Transparency Talk

Category: "Technology" (24 posts)

Designing for Impact: Using a Web Redesign to Improve Transparency, Equity, and Inclusion
April 11, 2019

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by publicly participating in the "Who Has GlassPockets?" self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

Na Eng
Na Eng

Na Eng is the communications director at the McKnight Foundation, a private family foundation based in Minneapolis.

The McKnight Foundation is proud to be among the early group of foundations that joined the GlassPockets movement and has benefited from its tools and resources. As GlassPockets crosses the threshold of 100 foundation transparency profiles on its website, I wanted to share a personal reflection on how McKnight approaches transparency on our website, and how GlassPockets has been part of that journey.

When I decided on a redesign of our website about a year ago, I knew that there was a great body of knowledge we could tap into by reviewing GlassPockets tools and content, so I scheduled a call with Janet Camarena, who leads the website and initiative to encourage greater foundation transparency. In this new version of our web presence, I wanted to design for transparency from the start. GlassPockets didn´t disappoint, and Janet offered a helpful perspective from her years of observing the paths and barriers faced by our peers on the road to transparency.

While the word transparency can sometimes feel like a clinical term, Janet explained that transparency and openness can humanize institutions through the power of storytelling, and we all know foundations have powerful stories about the impact of their grantees. When I asked her about the common tendency of foundations to embrace a stance of humility, she nodded. She said she often hears that humility can stand in the way of embracing a “GlassPockets approach,” preventing us from seeing storytelling as an act of public service, rather than as self-serving content.

This conversation reaffirmed for me one of the core benefits of foundation transparency: when the public knows more about what foundations fund and how they approach their work, trust is built, advancing the entire field of philanthropy, the nonprofits we support, and our collective impact.

GlassPockets Road to 100

How McKnight Advances Transparency with its Website

A key purpose for our foundation website is pragmatic and impactful transparency. With our web developer, Visceral, we tried to make our site as fun to peruse and simple to navigate as possible, and we packed it with information to help people conduct practical business. For example, we now include all the details on how to seek funding, how to reserve a meeting space, and even the investments we make in our impact investing portfolio. We also have a robust, easy-to-search grants database, which makes us a rarity among national funders. According to the GlassPockets’ Transparency Challenge, only about one of every 100 foundations shares current grants data online. Lists of grants, combined with compelling images and vignettes throughout the site, help others to better understand our organization’s mission.

In addition, I’ve come to realize that providing more information does not necessarily achieve greater transparency. It’s as essential to offer an updated, accurate representation of work—and that means clearing the clutter. (Consider the KonMari method of thanking what no longer has value, and then letting go.) External websites should not be used as an internal digital archiving system. We’ve learned that dated content often caused confusion about our current purpose and identity. However, for scholarly use, we do archive older reports with IssueLab, which has an impressive open knowledge-sharing system.

Digital Accessibility & Linguistic Inclusion

Transparency also requires understanding the needs of diverse audiences and making digital inclusion a priority. When we set out for our site to be more user-friendly for people who are hard of hearing or blind, we commissioned an accessibility audit. And rather than rely on web-based scanners, we asked people who had the relevant disabilities to evaluate its accessibility level. Among the changes, we added closed captioning to all our videos, at little cost. We’ve since expanded closed captioning to more than a dozen languages, all spoken in our home state of Minnesota, including Hmong, Laotian, Somali, Oromo, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and others.

A website can leave people behind or it can inspire more people to advance the mission.

Our efforts toward digital inclusion, which enable transparency for people with different physical and linguistic abilities, are ongoing. We still have much to learn. We´re now learning more about the technical needs of people in low-bandwidth zones in the developing world, rural communities, and even in pockets of metro areas. When most digital communications are designed for able-bodied English language speakers who have access to high-speed internet, significant population groups are cut off from the ideas and opportunities we offer, and we’re deprived of the chance to connect with people who have so much to contribute to advancing our mission.

Our society often thinks of discrimination in terms of individual actions, giving scant attention to systemic barriers. These are insidious obstacles created and maintained, often unintentionally, even by people of goodwill—simply because they’re not aware of the impact of these barriers on those who are not just like them.

The website of an organization that has the power to distribute resources, bestow awards, and select new staff and partners can be an instrument for perpetuating or disrupting inequity. And when a foundation has important ideas to spread—in our case, ideas about advancing a just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive— a website can leave people behind... or it can inspire more people to advance the mission.

Thankfully, we have movements like GlassPockets urging us all to move toward more pragmatic, inclusive, and impactful transparency.

--Na Eng

Open Road Alliance Joins GlassPockets
February 21, 2019

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

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by publicly participating in the "Who Has GlassPockets?" self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations over time, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

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

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

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

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

Untitled design
Maya Winkelstein

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

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

GP: We often hear concerns that transparency takes a lot of time and resources, so it's really more relevant for large foundations. Why would you say transparency and openness should be a priority for even foundations comprised of a small team? How have you benefited from your efforts to open up your work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Janet Camarena

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

Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year, Happy New Transparency Indicator!

--Janet Camarena

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.

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About Transparency Talk

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

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

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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