A CEP Blog Digest: Transparency

Ethan McCoy

After the positive response to our digest on feedback we assembled last month, we’ve decided to make digests a recurring series on the CEP blog. In this series, we’ll periodically compile a smattering of blog posts on a particular topic that is crucial to foundation effectiveness, providing a go-to resource for thought-provoking commentary and links to further research and reading. Next up in this digest series: transparency.

“‘OpenNotes’ for Funders: A Radical Idea for More Transparency and Better Relationships” by Kevin Bolduc

Are there more radical ways to improve openness in ways that would benefit both funders and grantees? In exploring this question, CEP Vice President, Assessment and Advisory Services, Kevin Bolduc discusses a model gaining steam in the medical field called “OpenNotes,” in which doctors share their medical notes and lab results with patients. Bolduc considers what it might look like if applied to how funders share program officers’ grant write-ups and recommendations.

Transparency — being open, honest, and clear — is a key driver of strong relationships between funders and grantees. It’s valued by foundation and grantee CEOs alike, and grantees think foundations are doing a decent job of being transparent (though more so in sharing about their processes than their learning).

Still, are there more radical ways to improve openness in ways that would benefit both funders and grantees? As I’ve thought about this question, I’ve been drawn to a transparency movement called OpenNotes, which is changing the relationship between doctors and patients.

“How Improved Evaluation Sharing Has the Potential to Strengthen a Foundation’s Work” by Jennifer Glickman

CEP Manager, Research, Jennifer Glickman draws from findings in CEP’s research on transparency and evaluation to provide insight on how foundations can most effectively learn and share knowledge.

CEP’s research found that there are specific topics about which foundation CEOs believe being transparent could potentially increase their foundation’s ability to be effective. These areas include the foundation’s grantmaking processes, its goals and strategies, how it assesses its performance, and the foundation’s experiences with what has and has not worked in its efforts to achieve its programmatic goals. While foundation CEOs believe their foundations are doing well in sharing information about their grantmaking, goals, and strategies, they say their foundations are much less transparent about the lessons they learn through their work.

“Openness with a Purpose” by Ellie Buteau

CEP Vice President, Research, Ellie Buteau highlights key findings from CEP’s research on what foundation leaders choose to be open about. The research suggests that foundation leaders are interested in a more nuanced approach to transparency, rather than sharing anything and everything about their respective organizations and operations.

It’s time for a more nuanced conversation about transparency in philanthropy. Transparency is clearly important — especially about what is and isn’t working. There is real room for improvement in this area, and it’s crucial that foundations do better on this. Foundations and grantees alike want to learn more from foundations about what has and hasn’t been effective so they can do their work better. That’s transparency that matters.

“Through A Glass Darkly: How Transparent Should Foundations Be?” by Megan Tompkins-Stange

Megan Tompkins-Stange, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, draws from her book Policy Patrons to discuss foundations’ transparency and accountability to the public. She makes the case that public trust in foundations may hang on whether or not foundations make proactive efforts to be more open and accessible.

Foundations have long faced calls for greater transparency and accountability, and have responded with mechanisms including annual reports and searchable grants databases. These gestures toward transparency, however, are often ceremonial. At many large foundations, staff members are not listed on websites, and their emails and phone numbers are obscured from public view; some foundations do not even make their addresses available to the public. The average citizen, by and large, cannot gain access to decision-makers within elite philanthropy — a reality that is highly problematic for democracy, as (historian Maribel) Morey argues.

“Transactional vs. Transformative Transparency” by Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Betsey Russell

Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Betsey Russell of Putnam Consulting Group explain the differences between transactional and transformative transparency, calling for funders to take the leap from the former to the latter.

So what might “transformative transparency” look like? In a nutshell, it’s when your foundation admits vulnerabilities, gives up some control, and digs deep within itself to work toward the same kinds of changes it wants to see in the community. Transformative transparency fosters open channels for two-way conversations about problems and solutions, not processes and policies.

“Getting More Transparent about Foundation Results” by Nell Edgington

Nell Edgington, president of Social Velocity, discusses how funders and grantees both must overcome a fear of sharing openly what hasn’t worked to realize greater effectiveness and results.

If we truly want to move to a place where more resources flow to what works, don’t we have to be more transparent about what worked and what didn’t work? If a foundation investment failed because of the foundation’s shortcomings (the investment didn’t fit with foundation goals, the foundation didn’t invest enough, or it didn’t invest in capacity as well as programs), the foundation (and other foundations learning from these lessons) could learn to become more effective investors. And if the investment didn’t work simply because it was the wrong intervention, then isn’t it better to move investments to interventions that do work? Fear can be a debilitating thing, and for the sake of greater results, I think both foundations and their nonprofit grantees must work to overcome it.

“Transparency Outside Starts Inside” by Lindsay Louie

Lindsay Louie, program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, argues that improvement for foundations in key areas of transparency will take serious work. Overcoming what’s holding funders back from sharing their lessons learned (both successes and failures) requires leadership and commitment to make internal changes for external impact.

In theory, foundations should have no reason to fear sharing failures — we don’t typically have to worry about losing funding or facing significant negative repercussions. But foundations are made up of people — I’m one of them — and if people can’t recognize when things didn’t go well, aren’t comfortable acknowledging failures, or don’t have strong incentives and modeling from leadership about sharing failures, then why would we?

Ethan McCoy is senior writer, development and communications, at CEP.

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