Transparency Talk

Category: "Technology" (21 posts)

Philanthropy and Democracy: Bringing Data to the Debate
October 18, 2018

Anna Koob is a manager of knowledge services for Foundation Center.

Anna-koob_tilemediumAs money and politics become increasingly intertwined, the enduring debate around the role of philanthropy in a democratic society has taken on new life in recent months  (see
here, here, here, and here for prominent examples).

One side of the debate sees the flexibility of foundation dollars as a part of the solution to strengthen struggling democratic institutions. Others contend that foundations are profoundly undemocratic and increasingly powerful institutions that bypass government channels to shape the country--and world--to their will. Regardless of where you stand, a practical starting point is to learn more about what grantmakers are actually doing to affect democracy in these United States.

While foundations are required by law to avoid partisan and candidate campaigning, these limitations still leave plenty of room for foundations to engage with democracy in other ways.

Which funders are working on voter access issues? How much money is dedicated to civic engagement on key issues like health or the environment? Which organizations are receiving grants to increase transparency in government? Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, offers a free public resource to get at the answers to such questions.

Browse More Than 55k Democracy Grants

Launched in 2014 by Foundation Center and updated regularly, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy’s data tool currently includes over 57,000 grants awarded by more than 6,000 funders totaling $5.1 billion dollars across four major categories: campaigns and elections, civic participation, government strengthening, and media.

The tool offers a look at the big picture through dashboards on each of these categories, and also allows you to browse granular grants-level information.  Interested in understanding:

  • The largest funders of campaigns and elections work?
  • Grantmaking in support of civic participation, broken down by population type?
  • The strategies used to affect democracy work?

To paraphrase the slogan of Apple, there’s a dashboard (and underlying data tool) for that!

The site also features a collection of research on U.S. democracy, powered by IssueLab, links to a number of relevant blog posts, and hosts infographics we’ve developed using data from the tool.

What Does the Data Tell Us About Philanthropic Support for Democracy?

Copy of UntitledLess than two percent of all philanthropic funding in the United States meets our criteria for democracy funding, which includes efforts by foundations to foster an engaged and informed public and support government accountability and integrity, as well as funding for policy research and advocacy. It’s a modest amount considering that this subset captures a wide range of topics, including money in politics, civic leadership development, civil rights litigation, and journalism training. Some findings from the data rise to the top:

  1. Funding for campaigns and elections is the smallest of the four major funding categories tracked. While most people might think of elections as the basic mechanism of democracy, this category only constitutes about 12 percent of democracy funding represented in the tool. Civic participation and government each vie for being the largest category with each accounting for about 38 percent of total democracy funding. And relevant media funding accounts for 28 percent. (Note that grants can be counted in multiple categories, so totals exceed 100 percent.)
  • Less than a quarter of funding supports policy and advocacy work. While work to affect policy is often considered front and center when discussing philanthropy’s impact on democracy, the data tool reveals that many funders are working to strengthen democracy in other ways. Supporting civics education for youth, bolstering election administration, strengthening platforms for government accountability, or funding investigative journalism appear as examples of grantmaking areas that strengthen democracy, but have less direct implications for public policy.
  • Funder interest in the census and the role of media in democracy is increasing. Given the turbulence of the last couple of years in the U.S. political system and amid calls for greater philanthropic involvement in strengthening democracy, what changes have we seen in giving patterns? Well, with the caveat that there is a lag between the time when grants are awarded and when we receive that data (from 990 tax forms or direct reporting by foundations), based on reports added to IssueLab and news items posted on Philanthropy News Digest, we are seeing evidence that funders are rallying around some causes to strengthen democratic institutions, including efforts to ensure representativeness in the 2020 census and support for research on media consumption and digital disinformation.

Why Should Funders be Transparent about Their Democracy Work?

Appeals for data sharing in philanthropy often center around the common good -- detailed data helps to inform authentic conversations around who’s funding what, where, among grantmakers, nonprofits, and other stakeholders. But in a field that’s focused on shaping the nature of our democracy and represents funding from both sides of the ideological divide -- including, for example, grantmaking in support of the American Legislative Exchange Council (“dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism”) alongside grants awarded to organizations like the Center for American Progress (“dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas”), democracy funders tend to be especially cautious about publicizing their work and opening themselves up to increased scrutiny and criticism.  

But the reality is that foundation opacity undermines credibility and public trust. Precisely because of criticism about the lack of democracy in philanthropy, foundations should demonstrate intentional transparency and show that they are living their values as democracy funders. Foundations also find that, particularly in a space that’s rife with speculation, there’s a benefit to shaping your own narrative and describing what you do in your own words. It may not make you immune to criticism, but it shows that you have nothing to hide.

