Transparency Talk

Category: "Promising Practices" (71 posts)

Don’t “Ghost” Declined Applicants: The Ins and Outs of Giving Applicant Feedback
April 4, 2019

Mandy Ellerton joined the [Archibald] Bush Foundation in 2011, where she created and now directs the Foundation's Community Innovation programs. The programs allow communities to develop and test new solutions to community problems, using approaches that are collaborative and inclusive of people who are most directly affected by the problem.

GlassPockets Road to 100

This post is part of our “Road to 100 & Beyond series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by 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, promising practices in transparency, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

I’ve often thought that fundraising can be as bad as dating. (Kudos to you lucky few who have had great experiences dating!) Lots of dates, lots of dead ends, lots of frustrating encounters before you (maybe) find a match. All along the way you look for even the smallest sign to indicate that someone likes you. “They laughed at my joke!” or, in the case of fundraising, “they seemed really excited about page five of last year’s impact report!” Not to mention the endless time spent doing online searches for shreds of information that might be useful. This reality is part of the reason why Bush Foundation was proud to be among the first 100 foundations to participate in GlassPockets. We believe that transparency and opening lines of communication is critical to good grantmaking, because both in dating and in fundraising, it can be heartbreaking and crazymaking to try and sort out whether you have a connection or if someone’s “just not that into you.” If only there was a way to just “swipe left” or “swipe right” and make everything a little simpler.

“We believe that transparency and opening lines of communication is critical to good grantmaking.”

I’m not proposing a Tinder for grantmaking (nor should anyone, probably, although hat tip to Vu Le for messing with all of us and floating the idea on April Fool’s Day). But over the past several years, Bush Foundation’s Community Innovation program staff has used a system to provide feedback calls for declined applicants, in the hopes of making foundation fundraising a little less opaque and crazymaking. We use the calls to be transparent and explain why we made our funding decisions. The calls also help us live out our “Spread Optimism” value because they allow us to help and encourage applicants and potentially point them to other resources. This is all part of our larger engagement strategy, described in “No Moat Philanthropy.”

 

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Mandy Ellerton

How Feedback Calls Work

We use a systematic approach for feedback calls:

  • We proactively offer the opportunity to sign up for feedback calls in the email we send to declined applicants.
  • We use a scheduling tool (after trying a couple different options we’ve landed on Slotted, which is relatively cheap and easy to use) and offer a variety of times for feedback calls every week. Collectively five Community Innovation Team members hold about an hour a week for feedback calls. The calls typically last about 20 minutes. We’ve found this is about the right amount of time so that we can offer feedback calls to most of the declined applicants who want them.
  • We prepare for our feedback calls. We re-read the application and develop an outline for the call ahead of time.
  • During the call we offer a couple of reasons why we declined the application. We often discuss what an applicant could work on to strengthen their project and whether they ought to apply again.
  • We also spend a lot of time listening; sometimes these calls can understandably be emotional. Grant applications are a representation of someone’s hopes and dreams and sometimes your decline might feel like the end of the road for the applicant. But hang with them. Don’t get defensive. However hard it might feel for you, it’s a lot harder for the declined applicant. And ultimately, hard conversations can be transformative for everyone involved. I will say, however, that most of our feedback calls are really positive exchanges.
  • We use anonymous surveys to evaluate what people think of the feedback calls and during the feedback call we ask whether the applicant has any feedback for us to improve our programs/grantmaking process.
  • We train new staff on how to do feedback calls. We have a staff instruction manual on how to do feedback calls, but we also have new team members shadow more seasoned team members for a while before they do a feedback call alone.

 

What’s Going Well

The feedback calls appear to be useful for both declined applicants and for us:

  • In our 2018 surveys, respondents (n=38) rated the feedback calls highly. They gave the calls an average rating of 6.1 (out of 7) for overall helpfulness, 95% said the calls added some value or a lot of value, and 81.2% said they had a somewhat better or much better understanding of the programs after the feedback call.
  • We’ve seen the number of applications for our Community Innovation Grant and Bush Prize for Community Innovation programs go down over time and we’ve seen the overall quality go up. We think that’s due, in part, to feedback calls that help applicants decide whether to apply again and that help applicants improve their projects to become a better fit for funding in the future.
  • I’d also like to think that doing feedback calls has made us better grantmakers. First, it shows up in our selection meetings. When you might have to talk to someone about why you made the funding decision you did, you’re going to be even more thoughtful in making the decision in the first place. You’re going to hew even closer to your stated criteria and treat the decision with care. We regularly discuss what feedback we plan to give to declined applicants in the actual selection meeting. Second, in a system that has inherently huge power differentials (foundations have all of it and applicants have virtually none of it), doing feedback calls forces you to come face to face with that reality. Never confronting the fact that your funding decisions impact real people with hopes and dreams is a part of what corrupts philanthropy. Feedback calls keep you a little more humble.

 

What We’re Working On

We still have room to improve our feedback calls:

  • We’ve heard from declined applicants that they sometimes get conflicting feedback from different team members when they apply (and get declined) multiple times; 15% of survey respondents said their feedback was inconsistent with prior feedback from us. Cringe. That definitely makes fundraising more crazymaking. We’re working on how to have more staff continuity with applicants who have applied multiple times.
  • We sometimes struggle to determine how long to keep encouraging a declined applicant to improve their project for future applications versus saying more definitively that the project is not a fit. Yes, we want to “Spread Optimism,” but although it never feels good for anyone involved, sometimes the best course of action is to encourage an applicant to seek funding elsewhere.

I’m under no illusions that feedback calls are going to fix the structural issues with philanthropy and fundraising. I welcome that larger conversation, driven in large part by brave critiques of philanthropy emerging lately like Decolonizing Wealth, Just Giving and Winners Take All. In the meantime, fundraising, as with dating, is still going to have moments of heartache and uncertainty. When you apply for a grant, you have to be brave and vulnerable; you’re putting your hopes and dreams out into a really confusing and opaque system that’s going to judge them, perhaps support them, or perhaps dash them, and maybe even “ghost” them by never responding. Feedback calls are one way to treat those hopes and dreams with a bit more care.

--Mandy Ellerton

GlassPockets Announces New Transparency Levels: Leveling Up Your Practices
March 28, 2019

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Candid.

