Some New Trousers for Foundations, with Glass Pockets

Foundation Center has launched a new Web site, www.glasspockets.org,  that aims to “bring transparency to the world of foundations.”  It is an impressive initiative that can serve both as a great resource to those interested in learning about foundations and a spur to foundations themselves to be more open and communicative about their work.

Brad Smith, Foundation Center’s CEO, announces this initiative in a wonderful blog post that leads with a quotation from the Carnegie Corporation Board Chair in 1952.  “So far as there is a justification – and I am sure there is – for the existence of these institutions, it is that they serve the public good.  If they are not willing to tell what they do to serve the public good, then as far as I am concerned, they ought to be closed down.”

Smith’s essay is a powerful call for foundations to be more transparent.  (We at CEP are proud to have worked as a partner with Foundation Center on this effort.)  Smith is someone who understands that it is possible to both deeply value the role and contributions of foundations in our society and to simultaneously press hard for greater effectiveness and impact.

Glasspockets.org includes information about foundation giving and philanthropy at work.  Most controversial, I am sure, will be the feature of the site – still a work in progress – that allows users to see “who has glass pockets?”  The site evaluates how open foundations are against a series of criteria, from governance to grantmaking to performance measurement.

Why does transparency even matter?  There are many reasons, and Brad’s post thoughtfully discusses some of them.  But I suggest that it matters – and I think our research at CEP has helped to demonstrate this – because there is a link between transparency and effectiveness.

How so?  We see in our research on strategy that a key differentiator between the more strategic and less strategic foundation leaders is open communication about strategy.  As Anne Warhover, CEO of the Colorado Health Foundation, puts it in an interview in our report, Essentials of Foundation Strategy: “If we’re going to be held accountable for results, than we have to find partners who will get us there. So by publishing our strategies, we attract partners who get us results.”

We also know from our surveys of tens of thousands of foundation grantees that there is a powerful connection between grantees’ perceptions of a foundation’s clarity of communication of its goals and strategies and their perceptions of foundation impact.  Grantees need to understand what a foundation seeks to accomplish, how, and how they fit in.  If they don’t, how will they make the impact the foundation is funding them to make?

Is it possible to be secretive and achieve impact?  I am sure it is.   And the converse is, of course, also true: a foundation could be completely transparent and utterly ineffective.  But, in general, transparency facilitates greater effectiveness.

I believe that, for larger foundations in particular, arguing against transparency is a losing game.  It’s akin to insisting that the 8-track is coming back or that climate change is a fiction.

I applaud Foundation Center’s leadership and hope that foundations step up to support – and participate in – this important initiative.

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