Transparency Starts at Home

There seems to be more and more talk of “transparency” among foundation leaders. Leading the charge is Brad Smith, the CEO of Foundation Center, who has brought tremendous new energy and vision to that organization.

As I have noted on this blog before, CEP was proud to work with Foundation Center on its Glass Pockets initiative to promote transparency among foundations. I do have my quibbles with that effort—primarily because I worry that it can promote a “check-the-box” approach that may not correspond to the provision of meaningful and substantive information—which I voiced at a joint Foundation Center / CEP event in San Francisco in December.

But I think the push for more openness by foundations with external audiences is needed and important. I expect to hear more on this topic from Brad and Foundation Center and from the leaders of this country’s largest foundations in the coming months—and that’s all to the good.

But, lately, I have been wondering whether we are talking enough about a different kind of transparency: transparency internally, with foundation staff. And I wonder whether we’ll ever make real progress on meaningful transparency—transparency that gets to effectiveness and improvement—externally until we deal with the challenge of being transparent first at home, with staff colleagues.

After all, if you can’t get over the hurdle of sharing important information within the walls of the foundation, how much will you share outside?

Why do I think this is an issue? Because, as we present assessment tool results based on our comparative surveys of important constituencies, I am struck by the seemingly visceral tendency of some foundation leaders to control and limit the sharing of data about how the foundation is doing. I want to be clear that some foundation leaders are remarkably open internally, as well as externally—but many others are not.

I do not know how a foundation leader can expect staff members to improve their work if they do not have access to the information that will allow them to do so. Or how a leader can expect staff members to be motivated to improve if they are treated as if they cannot handle important information.

Here are some of the reasons we hear for not sharing the bulk of the data we provide with all the relevant staff—and my counterarguments.

  1. “It will be demoralizing. We can’t subject our staff to this kind of news right now.” I’d argue that there are few things more demoralizing than feeling you are not trusted enough—or mature enough—to dive deeply into difficult information and make sense of what it says about how you can improve.
  2. “There is too much data – we need to boil it down for people.” But for people to act on information, they need to really understand it for themselves. Moreover, we frequently see program staff make important connections and draw crucial insights from the data—insights that have eluded both us and the foundation leadership. Involving people in the sense-making process leads to greater insight about what to do and a deeper motivation to act.
  3. “If we share a CEP assessment tool report with staff, someone might leak it to the media.” My view is that the best way to put your worries about leaks to rest is to be open internally and externally about what you learned, and what you’re doing to improve. The press’s interest will quickly diminish when it is clear that nothing is being hidden. Furthermore, few things will motivate a staff member who wants to hurt or undermine an organization’s leadership to leak something quite so well as the sense that the leadership doesn’t want something leaked! Trust begets trust. Distrust begets distrust.
  4. “People are busy and don’t need all this information – they just need to know what we’re going to do about it.” But, as CEP observed in Can Feedback Fuel Change at Foundations? An Analysis of the Grantee Perception Report, “Because the GPR is a reflection of how staff across the foundation interact with grantees, top-down fixes are less likely to work.” If you want staff members to change the way they work, they need to understand why—and believe themselves that the change is necessary. Diving deeply into the data may seem time-consuming—and it is—but it’s a far faster way to real, meaningful change than issuing decrees.

The tendency to withhold or control information is not a foundation-specific phenomenon, of course. It happens across all kinds of organizations—from corporations to universities to government agencies. And I get it. It’s not always easy to share challenging information. And the concerns I enumerated above are genuine ones.

But I think, ultimately, it is internal transparency that best serves the cause of improved effectiveness. That’s why we at CEP share our performance data with our board, our staff, and the world.

I’d argue that when you are a foundation leader, when your charge is to make a positive impact on vital issues affecting people and communities, it’s essential to share whatever data might help people to do their jobs better. The question I’d ask when considering whether to share something is simple: “would staff want to know this?” If the answer is yes, and if the information does not expose a specific individual in a way that feels unfair, then my suggestion is simple: share it.

Easy for me to say, I know. And so I welcome debate here about what I am missing in my argument for greater internal transparency.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP. You can follow him on Twitter at @pbuchanan_CEP.


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