How Funders Can Actively Engage: Submitting Grants Data

Copy of Untitled copy 2Grants data in the platform is either reported directly to Foundation Center via our eReporter program or sourced via publicly available 990 tax forms. While we’re able to get our data-eager hands on foundation grants either way, we prefer sourcing them directly from funders as it lends itself to more recent data -- particularly valuable in the current, fast-paced ‘democracy in crisis’ era -- and more detailed grant descriptions.

To submit your most recent grants (we’re currently collecting grants awarded in 2017), become an eReporter! Export a list of your most recent grants data in a spreadsheet (all grants - not limited to those relevant to democracy), review the data to make sure there’s no sensitive information and everything is as you’d like it to appear, and email your report to egrants@foundationcenter.org. Submit data as often as you’d like, but at least on an annual basis.

Bringing Tangible Details to Abstract Discussions

At Foundation Center, we often tout data’s ability to help guide decision making about funding and general resource allocation. And that’s a great practical use case for the philanthropic data that we collect -- whether for human rights, ocean conservation funding, the Sustainable Development Goals, or democracy. At a time of increased foundation scrutiny, this publicly-available platform can also provide some transparency and concrete details to broaden discussions. What have foundations done to strengthen democracy? And how might they best contribute in these politically uncertain times? For examples, look to the data.

Have questions about this resource? Contact us at democracy@foundationcenter.org.

--Anna Koob

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

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Janet Camarena

Data Fix: Do's and Don'ts for Data Mapping & More!
October 3, 2018

Kati Neiheisel is the eReporting liaison at Foundation Center. eReporting allows funders to quickly and easily tell their stories and improve philanthropy by sharing grants data.

This post is part of a series intended to improve the data available for and about philanthropy.

KatiNeiheisel_FCphotoAs many of you know, Foundation Center was established to provide transparency for the field of philanthropy. A key part of this mission is collecting, indexing, and aggregating millions of grants each year. In recent years this laborious process has become more streamlined thanks to technology, auto-coding, and to those of you who directly report your grants data to us. Your participation also increases the timeliness and accuracy of the data.

Today, over 1300 funders worldwide share grants data directly with Foundation Center. Over the 20 years we've been collecting this data, we've encountered some issues concerning the basic fields required. To make sharing data even quicker and easier, we've put together some dos and don'ts focusing on three areas that may seem straightforward, but often cause confusion.

Location Data for Accurate Mapping and Matching

Quite simply, to map your grants data we need location information! And we need location information for more than mapping. We also use this information to ensure we are matching data to the correct organizations in our database. To help us do this even more accurately, we encourage you to provide as much location data as possible. This also helps you by increasing the usability of your own data when running your own analyses or data visualizations.

DO DON'T
Do supply Recipient City for U.S. and non-U.S. Recipients. Don't forget to supply Recipient Address and Recipient Postal Code, if possible.
Do supply Recipient State for U.S. Recipients. Don't supply post office box in place of street address for Recipient Address, if possible.

Do supply Recipient Country for non-U.S. Recipients.

Don't confuse Recipient location (where the check was sent) with Geographic Area Served (where the service will be provided). 

What's Your Type? Authorized or Paid?

Two types of grant amounts can be reported: Authorized amounts (new grants authorized in a given fiscal year, including the full amount of grants that may be paid over multiple years) or Paid amounts (as grants would appear in your IRS tax form). You can report on either one of these types of amounts – we just need to know which one you are using: Authorized or Paid.

DO DON'T
Do indicate if you are reporting on Authorized or Paid amounts. Don't send more than one column of Amounts in your report – either Authorized or Paid for the entire list.
Do remain consistent from year to year with sending either Authorized amounts or Paid amounts to prevent duplication of grants. Don't forget to include Grant Duration (in months) or Grant Start Date and Grant End Date, if possible.
Do report the type of Currency of the amount listed, if not US Dollars. Don't include more than one amount per grant.

The Essential Fiscal Year

An accurate Fiscal Year is essential since we publish grants data by fiscal year in our data-driven tools and content-rich platforms such as those developed by Foundation Landscapes, including Funding the Ocean, SDG Funders, Equal Footing and Youth Giving. Fiscal Year can be reported with a year (2018) or date range (07/01/2017-06/31/2018), but both formats will appear in published products as YEAR AWARDED: 2018.

DO DON'T
Do include the Fiscal Year in which the grants were either Authorized or Paid by you, the funder. Don't provide the Fiscal Year of the Recipient organization.
Do format your Fiscal Year as a year (2018) or a date range (07/01/2017-06/31/2018). Don't forget, for off-calendar fiscal years, the last year of the date range is the Fiscal Year: 07/01/2017-06/31/2018 = 2018.

