If a foundation sees itself as accountable to the communities it serves, how can it be as transparent as possible about key decisions that affect those communities? While voluntary disclosure of financial information online is commendable and sorely needed in philanthropy, funders must expand their mindset of openness. There is a need for a comprehensive approach to transparency that goes beyond figures on a website; foundation leadership, from board members to staff, need to think critically about how to communicate their approaches and solicit feedback.
At the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), the complex relationship between transparency and accountability is at the center of Philamplify. Philamplify is a new initiative that brings honest feedback to grantmakers by conducting rigorous assessments of some of the country’s top foundations. To prepare these reviews, our team combs through publications, searches online databases, reviews publicly available foundation documents, surveys hundreds of grantees, and interviews a wide array of stakeholders. In evaluating whether a foundation operates transparently, we look for disclosure of key information on the funder’s website and through other avenues, such as Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative. We publish the final assessments on philamplify.org, where readers can engage in a discussion about the findings and recommendations, thus opening the conversation beyond the confines of a typical foundation assessment to everyone whose lives are touched by grantmakers.
During the first round of assessments, many surveyed grantees spoke of how much they appreciate transparent communication with funders. Grant recipients consistently requested “three C’s” relevant to transparency: convene, collaborate, and communicate. Such calls for increased contact with foundation staff are evidence of grantee interest in a partnership that goes beyond financial support. Transparency plays an important role in such a relationship. As shown by the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent report, Foundation Transparency: What Nonprofits Want, nonprofits want more transparent communication about learning, assessment, and impact.
For example, grantees of the Philamplify-assessed Daniels Fund often spoke of the actual and potential value of site visits, e-mails, and phone calls with program officers and opportunities to speak with executive leadership. In regards to positive aspects of the partnership, one grantee wrote, “The Daniels Fund is one of the few funders that make an effort to visit with us, communicate with us on a regular basis, and maintain a relationship based on mutual concern for the populations we serve.” However, some grantees conveyed concern about the apparent disconnect between program officers and executive leadership, particularly regarding the grant renewal process.
In our assessment of the William Penn Foundation, grantees and stakeholders expressed confusion over recent changes in leadership and strategic direction about which the foundation communicated ineffectively. Sample feedback included comments such as, “The status of the Foundation's recent strategic planning process could have been better communicated” and “The recent leadership transitions have raised question for the future of funding in this sector.” In July, Nonprofit Quarterly reported that the foundation’s managing director resigned, marking another major leadership change in less than six months. In such instances, the lack of transparency about what drove these major decisions unsettled grantees and influenced the perceptions of other important stakeholders, including peers.
In philanthropy, robust, authentic discussion and constructive debate challenge us all to improve and help ensure that we hold each other accountable to the public good. Grantees are vested in the success of their funders, and as evidenced by Philamplify’s findings, they offer valuable lessons for the sector. When a funder engages in meaningful transparency, grantees and other philanthropic stakeholders benefit by better understanding the foundation’s mission, operations, strategies, activities, and performance.
How does your foundation maintain transparent, two-way communication with grantees and the communities they serve?