Transparency Talk

Category: "Tips & Tricks" (37 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

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

Data Fix: Do's & Don'ts for Reporting Geographic Area Served
November 1, 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 is the second post in a series intended to improve the data available for and about philanthropy.

KatiNeiheisel_FCphotoThe first post in our Data Fix series focused on areas that may seem straightforward but often cause confusion, including recipient location data. But don’t confuse recipient location (where the check was sent) with Geographic Area Served (the area meant to benefit from the funding). Data on recipient location, one of our required fields, allows us to match data to the correct organization in our database, ensuring accuracy for analyses or data visualizations. In contrast, Geographic Area Served, one of our highest priority fields, helps us tell the real story about where your funding is making an impact.

How to Report Geographic Area Served

We recognize that providing data on Geographic Area Served can be challenging. Many funders may not track this information, and those who do may depend on grantees or program staff to provide the details. It’s important to keep in mind that sharing some information is better than no information, as funders are currently the only source of this data.

DO DON'T
Do include details for locations beyond the country level. For example, for U.S. locations, specify a state along with providing geo area served at the city or county level. For non-U.S. locations, include the country name when funding a specific city, province, state or region. Don’t be too broad in scope. “Global Programs” may not be accurate if your work is focused on specific countries. Similarly, listing the geo area served as “Canada” is misleading if the work is serving the province of “Quebec, Canada” rather than the entire country.

Do use commas to indicate hierarchy and semi-colons to separate multiple areas served. For example:

  • Topeka, Kansas (comma used to indicate hierarchy)
  • Hitchcock County, Nebraska; Lisbon, Portugal; Asia (semi-colons used to list and separate multiple locations)
Don’t use negatives or catch-all terms. “Not California,” “Other,” “Statewide” or “International” may be meaningful within your organization, but these terms cannot be interpreted for mapping. Instead of “Statewide,” use the name of the state. Instead of “International,” use “Global Programs” or list the countries, regions, or continent being served.

Do define regions. If you are reporting on geo area served at the regional level (e.g. East Africa), please provide a list of the countries included in your organization’s definition of that region. Your definition of a region may differ from that of Foundation Center. Similarly, if your foundation defines its own regions (Southwestern Ohio), consider including the counties comprising that region.

Don’t forget to include the term “County” when reporting on U.S. counties. This will ensure your grant to an entire county isn’t assigned to the same named city (e.g. Los Angeles County, California, rather than Los Angeles, California).

Geographic Area Served in Foundation Center Platforms

Data provided (in a loadable format) will appear in “Grant Details” in Foundation Directory Online (FDO) and Foundation MapsFoundation Maps, including the complimentary eReporter map showing your own foundation’s data, also display an Area Served mapping view. 

Copy of Untitled

If data is not provided, Foundation Center will do one of the following:

  • Default to the location of the recipient organization
  • Add geo area served based on text in the grant description
  • Add geo area served based on where the recipient organization works, as listed on their website or in their mission statement, if this information is available in our database

Responsibly Sharing Geographic Area Served


Although our mission is to encourage transparency through the sharing of grants data, we acknowledge there are contexts in which sharing this data may be cause for concern. If the publishing of this data increases risks to the population meant to benefit from the funding, the grantee/recipient, or your own organization, you can either omit Geographic Area Served information entirely or report it at a higher, less sensitive level (e.g. country vs. province or city). For more information on this topic, please see Are You Over or Under-Protecting Your Grants Data? 5 Ways to Balance Transparency and Data Protection in Sensitive Contexts and Sharing Data Responsibly: A Conversation Guide for Funders.

More Tips to Come!

I hope you have a better understanding of how to report Geographic Area Served through eReporting. Without this data, valuable information about where funding is making a difference may be lost! Moving forward, we’ll explore the required fields of Recipient Name and Grant Description. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

-- Kati Neiheisel

New Guide Helps Human Rights Funders Balance Tension between Risk & Transparency
October 25, 2018

Julie Broome is the Director of Ariadne, a network of European donors that support social change and human rights.  

Tom Walker is the Research Manager at The Engine Room, an international organisation that helps activists and organisations use data and technology effectively and responsibly.

