Foundation’s Senior Program Manager, Dr. Alberto Furlan, explains, ‘We are in the process of learning from organizations we partner with all the time. In the last few years, program managers have been prioritizing extensive site visits to shortlisted applicants to discuss and see the projects in situ. In a ‘big country’ such as Australia, this takes a considerable amount of time and resources, but it invariably pays off. Such visits highlight the importance of relationship building deep and honest listening when partnering with not-for-profits. The Foundation prides itself in being open and approachable and site visits greatly contribute to understanding the reality of the day-to-day challenges, and successes, of the organizations working on the ground.’

--Craig Connelly & Janet Camarena

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

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