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Janet Camarena

It's an exciting moment for us here at GlassPockets, and for the field of philanthropy, as we’ve just reached the milestone of 100 foundations committing to work more transparently by participating and publicly sharing their “Who Has GlassPockets?” transparency self-assessment profiles on our website. Yesterday, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) officially became our 100th participant. What you are seeing today is the result of a diligent process that started last summer, as WFF continually worked to improve the openness of its website. With clear pathways to connect directly with staff members, a knowledge center containing lessons learned as well as packaged “flashcards” containing easily shareable bits of information, and a new searchable grants database spanning its 31-year history, WFF is not starting small when it comes to openness. Transparency can be tricky territory for family foundation donors who may be more accustomed to privacy and anonymity when it comes to their giving, so it’s particularly exciting for us to reach the milestone of 100 published profiles thanks to a family foundation enthusiastically embracing a more transparent approach.

When we started with a handful of foundations and fewer than two dozen transparency indicators, it was more experiment than movement. Now that we’ve aggregated data on transparency trends among 100 participating foundations, it’s a good opportunity to pause and reflect on what we are learning from this data that could inform the way forward to a more transparent future for philanthropy.

Transparency Indicators Evolve

GlassPockets Road to 100

Earlier this year I observed that a promising trend we are seeing in the field is that more foundations are developing sections of their websites devoted to explaining how they work, what values they hold dear, and in some cases, how these values inform their work and operations. Among the 100 foundations that have taken and publicly shared their transparency assessments, 42 percent are now using their websites as a means to communicate values or policies that demonstrate an intentional commitment to transparency. As a result we recently added transparency values/policies as a formal indicator to our GlassPockets assessment. But once you have developed such a values or policy statement, how does a foundation live up to it?

That’s where we hope our “Who Has GlassPockets?” assessment will continue to help foundations create a roadmap to transparency. The assessment is not static and has evolved with the field. When we started in 2010, there were 23 transparency indicators based on an inventory of thousands of foundation websites. As we continue to observe website transparency trends, the assessment has now grown to 27 indicators. Aside from the newest indicator for transparency values/policies, based on the kinds of information that foundations are now starting to share, some other new indicators we added since inception are strategic plans, open licensing policies, and use of the Sustainable Development Goals framework(SDGs). And we expect that as the field continues to evolve, this list of indicators will grow as well.

As the list has grown longer, foundations frequently ask us which indicators are the right ones to start with. Some also tell us that they want to participate, but not until they have at least half or even three-quarters of the indicators on the list. Though we applaud striving to be more transparent, the intent of GlassPockets was never that it be considered a “one-size-fits-all” approach, or that we expected that a majority of the indicators be in place to participate. Rather, that the GlassPockets exercise would serve to surface it as a priority, help the foundation evolve its transparency over time, and ideally would be a process the institution revisits on a regular basis, updating the GlassPockets profile with more and more indicators as transparency improves.

New Transparency Levels and Badges

So to help foundations better understand how to get started and how to grow transparency practices over time, we analyzed the data we have been collecting, and some patterns about how transparency evolves in philanthropy are now becoming clearer. We also conducted advisor interviews with a number of GlassPockets participants to better understand what would be most motivational and helpful in this regard. After reviewing everything we’ve learned so far, we have identified three levels through which foundations pass as they chart their course to greater transparency – these represent core, advanced, and champion-level transparency practices that you can view on this chart.

Explore how the Transparency Indicators relate to each level

Core-level transparency practices represent data most commonly shared by participating foundations and are the best place for new participants to begin. Advanced-level transparency practices open up the way you work to the world and represent information shared by about 50 to 70 percent of participating foundations. Champion-level transparency practices, in place at fewer than half of participating foundations, represent information-sharing that is pushing existing boundaries of foundation transparency.

These new levels represent an optional guide that can be helpful to follow but it is not intended to be viewed as a formal set of requirements. As has always been the case, any foundation at any stage of its transparency journey is welcome to participate and chart its own course. However, to motivate participation and progress, GlassPockets will begin awarding Transparency Badges based on the transparency level attained. These badges will appear on the GlassPockets profile, and will also be made available for use on the foundation’s website. Since it is not a one-size-fits-all, all participating foundations will automatically receive the Core GlassPockets transparency badge, and those who attain Advanced (10-18 indicators) or Champion level (19 or more indicators) will receive a badge denoting the appropriate designation.

Learn About the Transparency Badges

On the Level

Based on the new levels described above, GlassPockets will soon be adding the new Transparency Badges to each profile. So, if it’s been awhile since you reviewed your “Who Has GlassPockets?” profile, or if you’re looking for motivation to improve your transparency, now’s the time to review your existing profile, or submit a new one to see how your foundation stacks up. For existing GlassPockets participants, May 28th is the deadline to review your profile and get any updates or changes in to us before we start making the transparency levels and badges visible on the GlassPockets website the week of June 3rd. To update your profile, you can fill out any new links or corrections on this submission form, or simply email me your changes. As always, new profiles can be added at any time and you can learn more about that process here.

And last, but certainly not least, big thanks and cheers to our existing GlassPockets participants for helping us reach this milestone, and a big welcome to those who will help us reach the next one!

-- Janet Camarena

Meet Our 100th GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Daphne Moore, Communications Director, Walton Family Foundation
March 27, 2019

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by 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.

The Walton Family Foundation (WFF) is a family-led foundation in operation since 1987. The children and grandchildren of founders, Sam and Helen Walton, lead the foundation and work to create access to opportunity for people and communities. WFF works in three areas: improving K-12 education, protecting rivers and oceans and the communities they support, and investing in its home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta.

The Walton Family Foundation is our newest and 100th foundation to join GlassPockets. Daphne Moore, communications director, explains why transparency is a key aspect of WFF’s long-term approach to grantmaking.

GlassPockets: Congratulations on being the foundation that got us to the 100th profile mark! And to start on a transparent note, I also want to acknowledge and thank the Walton Family Foundation for marking its participation with an investment in the field by supporting enhancements to our GlassPockets platform, including the development of a new tiered framework so that foundations can more easily chart a path to working transparently. What can you tell us about why the Walton Family Foundation is prioritizing transparency, both at the foundation and at the field level?  

Daphne Moore: Thank you! The new, tiered framework is a smart approach to encouraging participation, and we were eager to be part of its development because the tiers make it easier to get started. Transparency can serve three valuable purposes: Transparency increases trust, something that is important when working with grantees as well as other funders and partners; it helps find alignment and where we can work together with others while lessening the duplication of efforts; and it helps to foster feedback from grantees and other collaborators encouraging new ideas and fresh thinking. It is a “push and pull” dynamic. The foundation has become more proactive in telling its own story. But that alone is one-sided. It’s also important for us to pull others into our work. The best ideas can come from anywhere, so we want to stay open to new thinking from all over and create pipelines to tap into that thinking.