More Tips to Come!

I hope you have a better understanding of these three areas of data to be shared through Foundation Center eReporting. Moving forward, we'll explore the required fields of Recipient Name and Grant Description, as well as high priority fields such as Geographic Area Served. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. Thank you! And don't forget, the data you share IS making a difference!

-- Kati Neiheisel

The Risky Business of Foundation Opacity
May 23, 2018

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open 990-PF

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

GrantAdvisor

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

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

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

--Janet Camarena

Open Access to Foundation Knowledge
October 25, 2017

This post is part of the Glasspockets #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. This post also appears in Medium. The series explores new research and tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Lisa Brooks Photo
Lisa Brooks

Foundations have a lot of reasons to share knowledge. They produce knowledge themselves. They hire others to research and author works that help with internal strategy development and evaluation of internal strategies, programs, and projects. And they make grants that assist others in gaining insight into social issues — be it through original research, evaluation work, or other work aimed at creating a better understanding of issues so that we can all pursue better solutions to social problems. In almost all aspects of foundation work, knowledge is an outcome.

While openly sharing this knowledge is uneven across the social sector, we do see more and more foundations starting to explore open access to the knowledge assets they make possible. Many foundations are sharing more intentionally through their websites, external clearinghouses, and other online destinations. And more foundations are suggesting — sometimes requiring — that their grantees openly share knowledge that was produced with grant dollars.

Lacey Althouse Photo
Lacey Althouse

Some foundations are even becoming open access champions. For example, the Hewlett Foundation has authored a terrifically helpful free toolkit that provides an in-depth how-to aimed at moving foundation and grantee intellectual property licensing practices away from “all rights reserved” copyrights and toward “some rights reserved” open licenses. (Full disclosure: IssueLab is included in the toolkit as one solution for long term knowledge preservation and sharing.) (“Hewlett Foundation Open Licensing Toolkit for Staff”)

For those who are already 100% open it’s easy to forget that, when first starting out, learning about open access can be daunting. For those who are trying to open up, like most things, getting there is a series of steps. One step is understanding how licensing can work for, or against, openness. Hewlett’s toolkit is a wonderful primer for understanding this. IssueLab also offers some ways to dig into other areas of openness. Check out Share the Wealth for tips.

Hawaii

 

However it is that foundations find their way to providing open access to the knowledge they make possible, we applaud and support it! In the spirit of International Open Access Week’s theme, “Open in order to….,” here’s what a few leading foundations have to say about the topic of openness in the social sector.

James Irvine Foundation 
Find on IssueLab.

“We have a responsibility to share our knowledge. There’s been a lot of money that gets put into capturing and generating knowledge and we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves.”

-Kim Ammann Howard, Director of Impact Assessment and Learning

Hewlett Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

“Our purpose for existing is to help make the world a better place. One way we can do that is to try things, learn, and then share what we have learned. That seems obvious. What is not obvious is the opposite: not sharing. So the question shouldn’t be why share; it should be why not share.”

-Larry Kramer, President

Hawaii Community Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

“Openness and transparency is one element of holding ourselves accountable to the public — to the communities we’re either in or serving. To me, it’s a necessary part of our accountability and I don’t think it should necessarily be an option.

-Tom Kelly, Vice President of Knowledge, Evaluation and Learning

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
Find on IssueLab.

“Why do we want to share these things? …One, because it’s great to share what we’re learning, what’s worked, what hasn’t, what impact has been made so that others can learn from the work that our grantees are doing so that they can either not reinvent the wheel, gain insights from it or learn from where we’ve gone wrong… I think it helps to build the field overall since we’re sharing what we’re learning.”

-Bernadette Sangalang, Program Officer

The Rockefeller Foundation
Find on IssueLab

“To ensure that we hold ourselves to this high bar, The Rockefeller Foundation pre-commits itself to sharing the results of its evaluations — well before the results are even known.”

-Veronica Olazabal, Shawna Hoffman, and Nadia Asgaraly
(Read more on why the Rockefeller Foundation is open for good.)

If you are a foundation ready to make open access the norm as part of your impact operations, here’s how you can become an open knowledge organization today.

IssueLab believes that social sector knowledge is a public good that is meant to be freely accessible to all. We collect and share the sector’s knowledge assets and we support the social sector’s adoption of open knowledge practices. Visit our collection of ~23,000 open access resources. While you’re there, add your knowledge — it takes minutes and costs nothing. Find out what we’re open in order to do here. IssueLab is a service of Foundation Center.

