Communications Network Survey Provides Some Transparency Benchmarks

Michael Remaley is the director of Public Policy Communicators NYC and president of HAMILL REMALEY breakthrough communications.

Michael Remaley

Back in January, I wrote a commentary for Transparency Talk titled "Foundations Fail at Failing," which produced a robust conversation among colleagues both online and off. The post restated the case made by many philanthropy experts about the importance of transparency, talking openly about foundation initiatives that don’t produce expected results, and allowing others to learn from one’s failures. It also reported on my investigation into the transparency and frankness of 21 major foundations, the web sites of which I had explored and assessed in terms of their openness and self-evaluation.

45% of foundations view themselves as fully transparent or more transparent than most, while only 30% of foundations acknowledge program failure and publicly discuss it in those terms.

At the time I was conducting research for that piece, I was also working with the Communications Network on the design of its 2011 Survey of Foundation Communications Professionals, the report for which is aptly titled "Foundation Communications Today" and was released just last week. We surveyed a national sample of Communications Network members and a larger list of philanthropic communicators who were not members, yielding 155 responses for a 40% response rate (see full methodology section in the report). The survey included a set of questions meant to help the field better understand communications practices among foundations. We also thought it would be helpful to probe for information related to topics that Transparency Talk readers would find useful. Overall, the report includes some very interesting revelations about foundation communicators’ attitudes toward transparency and willingness of their foundations to talk about failure.

Failure PDFWhen your organization's work does not produce expected results, how do you address the failure publicly?

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Nearly a third (31%) of foundation communicators told us that neither evaluations nor anecdotal evidence had ever shown that their organization’s work had been anything less than successful. The larger group, however, was able to identify instances where their organization had, realistically, not made the impact it had planned. The majority of foundation communicators (69%) acknowledged that some of their organizations’ work had not produced successful outcomes.

Of those who admitted their organizations had experienced failures, the greatest number (44%) said that their organization had spoken publicly and forthrightly about those results. But most had not. Nearly a third (30%) of those who acknowledged foundation failure said that they had publicly discussed what they considered failures, but talked about them publicly in other terms. Another 15 percent said they had debated internally whether or not to publicly discuss failures but decided it might be harmful to others and therefore did not discuss them externally, and 12 percent said their foundation had never even considered talking publicly about failures.

In an open-ended question, we asked respondents to share any thoughts they had on foundations talking about failures. Respondents most commonly said it was the reluctance of trustees that held them back from being more open about unmet expectations. Said one, "Board members want to know, most of the time, about failures and encourage risk taking. But many don't see the wisdom in discussing it publicly." Another said, "There is a transparency issue and power dynamic issues with foundations. Many simply will not discuss their internal workings good or bad. Many are not embracing social media and new tech within the foundation themselves, but they expect their grantees to be using it. In general, one foundation will not comment on the work of another. In general, few will admit failure outside of affinity group meetings. It is also rare there."

But others said they thought concerns among foundations about talking publicly on failure are overblown. One said, "I think there is a fear of discussing failure, but that fear isn't warranted by our experience. When we publicly discussed our failure, we received nothing but praise. It enhanced our brand, rather than damaging it." And another said, "Once you share a failure it gets easier."

This last sentiment was, however, not shared by the respondent who said, "With two concrete examples, we can check the box saying we've publicly acknowledged our failures... But with many others, we have debated internally how/if to discuss these publicly and most often decide against doing so."

Transparency PDFIn terms of transparency, how would you describe your organization?

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Clearly, even those who have experimented with communicating about unmet expectations and failures continue to struggle with how and when to make the best use of valuable information that doesn’t necessarily shed the best light on people and organizations working with good intentions. Organizational ambivalence toward openness also came through in the responses to the survey questions about transparency.

The responses to the question on perceptions of transparency were fairly evenly distributed across the spectrum of choices offered to respondents. We provided respondents detailed descriptions of different levels of transparency based largely on the criteria used by Glasspockets. Given that our sample is drawn from foundations with communications staff, it is not surprising that only 2% said their organization was less transparent than most. Next along the spectrum of transparency, 16% said their organization is moderately transparent, 37% said it has an average degree of transparency, 35% said it is more transparent than most, and 10% said their foundation is fully transparent.

"Foundation Communications Today" contains many revelations and insights on topics such as philanthropic use of technology and social media, communications departments’ relationships with other parts of the foundation, and how creating a written communications plan relates to transparency. If you are curious about how your organization’s communications compare, check it out.

Ultimately, I find the responses of foundation communicators about failure and transparency to be very encouraging. While we do not have longitudinal data on these topics, the quantitative and qualitative responses seemed to indicate a trend toward greater openness and increasing awareness of the value of foundation self-evaluation. I'm hopeful that next time we survey foundations, we’ll see findings a great leap closer to 100% "Fully Transparent."

— Michael Remaley

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