Daphne Moore


Daphne Moore

GP: Family foundations cite a number of barriers to working transparently. Some say that they are reluctant to turn toward transparency because of a fear of risk to the family, while for others it can have more to do with an organizational culture that thinks of the foundation as "private family business." How did transparency become one of the values WFF leaders embraced?  

DM: In 2017, as we passed our 30th anniversary as a foundation, we wanted to articulate our mission, vision and values in a fresh way and in a way that resonates with our staff, our grantees and other stakeholders. We launched an effort to revisit and reflect on what drives our work. Board members and other Walton family members played a big part in that process by participating in interviews, workshops and even forming an advisory committee. We also sought and received significant input from a broad group of stakeholders – both internal and from grantees and sector leaders. We launched new language defining our mission and vision along with a simple, yet powerful, set of values. You can read about them on our website. One of those values is being OPEN. We want to be open about who we are and to ideas from anywhere. Platforms like GlassPockets are definitely part of living out that value.

GP: We often hear concerns that transparency takes a lot of time and resources. Why would you say transparency and openness should be a priority? How have you benefitted from your efforts to open up your work?  

DM: The more we ingrain transparency in our work, the less effort it becomes. It’s a muscle that you develop over time. Transparency takes a lot of the mystery out of philanthropy. That’s a good thing. It makes sense to be open about the strategy that goes into our grantmaking, who we’re working with and what we’re working for. We believe those closest to the problems we’re trying to solve are also those closest to the solution. The more we can provide insight into the work, the better we get at carrying out our mission and the better the chances of success.

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? And related to this, you are joining as part of the new, advanced transparency level. Were the new GlassPockets Transparency Levels helpful or motivating to you?  

DM: GlassPockets is not the only way to be a transparent organization, but it’s a great way to put a stake in the ground and signal to both internal and external audiences that transparency matters and is important. The process showed us that transparency isn’t as complicated as we sometimes think, and the important thing is to start. The new Transparency Levels make participation less intimidating and foster a sense that this is truly a journey. We hope the levels inspire others to take our approach – just get started!

GP: The Walton Family Foundation website has quite a few entry points for visitors to learn about your work and what you're learning from it. You have sections devoted to stories, another to sharing knowledge, and another to communicating compelling facts via online flashcards. Can you talk about this framework and how you distinguish between each type of content, and why each is important to advancing your work?  

DM: Each section of our website showcases different aspects of the work we do. They open windows into the organization. With our Stories section – our blog – we’re trying to highlight the work of our grantees and the people committed to making a positive change in their communities. There’s such a broad scope to our work and some very powerful stories to tell. The blog also gives Walton family members, our leadership team and our program officers an opportunity to share their experiences and perspective on what we do, how we do it and why we do it. The Knowledge Center provides an opportunity for us to highlight what we have learned and what we’re learning from others. To have the greatest impact, we need to know what works, what doesn’t and how to be better in our grantmaking. Our Strategy, Learning and Evaluation Department takes a strategic approach to learning, which guides our decision making and planning. Through flashcards, we aim to break down complex issues into ‘snackable’ segments that can be easily consumed at a glance and shared on social media. The newest element of our website is one we’re excited about. We have launched a searchable online grants database, so visitors will be able to learn more about grants we have made going back 30 years.

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

DM: We’re thinking about doing this in several ways. First, and most directly related to GlassPockets, we expect to continue to add indicators to our profile. Look for us to do this throughout the next year. Another way is rethinking how we describe our work. When you’re focused on tackling some of the biggest challenges, you tend to focus on process and policy. You have to do that – it’s how you create systemic change. But process and policy are not what drives our work. It’s people – students, teachers, farmers, fishermen, entrepreneurs and artists. It’s also the Walton family members that lead us and the values that motivate them to want to create positive change for people and communities. So look for more about what drives the foundation and the impact that changes lives today and lasts for generations.

--Janet Camarena

Meet Our Newest GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Dawn Hawk, Chief Operating Officer, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation
March 26, 2019

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by 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.

Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF), a grantmaking public charity, was established in 1991 to test new approaches to grantmaking. PVF has developed an expertise in “grassroots giving” through which it aspires to transform philanthropy, making it more responsive and collaborative to better meet community needs. In partnership with grassroots leaders, PVF identifies needs that can be met with philanthropic support, and then devises program ideas to help tackle the issues head on. From this drive to address unmet needs came the idea of immediate-response grants, in which PVF provides funds within a 48-hour turnaround. These immediate-response grant programs have benefitted teachers as well as social workers and juvenile court judges who work with youth in foster care.

Philanthropic Ventures Foundation is among our newest GlassPockets participants. Dawn Hawk, chief operating officer, explains why transparency is an essential component of PVF’s community and relationship-focused approach to grantmaking.

GlassPockets: Why is transparency an important value to informing how Philanthropic Ventures Foundation operates?

Dawn Hawk: For PVF, transparency is more than displaying organizational policies. Transparency is relationships with our partners – our grantee partners and donors. Transparency is related to trust. It takes one to develop the other. And trust comes from deeply understanding the work and challenges of our grantees.

Because our grantees’ success is important to us, we visit them regularly, we learn from them, and we help them tell their story, via our blog, newsletter, and social media. One key role we play for our donor advised funds is to advise our donors on giving with impact, and we want to introduce them to nonprofits with outstanding leadership and fresh ideas. Thus we feel it is important to profile our grantees on our website and in conversations.

We aren’t focused on transparency around what we will fund as we haven’t conducted a strategic thinking process that sets our funding areas in stone. We are more focused on modeling a risk-taking approach, and advocating for more responsiveness from our foundation colleagues, to free up the time our nonprofit partners now spend on writing proposals.

Dawn

Dawn Hawk

GP: Since you are in the unique role of both grantmaking and fundraising, that gives you a unique vantage point. What is one or two pieces of information you wish more foundations would have transparently on their websites?

DH: All organizations searching for support want to be able to determine if their work is a fit for a foundation’s giving focus, so having open program guidelines clearly stated is key. One of the most difficult statements for a grantseeker to understand is “we do not accept unsolicited proposals” and PVF will never state that. To us transparency also means accessibility. If you are doing good work, we want to know about it, which is why we pride ourselves on being out in the community more than in our offices, and when in the office we always pick up the phone.

And yet, PVF also struggles with communicating our “giving focus” on our website because we provide such a wide range of services: giving creative grantmaking advice to our donor advised fund clients; modeling responsive grantmaking through our immediate response grant programs for teachers and social workers; administering awards programs for innovative startup partners wishing to make an impact without establishing a stand-alone foundation; serving as a fiscal depository for projects that do not yet have their tax-exempt status but are otherwise ready to begin their charitable work.