--Lisa Brooks and Lacey Althouse

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions
April 5, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(Christie George is the director of New Media Ventures, a mission-driven venture firm and donor collaborative supporting progressive startups.  New Media Ventures supports companies and organizations that – through the use of new media and technology – build advocacy movements, tell new stories and drive civic engagement.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation.  The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

Christie-George1-163x164

If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants.

“...If you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects.”

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities. 

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches:

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous
impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to
reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have New Media Ventures logoat least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: CoWorker.org hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; Vote.org got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us.

--Christie George

 

Innovation at the Speed of Change: Exploring Knight’s Tech Innovation Portfolio
March 1, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(John Bracken is vice president for technology innovation at Knight Foundation.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation.  The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series

John Bracken - Knight PhotoIt’s become a truism to say that the world is changing, and that the pace and scale of change is ever accelerating. “It’s not just technology that’s moving at an exponential pace, but change itself;” write Joi Ito and Jeff Howe in Whiplash.

Even the world of grantmaking, often criticized for its slow pace, is adapting to these rhythms. For example, last month, we at Knight Foundation helped launch a fund on ethics and artificial intelligence. The fund itself came together quickly over the course of a few weeks, and we plan to announce our first grants in the coming weeks, but more on that later. As I talk to people involved with the creation of the tools, a single note keeps coming up: the technology is developing faster than we had anticipated even a year ago.

The recent news of Libratus, an artificial intelligence created at Carnegie Mellon that defeated four champion humans in Texas Hold ‘Em poker, demonstrated that “the best AI’s ability to do strategic reasoning with imperfect information has now surpassed that of the best humans,” said Libratus’s co-creator Tuomas Sandholm. This feat of reasoning, coming on the heels of Google Deep Mind’s victory over the world’s preeminent Go player last year, came much earlier than most in the field had anticipated.

These developments are happening at a rate that outpaces our ability to process them, and yet it’s becoming the new normal. Millions of us are now living with smart personal assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home in our living rooms and Internet-connected televisions and thermostats. As a society, we’re still not sure just how to handle these devices, as the debate over how to use audio evidence collected by Amazon Echo during a 2015 murder and the hacking of unsecure home appliances to take down much of the Internet last fall demonstrated.

Knight Foundation Logo
Our inability to appreciate the depth of the change even as we experience it reminds me of how the French military struggled to adjust to modern warfare at the outset of World War I. As described by Barbara W. Tuchman in her classic The Guns of August, French generals prepared for German tanks and aerial bombings by sharpening their swords and donning their traditional brightly colored uniforms adorned with plumage. Even after the battle was joined, and a decade after the emergence of modern warfare in the Russo-Japanese War, the French leaders stuck to their old tactics. Tuchman wrote, “The impetus of existing plans is always stronger than the impulse to change.”

Part of our mission at Knight Foundations is to ensure that the civic institutions upon which our democracy depends-- libraries, museums, news organizations, cities-- do not follow in the footsteps of those 1914 French commanders. How do new and old civic enterprises sustain themselves as traditional fundraising approaches like mass mailings hold less appeal for new donors? How do organizations adjust their cultures to attract and retain talent and audiences who bring with them different expectations and needs from their predecessors?

Given this new world of accelerating technological advancement, and the expectation that all of our work at Knight will be impacted by future advancements, our grantmaking will focus on the ways in which digital technologies could impact our fields. Knight has always been interested in technology’s potential for strengthening the ways in which Americans learn about and participate in community. In the ’80s, the Knight brothers’ company, Knight Ridder, invested in and experimented with early interactive tools such as Viewtron and Dialog Information Services. A decade ago, we built on this interest by creating the Knight News Challenge in an attempt to better understand the potential of the Internet for transforming journalism. This year, we’re focused on two topics:

  • We are co-founders of a fund on the ethical aspects of artificial intelligence. AI has shifted from a future prospect to a present reality, and has the potential to impact every aspect of society. That’s why we’ve helped to craft the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund to take an applied, multidisciplinary approach to AI, exploring its potential benefits and ill effects.
  • As part of the NetGain Partnership, a collaboration between five foundations to explore public interest issues around new technologies, we are exploring how connected devices (the Internet of Things) might impact cities. In the coming months, we’ll be making some grants designed to strengthen cities through technology.

The change we have been living through is only going to increase-- adjusting our work incrementally isn’t going to cut it. To thrive, we as individuals and institutions need to develop our comfort with insecurity, with failing, with risk, and be ready to pursue routes we may not anticipate.

