Transparency Talk

Category: "Politics" (17 posts)

Foundation Transparency: Game Over?
May 23, 2016

(Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center).

This post is part of a Transparency Talk series, presented in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, examining the importance of the 990-PF, the informational tax form that foundations must annually file. The series will explore the implications of the open 990; how journalists and researchers use the 990-PF to understand philanthropy; and its role, limitations, and potential as a communications tool.

BradfordKSmithThe tranquil world of America's foundations is about to be shaken, but if you read the Center for Effective Philanthropy's (CEP) new study -- Sharing What Matters, Foundation Transparency -- you would never know it.

Don't get me wrong. That study, like everything CEP produces, is carefully researched, insightful and thoroughly professional. But it misses the single biggest change in foundation transparency in decades: the imminent release by the Internal Revenue Service of foundation 990-PF (and 990) tax returns as machine-readable open data.

Clara Miller, President of the Heron Foundation, writes eloquently in her manifesto, Building a Foundation for the 21St Century: "…the private foundation model was designed to be protective and separate, much like a terrarium."

Terrarium photo 2Terrariums, of course, are highly "curated" environments over which their creators have complete control. The CEP study, proves that point, to the extent that much of the study consists of interviews with foundation leaders and reviews of their websites as if transparency were a kind of optional endeavor in which foundations may choose to participate, if at all, and to what degree.

To be fair, CEP also interviewed the grantees of various foundations (sometimes referred to as "partners"), which helps convey the reality that foundations have stakeholders beyond their four walls. However, the terrarium metaphor is about to become far more relevant as the release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within.

What Is Open Data?

It is safe to say that most foundation leaders and a fair majority of their staff do not understand what open data really is. Open data is free, yes, but more importantly it is digital and machine-readable. This means it can be consumed in enormous volumes at lightning speed, directly by computers.

"The release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within."

Once consumed, open data can be tagged, sorted, indexed and searched using statistical methods to make obvious comparisons while discovering previously undetected correlations. Anyone with a computer, some coding skills and a hard drive or cloud storage can access open data. In today's world, a lot of people meet those requirements, and they are free to do whatever they please with your information once it is, as open data enthusiasts like to say, "in the wild."

Today, much government data is completely open. Go to data.gov or its equivalent in many countries around the world and see for yourself.

The theory behind open data, increasingly born out in practice, is that making information available leads to significant innovation for the public good while the demand for and use of such data also improves its accuracy and quality over time. And some open data is just fun: one of my personal favorites is the White House visitors list!

What is the Internal Revenue Service Releasing?

Irs-logo-250Thanks to the Aspen Institute's leadership of a joint effort - funded by foundations and including Foundation Center, GuideStar, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, and others - the IRS has started to make some 1,000,000 Form 990s and 40,000 Form 990PF available as machine-readable open data.

Previously, all Form 990s had been released as image (TIFF) files, essentially a picture, making it both time-consuming and expensive to extract useful data from them. Credit where credit is due; a kick in the butt in the form of a lawsuit from open data crusader Carl Malamud helped speed the process along.

The current test phase includes only those tax returns that were digitally filed by nonprofits and community foundations (990s) and private foundations (990PFs). Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data. In other words, that which is born digital will be opened up to the public in digital form. Because of variations in the 990 forms, getting the information from them into a database will still require some technical expertise, but will be far more feasible and faster than ever before.

"Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data."

The Good

The work of organizations like Foundation Center-- who have built expensive infrastructure in order to turn years of 990 tax returns into information that can be used by nonprofits looking for funding, researchers trying to understand the role of foundations and foundations, themselves, seeking to benchmark themselves against peers—will be transformed.

Work will shift away from the mechanics of capturing and processing the data to higher level analysis and visualization to stimulate the generation and sharing of new insights and knowledge. This will fuel greater collaboration between peer organizations, innovation, the merging of previous disparate bodies of data, better philanthropy, and a stronger social sector.

The (Potentially) Bad

The world of foundations and nonprofits is highly segmented, idiosyncratic and difficult to understand and interpret. GuideStar and Foundation Center know this.