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Julie Broome

Foundations find themselves in a challenging situation when it comes to making decisions about how much data to share about their grantmaking. On the one hand, in recognition of the public benefit function of philanthropy, there is a demand for greater transparency on the part of funders and a push to be open about how much they are giving and who they are giving it to. These demands sometimes come from states, increasingly from philanthropy professionals themselves, and also from critics who believe that philanthropy has been too opaque for too long and raise questions about fairness and access. 

At the same time, donors who work in human rights and on politically charged issues, are increasingly becoming aware of the risks to grantees if sensitive information ends up in the public domain. As a result, some funders have moved towards sharing little to no information. However, this can have negative consequences in terms of our collective ability to map different fields, making it harder for us all develop a sense of the funding landscape in different areas. It can also serve to keep certain groups “underground,” when in reality they might benefit from the credibility that foundation funding can bestow.

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Tom Walker

As the European partners in the Advancing Human Rights project, led by the Human Rights Funders Network and Foundation Center, Ariadne collects grantmaking data from our members that feeds into this larger effort to understand where human rights funding is going and how it is shifting over time. Unlike the United States, in which the IRS 990-PF form eventually provides transparency about grantee transactions, there is no equivalent data source in Europe. Yet, many donors find grant activity information useful in finding peer funders and identifying potential gaps in the funding landscape where their own funds could make a difference. We frequently receive requests from donors who want to use these datasets to drill down into specific areas of interest, and map out different funding fields. But these types of sources of data will become less valuable over time if donors move away from voluntarily sharing information about their grantmaking.

Nonetheless, the risks to grantees if donors share information irresponsibly are very real, especially at a time when civil society is increasingly under threat from both state and non-state actors.  It was in the interest of trying to balance these two aims – maintaining sufficient data to be able to analyse trends in philanthropy while protecting grantees – that led Ariadne to partner with The Engine Room to create a guide to help funders navigate these tricky questions.

After looking at why and how funders share data and the challenges of doing so responsibly, The Engine Room interviewed 8 people and surveyed 32 others working in foundations that fund human rights organisations, asking how they shared data about their grants and highlighting any risks they might see.

Funders told us that they felt treating data responsibly was important, but that implementing it in their day-to-day work was often difficult. It involved balancing competing priorities: between transparency and data protection legislation; between protecting grantees’ data and reporting requirements; and between protecting grantees from unwanted attention, and publicising stories to highlight the benefits of the grantee’s work.

The funders we heard from said they found it particularly difficult to predict how risks might change over time, and how to manage data that had already been shared and published. The most common concerns were:

  • ensuring that data that had already been published remained up to date;
  • de-identifying data before it was published
  • Working with third parties to be responsible when sharing data about grantees, such as with donors who fund through intermediaries and may request information about the intermediaries’ grantees.

Untitled designAlthough the funders we interviewed differed in their mission, size, geographical spread and focus area, they all stressed the importance of respecting the autonomy of their grantees. Practically, this meant that additional security or privacy measures were often introduced only when the grantee raised a concern. The people we spoke with were often aware that this reactive approach puts the burden of assessing data-related risks onto grantees, and suggested that they most needed support when it came to talking with grantees and other funders in an open, informed way about the opportunities and risks associated with sharing grantee data.

These conversations can be difficult ones to have. So, we tried a new approach: a guide to help funders have better conversations about responsible data.

It’s aimed at funders or grantmakers who want to treat their grantees’ data responsibly, but don’t always know how. It lists common questions that grantees and funders might ask, combined with advice and resources to help answer them, and tips for structuring a proactive conversation with grantees.

”There are no shortcuts to handling data responsibly, but we believe this guide can facilitate a better process.“

There are no shortcuts to handling data responsibly, but we believe this guide can facilitate a better process. It offers prompts that are designed to help you talk more openly with grantees or other funders about data-related risks and ways of dealing with them. The guide is organised around three elements of the grantmaking lifecycle: data collection, data storage, and data sharing.

