Transparency Talk

Category: "Small Foundations" (7 posts)

The Power of Sharing: Why VNA Foundation Joined the Reporting Commitment
January 23, 2013

Rob DiLeonardi is Executive Director of the VNA Foundation in Chicago, where he manages its grantmaking program and daily operations. He is co-founder and former Chair of the Board of the Association of Small Foundations (ASF), a national organization of 2,900 grantmaking foundations holding over $60 billion in assets. He has a longstanding interest in foundation transparency and outcome sharing; VNA's website and annual reports have eight times received a Council on Foundations' Wilmer Shields Rich Award for Excellence in Communications.

Rob DileonardiDuring the two decades I've worked for and with small grantmaking foundations, I've addressed problems ranging from healthcare access to domestic violence to homelessness. One of the most vexing problems I've faced over the years, however, relates not to the subject matter of my grantmaking, but rather to the results of it. Time and again, I've helped develop a grantmaking program to address a particular problem, only to find out after the fact that another foundation was funding the identical issue, often with a remarkably similar approach, in the same or a nearby area. We were addressing the same need, often via the same method, but doing so in blissful isolation. In short, we were reinventing the wheel, sometimes only a few miles apart.

Similarly, our foundation's board and staff have often wondered about latest funding trends. With only a limited number of dollars in our coffers, we want to spend them in the most effective possible way. It would be helpful for us to know exactly where other philanthropic dollars were being directed, both geographically and programmatically, as this knowledge would aid us in filling a gap or funding a complimentary niche -- a favorite strategy to maximize the impact of our grantmaking.

For these reasons, over the years I've tried many different approaches to ensure that the staff of the VNA Foundation is aware of other funders' work and that they are aware of ours. We subscribe to many electronic and hard copy newsletters, periodicals, and reports. We attend local, regional, and national conferences and networking groups. We convene grantmakers and grantees around common challenges, and encourage dialogues about successes -- and failures -- in addressing them. And we work hard to make our website an interactive, timely, and appealing resource. Yet, despite these various efforts, both the grantmaking data we share and that which we receive is often either stale (months or sometimes even years old by the time it reaches end users) or lacking the key details to make it useful.

My interest, therefore, was quickly piqued when I learned of the Foundation Center-supported Reporting Commitment, and the opportunity for the VNA Foundation to become a participant in it. The Reporting Commitment finally allows foundations the opportunity, and the mechanism, to release grant information in a consistent, open, and frequent manner. Although the Commitment's founding participants were large foundations, as soon as I became aware of the initiative I knew there would be value in participation by foundations of VNA's size. Small to medium-sized foundations are far more common in number, size and grantmaking level than their larger brethren. In fact, small foundations account for approximately half of America's total foundation grant dollars, and often provide the kind of essential local support that impacts lives on a daily basis.

In addition, most observers judge foundations by their effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency, not their asset size. Participation by smaller foundations like VNA (foundation philanthropy being one of the few settings in which a $50 million bank account is considered "small") is key, in my opinion, to making the Reporting Commitment's impact felt in more than a handful of sectors.

I am delighted to say that the VNA board of directors immediately saw the value in our participation in the Reporting Commitment, and my colleagues at peer foundations are seeing the light as well. All across the country, every day, foundations large and small are working to bring about small miracles or serve as catalysts for systemic innovation. With the help of the Reporting Commitment, perhaps our field finally has a mechanism by which that work can effectively be shared with colleagues and the public alike.

-- Rob DiLeonardi

50 Shades of Transparency
November 29, 2012

(Daniel Matz manages the Glasspockets web site.)

Daniel MatzGlasspockets is turning 50. Well, more like three — in January 2013 — but as of this week, the Glasspockets web site now hosts 50 transparency and accountability profiles. Collectively the foundations that have put themselves to the "Who has glass pockets?" challenge represent $138 billion in assets and more than $6.5 billion in annual giving – close to 15 cents of every foundation grant dollar distributed in the United States. Back in 1952, Russell Leffingwell, then chairman of the Carnegie Corporation, called on the philanthropic community to have glass pockets; that is, to make the work of foundations transparent and to make them accountable to the public and the communities they serve. We now have tangible proof this is happening. Congratulations to the Glasspockets 50 for showing their commitment to transparency and accountability, and meeting the Glasspockets challenge!