But many of the new entrants who are attracted by the advent of open 990 data will not. They will most likely come in two forms: start-ups claiming their new tools will revolutionize the business of giving, and established, private sector companies, seeking new market opportunities. Neither of these is intrinsically bad and could lead to some degree of positive disruption and true innovation.

The negative potential could be two-fold. Funders will inevitably be intrigued by the start-ups, their genius and their newness and divert funding towards them. Foundations are free to take risks and that is one of their virtues. But while needs grow, funding for the data and information infrastructure of philanthropy is limited, technology literacy among foundations relatively low, and many of these start-ups will prove to be shooting stars (anybody remember Jumo?).

"Once the 990 data is 'in the wild,' conclusions may be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair."

The second category of new entrants is far more complex and will come in the form of for-profit data analytics companies. Some of these have business models and immensely sophisticated black box technologies that rely heavily on government contracts for defense and national security. They will be lured by the promise of lucrative contracts from big foundations and mega-nonprofits and the opportunity to demonstrate social responsibility by doing good in the world.

But these for-profit analytics companies will quickly discover that there is only one Gates Foundation among the 87,000 private foundations and only a handful of richly-resourced nonprofits among the 1.3 million on the IRS registers. And those who choose to contract the services of "Big Analytics" will need to consider the potential reputational consequences of aligning their "brands" with the companies behind them.

Sound defensive? Not at all: Foundation Center welcomes the competition, has been building for it since 2010, and knows the challenge can only make us and the social sector better.

The Ugly

Once the 990 data is "in the wild," it is possible if not probable, conclusions will be drawn that foundations find uncomfortable if not unfair. Those who are new to the field and relatively uninformed (or uninterested) in its complexity, may make claims about executive compensation based on comparisons of foundations of wildly disparate size and scope.

The same could be done with overhead rates, payout, or any other figure or calculation that can be made based on information found in the 990-PF. Some foundations already chafe when responsible sector advocates like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) use Foundation Center data to rank foundations according to their Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. Imagine claims coming over the transom from individuals and organizations whose core values do not include a belief in the practice of philanthropy and a normative vision for how it could be better.

"Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing."

Another potential consequence lies at the intersection of the open 990 data and the growth of impact investing. This was the spirit in which Clara Miller introduced her terrarium analogy to highlight what she sees as the artificial disconnect between the controlled, strategic, and curated world constructed by the grants side of foundations and the sometimes contradictory forces at work in the larger economy in which their assets are invested.

Foundations like Heron are striving to put 100% of their assets toward mission, while others like Rockefeller Brothers Fund are divesting their investment portfolios from fossil fuels and re-investing those assets in ways that further the goals of their climate change grantmaking, rather than exacerbate the problem.

A recent (and as of yet unpublished) Foundation Center survey found that 60% of foundations were not engaged in impact investing and had no plans to do so. That is their choice, but open 990 data may well put them in a position of having to publicly explain it.

For example, using Foundation Center databases, I searched across several hundred thousand foundation 990-PF tax returns and found 37 foundations that held Corrections Corporation of America stock in their investment portfolios. These foundations may well believe, as the majority of foundations insist, that the purpose of the investment arm of the foundation is to generate the highest sustainable return possible in order to fund the mission through grants. But if a foundation holding that stock is striving to work on juvenile justice or improve the lives of black men and boys, an investigative reporter or activist might well ask why they are investing in a corporation that runs private, for-profit prisons

It's 10:00pm, Do You Know Where Your 990 Is?

With the game over for foundation transparency, the big takeaway is to know your 990-PF (or 990 for community foundations). Suddenly, it will be transformed from a bureaucratic compliance document into one of your foundation's key communications vehicles.

"Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable."

Right about now, you may be thinking: "What about the website re-design we spent all that money on, with our new logo, carefully crafted initiative names, and compelling photos??" It's still important, and you can follow the lead of those foundations guided by the online transparency criteria found on Foundation Center's Glasspockets website.

But for the sector as a whole, while fewer than 10% of all foundations have websites, they all file 990 tax returns. As the IRS open data release unfolds and mandatory digital filing kicks in, the 990-PF will become one of the primary sources of information by which your individual foundation will be known and compared to others.