Because contexts and grantmaking systems vary dramatically and change constantly, a one-size-fits-all solution is impossible. Instead, we decided to offer guidance on processes and questions that many funders share – from deciding whether to publish a case study to having conversations about security with grantees. For example, one tip that would benefit many grantmakers is to ensure that grant agreements include specifics about how the funder will use any data collected as a result of the grant, based on a discussion that helps the grantee to understand how their data will be managed and make decisions accordingly.

This guide aims to give practical advice that helps funders strengthen their relationships with grantees - thereby leading to more effective grantmaking. Download the guide, and let us know what you think!

--Julie Broome and Tom Walker

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

No Moat Philanthropy Part 5: The Downsides & Why It’s Worth It
October 6, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we have devoted this blog space all week to the series. This is the final post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedEverything we do is a trade-off. Spending time and money on the activities described in this No Moat Philanthropy series means time and money not invested in something else. Here are some of the downsides of the trade-offs we have made:

It takes some operating expense.  It requires real staff time for us to do office hours in western North Dakota and to reformat grant reports to be shared online and to do every other activity described in these posts. We believe there is lots of opportunity to advance our mission in the “how” of grantmaking and weigh that as an investment alongside others. In our case, we did not have an increase in staff costs or operating expenses as we made this shift. We just reprioritized.

It can be bureaucratic.  Having open programs and having community members involved in processes requires some structure and rules and standardization in a way that can feel stifling. Philanthropy feels more artful and inspired when you can be creative and move quickly. To be equitably accessible and to improve the chance we are funding the best idea, we are committed to making this trade-off. (While, of course, being as artful and creative as possible within the structures we set!)

“We believe our effectiveness is fundamentally tied to our ability to influence and be influenced by others.”

Lots of applications means lots of turndowns.  Conventional wisdom in philanthropy is to try to limit unsuccessful applications – reducing the amount of effort nonprofits invest with no return. This is an important consideration and it is why many foundations have very narrow guidelines and/or don’t accept unsolicited proposals. The flip side, however, is that the more we all narrow our funding apertures, the harder it is for organizations to get great ideas funded. We’ve decided to run counter to conventional wisdom and give lots of organizations a shot at funding. Of course, we don’t want to waste their time. We have three strategies to try to mitigate this waste: (1) through our hotlines we try to coach unlikely grantees out of the process. (In our experience, nonprofits will often apply anyway – which suggests to us that they value having a shot – even if the odds are long.); (2) we try to make the process worth it. Our surveys suggest that applicants who do the programs with the biggest pools get something out of the process – (and we learn from the applicants even if they are not funded.); and (3) we try to make the first stage of our processes as simple as possible so folks are not wasting too much effort.

Relationships are hard!  Thinking of ourselves as being in relationship with people in the region is not simple. There are lots of them! And it can be super frustrating if a Bush staff member gives advice on a hotline that seems to be contradicted by the feedback when an application is declined. We’ve had to invest money and time in developing our CRM capacity and habits. We have a lot more work to do on this front. We will never not have a lot more work to do on our intercultural competence and our efforts to practice inclusion. Truly including people with different perspectives can make decisions harder as it makes decisions better.  The early returns on our efforts have been encouraging and we are committed to continuing the work to be more fully in relationship with more people in the communities we serve.

Conclusion

Overall, we believe a No Moat Philanthropy approach has made us more effective. When we are intentional about having impact through how we do our work — building relationships, inspiring action, spreading optimism — then we increase the positive impact we have in the region.

We believe our effectiveness is fundamentally tied to our ability to influence and be influenced by others, which demands trust, reciprocity and a genuine openness to the ideas of others. It requires understanding perspectives other than our own. It requires permeability.

While we arrived at this approach largely because of our place-based sensibility and strategic orientation toward people (see learning paper: “The Bush Approach”), the same principles can apply to a national or international foundation focused on particular issues. The definition of community is different, but the potential value of permeability within that community is the same.

--Jen Ford Reedy

Opening Up the Good and Bad Leads to Stronger Communities and Better Grantmaking
September 28, 2017

Hanh Cao Yu is Chief Learning Officer at The California Endowment.  She has been researcher and evaluator of equity and philanthropy for more than two decades. 

This post is part of the Glasspockets #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. 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.

