Thursday, February 06, 2014

Twelve steps to transparency

Grantcraft* has a new guide for funders called "Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency." It actually offers many more than 12 steps for foundations trying to become more open about their processes, decisions, goals, accomplishments and failures, but I'm all in for alliteration.

Let's use the activities described by the F. B. Heron Foundation in my previous post, "the heroism of data entry," as one end of a spectrum. The open, warts-and-all, end of the spectrum.

The GrantCraft guide is designed for foundations at or near the other end of the spectrum. It's got lots of steps toward sharing information, a basic argument for why this is a good thing to do, a very subtle warning about the specter of government oversight, and really, an amazing number of resources, tips, tricks, and planning tools a foundation could use to get a little more out there.

The guide offers up several different approaches to transparency - from sharing grants data easily to getting down and dirty with what works and doesn't work. It links sharing information and being transparent to better relationships and greater effectiveness in a logical way with which I agree (though I'm not actually aware of any evidence to prove this.) The catalogue of tools to help foundations share information is itself impressive, especially to those of use who remember the world before Guidestar, pdfs, and the Foundation Directory Online. And that's not even including the three super-recent developments I mentioned in previous posts - Hewlett's "Work in Progress" blog, Inside Philanthropy, and the honest, hard, unsexy work described by Clara Miller. It does offer insight to one of the early really good experiments, the Packard Foundation's "Glass Filing Cabinet" approach to organizational effectiveness work.

Since the guide is trying to help funders become more transparent, it doesn't do two things. First, It doesn't harp on the arguments against sharing more of their work and, second, it doesn't raise any potential downsides of being more transparent. In the "arguments against" category, I was a bit surprised to see that the guide provides "persuasive reasons to use with staff who don't want to share" (my language, not theirs), but doesn't spend much time on "convincing the board that the world won't come to an end" if we do this. Or, more accurately probably, "the world won't camp out on your doorstep and harass you for money even more than you feel like they do now," if we do this. Board resistance to being more visible, more findable, more accessible is one of the most common reasons I've heard about why foundations don't want to have websites, don't want to share decision making policies, and don't want to do any more than the minimum required by law. I'm not sure the guide is going to change the minds of those who believe they 1) can do their best work out of the spotlight, 2) don't want any additional attention to their work, or 3) don't think there should be any public insight into the work of private philanthropy. This guide is not going to change those minds. But for those who think opening up more information is a good thing and are looking for ways to do it, the guide is full of ideas.

The second thing the guide doesn't do is push too hard. This is not a tool about open data, machine readable information, and participatory decision making. It doesn't go into privacy issues (What's in that data?), ownership issues (Who's data is it?), or the challenges of data retention plans, re-identification, or false promises of anonymity. Those are all really hard, important issues - and, yes, they sound like they'd make of a snoozer of a read.

And given how far most foundations have to go in terms of transparency (What percentage of American Foundations DO NOT have websites in 2014? It used to be about 70%), it's good that the guide doesn't go into these tougher issues. They're hard. They could scare anyone back into "opaque-land." And foundations shouldn't stay in that land or go back there. There's lots to be gained from more transparent philanthropy and this guide should help more funders take the steps to get those gains. We'll all benefit if they do.

*Yes, Grantcraft publishes my Blueprint.  I didn't have anything to do with the writing of this transparency guide, nor do I have anything to do with any other Grantcraft products or projects - just the Blueprint.

1 comment:

Bradford Smith said...

Thanks Lucy for picking up on this. It is part of an effort involving a re-designed website with practical tools for foundations wanting to be more transparent, including a simple animated video. The website, the guide, the video, are all free, mission-driven resources provided by the Foundation Center. By the way, the figure you cited about foundation websites was based on earlier Foundation Center survey research. We recently went through our databases to get an exact number and, after looking at over 85,000 foundations, found that 93.5% DO NOT have websites.