While PVF’s immediate response grant programs and awards programs provide an easy entry point for grantseekers who fit the eligibility guidelines, there is no streamlined way for a grantseeker to understand the giving focuses of our many donor advised funds. This is a common problem with community foundations. We’d love to open this discussion and hear how our fellow community foundations address this. For PVF we make a point to profile the work of outstanding leaders and programs working in the community, as these are the programs we also hope will inspire and motivate our donors to give support. At a time when local grassroots solutions are more important than ever, we feel it is our role to inform donors about important, critical work happening in their back yard and to encourage them to “give local."

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

DH: It has been helpful to become aware of all the avenues of transparency. The featured categories allow a foundation to conduct a self-audit to be able to present a more complete profile of their work. Since the GlassPockets assessment looks at a number of indicators across the whole foundation, deciding to do the assessment helped us to focus on transparency as a team. We are viewing the GlassPockets process as an ongoing process – we are on the road!

GP: Do you have any examples of how being a transparent funder has led you to become more effective in your philanthropy?

DH: Of course, having transparent up front information about what you fund will answer a grantseekers’ questions, and minimize the research time a nonprofit must invest. And making ourselves transparent and accessible helps us better understand their time constraints and how to structure our grantmaking processes in a way that supports our partners rather than creates a burden. As a result, we prioritize streamlined application processes out of respect for our grantees’ time and to free them up to focus more on their mission than on fundraising. In essence, transparency and accessibility lead to processes based on empathy and respect. PVF has always allocated a modest amount of grant funding to enable us to model responsive grantmaking, giving critical intervention funding when it is needed, making grants without formal applications from nonprofits, and providing support based on knowledge of the program and its impact.

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

DH: In our role as an intermediary, transparency is also about helping to create a culture of learning among our donors. We continually work with our donor advised fund clients to keep them informed about local issues, such as the inequality gap, lack of housing, and displacement. We convene nonprofits and funders around these issue areas, providing forums for engagement where they can meet as equals to discover and advance new ideas to address our biggest problems, and we share these discussions online.

We help donors with a funding goal – for example, to support young people to implement community service projects – to turn these funding ideas into long-running, high-impact programs with open applications – like the Bay Area Inspire Awards Program which we have administered for five years. And of course we always endeavor to make our program application process streamlined and the decision announcement timeline short!

--Janet Camarena

Open Road Alliance Joins GlassPockets
February 21, 2019

Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Maya Winkelstein, Executive Director, Open Road Alliance

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by 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.

Open Road Alliance (ORA) is a private philanthropic initiative that serves the social sector by keeping impact on track in an unpredictable world. Open Road was founded in 2012 by psychologist and philanthropist Dr. Laurie Michaels to address the need for contingency funds and the absence of risk management practices in philanthropy. ORA provides both short- and long-term solutions to unexpected challenges that arise during project implementation, so that impact and finite resources can be maximized across the social sector. To meet immediate needs, ORA offers fast, flexible funding to nonprofits and social enterprises facing discrete, unexpected roadblocks during project implementation.

In addition to its investment portfolio, Open Road promotes the long-term, sector-wide adoption of better risk management practices. In collaboration with peers, ORA conducts research, develops tools, and generates data on approaches to financial and non-financial risk management.

Open Road Alliance is among our newest GlassPockets participants. Maya Winkelstein, executive director, explains why transparency is central to its philanthropic efforts.

GlassPockets: As a donor-advised fund (DAF), Open Road is voluntarily being more transparent than what's required, so why are you prioritizing transparency? Is it part of your strategy?

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Maya Winkelstein

Maya Winkelstein: Transparency is key to our investment strategy and to our mission of Keeping Impact on Track. We believe that honest, transparent conversations - particularly in the donor-grantee relationship - are critical to mitigating risk and preserving impact.

As for being a DAF, we chose that structure because it’s very flexible and keeps our administrative costs down - meaning we can put more of our assets directly into our grant and loan portfolios. We’re focused on impact, the rest is just logistics!

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?

MW: We believe in a customer service approach to philanthropy where our customers are
our grantees and potential grantees. This ethos is embodied in our customer service credo which outlines how we do business. We exist to serve them, not the other way around. I think this is how philanthropy should be -- no matter the size of your organization. Given this core ethos, it would be impossible for us to provide “good service” without transparency and honesty. That’s what makes it a priority for us.

We have also found that integrating transparency into our criteria, our decision-making process, timelines, expectations, and definitions of impact makes for more effective partnerships. Being honest accelerates relationship development and given that the organizations we work with are coming to us with a challenge laid bare, there’s a built in requirement and responsibility for mutual transparency and candor. It’s an invaluable piece of the Open Road puzzle.

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?

MW: We are grateful to have the opportunity to participate in GlassPockets. Not only so that peers and partners have insight into Open Road, but the process afforded us the opportunity to evaluate how accessible we are to potential applicants or peers seeking resources. It has inspired us to include more ways to engage with Open Road on our contact page, and to highlight feedback received and how to give us feedback, by providing a link to our profile on GrantAdvisor.

GP: Feedback mechanisms are often something that foundations struggle with. Open Road Alliance has been able to provide such a mechanism by becoming an early adopter of GrantAdvisor, an open platform where grantees and applicants can anonymously review your foundation. Why is this important and what have you learned from your participation?

MW: We’re big fans of GrantAdvisor, and I’ve been lucky enough to serve as a member of their National Leadership Panel for three years. I think it’s a platform that’s long overdue. It’s important to us because anonymous feedback is honest feedback. GrantAdvisor.org offers the opportunity to hear directly from our most important stakeholders (i.e. grantees).

As an ED, I also use it as a management tool. I regularly check recent reviews to see how our investment team is doing - if we are living up to our customer service credo. If we get a bad review or critical feedback, we use that to have a conversation internally and assess if we need to make a change. Every enterprise needs unfettered feedback from its customers. GrantAdvisor gives us that.

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

MW: As a small team we don’t always have the bandwidth to report on our impact. We’re currently in the process of hiring a data scientist who will be instrumental in analyzing our portfolio, the impact we’ve had on individual projects and the sector, and, frankly, what we could be doing better. With increased capacity, we’re looking forward to sharing that data more regularly!

--Janet Camarena

How Family Foundations Are Opening Up: Part II
January 31, 2019

Elaine Gast Fawcett of PhilanthropyCommunications.com is a philanthropy writer and communications strategist who has managed multi-million dollar grant programs for foundations, is a certified multigenerational family trainer with 21/64, and a Contributing Editor to the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP). This post is the second of a two-part look at some of the key findings about transparency in family foundations from a new NCFP report.