I recently asked a group of foundation CEOs whether they ever had an in-depth discussion about their 990-PFs among their board members and was met with blank stares. In a world of digital transparency, this will have to change. As 990s become a data source and communications vehicle, the information on them will need to be clear, accurate and above all, a faithful representation of how each individual foundation makes use of the precious tax exemption it has been granted to serve the public good.

A few simple tips for starters:

  • Take advantage of Section 15 (block 2) to talk about your priorities, grant process, limitations, and restrictions.
  • In Section 15 (block 3) write the correct, legal name for each grantee organization and add its EIN or BRIDGE ID
  • In the same section, write clear and compelling descriptions for the purpose of each grant (more than you might think, people look at foundations by what they fund).
  • Make sure all numbers on the form add up correctly (you'd be surprised!).

Regardless of how each of us may feel about the greater transparency required of foundations, it is increasingly inevitable. Philanthropy is essential to American society and a positive source for good in a challenging world.

As the terrarium walls insulating individual foundations fall, we will surely face a few moments of anxiety and discomfort. But greater transparency, fueled by open IRS data, can only make us more conscientious stewards of our resources, more effective decision-makers, and better collaborators on our way to achieving greater and greater impact in the world.

Game over? It's just beginning!

-- Brad Smith

'Dark Money' Expected to Set 2016 Records
January 18, 2016

(This post first appeared in Philanthropy News Digest.)

The amount of so-called dark money, contributions to nonprofits and other tax-exempt entities that are not required to disclose their donors, backing various presidential campaigns in 2016 is expected to exceed the more than $300 million contributed during the 2012 presidential election cycle, the New York Times reports.

The troubling lack of transparency, the Times notes, is being driven by political advocacy groups that exploit a loophole in the tax code that allows them to avoid disclosing their donors while holding on to their tax-exempt status. Many of those organizations court special interest groups and wealthy donors who crave the influence that political contributions can buy but spurn any public accountability implied by those contributions. For example, almost 20 percent of the television ads touting the positions of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) have been financed by dark money, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, with most of that coming from the nonprofit Conservative Solutions Project.

The biggest dark money spenders in this cycle, however, have been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that operates under the umbrella of the American Crossroads "super" PAC, which was co-founded by longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove. While the Federal Election Committee could force such organizations, with their heavy involvement in political campaigns, to register as political action committees, the commission hasn't shown any inclination to do so. Indeed, with Congress having effectively quashed, in the ominubus spending bill it passed at year-end, near-term efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to regulate these groups until after the 2016 election cycle and the FEC content to sit on the sidelines, the Justice Department is seen as the only federal agency that might attempt to shed some light on their activities.

Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and a longtime advocate of campaign finance reform, has asked the Justice Department to do just that, with an emphasis on political activities associated with Rubio's campaign. "Secret money is the formula for corruption," Wertheimer told the Times. "It's the influence buyer's dream."

Albert R. Hunt. "'Dark' Funds May Bode Ill in 2016 Election." New York Times 01/03/2016

The Need - and Appetite for - Enhanced Foundation Transparency
December 28, 2015

(The late Rick Cohen was the National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and the editor of NPQ's Cohen Report. Prior to joining NPQ, Rick was executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and vice president of the Enterprise Foundation. A version of this 2012 blog appeared in NPQ.)

Editor's Note: As the year draws to a close, it is natural to remember and reflect on those whom we have lost.  Last month, philanthropy lost one of its strongest voices for change with the passing of Rick Cohen. A prolific writer, Cohen was known for encouraging philanthropy to extend its reach to marginalized and underserved communities. Seeing the weaknesses of a closed door culture, Cohen also frequently wrote and spoke about the need for greater foundation transparency and the potential for improving philanthropic practice by increasing stakeholder participation and influence. In honor of Cohen, Transparency Talk is closing out 2015 by revisiting a two-part post Cohen authored for Transparency Talk in 2012 on the case for enhanced foundation transparency, and his recommendations for improved transparency standards.

Photo_74078_landscape_650x433It is nearly impossible to think about transparency in the world of philanthropy without putting philanthropy into a societal context. Philanthropy is not a world unto itself, but one that is engaged in extensive interactions with other sectors of the economy and society, particularly important in an era of increasingly crippled institutions and practices of democracy in the U.S.