... this movement is not just about California or limited to grantmakers with the deepest pockets. Profiled grantmakers hail from 19 states and Washington, DC. And some of the most creative work and most forthright efforts have come from relatively modest quarters.

What exactly is a Glasspockets profile? For the uninitiated, since 2010 we have been cataloging foundations' online transparency and accountability practices — everything from the obvious like contact information and application procedures, to the more demanding like codes of conduct and diversity statements, through to the most challenging activities like making public their grantee feedback and assessing overall foundation performance. We've identified 23 such practices and keep track of them across six types of online communication vehicles (from web sites to blogs to RSS feeds). Together, these indicators help us all see into a foundation; they provide a snapshot of a foundation's "glass pockets." Trends across the sector emerge from aggregated findings displayed as a national Heat Map, the map itself becoming a unique reference tool for other foundations.

Who has glass pockets? Not surprisingly the list includes many of the very largest foundations, many of them at the forefront of the move toward transparency, championing better communication and challenging themselves to ever-greater openness. Some, like the James Irvine Foundation, have even gone so far as to support a statewide initiative to promote transparency among California grantmakers. Thanks, in part, to their support, California grantmakers now represent 40 percent of those foundations with Glasspockets profiles. With such a strong representation of California grantmakers, Glasspockets now features a Twitter feed that opens a window on what California foundations are saying, as well as a California-specific Heat Map showcasing transparency trends among the state's grantmakers. 

But I am also happy to report this movement is not just about California or limited to grantmakers with the deepest pockets. Profiled grantmakers hail from 19 states and Washington, DC. And some of the most creative work and most forthright efforts have come from relatively modest quarters. The Texas-based KDK-Harman Foundation (annual giving of less than $1 million) volunteered to have a Glasspockets profile, demonstrating that even smaller foundations can regularly assess their performance and have a strong voice in larger conversations around transparency. Foundations are increasingly fond of having grantees complete logic models as part of the proposal process. In the case of KDK-Harman, they've applied the logic model to their own work and use it as a way to report on progress and performance to all their stakeholders. In terms of creative energy, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation (annual giving of $4.3 million) produces video annual reports that are a master class on communicating more effectively using digital media technology.

The "Who has glass pockets?" profiles also provide an inventory of foundation communication vehicles, including social media efforts.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was an early adopter of these tools and has been offering insights and advice throughout the year on the Glasspockets Transparency Talk blog about the ways in which social media tools are transforming the work of philanthropy as well as how to measure the impact and value of social media efforts.

These are just three of the dozens of narratives throwing light on the sector-wide push  toward transparency. The Glasspockets 50 also includes regional foundations, health foundations, and community foundations; foundations focused on international giving like Trust Africa, and small foundations like Nebraska's Woods Charitable Fund (whose web site is designed and hosted by the Foundation Center). The varied interests and size of these organizations (Woods has a staff of four) are the real measure of how deep the move to transparency has become.

Join us in being among the first 100 foundations to show the world their Glass Pockets. Submit your profile today or to learn more, contact Janet Camarena in our San Francisco office.

Explore the Glasspockets 50»

-- Daniel Matz

Anonymous Isn't Just for Donors: Encouraging Honest Grantee Feedback
April 9, 2012

(An interview with Jon Clark, President of the James S. Bower Foundation.)

Jon ClarkTransparency Talk (TT): Glasspockets is always in search of good examples of online transparency and accountability practices. One of the tenets of accountability is tracking complaint and response mechanisms. Large, independent foundations can budget for consultants to help them develop stakeholder surveys, so we were particularly interested in the anonymous feedback form you developed, since it can serve as a model for other foundations with limited budgets to bring in outside help. Tell us why you prioritized creating such a mechanism.

Jon Clark (JC): When the James S. Bower Foundation started in earnest in 2006 it was our hope to be able to have honest conversations with nonprofits and others in the community. I knew from my experience in the nonprofit sector and as part of other foundations that the deference that comes from having the question of "can I get money" constantly on the table, or at least in the corner of the room, keeps people from saying what they need to say. Whether that prevents the warts and all program assessments that we really want, or keeps people from calling any of us out when we are arrogant, misguided or just plain stupid, it hinders our ability to be our best in service to our community. I would say that this was one of the key values we started with as an organization.