Tips from the Tech Sector on How Philanthropy Can Scale Impact
February 15, 2017

(Shannon Farley is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Fast Forward, the accelerator for tech nonprofits. Prior to Fast Forward, she was the founding Executive Director of Spark, the world's largest network of Millennial philanthropists. Earlier in her career, Shannon co-founded The W. Haywood Burns Institute, a MacArthur Award-winning juvenile justice reform organization. Reach her on Twitter: @Shannon_Farley.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Americas Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series. 

Shannon Farley - Fast ForwardThree years ago, my co-founder Kevin Barenblat asked me why there weren’t more Khan Academies and Wikipedias. He wanted to know why more nonprofits weren’t building software to create social change at scale. At the time, my answer was that the nonprofit startup universe didn’t look anything like the tech startup landscape. Tech startups have founder meetups, online training portals, and investors hankering to go all in on the next big tech solution. Meanwhile, tech nonprofits (organizations with software or hardware at the core of their impact model) were weirdos, stuck at the juncture of the tech and nonprofit worlds. Only a few existed and they operated with little support from either sector.

Kevin and I thought this was a missed opportunity. In the last 10 years, the cost of launching a tech startup dropped from millions to thousands of dollars. With cloud-computing, digital networks, and the ubiquity of mobile, the marginal cost for return on impact decreased drastically, making the business case for tech nonprofits very compelling.

“ We’ve found that one of the biggest hindrances to innovation in the nonprofit sector is restricted funding.”

Determined to empower more nonprofits to leverage tech for social impact, Kevin and I took some cues from the tech playbook and launched Fast Forward. Our accelerator program equips tech nonprofits with seed stage funding, training, mentorship, and connections to the entrepreneur and investor community. While we take a sector agnostic approach to our portfolio, we look for organizations building tech solutions for social issues like education, healthcare, human rights, and the environment. We are able to invest in these early stage tech nonprofits thanks to philanthropic funding from philanthropists familiar with tech models like Google.org, BlackRock, Omidyar Network, and AT&T. Our approach and funding model have been strongly influenced by the tech sector in four key ways:

1. Accelerator Programs

Philanthropists have used leadership programs to train emergent social entrepreneurs for decades. Technologists apply a similar model in a program called an accelerator or incubator. We combined the best of both into the Fast Forward program. We call the Fast Forward program an accelerator because it occurs over an accelerated period of time – 13 weeks. Equal parts leadership development and startup boot camp, our curriculum is built around defining and measuring impact, board development, product design, and hiring technical talent. Our cadre of over 100 mentors for our cohort come from both worlds – nonprofit leaders and philanthropists as well as engineers and leading startup founders.

2. General Support Funding

Each tech nonprofit in our cohort is granted $25,000 in unrestricted funding. We’ve found that one of the biggest hindrances to innovation in the nonprofit sector is restricted funding. Could you ever imagine a VC telling a startup they will fund a new version of the app, but not the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) and tech team required to build it? No. Sadly, that’s often the case in philanthropy. Too often, the technology for a nonprofit is thought of in terms of software licenses rather than as a staffed role integral to achieving impact. For a nonprofit to build programs and products that can impact millions, they need the same general support money considered the norm in the for-profit sector. This type of funding enables a nonprofit to hire the required tech team. As tech development becomes an essential component of impact, nonprofits need CTOs to drive this work. Foundations need to double down on general support if we want to see innovation at scale.

3. Growth Funding

Early stage funding is not a short-term partnership in venture capital. VCs typically invest a small amount in the beginning and then increase their investment when a product hits a growth inflection point. Philanthropists, however, tend to fund in terms of projects or annual timeline versus a long-term trajectory. As a result, nonprofits struggle between launch and the point at which they are ripe for mezzanine capital, larger gifts granted by foundations once a nonprofit hits an impact inflection point. The design phase is ongoing, and product launch is just the start of that journey. Donors should recognize philanthropy as the ultimate risk capital and make bets on people and teams building products with the potential to scale.

4. Timing

Philanthropy is slow paced. Tech development and product iterations progress quickly. If it takes six or more months to process a grant, the technology will have advanced beyond the proposal. At Fast Forward, follow-on funding is released as soon as the books are closed on a donation. We don’t wait, because tech doesn’t wait.

So has implementing tech methodologies helped Fast Forward and our cohorts achieve impact? Absolutely. Take our alumnus CareerVillage, a platform that crowdsources career advice from professionals for students in low-income areas. Since the Fast Forward accelerator in 2015, CareerVillage has scaled from reaching 500,000 students to over 1.5 million.

In three years, Fast Forward has accelerated 23 tech nonprofits. These organizations have impacted over 18.4 million lives and raised over $26 million in follow-on funding.