Hanh-Cao-Yu-photoMore than a year ago when I began my tenure at The California Endowment (TCE), I reflected deeply about the opportunities and challenges ahead as the new Chief Learning Officer.  We were six years into a complex, 10-year policy/systems change initiative called Building Healthy Communities (BHC).  This initiative was launched in 2010 to advance statewide policy, change the narrative, and transform 14 of California’s communities most devastated by health inequities into places where all people—particular our youth—have an opportunity to thrive.  This is the boldest bet in the foundation’s history at $1 billion and the stakes are high.  It is not surprising, then, that despite the emphasis on learning, the evaluation of BHC is seen as a winning or losing proposition. 

“By acknowledging our mistakes, our focus has sharpened and our dual roles as changemakers and grantmakers have continued to evolve.”

As I thought about the role of learning and evaluation in deepening BHC’s impact, I became inspired by the words of Nelson Mandela: “I never lose.  I either win or I learn.”  His encouragement to shift our mindset from “Win/Lose” to “Win/Learn” is crucial to continuous improvement and success.  

I also drew from the insights of Amy Edmondson who reminds us that if we experience failure, not all failures are bad.  According to Edmondson, mistakes can be preventable, unavoidable due to complexity, or even intelligent failures.  So, despite careful planning and learning from decades of research on comprehensive community initiatives and bold systems change efforts, in an initiative as complex as BHC, mistakes can and will occur. By spurring change at community, regional and state levels, and linking community mobilization with sophisticated policy advocacy, TCE was truly venturing into new territory when we launched BHC.

BHC's Big Wins and Lessons 

At the mid-point of BHC, TCE staff and Board paused to assess where we have been successful and where we could do better in improving the conditions under which young people could be healthy and thrive in our underserved communities.  The results were widely shared in the 2016 report, A New Power Grid:  Building Healthy Communities at Year 5.

As a result of taking the time to assess overall progress, we identified some of BHC's biggest impacts to date. In the first five years, TCE and partners contributed to significant policy/system wins:

  • Improved health coverage for the underserved;
  • Strengthened health coverage policy for the undocumented;
  • Improved school climate, wellness and equity;
  • Prevention and reform within the justice system;
  • Public-private investment and policy changes on behalf of boys and young men of color; and
  • Local & regional progress in adoption of “Health In All Policies,” a collaborative approach incorporating health considerations into decision-making across all policy areas

Our Board and team are very pleased with the results and impact of BHC to date, but we have been committed to learning from our share of mistakes. 

Along with the victories, we acknowledged in the report some hard lessons.  Most notable among our mistakes were more attention to:

  • Putting Community in “Community-Driven” Change.  Armed with lessons on having clarity about results to achieve results, we over thought the early process.  This resulted in prescriptiveness in the planning phase that was not only unnecessary, but also harmful. We entered the community planning process with multiple outcomes frameworks and a planning process that struck many partners as philanthropic arrogance. The smarter move was to engage community leaders with the clarity of a shared vision and operating principles, and create the space for community leaders and residents to incubate goals, results, and strategy. Fortunately, we course corrected, and our partners were patient while we did so.
  • Revisiting assumptions about local realities and systems dynamics.  In the report, we discussed our assumption about creating a single locus of inside-out, outside-in activity where community residents, leaders and systems leaders could collaborate on defined goals. It was readily apparent that community leaders distrusted many “systems” insiders, and systems leaders viewed outsider/activists as unreasonable. We underestimated the importance of the roles of historical structural inequalities, context, and dynamics of relationships at the local level.  Local collaboratives or “hubs” were reorganized and customized to meet local realities, and we threw the concept of a single model of collaboration across all the sites out the window.

Some course corrections we made included adjusting and sharpening our underlying assumptions and theory of change and taking on new community-driven priorities that we never anticipated early on; examples include school discipline reform, dismantling the prison pipeline in communities of color through prevention, and work that is taking place in TCE’s Boys & Young Men of Color portfolio.  By acknowledging our mistakes, our focus has sharpened and our dual roles as changemakers and grantmakers have continued to evolve. 

“Some partner feedback was difficult to hear, but all of it was useful and is making our work with partners stronger.”