The political context concerns the flows of secret moneys into the electoral process, obviously an activity prohibited to private and public foundations, but one that increasingly shapes the perspectives of the American public toward nonprofits—and, if they knew what foundations were beyond the television portrayals of philanthropoids as white glove socialites—foundations too. Secret money is the lifeblood of American political campaigns, perhaps brought to a level of self-parody when comedian Stephen Colbert points out that Karl Rove is giving anonymous political money to help keep political giving anonymous. The calls for breaking through the wall of secrecy in political spending are increasing, notably in the District and Appeals Court decisions in Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission

And so it is with foundations and the calls philanthropic leaders face for increased transparency. As Vikki Spruill, the new leader of the Council on Foundations, noted in what appears to be one of her first official communications to the Council’s membership, institutional philanthropy faces “its most critical moment…right now. At a time when our world faces a storm of converging challenges with dwindling resources, philanthropy’s positive impact remains a mystery to far too many…[W]e must seize the imperative to help society better understand philanthropy’s impact and contributions.”   

It is a frequent refrain from foundation leaders, the admonition that foundations have to do a better job at telling their story. But that isn’t transparency. At best, it is managed transparency, telling the story that foundations want public policy decision-makers, the general public, and their specific stakeholders to hear and understand. Transparency, however, is not managed through public relations firms. Can you imagine if the Federal Elections Commission were only to make available the information it thought would tell the story of its “positive impact?” For as miserable and partisanly hamstrung as the FEC is today, the story telling wouldn’t be worth the physical effort of a computer click on “download.”

Transparency empowers the users, the recipients of information, to hold powerful agencies of government, well-heeled donors to political campaigns, and institutions without direct levers of official accountability to the public somewhat more accountable. When you stage manage transparency, it simply isn’t. Of course that doesn’t mean simply opening the doors of foundations and inviting the public to rifle through file cabinets, but it does mean trying to find ways of making essential information more accessible and reviewable by outsiders. 

How Public Should Private Philanthropy Be?

In the foundation world, the debate du jour is how public private philanthropy is, that is, to what extent the tax exempt dollars of private foundations should be considered in some ways open to public scrutiny. It is an argument that ultimately boxes everyone into a corner. The philanthropic impulse occurs with a donor willing to put some of his or her excess capital to work for what is hoped to contribute to the public good. But in this nation, that occurs with the benefit of the charitable deduction, applicable to the small scale donations of this nation’s generous working people and to the much larger donations of affluent people who create foundations. 

OK, so the funds aren’t quite public dollars—aggrieved constituents cannot ask foundations for administrative redress, they cannot vote foundation trustees out of office, and in all but an incredibility limited number of cases do they even find themselves with standing to litigate a foundation’s grant decisions. And they aren’t quite fully private dollars, else they would be taxed and their managers wouldn’t be filing 990PFs, following IRC rules for executive compensation and self-dealing, or fretting whether President Obama’s annual call for capping itemized deductions including the charitable deduction will depress charitable giving and philanthropic grantmaking.

The Dichotomous Nature of Foundations

Even in their quasi-public identities, foundations have feet planted in two worlds or two cultures, one the private world of a donor, the other a public world of resources afforded a special status by the American public and its elected representatives. It shows in foundations’ postures toward transparency. 

In recent history, the advent of the 990 is one example. Commissions on the future shape and substance of philanthropy have all included encomiums of one sort or another in favor of increased transparency, but statements and actions can sometimes differ. Prior to enactment of the Taxpayer Bill, many foundation leaders were opposed to the liberalization of public access to 990s, and when the law was passed, foundation leaders attempted to find ways of divorcing 990PFs from the public access the law required to nonprofits’ 990s and then worked to delay the applicability of the law to foundations.    

In practice, a similar dichotomous identity occurs, best exemplified by the foundations’ crisis response to the California legislation that would have required a handful of large foundations to simply report on their grantmaking to nonprofits headed by people of color, not make more grants for communities of color, and report on their own staff and board demographics. Foundations fought the bill, known popularly as AB624, tooth and nail, though many of the same foundations are strong supporters of the racial disclosures required of banks in the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, have supported nonprofits demanding similar disclosures of utility companies in front of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and fought strenuously against California’s Proposition 54 initiative which would have generally banned the state from collecting race and ethnicity data. 

