Transparency Outside Starts Inside

When I read CEP’s new report, Sharing What Matters: Perspectives on Foundation Transparency, I immediately focused on the areas in which foundations are doing well and where we need to improve.

I was thrilled to learn from the research that foundation CEOs’ views on transparency largely align with one another and with those of grantees — we don’t need to address any major mismatches there. And I was equally pleased to learn that foundations are fairly transparent today about their grantmaking processes, goals, and strategies. Further, 69 percent of foundation CEOs surveyed believe that transparency is important for increased effectiveness, so maybe we don’t even need to focus on making the case for more transparency in the first place.

So then where do we have work to do? The report reveals that both foundation leaders and grantees think foundations can do better at sharing how we measure our progress and our lessons learned — including the successes and the failures. The finding that particularly struck me is that “Only four percent of foundations share comprehensive assessments of their performance. Five percent share their experiences of the tools/method they have used to assess performance, and five percent share lessons they have learned from projects that have not succeeded.

This is a critical area for foundations to improve. I think change will require serious work inside foundations before we see a change outside foundations.

Here are three reasons why: (1.) foundations themselves may be trying to figure these things out and so may not really be ready or able to share yet; (2.) it may be hard for people at foundations to recognize in the first place when they might have failed or played a role in a failure; and (3.) being more open about these things would be a change to the status quo, and people in foundations may resist the uncertainty of that change.

Let me elaborate on each of these briefly.

First, in CEP’s 2013 report, How Far Have We Come? Foundation CEOs on Progress and Impact, more than half of foundation CEOs surveyed reported being only somewhat or less confident in their assessment of the overall progress their foundation has made. If a foundation doesn’t have clarity internally about how it’s assessing its own performance against programmatic goals, then it is understandable that the foundation is not ready to share openly about its performance assessment.

Second, it can be difficult for people to recognize when things didn’t work and the role they might have had in that. 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?

In his Harvard Business Review article, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” author Chris Argyris studied a consulting firm filled with high-achieving people who hadn’t experienced a lot of failures and who worked within a culture that does not appear to reward openness about admitting mistakes or faults. As a consequence, the study showed it was very difficult (almost impossible!) for these consultants to identify their role in projects that didn’t go well or as planned — let alone to share their shortcomings openly with others. I would wager that these same dynamics are at work in foundations, too, even if they aspire to embrace and share more failures. Specifically, many foundation staff and board members are probably not used to “failing,” and most foundations likely only really reward and incentivize “successes” by their staff members.

Third, people may fear the uncertainty of what will happen if they share more openly about lessons learned. In their book Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky argue that a big part of why change is hard is not that people fear or resist change itself, but rather that they fear what they may lose in the process. In the case of increasing foundation openness, foundation staff may fear or resist losing control of information, hurting grantee organizations’ reputations, or losing some aspect of their personal reputation. Maybe some in foundations even fear (unknowingly if not knowingly) that they will lose some of their influence if they are more open.

There are no easy answers to any of these challenges. Each will require serious leadership commitment to successfully address. My hope is that foundation leaders reading CEP’s report will invest the time to think hard about their own institutions, why they don’t share more today, whether their culture enables and rewards acknowledging failures and lessons learned, and what serious steps they could take internally that might lead to more sharing externally.

Lindsay Louie is a program officer for Philanthropy Grantmaking at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. One of the two main strategies in her work is the Fund for Shared Insight, which is focused on increasing foundation openness and listening to those we ultimately seek to help in philanthropy, and funded CEP’s report, Sharing What Matters: Perspectives on Foundation Transparency. Lindsay can be reached at or on Twitter @lindsaylouie.

Note from the author: The views expressed in this post are solely my own and may not represent those of CEP, the Hewlett Foundation, or Fund for Shared Insight. CEP President Phil Buchanan spoke with the Fund for Shared Insight in July 2015 about foundation openness and internal barriers that may prevent more external sharing, and I credit him for sparking my thinking on this topic. The HBR article and book cited in this post are part of the leadership development curriculum for Independent Sector’s American Express NGen Fellowship, in which I am participating this year.

CEP is hosting a webinar discussing the findings of Sharing What Matters: Perspectives on Foundation Transparency on Wednesday, March 23rd at 1 pm EST. Register here.

foundation transparency, openness, research, , transparency
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