Technology has the power to achieve unprecedented impact in the social sector. Philanthropists have a lot to learn from the tech world.

--Shannon Farley

Fueling Innovation Through Competition
January 25, 2017

(June Sugiyama is director of Vodafone Americas Foundation, leading programs for social impact innovation.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

June Sugiyama PhotoInnovation is a word used so frequently that perhaps it has become almost trivial. Globally, we use innovation to describe many things, from new technologies, to new processes, to disruptive ideas, but the action of innovation itself becomes harder to define, and harder still to execute. Countless ideas are abandoned because entrepreneurs could not find the proper funding or mentorship to build their idea from a mere thought to a reality.  

Many entrepreneurs and startups will turn to venture capitalists (VCs) to try to gain funding and support, but it is a challenge in and of itself to get a meeting with a VC, much less secure VC money. This is where foundations and philanthropies, which might be more poised to take risks, can help fill the gap by providing grants to new social impact ideas and start-ups. At the Vodafone Americas Foundation – whether through grants or competition – our goal is to support organizations that use wireless technology to impact change, spark innovation, improve lives, transform the global development sector, or empower women and girls.

“ Countless ideas are abandoned because entrepreneurs could not find the proper funding or mentorship to build their idea from a mere thought to a reality.”

One avenue we take to support organizations – whether a nonprofit, university project, or start-up – is to provide traditional grants earmarked to help develop their product or service to drive social good. However, traditional grants are not the only model for supporting innovation; companies and foundations big and small are developing competition programs to help good ideas develop and move forward. A competition with specific criteria and parameters becomes a refined filter to find driven and passionate individuals - not an arbitrary search. Both commercial and philanthropic organizations host competitions to find the perfect match for unique, effective, innovative, and sustainable solutions to rise to the surface.

Specifically, for us, since Vodafone is a telecommunications service provider, we focus on the ability of mobile technologies to drive innovation for those in need. Because mobile technology is ubiquitous, with over 7 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, it is one of the most effective tools for social change. Innovative mobile solutions have already started to change economies through mobile money, mobile micro-loans, delivery of healthcare through mHealth, education through mobile platforms, and so much more.

VAF_WIP-w-o-winner-block_3inEach year we look for new ideas that leverage mobile for a better world through our Wireless Innovation Project, (WIP) a competition.  The competition is designed to promote innovation and increase the implementation of wireless-related technology. The competition recently opened its ninth annual call for submissions. In March 2017, we will select the winners, with first place receiving $300,000; second place $200,000; and third place $100,000. The winners can receive both the funding and potential mentoring they need while we can invest in the causes and services that are important and meaningful to our mission.

We are excited each year for the WIP competition because it provides unique opportunities for entrepreneurs and the Foundation alike. For example:

  • We get to see their passion firsthand. Each year, we ask the finalists to pitch their project in person at our California offices. This provides us the opportunity to meet new entrepreneurs (and for them to meet one another) to witness their drive and passion for the project. Although there are costs for the Foundation to hold in-person competitions and get everyone under one roof, we feel strongly about getting to know the person behind the innovation; we need to know that they are as committed as we are to ensure a good partnership.
  • Competition brings out the best. In a competition format, naturally there are winners. Driven by a prize and inspired by their peer competitors, all participants are compelled to perform at their very best. A competition sometimes forces people to think outside of the box and go beyond their original concept to differentiate themselves throughout the competition. Within just the competition period itself, entrepreneurs and their ideas may undergo multiple evolutions to arrive at a distilled, quality product or service. The competition format also allows participants to become inspired by one another’s work in a way that is not often possible in traditional grantmaking in which grantees blindly compete against one another.
  • Focus more on potential than current status. What happens when you have a great idea and not much to show for it yet because it’s simply a little early? While it may not be true for all competition models, our Wireless Innovation Project makes it easier for entrepreneurs to highlight the potential of a product or idea and win the competition based on the future impact it can drive versus actual business results seen to date. This allows a greater range of companies, especially start-ups, to gain funding where they may not have been able to otherwise. Our prize money might be just what they need and just at the right time to propel them to where they need to go, like completing a prototype or testing a market.
  • Gather multiple ideas at once. Our annual competition seeks innovations in more than one issue area so it allows us to tap into a diverse source of information and ideas, all at the same time, as well as support these ideas in a bigger way. While we work with different organizations throughout the year for traditional grants, the WIP competition opens up the possibility for us to witness an individual solution or organization to grow and evolve. In one year, we may have a winner that has a solution for the environment and another for financial inclusion. It is truly an engaging experience to learn about, guide, and finally support so many novel and potentially valuable ideas. The WIP competition allows us to generate new connections that we previously may not have made through the traditional grant-giving route. We can break out of our own network to create larger, more integrated networks with entrepreneurs and startups across multiple industries as we make connections with almost all the applicants – not just the winners. We hope that with these partnerships that we create and foster, we continue to make sustainable and dynamic discoveries for solutions that impact great change. 