Another dimension of foundations’ split thinking on transparency is in their relationship with “stakeholders.” This is more than just a fancied up description of grant recipients whose opinions on how well they are treated by foundation program officers are now solicited de rigeur. Stakeholders are different than insiders such as donors, board members, and staff. The Denver Foundation describes “external stakeholders” as “people who are impacted by your work as clients/constituents, community partners, and others.” Lauren Tulp of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation suggested grantees, community residents, and external experts as potential stakeholders. In some foundation examples, stakeholders have been recruited to participate in foundation grantmaking processes, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and some of the health conversion foundations.

This is now common parlance in the foundation world. Stakeholders with a “vested interest” in the foundation’s work merit inclusion in efforts to assess what the foundation is and should be delivering for various communities with what impact. The concept of stakeholders is common in foundation circles—except when it comes to discussions of transparency, when the circle for inclusion becomes distinctly narrower. Foundations have to come to grips with whether the notion of stakeholders is real or simply a rhetorical device meant to convey a transitory sense of inclusivity.

--Rick Cohen

 

Beyond Money: Foundations Can Create Change by Building Communities
December 3, 2015

(Mark Schmitt directs the political reform program and is director of studies at New America, an independent think tank and civic enterprise. He is a former editor of The American Prospect and has been a program director at the Open Society Foundations and worked on Capitol Hill. Follow him on Twitter at @mschmitt9. This post originally appeared on Philantopic. It is the 10th and final post in a series about U.S. democracy and civil society.)

Schmitt headshotThe world of foundations and the work they fund has for too long been shrouded in obscurity. While many foundations boast a commitment to transparency and release lists of their own grants, it has been far too difficult to see who funds an entire field, or understand how a foundation-backed policy idea made it onto the agenda. Given that foundations can be at least as influential as big political donors, driving policy initiatives such as charter schools and health reform, there should be resources that open up the sector to journalists and activists, as well as grantseekers interested in understanding the often mysterious question of who got what.

But that’s only part of the question. Even the most complete list of grantees and grant dollar amounts tells us only so much about the work and the vision: What does restoring American democracy mean, in practice? Can this mapping resource help answer that question?

Foundations do more than just give money to worthy projects. At their best, they make at least two other vital contributions: They help build a community — that is, the whole network of sustainable, adaptive organizations, from research projects to grassroots activists, that can further a cause — and they create connections, across issues and communities, in order to make each one stronger and more vibrant. So in looking at the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool, I wanted to ask those questions: Where have foundations built strong communities around democracy issues? And have they created the kinds of connections — between, for example, nonprofit journalism and efforts to reduce the role of money in politics — that strengthen these communities and the cause?

Schmitt_blog_image
The “constellations” section of the tool doesn’t fully answer these questions — to do so would require much deeper analysis and for foundations to provide more complete and plain-English descriptions of the “why” of their grantmaking — but it provides some useful clues. For example, one can see a distinct community of organizations working on election administration and access-to-the-ballot issues — a relatively small number of sizable organizations, with reliable support over several years, often in the form of general-support grants. Closely aligned to these core groups is a larger group of smaller organizations focused on a single state or a particular constituency. (This community would be even larger if the substantial and central contribution to the field made by the Pew Charitable Trusts were included. While grants to its elections project from other foundations are listed, its self-financed work is not.) It is probably no accident that despite the partisan acrimony over voting and significant setbacks to the voting rights movement, there has been significant progress and consensus on ideas such as early voting, online voter registration, and other aspects of election reform.

In a 2013 article in Democracy, Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons argued that the $45 million a year that foundations and other donors were investing in efforts to reform the role of money in politics was too little, and that if they wanted to advance progress on the causes they care about, individual and institutional philanthropists ought to commit one percent of total private giving, or $3 billion annually, to causes such as fixing the corrosive role of money in politics. This tool extends the point made by Penniman and Simmons to show that not only is total funding for campaign reform inadequate to the challenge, the community engaged in that effort is diffuse, the core organizations comprising that community are hard to identify, and the grants awarded in support of that cause are relatively small and often for specific projects rather than general support.