The deference that comes from having the question of "can I get money" constantly on the table... keeps people from saying what they need to say.

The vast majority of our effort to create an environment where honesty can happen is to do our best to be open and honest ourselves. We aspire to be careful with what we say and to do way more listening than speaking. That said, the transactional realities of foundation relationships are what they are and we probably aren't as great in this regard as we'd like to think, so we created an anonymous comment form on our website, which went live in 2007.

TT: Tell us how your feedback mechanism works.

JC: The form is prominently located on our website behind the tab "Feedback. Even though people are encouraged to email me directly with their comments, they also are given the option of reaching us anonymously. The link takes the person to another site where we have no access and we receive the comments in the form of an email from that site with the sender attributes removed.

TT: Was this expensive to create or maintain? Is this something that any small foundation with a limited budget can do? Are there ongoing maintenance costs?

JC: Not at all, the costs have been nominal.

TT: What has the response been like so far? Are grantees or grantee hopefuls using the form?

JC: Ironically, over the years we have not been inundated with feedback. We did receive some pointed criticism about an off-hand comment I made at a workshop about not waiting until the last minute to get your proposal in. Someone pointed out that when you are a busy development director, sometimes that's the best you can do. They said I was showing insensitivity to the way they had to work. They were right. For the most part though, this feedback form is mostly a spam catcher.

TT: Why do you think that is? And does its lack of use diminish its importance in your view?

JC: The question of why remains a bit of a mystery. While, as executive director, I would love to claim it is because we are doing our jobs so well that no one is complaining, I know there is another answer. The truth is that we are a smaller foundation in a smaller very tight knit community where most foundations and nonprofit leaders are on a first name basis. This form is not necessarily culturally appropriate to our environment since feedback tends to be more upfront. My staff often recount genuine conversations with members of the community where they receive feedback, both good and bad.

TT: With all that said, is it a failure?

JC: While it has not raised our game as much as we had hoped, we leave the form there in case there is ever a time when our culture is compromised and we do need to hear safe words from our community. I think every foundation should give such a voice to their potential and current grantees. In fact, the larger the foundation, the more I would encourage such a platform. Even if it is not used every day, or you have to sift through spam to hear what may need to be spoken softly, it is still an important pathway and one that may ensure no voices are left unheard.

-- Jon Clark

Creating a Video Annual Report: The Mitchell Kapor Foundation's Experience
April 2, 2012

(Cedric Brown is Chief Executive Officer of Mitchell Kapor Foundation)

Cedric BrownAs much as I hate to admit it, I rarely spend more than 30 seconds looking at annual reports. I'm usually attracted to the paper, design, or lead stories, but don't really delve into the sometimes-substantial reading required to make it through one of these tomes. And who has time? I'm not sure if there's a general trend toward simplification of such publications, but that's what I had in mind in late 2010 when starting to consider a format for the Kapor Foundation's first annual report

Given that we're a small family foundation interested in the intersection of social justice and tech, I wanted to use a tack that would reflect our values, style, and general approach to work. And I especially wanted it to be simple to digest. Daniel Olias Silverman, the Irvine Foundation's fantastic director of communications, advised me that the world is moving to video. And so move we did.

Mitchell Kapor FoundationWorking with the Kapor Center's in-house production team, we scripted brief highlights from the Foundation's areas of work. I wanted each of our staff members and the Kapors themselves to have a role, giving voice to our priorities and accomplishments. This vision was met with a little skepticism and camera shyness. But on the day of the shoot, everyone came through like pros - well, maybe not, but at least our natural selves shone through. We left the footage in the hands of the director, Trevor Parham, who added photos and animation to bring our words and work to life.

