Funder’s Forum: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
(Funder's Forum interviews of foundation leaders by Foundation Center staff are featured in our monthly E-Updates for Grantmakers newsletter. These interviews enable funders to exchange ideas and connect with their peers to increase their effectiveness. If you are interested in learning more about Funder's Forum, please contact R. Nancy Albilal at (212) 807-3624, or [email protected].)
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation honors the commitment to philanthropy and ethos established by its founders through its work in education, global development and population, conservation and energy, performing arts, philanthropy, and more. Foundation Center's Vice President for Development, Nancy Albilal, asked Larry Kramer, the foundation's president:
What contributed to your decision to make transparency a priority at Hewlett, and what results has your increased openness produced?
“Having come from outside philanthropy, my first task was to learn. That proved difficult when I discovered how hard it was to find information, even about my own organization. I couldn't find what I was looking for on the Hewlett site, or on most other foundations' websites for that matter. It was while following up to understand why this was so difficult that I first realized how transparency was an issue. I had come to Hewlett from academia, a world in which transparency is taken for granted, so I was surprised to discover it was even a question, much less something that needed a lot of emphasis.
“I approached it by issuing a challenge to the staff. "Start by assuming that we are going to make 100 percent of everything we do publicly available," I said. "Now go back through and tell me if there are good reasons not to disclose something. If so, we'll consider holding it back. But otherwise, we should share."
“It's important to note that Hewlett never had a practice of withholding information; we always provided anything we were asked for. We simply had not been proactive about it and so didn't have procedures in place to ensure that everything possible would be made available publicly. A lot of work produced for internal use — things like the grant descriptions we prepare for the board, or memoranda and summaries explaining our programs, or evaluations of strategies — were not as a rule being made public. Occasionally, either because someone asked or because we really wanted to raise awareness regarding a particular issue, we would share something. For the most part, however, we just weren't reaching out. Now we are.
“The reasons to do so are obvious. Both potential grantees and other funders need to know what we're doing so they can build on our successes and learn from our failures. To the extent one deems it important to collaborate — and I deem it very important — people need to know what we are doing (and vice versa) so we can find each other. Finally, and this is more unique to the foundation world, the fact that we are formally unaccountable makes it imperative to share what we are doing and invite people who may be affected by it to tell us what they think.
“It sounds simple, but making an organization transparent is actually pretty complicated, and our effort is still a work in progress. Identifying what to make public turned out to be the easy part. The next step is to create processes to make that happen, which is harder than you think. And after that, we still need to build a website that enables people easily to find what we're sharing. There is already a lot more on our website than in the past, but we have a lot of work still to do to make sure everything is fully accessible.
“We have also extended the general notion of openness to our grantees. When we support a project that results in the creation of some kind of work or data, we're requiring that, as a condition of the grant, the material be open-licensed and made easily available on a public website whenever possible.
“Already, some of the information we've shared has produced reactions. We recently wrote about our reasons for ending a strategy called the Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative (NMI), which in turn generated a quite productive public debate. NMI was intended to help donors give more effectively by providing information about which nonprofits were performing well and which were not, thus creating a competitive marketplace for funding. Unfortunately, it didn't work as we had hoped. Our grantees — all high performing organizations themselves — did exactly what we asked, but donors did not respond as we had hoped and assumed. The ensuing public debate drew a lot of attention to the general question of how to encourage donors to base their giving on the effectiveness of the organizations they're supporting. At some point, members of the staff commented wryly about how this increased transparency stuff was time-consuming. I replied that we need to view this as part of our regular work: it's time well spent to better convey our message and what we're learning.
“To other funders who ask why they should be transparent, my response is: Why shouldn't you be? It can't be that you're afraid of criticism because, first, you're unaccountable, and, second, criticism is often useful. Not always, of course, but you'll never know unless and until you invite it. Take care not to unfairly hurt others while being transparent, of course, but once you've done that, there's no reason not to share.”