Thursday, February 14, 2013

Transparency. Sounds real good if you say it real fast.

I had a colleague years ago who used to respond to every new big idea in school reform with "Sounds real good if you say it real fast." The point being that the devil is in the details on doing anything new.

I have a feeling a few foundation leaders may be feeling this way about transparency right about now.

Yesterday I saw this tweet go by from Daniel Silverman at The James Irvine Foundation:

So, I clicked through and read Jim's post - which is titled Transparency 2.0. In it, he makes reference to several bloggers who've written about the Foundation's new arts strategy. This is what he says:
"Whether people agree or disagree with the choices we have made, we are now discussing it, publicly, intelligently and forthrightly. I admire those who have stepped forward to criticize aspects of our strategy, whether they believe it is wrong on its merits or they view it as yet another example of “strategic philanthropy” gone awry, where we are dictating and imposing our solutions upon the field."
He links directly in his post to the bloggers' posts:  Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, Clay Lord and Barry Hessenius. I then saw this tweet from an arts program officer at Irvine, Ted Russell:

Which didn't add any content to what I could see happening, but gave it some useful context and reminded me of something it's easy to forget when reading tweets and blogs - there are people having all kinds of face to face discussions that matter to the little stream we access on social media. (Full disclosure: Ted is a college friend of mine and I've known Jim and Daniel for years)

Yesterday morning, I, like many readers of the New York Times, opened the Arts Section to find this provocatively headlined little article: (photo cuts off the story, click link for full piece)

This was a kinder piece than what ran in Gawker and elsewhere - all covering the Knight Foundation's hosting of Lehrer at their Media Learning Seminar (Full disclosure: I led a breakout session at the seminar the day before the speech. I was not paid to do so.). This morning, a link in TechPresident's (highly recommended) daily newsletter, FIRST POST, took me to this post from the Knight Foundation:

The text of the post, which is unsigned, includes this paragraph:
"We try to be as transparent as possible about our work. When asked, we released the amount of the speaker’s fee. The fee was not unusual for a well-known author to address a large conference. But it was simply not something Knight Foundation, given our values, should have paid. We continue to support journalism excellence in the digital age. And we do not want our foundation partners to think that journalism controversies are too hot for them to handle. Instead, we want to send the message that when things go wrong the best action is to admit the error and get back to work."
And the comments, which numbered about two dozen when I went to read them, were appalled, angry, and self-righteously nasty about the irony of such a mistake on the part of the Foundation. At least one of the commenters railed about how could no one inside the foundation have pushed back on the decision to invite Lehrer before the event? From a few hallway conversations I had at the seminar (before the speech occurred, as soon as I saw it noted on the agenda) it seems to me that many of them did.  It may have been a wrong decision, it may have been a risky decision, but I doubt it was an unconsidered decision.

There's a saying about marriages - you can never really tell what is going on in anyone else's. We don't know what happened at Ted Russell's lunch or in the meeting rooms at the Knight Foundation in which inviting Lehrer to speak and agreeing to pay him was discussed. Twitter and blogs give us some - mediated - sense of both these events and it's easy to push for more.

I found myself considering these two events from a few steps further back. We criticize foundations for being opaque, and mostly they are.  Steps toward transparency aren't going to be easy (sounds real good if you say it real fast). Both of these examples involve foundations actually in conversation with publics they could (easily, legally, and rather comfortably) ignore. The more important question for all us may be - why is that the case?

Public discussion is a step forward for foundation transparency. Even as I write this, I'm steeling myself for backlash. Past experience tells me I'll get nasty comments and I'll end up wishing I'd kept my mouth shut on the whole thing.

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