What kind of information do we - the public, donors, community members, voters, activists, nonprofit service users, taxpayers - have about grant making foundations organizations - individually and in their 70,000+ totality? We have data from the IRS, reports from the organizations above plus those from the Foundation Center, the Council on Foundations, the Philanthropy Roundtable, Urban Institutee, Capital Research Center, the Association of Small Foundations, National Center for Family Philanthropy, regional and identity-based associations of grantmakers and dozens of foundation affinity groups. There is information from the foundations themselves - via the web, email newsletters, annual reports, and direct engagement. We have media coverage, sites like ActivistCash, blogger opinion and discussion, and studies by municipal governments or regional and state agencies. Foundations are included in web resources such as GuideStar, CharityNavigator (public grantmaking foundations only), and on the finance site of Google.com.
In fact, we might be reaching a point on the "information available" spectrum where what we need is not more information, but a way to find the right information. One potential analog, from the IT world, would be this site, All-the-analysts, which is intended to provide one-stop-shopping for all the analyst reviews of new IT stuff.
However, I think the reality for philanthropy is we're still in that place where the interest is for more and different kinds of information. The title of Joel Fleishman's 2007 book, The Foundation: A Great American Secret, states it clearly - foundations are not well known nor well understood. We even see foundation-funded efforts to address their collective, presumed low profile. The Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, which aims to broaden understanding of the roles foundations play and the accomplishments they have supported, is one example.
All of the information and information sources noted above share an important characteristic. Somewhere in the mix, foundations are paying some of the costs of making the information available. Are there any sources of information on foundations that are completely free of philanthropic support? If there were, what difference would it make? Does the funding shape the information?
I don't know "the answer" to these questions, though (of course) I have opinions on all of them. The third one, especially, since all one need do is compare the information provided by some of the sources listed above and you can quickly determine the interests of those providing it.
As I was thinking about these issues, I found an analog that caught my attention. Big time.
Imagine if the nonprofit sector went the way of commercial entrepreneurs and starting rating foundations the way entrepreneurs rate venture capitalists - check out TheFunded.com. According to its founder, the original intent for the site was to help him - a successful entrepreneur - keep track of VC firms. He now argues, in a recent BusinessWeek article, that "...airing the industry's dirty laundry will ultimately improve the efficiency of the funding process as well as relations between financiers and entrepreneurs."
Part of the proposition for TheFunded is that those who fund VC firms - including high net worth individuals, universities, pension plans, and foundations - want to know how these firms treat their applicants and funded companies. Giving voice to the opinions of the VC's entrepreneur partners will help the VC's funding partners make better decisions. This proposition is trickier in philanthropy, since many private foundations only "raise money" once. The analogy holds for community foundations, as well as for those foundations that are started with small endowments and expect (or hope) for more over time.
TheFunded gives us an analog for thinking about the pro and cons of publicly sourced, anonymously provided, non-foundation funded information about foundations. Would such information be good or bad? I think that is the wrong question to ask.
What should we ask about such a resource? Here are some suggestions:
- What, if anything, would such a source add to the total mix of information available?
- Would it make foundations more transparent?
- Would it backfire - and make them less transparent?
- Is any one source of information going to change the way any one person does anything, thinks anything, or takes action?
I'm not advocating on behalf of or against any of the information sources noted in this post, and I don't claim that the lists or the examples are complete. I'm not planning on running out and starting a foundation-oriented version of TheFunded nor do I know anyone who is (though I do know plenty of people who probably wish one existed.) I am suggesting that we add into the industry-wide discussions of transparency - regarding both foundations and nonprofits - some nuance. Herewith:
- Transparency about what and for what purpose?
- Information and data provided by and analyzed by whom and for whom?
- What other sources of information are there, and how will more or different information add to, distract from, or shift perspective on what is already available?
We have a lot of information available. What do we know and not know? What information do we need and in what form? For what purpose? What do you think transparency looks like?
DISCLOSURE: Some of my writing, some of my work, and some of my volunteer time is spent on issues of knowledge, information, transparency, and giving. I am on the Board of GiveWell and an advisor to The Nonprofit Reporter, have spoken at GEO, COF, CEP, and Independent Sector conferences, worked with ASF, and published in some of the sources noted above. You may check my other affiliations here.