Further, significant developments have occurred since the report:

Positioning “Power Building” as central to improving complex systems and policies.  In defining key performance indicators, we know the policy milestones achieved thus far represent only surface manifestations of the ultimate success we are seeking.  We had a breakthrough when we positioned “building the power and voice” of the adults and youth in our communities and “health equity” at the center of our BHC North Star Goals and Indicators.  Ultimately, we’ll know we are successful when the power dynamics in our partner communities have shifted so that adult and youth residents know how to hold local officials accountable for full, ongoing implementation of these policies.

Continuing to listen to our partners.  In addition to clarifying our North Stars, we sought further mid-point advice from our partners, reaching out to 175 stakeholders, including 68 youth and adult residents of BHC communities, for feedback to shape the remainder of BHC’s implementation and to inform our transition planning for the next decade.  Some of what our partners told us was difficult to hear, but all of it was useful and is making our work with partners stronger.    

From these lessons, I challenge our philanthropic colleagues to consider:

  • How can we learn to detect complex failures early to help us go beyond lessons that are superficial? As Amy Edmonson states, “The job of leaders is to see that their organizations don’t just move on after a failure but stop to dig in and discover the wisdom contained in it.”
  • In complex initiatives and complex organizations, what does it take to design a learning culture to capitalize successfully on mistakes? How do we truly engage in “trial and error” and stay open to experimentation and midcourse corrections?  How can we focus internally on our own operations and ways of work, as well as being willing to change our strategies and relationships with external partners?  Further, how do we, as grantmakers responsible for serving the public good, take responsibility for making these lessons #OpenForGood so others can learn from them as well?

It is worth noting that a key action that TCE took at the board level as we embarked on BHC was to dissolve the Board Program Committee and replace it with Learning and Performance Committee.  This set-up offered consistent opportunity for learning from evaluation reports between the Board, the CEO, and the management team and for sharing our learnings publicly to build the philanthropic field.  Now, even as we enter the final phase of BHC, we continue to look for ways to structure opportunities to learn, and I can say, “We are well into a journey to learn intelligently from our successes as well as our mistakes to make meaningful, positive impacts.”

--Hanh Cao Yu

Championing Transparency: The Rockefeller Foundation Is First to Share All Evaluations As Part of #OpenForGood
September 26, 2017

The Rockefeller Foundation staff who authored this post are Veronica Olazabal, Director of Measurement, Evaluation, and Organizational Performance; Shawna Hoffman, Measurement, Evaluation, and Organizational Performance Specialist; and Nadia Asgaraly, Measurement and Evaluation Intern.

This post is part of the Glasspockets #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. 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.

Veronica Olazabal
Veronica Olazabal
Shawna Hoffman
Shawna Hoffman
Nadia Asgaraly
Nadia Asgaraly

TRF Color LogoToday, aligned with The Rockefeller Foundation's commitments to sharing and accountability, we are proud to be the first foundation to accept the challenge and proactively make all of our evaluation reports publicly available as part of Foundation Center's #OpenForGood campaign.

A History of Transparency and Sharing

Since its founding more than 100 years ago, The Rockefeller Foundation's mission has remained unchanged: to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world. To this end, the Foundation seeks to catalyze and scale transformative innovation across sectors and geographies, and take risks where others cannot, or will not. While working in innovative spaces, the Foundation has always recognized that the full impact of its programs and investments can only be realized if it measures - and shares - what it is learning. Knowledge and evidence sharing is core to the organization's DNA dating back to its founder John D. Rockefeller Sr., who espoused the virtues of learning from and with others—positing that this was the key to "enlarging the boundaries of human knowledge."

“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.”

Evaluation for the Public Good

Building the evidence base for the areas in which we work is the cornerstone of The Rockefeller Foundation's approach to measurement and evaluation. By systematically tracking progress toward implementation and outcomes of our programs, and by testing, validating, and assessing our assumptions and hypotheses, we believe that we can manage and optimize our impact. Through the documentation of what works, for who, and how/under what conditions, there is potential to amplify our impact, by crowding-in other funders to promising solutions, and diverting resources from being wasted on approaches that prove ineffectual.