Moreover, in neither case does there seem to be much connection to other issues of democracy or to efforts such as improving journalism or civic education. Each of these issues, such as funding for innovations in public service journalism or for the Newseum in Washington, DC, seems to attract a unique set of funders who do little or no giving for other democracy issues.

Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is not the definitive answer to the questions about how funding works and whether it has built effective communities around democracy issues. To really see foundation funding for democracy and how it has worked requires a deeper investigation and the kind of real journalistic scrutiny that foundations rarely get. But much like the databases we rely on to understand the influence of money in democracy, this tool is a start and provides valuable clues and an outline for those who want to follow the money.

--Mark Schmitt

Living Up to a Legacy of Glass Pockets
November 5, 2015

(Deanna Lee is chief communications and digital strategies officer at Carnegie Corporation of New York.)

Deanna LeeWhat does a website redesign have to do with “glass pockets?” For Carnegie Corporation of New York—whose mission is to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding—it goes far beyond a general use of the Internet to transmit information. “Glass pockets” is a defining principle of who we are, and thus a defining principle that has guided our entire web redesign process.

First, some background. In the 1950s,  Carnegie Corporation chair Russell Leffingwell testified before Congress that “foundation[s] should have glass pockets,” allowing anyone to easily look inside them and understand their value to society.  A legacy of transparency connected to dissemination continued through Corporation president John Gardner, who advocated for energetic dissemination of activities, to current president Vartan Gregorian, who has emphasized our “legacy of glass pockets” as an ideal and a guidepost for “communicating as clearly and in as much depth as possible how the Corporation conceives of its mission.”

Today’s digital landscape means that we can realize this—reaching and engaging more people, with more information about what we do—as never before. We think of web channels, tools, and design, not as new, “disruptive” technologies, but rather as evolving (and exciting!) opportunities to realize a 100-plus year-old mission.

And so, the redesign process for Carnegie.org began with a largely internal branding exercise to further define our longstanding mission. With the great folks at Story Worldwide, we articulated a core narrative with “pillars” or key principles, including a sense of stewardship to the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, a focus on expert knowledge, a “selfless” emphasis on program grantees and their work, and a commitment to serving as a convener of grantees in like areas of knowledge, and of knowledge-based communities.  These organizational principles were central to how design firm Blenderbox went on to imagine and develop the website layout and user experience.

At the same time, we conducted surveys and interviews with multiple stakeholders and audiences about the old site. As Chris Cardona of the Ford Foundation has written on the Glasspockets blog, we have to be open to failure, and be willing to look at what works and what doesn’t.  Also important, as emphasized in Glasspockets’ transparency indicators, is sharing the results.

What wasn’t working? People said they did not have a clear sense of our program areas.  With information and stories ranging from international peace and security to voting rights to standards in K-16 education all “mixed together,” they found it difficult to delve into their areas of interest.  Also, grantees wanted to be able to connect with peers, and to learn about each other’s activities.

This is why the new Carnegie.org immediately presents a clear depiction of our core program areas (arranged, in homage to Andrew Carnegie, like library book spines). 

1-600px
 

Each program folds out into a preview of a mini-site, with separate subdomains or “hubs” for Education…Democracy…International Peace and Security…and Higher Education and Research in Africa. 

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Enter a program hub, and a simple layout shows the overarching goal of the program and its focus areas (or, in terms of Glasspockets indicators, grantmaking priorities).

Beyond that, each program boasts its own flavor and kinds of content that emphasize those mission pillars—expert knowledge, convening, an emphasis on grantees, and stewardship of our history:

3-600pxInternational Peace and Security currently features commentary on this policy question of the day: Should the U.S. cooperate with Russia on Syria and ISIS? Answers are “convened” as a compendium of multiple grantee experts, scholars, and policymakers—a forum bringing together leading worldwide thinkers and opinions. 

Education features an interactive, multimedia presentation (we call it a Fable) on STEM education—showcasing our historical work on math and science education, including Carnegie Commission reports that set the framework for today’s Next Generation Science Standards, and visual case studies of grantees like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Democracy’s Fable takes an extensive look at the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Plus, at a time when nearly one in four Americans is not registered to vote, we wanted to convene communities and engage the public with our grantees’ work.

