(Heath Wickline is a Communications Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where he supports program staff and grantees in developing communications strategies, manages social media, and supports the Foundation’s transparency efforts.)
Transparency is one of those things, like democracy, or marriage, that's easier said than done. To say that a foundation will start "from a presumption of openness and full transparency," as our president, Larry Kramer, did in his inaugural post for our blog, is one thing. Figuring out how to actually do it is quite another.
Even if we could simply flip a switch and turn the Foundation inside out, would that really be transparent? Without some kind of roadmap to the information shared, there's a real risk that useful signals get lost in so much noise. And even when we are taking steps we feel are truly transparent—sharing the budget memos each programs prepares for the Board in our annual reports, for example— when we don't provide the context to help readers understand what they're looking at, we reduce the value of what we're providing, as Eric Brown, our communications director, has noted.
Once we identify information we believe we can and should share, there's still the problem of working out a process for doing so. Our docket paragraphs are a case in point. These are the short descriptions that our program staff provide to the Board to describe the purpose, proposed activities and expected outcomes of each grant. We knew that the information in these paragraphs could be useful for grantseekers and others who want to understand our priorities and strategies. Nevertheless, their publication raised almost as many questions as they answered: Would we consult grantees before sharing? Who would be responsible for vetting each paragraph before it was made public to make sure it didn't contain confidential information (about an upcoming change in leadership at a grantee, for example) that would be inappropriate for us to share? And what changes would we need to make to our software, timelines, and procedures to facilitate this new form of transparency?
We answered some of these questions during a pilot project with our Global Development and Population program last November, and we're in the process of answering others as we expand the pilot to include our other programs for next month's Board meeting. None of the challenges we've identified is insurmountable, of course, but working through them requires care, thoughtfulness, and most of all, time.
A lot of transparency work is like that.
It's good to know that there's help available for foundations interested in becoming more transparent. The Foundation Center's Glasspockets effort, in collaboration with GrantCraft, has just released a new guide called Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency. The guide makes a compelling philosophical case for transparency and explains its benefits for foundations. But the guide's real value lies in the great examples and practical steps it provides to help any foundation become more transparent, whatever their starting point.
The thing that resonated most for me in the guide, in fact, is the idea that transparency has no end point—and not just because of the job security that implies for the people working on it. There's always something else that can be shared, an idea that could be explained more clearly, or a new strategy to be described.
The Hewlett Foundation has been committed to transparency for a long time, and we're proud of the fact that our Glasspockets profile has every item checked off. But that doesn't mean we're finished with transparency. In fact, we've got a number of projects we're still working through, and we'll use our blog to highlight them when they're ready. Even then, we won't be done, and it's good to know that this new guide will be there to help us figure out what comes next.
-- Heath Wickline