But living out transparency as a core value is not without its challenges. A commitment to the principle of transparency alone is insufficient; organizations, especially foundations, must walk the talk. Sharing evidence requires the political will and human resources to do so, and more importantly, getting comfortable communicating not only one's successes, but also one's challenges and failures. For this reason, 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. Then, once evaluation reports are finalized, they are posted to the Foundation website, available to the public free of charge.

#OpenForGood Project

The Foundation Center's #OpenForGood project, and IssueLab's related Results platform, help take the Foundation's commitment to sharing and strengthening the evidence base to the next level. By building a repository where everyone can identify others working on similar topics, search for answers to specific questions, and quickly identify where knowledge gaps exists, they are leading the charge on knowledge sharing.

The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to support this significant effort by being the first to contribute its evaluation evidence base to IssueLab: Results as part of the #OpenForGood movement, with the hope of encouraging others to do the same.

-- Veronica Olazabal, Shawna Hoffman, and Nadia Asgaraly

Trend to Watch: Using SDGs to Improve Foundation Transparency
September 19, 2017

(Janet Camarena is director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center. )

Janet Camarena PhotoAs Foundation Center's director of transparency initiatives, one of the most interesting parts of my job is having the opportunity to play "transparency scout," regularly reviewing foundation websites for signs of openness in what is too often a closed universe. Some of this scouting leads to lifting up practices that can be examples for others on our Transparency Talk blog, sometimes it leads to a new transparency indicator on our assessment framework, and sometimes we just file it internally as a "trend to watch. "

Today, it's a combination of all three; we are using this blog post to announce the launch of a new, "Trend to Watch" indicator that signals an emerging practice: the use of the Sustainable Development Goals to improve how foundations open up their work to the world.

Sustainable Development GoalsThe United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. There are a total of 17 goals, such as ending poverty, zero hunger, reduced inequalities, and climate action. Written deliberately broad to serve as a collective playbook that governments and private sector alike can use, they can also serve as a much needed shared language across philanthropy and across sectors to signal areas of common interest, and measure shared progress.

And let's face it, as foundation strategies become increasingly specialized and strategic, explaining the objectives and the nuances can become a jargon-laden minefield that can make it difficult and time consuming for those on the outside to fully understand the intended goal of a new program or initiative. The simplicity of the SDG iconography cuts through the jargon so foundation website visitors can quickly identify alignment with the goals or not, and then more easily determine whether they should devote time to reading further. The SDG framework also provides a clear visual framework to display grants and outcomes data in a way that is meaningful beyond the four walls of the foundation.

Let's take a look at how some foundation websites are using the SDGs to more clearly explain their work:

Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF)

One of my favorite examples is from a simple chart the Silicon Valley Community Foundation shared on its blog, because it specifically opens up the work of its donor-advised funds using the SDGs. Donor-advised funds are typically not the most transparent vehicles, so using the SDGs as a framework to tally how SVCF's donor-advised funds are making an impact is particularly clever, refreshing, and offers a new window into a fast-growth area of philanthropy.

A quick glance at the chart reveals that quality education, good health and well-being, and sustainable cities and communities are the most common priorities among Silicon Valley donors.

GHR Foundation

A good example of how the SDGs can be used as a shared language to explain the intended impact of a grant portfolio is from GHR Foundation in Minnesota. I also like this example because it shows how the SDGs can be effectively used in both global and domestic grant portfolios. GHR uses the SDG iconography across all of its portfolios, as sidebars on the pages that describe foundation strategies. GHR's "Children in Families" is a core foundation grantmaking strategy that addresses children and families in need on a global scale. The portfolio name is a broad one, but by including the SDG iconography, web visitors can quickly understand that GHR is using this program area to address poverty, hunger, as well as lead to outcomes tied to health and well-being:

GHR is also able to use the SDG framework to create similar understanding of its domestic work. Below is an example from its Catholic Schools program serving the Twin Cities:

Through the visual cues the icons provide, I can quickly determine that in addition to aligning with the quality education goal, that this part of GHR's portfolio also addresses hunger and economically disadvantaged populations through its education grantmaking. This could also signal that the grantmaker interprets education broadly and supports the provision of wrap-around services to address the needs of low-income children as a holistic way of addressing the achievement gap. That's a lot of information conveyed with three small icons!