Elaine Gast Fawcett
Elaine Gast Fawcett

Last week I started by identifying some of the key ways in which family foundations are working more transparently than in the past. Strengthening relationships was core to the two practices I identified: being accessible to grant applicants and learning from listening to the community. Here are a few more helpful examples and practices from the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s new guide Transparency in Family Philanthropy: Opening to the Possibilities.

Transparency is…Credibility to Bring Voice to Issues

When Stefan Lanfer came to the Barr Foundation in 2008, it was just over a decade old, and did all of its grantmaking anonymously. “In 2009, Barr’s trustees decided it was time to be more open and transparent about the foundation’s work,” he says.

What drove the decision? “Mission. The board saw the potential to bring more value beyond its grant dollars alone—to elevate the voices and work of our partners, and also to use our own voice to contribute to public debates about the issues we focus on.”

The shift to greater transparency took time. One of the foundation’s core values is humility. For its many years as an anonymous funder, the prevailing view was that “attention ought to be on the community leaders and issues at hand, not us,” says Lanfer, who was tasked with leading the foundation’s communications efforts. “We weren’t interested merely in increasing visibility for Barr. We wanted to know how to use communications to further our mission.”

“We realized there are times when the Barr Foundation lending its voice can be significant to issues affecting our city and region,” he says. “It can spark, frame, and help shift important conversations.”

For example, like many cities, Boston has experienced a huge real estate boom along its waterfront, says Lanfer. “Over the last 10 years, development along Boston’s waterfront has exploded. Meanwhile media coverage and public debate has principally focused on the merits or concerns about individual projects—and not on growing concerns that Boston’s waterfront could end up being walled off from public use. In this context, Barr’s president, Jim Canales, wrote an Op Ed that ran in the Boston Globe, calling for a new conversation, and a different approach. He called for greater ambition and vision to create a waterfront that all can access and enjoy for generations.”

That one Op-Ed precipitated a significant increase in media coverage of the topic. At the same time, Barr launched a new special initiative focused on the waterfront, which has since awarded over $11 million. Yet, it was a willingness to add its voice to the conversation, says Lanfer, that had that first, important amplifying effect. “It drew more attention to the cause and created a momentum that wasn’t there before, and has only continued to build.”

Transparency is…Sharing Mistakes in the Spirit of Learning

“When we started thinking about transparency, it was when we were looking at ways to help communities develop and how they could become more resilient, flexible, and intuitive in their own ways,” says Richard Russell, board member of The Russell Family Foundation (TRFF). “We looked at what was making a difference in the waters of Puget Sound. What we learned was that more than 50 percent of the pollution of Puget Sound comes from the communities surrounding it, and that those communities have a lack of consciousness that they live next to this incredible fjord and are dumping everything in there.”

“We asked ourselves: what is our theory of change? What will make a difference down the road?” says Russell. “We saw an opportunity to build trust and convene community. The more we can be open with each other, the better the quality of our connection.”

One of the ways to be open is to share mistakes, he says. “In our culture, mistakes are taboo. Yet revealing mistakes can be a source of strength,” he says. “We all think we have to protect ourselves. Yet a lot of our nervousness or fears around that are misguided.”

“My parents (George and Jane Russell, founders of TRFF) believed that you can advance progress so much faster if you got the right people in the room and got out of their way. If you try to keep people out of the room or hide mistakes that people are inevitably going to make, it injects more tension into relationships,” says Russell.

In the spirit of its founders, TRFF posts its mistakes. In fact, for years, one of the most it ever posted was on a failed program related investment that it had made to a nonprofit. “The video featured interviews with the executive director of the nonprofit, interviews with me from TRFF, what we had learned, and how we the foundation processed these lessons learned across the silos,” says CEO Richard Woo.

“People don’t learn from each other if they aren’t open,” says Russell. “One of the most valuable things we’ve been able to do as a community leader is to convene people on issues that they aren’t talking about—to get people to let their hair down and talk openly. We all need to be a learning organization.”

Transparency is…Opening Up Online

A website is a minimal transparency tool, says Patrick Troska. “At a minimum, people should be able to find you and get in touch with you, not have their question go into some black hole. We do exist in the public trust and are supposed to be responding to the public—and if we’re not doing that, what are we doing?”

“I hope these stories will inspire family foundations to look at their own transparency practices, and how family foundations—and the communities they serve—can benefit from increased openness.”

Recently, the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota revamped its website to be more community focused. There are now photos from the community, blog posts written by foundation staff and other guest writers, staff contact information, and funding guidelines. The foundation is even considering an interactive map showing where they fund.

The Perrin Foundation in New Haven, Connecticut also recently redeveloped its website. “When we started the process, we found we weren’t as transparent online as we thought we were,” says president Laura McCargar. “On our previous site, we had listed our board chair, but no other board members. We talked about grantmaking areas, but didn’t talk about how we encourage folks to build relationships. We listed our grant partners, but no financials.”

While it’s been a somewhat challenging process to redevelop the website, the “opportunity to discuss together how we publicly represent ourselves has been invaluable.” She says one of the discussion points was about how board members individually wish to be represented on the site. “Some felt photos might make it too much about the family, and others felt it would keep us too much behind a veil if we didn’t put photos up. These are important conversations to have.”

Ultimately, consistent with the GlassPockets transparency self-assessment, it’s up to a family foundation board, perhaps with staff, to decide on the right level of transparency for them, and why. I hope these stories will inspire family foundations to look at their own transparency practices, and how family foundations—and the communities they serve—can benefit from increased openness.

Want more? Download the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s new guide, Transparency in Family Philanthropy: Opening to the Possibilities, which encourages donors, boards, and staff of family foundations (and other giving vehicles) to purposefully consider their choices regarding transparency in grantmaking, governance, and operations. This guide includes a list of questions family foundations can ask themselves as a board to think deeply and develop a transparency strategy.

--Elaine Gast Fawcett

How Family Foundations Are Opening Up
January 24, 2019

Elaine Gast Fawcett of PhilanthropyCommunications.com is a philanthropy writer and communications strategist who has managed multi-million dollar grant programs for foundations, is a certified multigenerational family trainer with 21/64, and a Contributing Editor to the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP). This post is the first of a two-part look at some of the key findings about transparency in family foundations from a new NCFP report.

Elaine Gast Fawcett
Elaine Gast Fawcett

When it comes to transparency, family foundations, by and large, choose the level of their liking or opt to remain “under the radar.” Yet as the public and the nonprofit sector call for greater funder openness and transparency, more family foundations are wondering: how transparent should we be, and why? Will transparency lead to greater effectiveness? Or are there some circumstances where it serves our mission more to stay mums-the-word?