4-600px“Your Vote—Your Voice” showcases tiles of leaders of the New Americans Campaign weighing in on why it's important for recently naturalized citizens to vote. 

Good digital strategy also employs community, in the form of partnerships. We’re pleased to have worked with TINT to convene live social media compilations, including the feeds of more than 40 partners of National Voter Registration Day. And, a Genius version of the Voting Rights Act allows for annotations by experts at the Brennan Center for Justice and others.

Finally, we at the Corporation are, first and foremost, stewards of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy. Nearly 10 percent of visitors to our old site came for biographical information about him. To meet their needs more fully and to meet our mission, our Andrew Carnegie Fable includes embeddable elements key for students preparing multimedia presentations, with timelines, quotations, audio and film of Carnegie, infographics on his wealth, and connections to our family of 26 Carnegie institutions worldwide.

This is just the beginning. We’ll soon unveil features allowing program officers to share their experiences, video forums, and more.  It all comes down to glass pockets—using information and the presentation of information to openly share how we meet our mission responsibilities of serving as convener and champion of expert knowledge and change-making grantees. Carnegie.org aims to clearly present our intent, our priorities, and our work, and most of all to be a living—and evolving—expression of our mission to advance and diffuse knowledge and understanding.

--Deanna Lee

Money, Data, and Democracy
October 1, 2015

(Lucy Bernholz is a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, where she co-leads the Digital Civil Society Lab. You can follow her on twitter @p2173. This is the first in a series of 10 posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day in November.  This post first ran in PhilanTopic.)

LucyBheadshotThe U.S. presidential election is thirteen months away. At this point, more than fifty candidates are vying for nomination by the two major parties. The field includes the lone member of the United States Senate to stand as a Socialist and a New York City businessman who has four corporate bankruptcy filings to his name. Members of the voting public may be said to fall into two camps at this point — political junkies who simply cannot ever get enough of campaign politics and the majority of Americans who plan to tune in about a year from now. The former group is hell-bent on getting enough attention from the latter to raise the country’s dismal voting percentage to its presidential-election average, which hovers around 60 percent (ten points lower than the average for OECD countries).


Voter turnout is a big deal. Not just to political junkies and clipboard-wielding party volunteers but also to American foundations. According to Foundation Center’s newest mapping tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, 180 foundations have spent more than $150 million on voter education, registration, and turnout since 2011, a period that includes one presidential and one midterm election.

Seems like a lot of money to get Americans to do what people in many other countries die for. But we’re good at spending a lot of money on our democracy. Even this early in the campaign, big donors are talking big numbers, promising (threatening?) to spend $100 million or more each on their favorite candidates or issues. And political junkies are predicting that more than $4.4 billion will be spent on TV ads alone — while election spending in total could run as high as $10 billion. Suddenly, nearly $150 million of foundation funding over four years doesn’t look so big in comparison to $10 billion for a single election cycle.

The huge sums of money have become as much a part of the quadrennial American narrative as the quirky unknown candidates, their inevitable stumbles and blunders, and the occasional important policy discussion. Part of the interest lies in the sheer magnitude of the sums involved. Imagine what we might accomplish in social services, education, or health care if we spent an additional $10 billion.

Screenshot_Lucyblog
 But some of the interest also is driven by persistent efforts to make campaign spending more transparent. Because presidential elections only happen every four years, there’s a better-than-average chance that each one will be “the most expensive ever.” Telling that story, tracking the numbers, and highlighting the huge sums provided by a (tiny) subset of political donors has become part of our republic’s ritual.

Organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, MapLight, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics find, clean, and load (in useful formats) the fundraising and spending reports that candidates, campaigns, and various aligned political organizations are required to file. The costs of doing this are more than you might at first imagine, as we tend to think that simply posting data sets is all that’s necessary to make that data useful. As proponents of transparency and those trying to obfuscate know, raw data by itself as a first step is not sufficient for sensemaking. Open and accessible is a requisite first step, but cleaning, verifying, analyzing, and using it are still very much required. Even so, various political agendas have stymied efforts to require e-filing of these reports as a first step, a regulatory change that would go a long way to lowering the cost of making sense of political fundraising.