Tableau Foundation

The most sophisticated example comes to us from the tech and corporate grantmaking worlds--the Tableau Foundation. Tableau makes data visualization software, so using technology as a means to improve transparency is a core approach, and they are using their own grantmaking as an example of how you can use data to tell a compelling visual story. Through the interactive "Living Annual Report" on its website, Tableau regularly updates its grantmaking tallies and grantee data so web visitors have near real-time information. One of the tabs on the report reveals the SDG indicators, providing a quick snapshot of how Tableau's grantmaking, software donations, and corporate volunteering align with the SDGs.

As you mouse over any bar on the left, near real-time data appears, tallying how much of Tableau's funding has gone to support each goal. The interactive bar chart on the right lists Tableau's grantees, and visitors can quickly see the grantee list in the context of the SDGs as well as know the specific scale of its grantmaking to each recipient.

If you're inspired by these examples, but aren't sure how to begin connecting your portfolio to the Global Goals, you can use the SDG Indicator Wizard to help you get started. All you need to do is copy and paste your program descriptions or the descriptive language of a sample grant into the Wizard and its machine-learning tools let you know where your grantmaking lands on the SDG matrix. It's a lot of fun – and great place to start learning about the SDGs. And, because it transforms your program language into the relevant SDG goals, indicator, and targets, it may just provide a shortcut to that new strategy you were thinking of developing!

What more examples? The good news is we're also tracking SDGs as a transparency indicator at "Who Has Glasspockets?" You can view them all here. Is your foundation using the SDGs to help tell the story of your work? We're always on the lookout for new examples, so let us know and your foundation can be the next trend setter in our new Trend to Watch.

-- Janet Camarena

Is Your 990-PF Working Against You?
September 12, 2017

Lauren Haverlock has practiced public accounting since 2004. As a senior manager at Moss Adams LLP, she provides compliance and consulting services to all types of exempt organizations, including public charities and private foundations.

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

Join us at a session about the Open 990PF in partnership with Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Learn more or register here.

Lauren HaverlockAs a CPA specializing in tax exempt organizations, the annual 990-PF form that private foundations must file with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the source of many questions I receive. And now that this data is not just publicly available, but open, it is wise for us all to take a closer look at whether your 990-PF may unintentionally be working against you.

Of course, the IRS has been gathering data on 990-PF filers for years. It has used this data to better identify and investigate anomalous and non-compliant private foundations. But now, all electronically filed Form 990-PF data is available to the general public in machine readable formats opening up the investments, portfolio performance, grant recipients, expenses, and transactions of foundations like never before.

Now that this information is publicly available in machine readable format, it can be easily aggregated to provide valuable insight into the industry as a whole. It can also highlight outliers. Ultimately, the availability of this data provides a window into private foundations, many of which were previously used to operating outside the public eye. As Glasspockets has reported, currently only 10% of U.S. foundations even have a website, so if your foundation is among the 90% that do not, that means that your 990-PF is the only source of intelligence about your organization. 

In the new world of readily available machine-readable Form 990s, private foundations will want to verify their tax filings—the source of their data—are prepared completely and accurately. Common mistakes to watch out for when filing the Form 990-PF are detailed in this article.

Transactions

Private foundations face more burdensome regulations on investments and expenses than 501(c)(3) public charities:

  • Restrictions on how money is spent
  • Requirements as to how much money is used for charitable purposes
  • Rules regarding how endowments can be invested

The consequences for noncompliance in regards to the above transactions can range from excise-tax penalties assessed on the foundation or its managers to revocation of exempt status.

Specific items to be aware of include the following:

  • Prohibited transactions with a disqualified person, including trustees, directors, and foundation managers as well as certain family members and businesses of the aforementioned.
  • Failure to meet the minimum distribution requirement in a previous year
  • Excess business holdings of an active trade or business
  • Risky asset investments that could jeopardize a foundation’s charitable purpose (for example, not having a diversified portfolio of investments)
  • Certain types of expenditures, such as foreign grants, grants to for-profit entities, unapproved scholarships, or lobbying and political activities, are either prohibited outright or require extra diligence to be permissible. 