While there is a wide range of transparency practices in family philanthropy, there are more stories of the field swinging toward openness. I interviewed a number of family foundations for the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s new guide Transparency in Family Philanthropy: Opening to the Possibilities. Here are a few stories that show how family funders are thinking and acting when it comes to transparency, and what has come as a result.

Transparency is…Being Accessible to Grant Applicants

“When we think about our approach, we don’t use the word transparency—it’s just what we do,” says Jean Buckley, president of the Tracy Family Foundation in Illinois, and daughter of the founders R.T. and Dorothy Tracy.

“From a grantmaking perspective, we’ve always strived to be transparent in our process—communicating clearly on our website how to apply and when we make funding decisions,” she says. Beyond that, the Tracy Foundation encourages grant applicants to consult with the foundation program manager to strengthen their applications and increase their chances of getting funded.

“We see so many applications that come in and need a lot of work. By making ourselves accessible to grant applicants, we can give them tips on making their proposals better. It also helps our program manager get to know the organization, and prepare to communicate to the board.”

She acknowledges that a foundation can’t have that level of communication with applicants without a dedicated staff. It takes time to dedicate those resources. Yet, at the end of the day, she says, it saves time. “I used to spend my time reading through countless applications, sending emails and follow up emails. And more than half the time, it would postpone funding,” she says. “Now that applicants have these pre-conversations with our program officer, the applications are clearer, and our discussions now are so much more efficient at board meetings. It’s improved our process and saved everyone time,” she says.

Buckley does acknowledge that there are challenges to transparency, particularly in small towns. “We live in a rural area, and no one wants to feel like they are bragging about giving away money,” she says. “Privacy can also be an issue. The more ‘out there’ the foundation is, people always want something from you, and there’s a good chance you’ll get stopped in the grocery store,” she laughs.

It’s a chance she is willing to take. “Without transparency, funders can miss out on opportunities and connections and learning. We all learn so much from each other,” says Buckley.

”It’s not like we sit around and talk about how to be more transparent. We’re open, honest people running a foundation, trying to make the communities we work in a better place. To do that requires us to be transparent, to engage in thoughtful communication with ourselves and others.” – Jean Buckley, Tracy Family Foundation

Transparency is…Listening and Building Authentic Relationships

Authenticity and transparency go hand in hand, says Patrick Troska, executive director of the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota. It requires a different set of skills to do it right and well, and it takes time and effort.

Philanthropists have historically been more directive and less in the role of listener, he says. “We realized we needed to stop talking and authentically listen. That’s how we built relationships. We were transparent about our guiding values and that we wanted to be in true partnership with the community. Even using the word partners as opposed to grantees intimates a different way of being.”

First, foundation staff assessed themselves individually and as an organization using a tool called the Intercultural Development Inventory assessment. “We needed to understand how we show up in the community when it comes to race, diversity and equity—what are the biases and lenses we bring, how much space do we take up based on our level of privilege, and how can we, as a predominantly white staff, authentically work in a persons of color community? Understanding this was an important first step. It showed us who we are, what we needed to do differently, and what types of behaviors we would need to start to practice.”

“Next, we had conversations with anyone who would talk with us: community leaders, faith leaders, teachers, principals, students, business leaders, and more. We asked them: what are your hopes, your dreams for your community? What do you most want for this community?”

“Then? We listened.”

This wasn’t always easy or comfortable. Troska remembers a moment at a community meeting when an angry leader shouted at foundation staff. “Who are you to be in our community, she said. We knew we needed to sit there and listen. And we came back the next week, and the next week, and listened more. We could have gotten defensive or run away. But we stayed and practiced a set of skills and actions that helped us show up differently.”

“We now have a strong set of allies—folks who want to be a part of the work we’re doing. A new set of leaders emerged from those conversations we had early on. We’re now seen as a more trusted partner in the community, all because of the work we did to be more open to what the community had to say.”

Learn more about transparency trends in philanthropy in my next post, or by downloading the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s new guide, Transparency in Family Philanthropy: Opening to the Possibilities.

--Elaine Gast Fawcett

A New Year, a New Transparency Indicator: Coming Soon—Transparency Values & Policies
January 3, 2019

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

Janet Camarena PhotoWhen GlassPockets started nine years ago, it was rare to find any reference to transparency in relation to philanthropy or foundations. The focus of most references to transparency at the time were in relation to nonprofits or governments, but seldom to philanthropy. When we set out to create a framework to assess foundation transparency, the “Who Has GlassPockets?” criteria were based on an inventory of current foundation practices meaning there were no indicators on the list that were not being shared somewhere by at least a few foundations. Not surprisingly, given the lack of emphasis on foundation transparency, there were few mentions of it as a policy or even as a value in the websites we reviewed, so it didn’t make sense at the time to include it as a formal indicator.

GlassPockets Road to 100A lot has changed in nine years, and it’s clear now from reviewing philanthropy journals, conferences, and yes, even foundation websites that awareness about the importance of philanthropic transparency is on the rise. Among the nearly 100 foundations that have taken and publicly shared “Who Has GlassPockets?” transparency assessments, more than 40 percent are now using their websites as a means to communicate values or policies that aim to demonstrate an intentional commitment to transparency. And demonstrating that how the work is done is as important as what is done, another encouraging signal is that in many cases there are articulated statements on new “How We Work” pages outlining not just what these foundations do, but an emphasis on sharing how they aim to go about it. These statements can be found among funders of all types, including large, small, family, and independent foundations.

We want to encourage this intentionality around transparency, so in 2019 we are adding a new transparency indicator asking whether participating foundations have publicly shared values or policies committing themselves to working openly and transparently. In late January the “Who Has GlassPockets?” self-assessment and profiles will be updated reflecting the new addition. Does your foundation’s website have stated values or policies about its commitment to transparency? If not, below are some samples we have found that may serve as inspiration for others:

  • The Barr Foundation’s “How We Work" page leads with an ethos stating “We strive to be transparent, foster open communication, and build constructive relationships.” And elaborates further about field-building potential: “We aim to be open and transparent about our work and to contribute to broader efforts that promote and advance the field of philanthropy.”

  • The Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation’s Mission and Core Values page articulates a long list of values that “emerge from the Foundation’s long history,” including a commitment to forming strategic alliances, working honestly, “showing compassion and mutual respect among grantmakers and grantees,” and ties its focus on transparency to a commitment to high standards and quality: “The Foundation strives for high quality in everything it does so that the Foundation is synonymous with quality, transparency and responsiveness.”