In the looking-glass world in which we find ourselves, the more raw data on political fundraising and spending that becomes available, the more we need nonprofit intermediaries, including investigative reporting organizations, to help make sense of the data. For all its potential to make information available at ever-lower cost, opening up data requires complementary investments in mechanisms to make the data useful and help us make sense of it.

If the issues swirling around campaign finance reform sound familiar to those of you who work in nonprofits, they should. The same set of questions about e-filing and data disclosure also applies to nonprofit tax filings. Earlier this year, the IRS lost a legal challenge aimed at accelerating its heretofore-glacial efforts to put nonprofit tax data online. Any year now we should see mandatory nonprofit e-filing and the release of tax data in a machine-readable format.  

If the nonprofit space follows in the footsteps of our political system, the end result of a law to require nonprofits to e-file won’t be a straight line to cheaper and more convenient access to that information. We’ll also need more investments in the intermediaries and infrastructure that can help us make sense of the increasing quantities of data we generate.

We’re reaching the stage where ready access to data on spending in politics, on politics, and from foundations and nonprofits can be assumed. This bodes well as a catalyst for greater understanding, more insights, and, potentially, more participation. Not because the data will make the responsibility of being an active citizen in a democracy any easier, but because it will gives us more tools with which to work. Democracies depend on participation and accountability, and broadly accessible useful information is a precursor to both.

--Lucy Bernholz

The Clinton Foundation Reveals Its Donors: Should You?
June 1, 2015

(Steven Lawrence is the director of research at Foundation Center.)

[Steven Lawrence]A fundraising foundation has two world famous founders, a global network of generous donors, and a track record of grantmaking success. One of the founders plans to run for higher office, and the foundation makes the decision to be highly transparent about its donor base to ensure that there can be no suspicion of undue influence on the potential candidate. End of story.

Unless your founders happen to be Bill and Hillary Clinton.

In this marketplace, an organization’s major donors and the amounts they’ve contributed may be considered akin to a “trade secret.”

Over the past several weeks, Foundation Center has been approached by numerous reporters asking—in some cases literally—“There’s smoke, right? What about a fire?” Our response has been an immediate “No” followed by an explanation as to why the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation in fact represents a model of transparency when compared to other grantmaking public charities. (Unlike private foundations endowed by a single donor or donor family—think Ford Foundation—grantmaking public charities like the Clinton Foundation sustain their work by raising funds from a variety of donors.)

So, let’s start with why a fundraising organization might not want to share information on its donors—especially its largest donors. The answer: competition. While public benefit organizations are focused on serving the needs of their constituents, they need to raise money to do so and indirectly compete with one another for support. In this marketplace, an organization’s major donors and the amounts they’ve contributed may be considered akin to a “trade secret.”

Of course, organizations lacking former President Clinton as chief fundraiser may feel less confident about the impact of making this type of information public. But the Clinton Foundation should be commended for its donor transparency, particularly in a field in which anonymous giving is often the norm.

Does it have to be this way? Clearly, the Clinton Foundation believes that its work will not come to a halt because its donors have been voluntarily made public. And the high profile of some of these donors may well encourage their well-heeled peers to also consider supporting the foundation. Of course, organizations lacking former President Clinton as chief fundraiser may feel less confident about the impact of making this type of information public. But the Clinton Foundation should be commended for its donor transparency, particularly in a field in which anonymous giving is often the norm.

And this leads to another question: why do some donors choose anonymity? It’s important to consider in any discussion of disclosing donors that not every donor wants to be recognized for their generosity. Some donors may have personal or religious beliefs that announcing their gifts is a form of unseemly self-aggrandizement. Others may come from cultural contexts where announcing donations is considered distasteful. And some donors live in countries where any show of wealth, including their generosity to others, could increase the threat of kidnapping and harm for themselves and their families.

These valid concerns notwithstanding, the digital age is bringing ever more voluntary and involuntary transparency to all aspects of our lives. Public benefit organizations and their donors would be well served by considering how they can be models of transparency who take the lead in telling their own stories, rather than having them told by others. The Clinton Foundation may be on to something. 

--Steven Lawrence

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  • 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."

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