For example, foundations are permitted to reasonably compensate a disqualified person for personal services. And an organization can grant funds to foreign or for-profit organizations if expenditure responsibility is exercised. And more details about what is permissible in regards to political funding appears below. But the main point here is just the affirmation of these closely scrutinized transactions could raise the risk profile of a private foundation.

Net Investment Income

Although considered tax-exempt, private foundations are still required to pay an excise tax at a rate of 1% or 2% of the income they generate. As such, investment income is of intense focus when foundations file their tax returns. Foundations should remember that the calculation of taxable income should be undertaken with the same tax-reduction mindset that for profit entities and individuals undertake.   

“Ultimately, the availability of this data provides a window into private foundations, many of which were previously used to operating outside the public eye.”

The Form 990-PF reports income both on a book and on a tax basis on Page one. A foundation should ensure that it is properly capturing all taxable income from all sources and not simply assuming that taxable income is the amount reported on their financial statements. For example, private foundations with “alternative investments,” including private equity, hedge funds, managed futures, real estate, commodities and derivatives contracts, could receive a Schedule K-1 from their investments. Flow-through income from that Schedule K-1 should be reported in the foundation’s tax-basis income statement. 

Additionally, any excise tax a foundation pays could bring negative attention. If an entity consistently pays the higher excise tax of 2%, it could lead donors to question why the foundation is giving money to the IRS in the form of taxes rather than providing grants.  

 

Balance-Sheet Investments

Private foundations are required to report the details of their investments, including the number of shares and types of publicly traded stock held. Reporting this can often be burdensome and feel invasive, but failure to include this information could result in an incomplete Form 990-PF. An incomplete Form 990-PF is deemed to have never been filed in the first place, which could result in late-filing penalties or revocation of exemption if it occurs three years in a row.

Lobbying and Political Activities

Private foundations are prohibited from undertaking any lobbying or political activities, unlike 501(c)(3) public charities, which are permitted to undertake limited lobbying activities. However, not all actions related to politics are prohibited—private foundations can undertake certain bipartisan educational activities or support charities that undertake lobbying if they follow certain guidelines. For example, the specific project grant rule, when followed, could allow a private foundation to fund a project that explicitly has lobbying activities.

Grant Reporting

The grant reporting schedule seems innocuous, but it can weave a story of relationships that extend beyond grantor and grantee. The grant recipients of private foundations are public, which means the public can gather data regarding which organizations a foundation supports by using data-mining tools.

Open-990-borderAlthough this information can be valuable to fundraisers and your grantmaking peers, it can also reveal an informal or unclear grantmaking process and serve as an inadvertent disclosure of taxable expenditures. As such, a foundation should ensure that there is a due diligence process related to grant recipients that verifies if a recipient is a qualified 501(c)(3) public charity, and use the space provided in the 990-PF (Part XV) to explain its grantmaking process, deadlines, and eligibility requirements.

While grants to other types of entities are permitted, if certain expenditure responsibility procedures are not followed, this type of granting could possibly raise a red flag. Any grantee that reports a foreign address, appears to be a corporation, or otherwise stands out could still garner a foundation unwanted attention from the general public and IRS. Grantmakers making grants to foreign organizations also have the option of using a process called equivalency determination to demonstrate how they determined that a foreign organization is equivalent to a U.S. charity. The grantmaker is required to collect a specific set of data, as outlined in IRS Revenue Procedure 92-94, that provides details about the grantee’s operations and finances.

Private foundation contributor schedules are public, which means anyone can pull these donor lists. With open-source data, foundation support can be easily compiled and aggregated to better understand an ecosystem of donors and support—keeping a private foundation accountable to the community it serves.

Even though the Form 990-PF is a government filing, its public nature and the increased openness of its data may lead to both greater interest and scrutiny in the private foundations filing it. Take control of your financial story by filing timely, complete, and accurate Form 990 returns, paying special attention to the areas noted above, and ultimately what increases may be a greater understanding of the field itself.

--Lauren Haverlock

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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:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

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