  • The Ford Foundation’s statement connects its transparency focus to culture, values around debate and collaboration, and a commitment to accountability: “Our culture is driven by trust, constructive debate, and leadership that empowers innovation and excellence. We strive to listen and learn and to model openness and transparency. We are accountable to each other at the foundation, to our charter, to our sector, to the organizations we support, and to society at large—as well as to the laws that govern our nonprofit status.”

  • An excerpt from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Information Sharing Approach” page emphasizes collaboration, peer learning, and offers an appropriately global view: “Around the world, institutions are maximizing their impact by becoming increasingly transparent. This follows a fundamental truth: that access to information and data fosters effective collaboration. At the foundation, we are embracing this reality through a continued commitment to search for opportunities that will help others understand our priorities better and what supports our decision making. The foundation is also committed to helping the philanthropic sector develop the tools that will increase confidence in our collective ability to address tough challenges around the world…..We will continually refine our approach to information sharing by regularly exploring how we increase access to important information within the foundation, while studying other institutional efforts at transparency to learn lessons from our partners and peers.”

  • The Walter and Elise Haas Fund connects its transparency focus to its mission statement, and its transparency-related activities to greater effectiveness: “Our ongoing commitment to transparency is a reflection of our mission — to build a healthy, just, and vibrant society in which people feel connected to and responsible for their community. The Walter & Elise Haas Fund shares real-time grants data and champions cross-sector work and community cooperation. Our grantmaking leverages partnerships and collaborations to produce results that no single actor could accomplish alone.”

  • The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s statement emphasizes the importance of transparency in creating a culture of learning: “The foundation is committed to openness, transparency and learning. While individually important, our commitments to openness, transparency, and learning jointly express values that are vital to our work. Because our operations—both internal and external—are situated in complex institutional and cultural environments, we cannot achieve our goals without being an adaptive, learning organization. And we cannot be such an organization unless we are open and transparent: willing to encourage debate and dissent, both within and without the foundation; ready to share what we learn with the field and broader public; eager to hear from and listen to others. These qualities of openness to learning and willingness to adjust are equally important for both external grantmaking and internal administration.”

These are just a few of the examples GlassPockets will have available when the new indicator is added later this month. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed for updates.

Happy New Year, Happy New Transparency Indicator!

--Janet Camarena

Evolving Towards Equity, Getting Beyond Semantics
December 17, 2018

Mona Jhawar serves as learning and evaluation manager for The California Endowment.

Mona JhawarIn my previous post, I reflected on The California Endowment’s practice of conducting a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Audit and how it helps us to stay accountable to intentionally integrating and advancing these values across the foundation.

We started this practice with a “Diversity and Inclusion” Audit in 2008 and as part of our third audit in 2013, The California Endowment (TCE) adjusted the framing to a “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” Audit. This allowed us to better connect the audit with how the foundation viewed the goals of our strategy and broadened the lens used through the audit process.

While this could be viewed as a semantic update based on changes in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, by 2016 our audit results reflected how TCE described both our core values that lead with principles of DEI and the ultimate outcome of our work that point towards health equity and justice for all. And although we didn’t make a corresponding change to reflect this shift in what the audit specifically assesses, select findings from our most recent audit highlight how not only diversity, but how equity is also being operationalized within the foundation.

Getting beyond the numbers

In some ways, the most straightforward entry point for DEI discussions is to first examine diversity by assessing quantitative representation within the foundation at the board and staff level, among our partners, contractors, vendors, and investment managers. Though it’s a necessary beginning, reporting and reflection, however, cannot stop with counting heads.  While our audit may have started as a way to gauge inclusion through the lens of diversity, it’s become clear that collecting and examining demographic data sets the stage for critical conversations to follow.

Part of the inherent value of reflecting on diversity and representation is in service of getting beyond the numbers to discover what questions the numbers inspire. Questions such as:

  • Who’s missing or overrepresented and why?
  • What implications could the gaps in lived experiences have on the foundation, the strategies used and how our work is conducted?
  • What are the underlying structures and systems that shape the demographics of the foundation and of the organizations with which we partner?

It’s these types of questions about our demographics and diversity that help move us beyond discussions about representation into deeper discussions about equity.

The audit has been a valuable point of reflection and action planning over the past several years. It’s a comprehensive process conducted in partnership with evaluation firm, SPR, that spans an extensive number of sources.

Towards Equity and Inclusion

As TCE pursues our health equity goals, we’ve been able to define and distinguish key differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion. While diversity examines representation, we define equity as promoting fair conditions, opportunities, and outcomes. We also define inclusion as valuing and raising the perspectives and voices of diverse communities to be considered where decisions are being made. For future audits, we’re looking to refine our DEI audit goals to more explicitly focus on equity and inclusion across both our grantmaking efforts and to even more deeply examine our internal policies, practices, and operations. However, here are a few examples from our latest audit that highlight how equity and inclusion currently show up across the foundation outside of our grantmaking.

Equity in hiring

  • Recognizing the impact of structural racism and mass incarceration, TCE followed the lead of partners working to “ban the box” and the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color to change hiring practices. TCE now utilizes a Fair Chance Hiring Policy that opens the door for hiring qualified applicants with a conviction or an arrest and shares open positions with anti-recidivism organizations.

Inclusion and equity in investments

  • In the spirit of inclusion, the criteria for our Program Related Investments (PRIs) integrate whether the PRI will engage the community it is intended to benefit as well as whether the investment will address a known health inequity or social determinant of health.
  • In recognition of structural racism leading to higher rates of incarceration within communities of color, in 2015 TCE announced that we will no longer invest in companies profiting from for-profit prisons, jails, or detention centers.

Equity in vendor selection

  • Operationalizing equity also requires considering how facility operations align with organizational values. In line with our divestment from for-profit prisons, an RFP process identified a vendor-nonprofit team that encouraged hiring formerly incarcerated and homeless community members within our onsite café. We remain committed to this approach.

The Work Ahead

We’ve accomplished a great deal. At the same time, as we evolve towards becoming an equity organization there are areas where we need to put more of our attention.

To move beyond articulating values and to get to deeper staff engagement, audit feedback suggests more staff resources are needed to connect individual functions and roles to our DEI values, including through our performance review process, particularly among non-program staff.

Connected to developing a greater vision regardless of department affiliation, we will soon embark to engage staff across the entire organization to develop a more deeply shared racial equity analysis of our work.  As part of this effort, our board is participating in racial equity trainings and adopted a resolution to utilize a racial equity lens as the foundation develops our next strategic plan.  Building on what we’re learning through our audits, in 2019 we’ll launch this effort towards becoming a racially equitable health foundation that will intentionally bring racial equity to the center of our work and how we operate.