When we distributed the video through emailing it and posting it on our website's home page, I hadn't expected to get the kind of positive, "WOW!" reviews that came back to us.  Some of our community partners expressed appreciation for getting the pithy information in an entertaining format (and a little hip hop  beat in the background never hurts). Of course, we didn't win any awards or such, but we accomplished my ultimate goal of explaining what the Foundation does in a way that would be widely and clearly understood. The video format also allows us to be (a certain kind of) green by minimizing the use of paper, to save production money, and perhaps best of all, to have almost three times the distributive reach that we would've had strictly through our mailing list!

So this year, we've taken it a step further. No animation against a green screen this time, but we again aimed to deliver the highlights of our efforts in a concise way, using a knockoff of an increasingly popular format. Check it out.

Watch the video »

I'm now a believer that video is indeed the way to go. If you're thinking about doing the same, I'd advise a few practical things:

  1. Write a narrative that outlines your organization's mission and framework;
  2. Use video or photos of grant recipients and partners in action to help tell your story; and perhaps most importantly,
  3. Videos need not be overly fancy or polished. While we at the Kapor Foundation benefit from an incredibly talented in-house team, I've actually seen interesting work done with flip cam footage and freeware. Just be neat (aesthetically) and tell a good story!

Looking forward to seeing your work next year!

-- Cedric Brown

Transparency, Trends, and Tools for Change
December 2, 2011

(Sara Gould, former president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, joined the Foundation Center in February 2011 in the role of The Atlantic Philanthropies Senior Fellow.)

Sara Gould"Unless the field sees five years of above-average investment returns, social justice grantmaking levels in 2015 will remain below 2008 levels." This key finding of Diminishing Dollars: The Impact of the 2008 Financial Crisis on the Field of Social Justice Philanthropy, a new report from the Foundation Center, may be startling, but it's hardly surprising given the slow recovery of the economy since 2008 and the recent volatility and uncertainty in financial markets. And yet, without the Cricket Island Foundation (CIF) taking the initiative to "do the math” necessary to bring greater transparency to the lingering effects of the downturn, this information – so vital to foundations, donors and advocates in the social justice arena – would not have come to light.

Diminishing Dollars: The Impact of the 2008 Financial Crisis on the Field of Social Justice PhilanthropyAmong other trends, the study illuminates both the importance, and the plight, of foundations with endowments of $50 million or less – the "small but mighty” foundations that very often form the bedrock of support for local and regional nonprofit organizations engaged in social justice work. These foundations put their money where their hearts are for social justice. In each of the years from 2005 to 2009, their social justice giving exceeded 70 percent of their total giving, rising to 80 percent immediately following the 2008 downturn. In those same years, the giving of their larger counterparts in the study hovered around 40 percent.

At the same time, small foundations are in an intense struggle to recover economically. Unlike larger foundations, their assets continued to fall from 2008-2009. Because of this, at an average (7 percent) rate of return, grantmaking levels of six small foundations in the study are projected to be 17 percent less in 2015 than in 2008. Although the number of foundations is small, the trend of diminishing dollars available for social justice work in communities across the country is real. And, smaller endowments will not be the only pressure felt by foundations in the social justice arena over the next few years. At a time when high unemployment and cutbacks in public funds mean that so many individuals and families are struggling to meet basic human needs, these foundations will face difficult decisions between funding service provision and investing in advocacy aimed at lasting policy and systems change.

Making difficult and controversial decisions requires trusted research and information, resources that are also invaluable assets in transparent communications with the wide variety of stakeholders in the philanthropic arena. The discouraging economic realities holding sway now in much of philanthropy are not going away any time soon, and they impact every major issue funders are trying to address. Let's continue to increase transparency for both grantmakers and grantseekers, by undertaking research that focuses on a wider group of foundations and making sure those findings are shared with stakeholders. With such efforts, transparency can drive strategy and, ultimately, positive social change.

What impact has the economic downturn had on your grantmaking? Has your cause or organization suffered from cutbacks in social justice grantmaking? Share your experience with us in the comments below.

-- Sara Gould

Transparency and Accountability in Today's Information Age
October 18, 2011

Jennifer Esterline(Jennifer Esterline joined the KDK-Harman Foundation in the fall of 2006 as its first program officer and was promoted to executive director in 2009. Prior to joining the Foundation, Jennifer served as a resource development director at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and also worked in Mexico for a time on issues related to civil society and philanthropy.)