There are many competition models across the industry, but our model has already identified outstanding innovations that have gone on to win more accolades and additional funding, which has allowed them to reach market and even expand their solutions to create greater impacts. Two of the many notable examples are Mobile ODT, which uses a phone camera for colposcopies, and Nexleaf, which makes a vaccine monitoring platform. Each has been able to turn their ideas into scalable solutions that are revolutionizing healthcare capabilities in emerging markets.   

Finding what was never imagined possible is why so many foundations, companies, and even governments take advantage of the competition model. The model allows brilliant ideas to come forward and help solve specific, important issues in our world today.

--June Sugiyama

 

From Cardboard to the Cloud: Grantmaking Systems in an Era of Collaboration and Learning
April 6, 2016

(Adriana Jimenez is grants manager at the Surdna Foundation and also serves on the board of directors of the Grants Managers Network.  She regularly contributes to Transparency Talk, discussing issues pertaining to transparency, data, and grants management.)

AjimenezThe Surdna Foundation’s first grants management system was made of cardboard: it was a shoebox filled with index cards. (Next there was a custom-built system, followed by an off-the-shelf installed one). For decades, this box served the foundation’s basic record-keeping needs, but technology –and transparency – eventually took precedence.  

Now in its 99th year, the foundation has since ditched the cardboard for the cloud. In 2015, Surdna transferred its grantmaking database to the workflow- and cloud-based system, Fluxx.

Moving to the cloud has helped the foundation become more open, streamlined and transparent.

These benefits were not accidental. Our decision to switch grants management platforms arose from a 2012 three-year strategic Roadmap which recommended the following changes in support of mission: 

1) Working more collaboratively with grantees.

2) Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

3) Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

To implement these changes Surdna’s Roadmap suggested retooling outdated systems and processes. It was clear we’d need a new grants management system: we’d reached the limits of our next cardboard box.

Surdna’s transition to the cloud highlights how foundations are beginning to use grants management systems to inform and improve their overall strategic directions. Through the use of data- and community-driven platforms, funders can support their efforts in collecting, harnessing and sharing better information, while working more collaboratively across teams and beyond.

Here’s how our new grantmaking system is helping us advance Surdna’s strategic goals.


1)  Working more collaboratively with grantees.

Cloud-based platforms provide actionable data on-demand. This has been empowering for staff, particularly those who previously lacked direct contact with our grant information (and those with busy travel schedules).

Phil Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation, says: “Our new system has made data accessible on the fly. I can now review and approve grants from any location and drill down to get more information.” (And by “drill,” he means literally – he recently approved a grant from his dentist’s chair.)

"Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes."

Beyond its streamlining implications, this opens new channels for deepening our connections with grantee partners and empowering our senior leadership. For example, while on the road the president can now use organizational and grants data to help him strategize for site visits, or identify grantees to greet at a reception. With the aid of a mobile app a data point becomes a real person, fostering face-to-face collaboration.

Via the cloud-based grantee portal, invited applicants can now work collaboratively with program officers throughout the proposal-writing process and get feedback from staff in real time.

Working jointly with grantees has added transparency to our processes. For instance, in our previous system grantees had no way of accessing their “final” proposal (with edits made by Surdna’s program and grants management staff) online; now they can view revisions in real time, as well as access information on upcoming payments, reports, and past grants.

For Jose Garcia, Program Officer for the Strong Local Economies Program, the portal has expedited the proposal formulation process and created a new, direct line of communication between program staff and applicants. Moving to the cloud has “decreased bureaucracy in our work with grantees and prospective grantees, allowing greater responsiveness to both. It has eliminated unnecessary paperwork so we can spend time on the important stuff.”

By “important stuff,’ he means our mission, and the people working to make it happen. Streamlining our processes means grantees can spend more time on their own mission-related activities, rather than draining resources on fundraising.

In a recent survey, grantees described the portal as “accessible,” “user-friendly,” “easy” and “organized”. 85 percent of respondents were “satisfied” to “very satisfied” with the accessibility of Surdna’s application forms.

But there is room for improvement. Grantees felt ambivalent about their level of satisfaction with the portal as a tool for communicating with Surdna staff. Only a total of 23 percent were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied, while 1/3 were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied,” and 52 percent were “unsure”.

By making future enhancements to the portal we can continue to unlock its potential as a robust communication tool.