Finally, as we continue to partner with and support community to fight for equity, there are several unanswered, imminent questions we’ll need to tackle. Within the walls of the foundation:

  • How do we hold ourselves to the same equity and inclusion principles that our partners demand of system leaders?
  • How do we confront the contradictions of how we operate as an organization rooted in a corporate or hierarchical design to share power with staff regardless of position, increase decision making transparency, and include those impacted by pending decisions in the same way we ask our systems leaders to include and respond to community?
  • With an interest in greater accountability to equity and inclusion, how do we not only tend to power dynamics but consider greater power sharing through foundation structures and current decision-making bodies both internally and externally?

Herein lies our next evolutionary moment.

--Mona Jhawar

What Does It Take to Shift to a Learning Culture in Philanthropy?
November 20, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

This post also appears in the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog.

Janet Camarena PhotoIf there was ever any doubt that greater openness and transparency could benefit organized philanthropy, a new report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) about knowledge-sharing practices puts it to rest. Besides making a case for the need for greater transparency in the field, the report also provides some hopeful signs that, among foundation leaders, there is growing recognition of the value of shifting to a culture of learning to improve foundations’ efforts.

Understanding & Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice reveals how well foundation leaders understand what is and isn’t working in their foundation’s programs, how they figure this out, and what, if anything, they share with others about what they’ve learned. These trends are explored through 119 survey responses from, and 41 in-depth interviews with foundation CEOs. A companion series of profiles tell the story about these practices in the context of four foundations that have committed to working more openly.

Since Foundation Center’s launch of GlassPockets in 2010, we have tracked transparency around planning and performance measurement within the “Who Has Glass Pockets?” self-assessment. Currently, of the nearly 100 foundations that have participated in GlassPockets, only 27 percent publicly share any information about how they measure their progress toward institutional goals. Given this lack of knowledge sharing, we undertook a new #OpenForGood campaign to encourage foundations to publicly share published evaluations through the IssueLab open archive.

As someone who has spent the last decade examining foundation transparency practices (or the lack thereof) and championing greater openness, I read CEP’s findings with an eye for elements that might help us better understand the barriers and catalysts to this kind of culture shift in the field. Here’s what I took away from the report.

Performance Anxiety

UWW_MAIN_COV_border (1)While two-thirds of foundation CEOs in CEP’s study report having a strong sense of what is working programmatically within their foundations, nearly 60 percent report having a weaker grasp on what is not working. This begs the question: If you don’t know something is broken, then how do you fix it? Since we know foundations have a tendency to be success-oriented, this by itself wasn’t surprising. But it’s a helpful metric that proves the point of how investing in evaluation, learning, and sharing can only lead to wiser use of precious resources for the field as a whole.

The report also reveals that many CEOs who have learned what is not working well at their foundations are unlikely to share that knowledge, as more than one-third of respondents cite hesitancy around disclosing missteps and failures. The interviews and profiles point to what can best be described as performance anxiety. CEOs cite the need for professionals to show what went well, fear of losing the trust of stakeholders, and a desire to impress their boards as motivations for concealing struggles. Of these motivations, board leadership seems particularly influential for setting the culture when it comes to transparency and failure.

In the profiles, Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) President Stephen Heintz discusses both the importance of his board and his background in government as factors that have informed RBF’s willingness to share the kinds of information many foundations won’t. RBF was an early participant in GlassPockets, and now is an early adopter of the #OpenForGood movement to openly share knowledge. As a result, RBF has been one of the examples we often point to for the more challenging aspects of transparency such as frameworks for diversity data, knowledge sharing, and investment practices.

An important takeaway of the RBF profile is the Fund’s emphasis on the way in which a board can help ease performance anxiety by simply giving leadership permission to talk about pain points and missteps. Yet one-third of CEOs specifically mention that their foundation faces pressure from its board to withhold information about failures. This sparks my interest in seeing a similar survey asking foundation trustees about their perspectives in this area.

Utility or Futility?

Anyone who works inside a foundation — or anyone who has ever applied for a grant from a foundation — will tell you they are buried in the kind of paperwork load that often feels futile (which actually spawned a whole other worthy movement led by PEAK Grantmaking called Project Streamline). In the CEP study, the majority of foundation CEOs report finding most of the standard sources of knowledge that they require not very useful to them. Site visits were most consistently ranked highly, with the majority of CEOs (56 percent) pointing to them as one of the most useful sources for learning about what is and isn’t working. Grantee focus groups and convenings came in a distant second, with only 38 percent of CEOs reporting these as a most useful source. And despite the labor involved on both sides of the table, final grant reports were ranked as a most useful source for learning by only 31 percent of CEOs.

”Thanks to CEP’s research, we have evidence of real demand for a greater supply of programmatic knowledge.“

If most foundations find greater value in higher touch methods of learning, such as meeting face-to-face or hosting grantee gatherings, then perhaps this is a reminder that if foundations reduce the burdens of their own bureaucracies and streamline application and reporting processes, there will be more time for learning from community and stakeholder engagement.

The companion profile of the Weingart Foundation, another longtime GlassPockets participant, shows the benefits of funders making more time for grantee engagement, and provides a number of methods for doing so. Weingart co-creates its learning and assessment frameworks with grantees, routinely shares all the grantee feedback it receives from its Grantee Perception Report (GPR), regularly makes time to convene grantees for shared learning, and also pays grantees for their time in helping to inform Weingart’s trustees about the problems it seeks to solve.

Supply and Demand

One of the questions we get the most about #OpenForGood’s efforts to build an open, collective knowledge base for the field is whether anyone will actually use this content. This concern also surfaces in CEP’s interviews, with a number of CEOs citing the difficulty of knowing what is useful to share as an impediment to openness. A big source of optimism here is learning that a majority of CEOs report that their decisions are often informed by what other foundations are learning, meaning foundations can rest assured that if they supply knowledge about what is and isn’t working, the demand is there for that knowledge to make a larger impact beyond their own foundation. Think of all that untapped potential!

Of course, given the current state of knowledge sharing in the field, only 19 percent of CEOs surveyed report having quite a bit of knowledge about what’s working at peer foundations, and just 6 percent report having quite a bit of knowledge about what’s not working among their programmatic peers. Despite this dearth of knowledge, still fully three-quarters of foundation CEOs report that they use what they have access to from peers in informing strategy and direction within their own foundations.

Thanks to CEP’s research, we have evidence of real demand for a greater supply of programmatic knowledge. Now there is every reason for knowledge sharing to become the norm rather than the exception.

--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.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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