…throw stones? Wait, that doesn’t make sense for a blog post about CEP’s new research report, Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency. Shouldn’t get changed without the blinds drawn? Shouldn’t skimp on the Windex? Shouldn’t what? That’s what I love about an ellipsis…three simple dots that draw you in and create a bit of mystery. And like all good mysteries, I’ll solve it at the end of the story. I promise. But first, let me share my own perspectives on foundation transparency.
Transparency is universally good. Foundations that aren’t transparent clearly don’t care about their grantees. Foundations should be absolutely, completely, ridiculously, and compulsively transparent about everything. At our foundation’s office, even the restroom walls are made of glass…
Transparency is pure evil. We need to keep the “private” in private foundation. Respect our privacy! Don’t ask questions! When we gave you $49,900 instead of the $50,000 you asked for, that was clearly a message that we would like to see more accounting experience on your board. C’mon grantees, read between the lines…
Both of those thoughts tickled my funny bone as I sat down to write this post. The truth, though, and we all know it, is that transparency is much more nuanced than that.
CEP’s report really hit home for me right now because my organization, Peter Kiewit Foundation, is in the midst of working to be more transparent. We are redoing our website, making our strategy and goals explicit, providing more feedback to partners, and developing a plan to share more about successes, failures, and the issues we care about. So it is very validating that, according to the report, doing these things effectively will improve our relationships with grantees.
However, being more transparent is not a goal of our foundation. It is a value. As the CEP report states, transparency is defined by foundations and grantees alike as “representing the values of clarity, openness, and honesty.” So beyond sharing certain financial information, foundations simply shouldn’t be regulated or required to be more transparent. That would defeat the purpose. Neither should foundations feel “peer pressured” into being more transparent, simply for transparency’s sake. Like all values, it has to be lived authentically.
Similar to the more than 65 percent of foundations surveyed in the report, we believe it is important to share our goals, grantmaking process, and strategic priorities. So we do. We also require grant applicants to speak to a program officer to get an application. We do this to build our relationships with prospective grantees, to share knowledge, and most importantly, we do so out of respect for our grantees’ time and resources. Nonprofits work incredibly hard, with meager resources, to address our society’s most challenging and complex issues. A 15-minute conversation can often help a nonprofit save the hours of time it would have taken to apply if they have little chance of receiving a grant, help them draft the strongest possible application, and in some cases, improve their work.
We also view transparency not as a goal in and of itself, but as a tool to achieve our real goal — social impact. We use (and plan to use) transparency in a number of ways to achieve that goal. First, like many of the foundations surveyed in the report, we do provide feedback to nonprofits. However, we don’t provide feedback to everyone. We simply don’t have the bandwidth. Nor do we always have the expertise. Trust me, nobody would be better off if we provided feedback to the University of Nebraska Medical Center on our grant to help them build a cancer center. So we reserve our feedback for those organizations and issues where we believe our knowledge, network, or perspective will be of value to their work.
Second, we are putting in place more capacity to share grantee stories, data, resources, lessons learned, successes, and failures. This is a critical point in the report — foundations recognize how important it is to be open about lessons learned and performance assessment, but just don’t do it enough. But here again, we will not do this universally. We will not share a failure (or a success) just to be one of the cool kids. We will identify those opportunities where sharing can lead to learning, improved performance, increased awareness, or greater impact on a critical issue. Transparency on this front is also a two-way street. We need nonprofits to be more transparent with us, particularly about their challenges. With that information, we can be a stronger partner in supporting their work. For example, we had a grantee who shared their governance challenges as part of a programmatic grant application. We not only made the program grant, but we added additional capacity-building funds to help them build their Board.
Finally, and this goes beyond the content of the report, we need to approach transparency not just as a grantmaker, but as a changemaker. In the latter role, we are often privy to confidential information about grantee opportunities, policy change, major civic projects, etc., and we often have access to — and the opportunity to influence — public and private sector decision makers. We need to play that “insider” role carefully to ensure a positive outcome. Sometimes that means we need to push for increased transparency and public engagement. Sometimes that means we need to keep quiet because “loose lips sink ships.”
So this all brings me back to foundations that live in glass houses. Have you ever been in a glass house? It gets really hot. You can’t walk around nude. And the smudges! You have to clean it constantly. But glass is a beautiful material. It lets in light. It’s airy and open. It gives you great views. Nuance. So what follows the ellipsis? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps foundations shouldn’t live in glass houses. Perhaps we should, instead, live in houses that have LOTS of glass. In the right places.
CEP is hosting a webinar discussing the findings of Sharing What Matters: Perspectives on Foundation Transparency on Wednesday, March 23rd at 1 pm EST. Register here.