2)  Collaborating and learning within the foundation.

Unlike many installed databases (designed primarily for grants managers), our workflow- and cloud-based system is used regularly by everyone on staff, from the receptionist to the president. Working on a single platform has reduced shadow systems while supporting a more holistic understanding of our work across programs.

Intuitive searches and dashboards provide a birds-eye view of Surdna’s grantmaking landscape, past and present. This has aided our cross-programmatic learning:

“One of Surdna’s strengths is that each program exists within a larger ecosystem of all programs. In the Thriving Cultures Program, we also think in terms of Sustainable Environments and Strong Local Economies [Surdna’s other 2 programs areas]. We can now view the arts in that broader context,” says Shin Otake, Program Associate for the Thriving Cultures Program.

Shared workflows help his team (and others) keep track of grants in the pipeline: “the grant approval process from invitation to approval is seamless. Any member from my team or the Office of Grants Management can see the status of any grant at any given moment, or create reports to map out where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

"Using data- and community-driven platforms, funders can better share information and collaborate internally and externally."

Increased collaboration among finance, grants management, and program staff has also improved our internal controls.

For example, the finance department can now reconcile grants payments by running monthly reports in the system. The timeliness of these reports is key, as it allows grants management to address errors early on, and provide accurate spending data to program staff for budgeting purposes.  

Non-grant contracts (such as fees for consultants, research, grantee convenings, etc.) have also migrated to our grants management system, where they can now be approved and monitored in a central location by Surdna’s Chief Financial Officer. For Controller Matt Walegir, “this has provided a great oversight procedure which did not exist before. We can now get a complete picture of where our contracts are at any given moment.”

Tracking non-grant contracts in a grants database has significant implications beyond internal controls and budgeting. By co-mingling contracts and grants in one space, we are reminded that our tools for impact extend beyond traditional grantmaking. At Surdna, we also have program-related investments (also tracked in Fluxx), mission-related investments, contracts, funder collaboratives, and of course, communication.

Thinking of these “tools in the toolbox” holistically is critical for foundations as they continue to look less “traditional” in the future.

3)  Sharing data and lessons learned with the philanthropic sector.

This priority has the greatest implications for advancing Surdna’s commitment to transparency.

Helen Chin, Director of Surdna’s Sustainable Environments Program, says the new system has “opened up how we interact with the grantmaking process and compliance protocols. It has allowed staff to access reports and other data without having to bypass its gatekeepers, the Office of Grants Management.” 

The “democratization of data” she describes has been a major cultural shift at Surdna, and will continue to transform the way foundations work as the boundaries between different roles are shifted. For example, if program staff can access reports and other data on their own through streamlined processes, the role of grants management can continue to become more strategic, helping foundations interpret their data (rather than merely provide it) to drive decisions. Data-driven foundations can learn from their work over time and share their lessons with the field, helping them become more transparent about their work.

A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that most foundations’ top barriers to achieving transparency are staff-related: 31 percent do not have the time to invest in working to be transparent, and 28 percent lack consistent levels of transparency across staff.

Staff limitations such as these can be appeased by putting the right tools in the right hands (if you hired the wrong hands, that’s a different story!). Cumbersome systems – not people – are what often create stopgaps and inconsistencies.

Fortunately, technology can capture such stopgaps.

Our new system enables the sharing of data with the sector through its ability to communicate with external datasets. One example is our adoption of the Foundation Center’s GeoTree, a taxonomy to classify grants by geographic area served.  This information can now be aggregated into the Foundation Center’s repository and made available to a community of funders, non-profits, and researchers seeking to understand the broader funding landscape.

Taken further, foundations can expand the capabilities of their grantmaking systems through the integration of third-party programs to enhance data analysis, visualization, and operations.  Grants management systems are just beginning to facilitate the connection of their platforms with tools like Tableau, PolicyMap, Census Data Mapper and Foundation Maps to help funders make better sense of their data and aid them in decision-making.

We’ve only scratched the surface. For Jonathan Goldberg, Director of Grants Management, Learning, and Information Systems, “The real power could come from what we learn and share with others outside the foundation.  Consider all the data that foundations currently maintain, and all the untapped knowledge that we might extract by aggregating and sharing that information within and beyond the grantmaking community.  It’s something this platform is tailor-made for, and it could be transformative to the field of philanthropy and those who benefit from it.”

As we enter a new era of collaboration and learning, we’re excited to explore the vast possibilities of continuing to break down foundation silos through cloud-based systems.

We may not have all the answers yet, but when we do we promise not to hide them in a cardboard box.

--Adriana Jimenez

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:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

Categories