Before I worked in the world of grantmaking, I raised money for a variety of nonprofit organizations, primarily from foundations. That job was sometimes frustrating because of the lack of transparency of many foundations—particularly smaller, local family foundations. Many of you can probably relate to my experience:  digging for information that usually leaves you feeling more confused than before; making inquiry calls to the foundation that never get returned; and receiving standard rejection letters that tell you nothing about why your request was declined other than the fact that “the foundation had more inquiries than funds available.” Sound familiar?

Bringing that experience with me to the KDK-Harman Foundation, both the staff and leadership of the Foundation vowed to change those “more typical” foundation practices. From the Foundation’s inception, we developed processes that ensured transparency and a feeling of customer service in our grantmaking. We took a strategy straight from the playbook of a much larger and well respected foundation in Texas by disseminating a survey to all of our applicants and grantees, which allows them to evaluate ease of application and reporting processes, the quality of interaction, and the responsiveness and knowledge of staff —whether or not they received a grant.

We also collaborate with other education grantmakers in our region through the creation of the Central Texas Education Funders group—a volunteer-led membership group of foundations that have worked together to create a common application and evaluation report for area nonprofits, learning opportunities around public education,  and even collective grantmaking. This collaboration is meant to ease the application and reporting processes of nonprofits in our region and provide opportunities for learning and sharing among its members and between grantmakers and grantees.

We also adopted many other recommendations from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), among others, that encourage foundations to support capacity building, provide operating support, invest in evaluation and evaluative learning, and establish open and honest dialogue between a foundation and grantees in order to learn from one another’s experiences. Our staff and board realized early on that the effectiveness of the Foundation was completely dependent on the effectiveness of our grantee partners, and as such, we’ve tried very hard to create an environment and relationship with grantees that allows them to have the greatest impact in their communities.

In order to evaluate our effectiveness, we developed a theory of change and a logic model early on that would give both staff and board members a clear picture of what we were trying to accomplish and determine benchmarks to measure progress towards those objectives.  All of these documents are updated regularly and available online on our web site,

Assessing performance sounds daunting, but it is well worth the effort.  For small foundations like ours wondering how they should get started with the development of a logic model or other evaluation metrics, here is some specific advice based on our successes and lessons learned along the way:

  • Start small—you don’t have to hire an outside consultant and invest lots of money. Start by bringing your staff and board together during a half-day retreat to talk through elements of a logic model to start a first draft.
  • Collaborate—work with like-minded funders in your area to learn about their evaluation processes.
  • Revisit your performance tools often—logic models are never static, they change over time as the foundation learns more about their areas of expertise and as community needs change.

The staff and trustees of the KDK-Harman Foundation dedicate a lot of time to ensuring that the Foundation is held to the same standards that we expect from our grantees. As a foundation working to break the cycle of poverty through education in Central Texas, we are only as effective as our grantee partners. You don’t have to give away millions of dollars a year to invest in processes that ensure transparency, accountability, and learning within your foundation. Just a simple willingness to learn and an open mind will get you further than you realize.

-- Jennifer Esterline


Glasspockets Find: Transparency and Accountability on a Small Foundation Budget
June 10, 2011

This week's Glasspockets Find:

Association of Small FoundationsOur Glasspockets team is often asked whether items on our "Who Has Glass Pockets?" assessment are geared toward larger foundations that have budgets for things like performance evaluation, grantee feedback, and staff to develop new stakeholder engagement initiatives. While we believe that a culture of transparency can exist in a variety of foundation types and sizes, we also realize the challenges small foundations face in finding the time and resources to undertake such activities.GEO Fortunately, our Glasspockets partner, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), in partnership with the Association of Small Foundations (ASF), have recently made available free "tear sheets" geared toward smaller foundations on "Using Evaluation to Become an Effective Learning Organization," and on "Engaging Stakeholders for More Effective Grantmaking." These helpful guides include an overview of the key issues to consider in advance of implementing these kinds of initiatives, a guide to getting started, questions to raise with your board members, specific grantmakers who have implemented such activities, and a list of recommended reading on the subject.

-- Janet Camarena

Share This Blog

  • Share This

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

  • Enter your email address:

About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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