Meet Our New GlassPockets Foundation: An Interview with Chris Langston, President & CEO, Archstone Foundation
This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have joined us in building a movement for transparency that now surpasses 100 foundations publicly participating in the "Who Has GlassPockets?" self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations over time, helpful examples, and lessons learned.
Since its inception in 1985 as a healthcare conversion foundation, Archstone Foundation has responded to the implications of changing demographics by supporting innovative responses to the emerging and unmet needs of older adults. The Foundation has funded a wide range of grantees making important contributions in critical, yet often overlooked areas of need.
Today, the Foundation focuses its grantmaking on four major areas:
- Enabling older adults to remain in their homes and communities;
- Improving the treatment of late-life depression;
- Developing innovative responses to the family caregiving needs of older adults; and
- Expanding the health care and broader workforce needed to care for, and serve, the rapidly growing aging population.
Archstone Foundation is among our newest GlassPockets participants. In this interview with GlassPockets’ Janet Camarena, Chris Langston, President & CEO of the Archstone Foundation, explains why transparency is central to its philanthropic efforts.
GlassPockets: Archstone Foundation was born out of a healthcare conversion, when a nonprofit HMO became a for-profit corporation. Do you think transparency is more important for healthcare conversion foundations to demonstrate that these dollars are being used for public good? Or are there other reasons that you are prioritizing philanthropic transparency?
Chris Langston: I’m sure the public is more interested in what’s going on with healthcare conversion foundations, as the funds are more clearly a public trust because they derived from the tax advantages given to the nonprofit parent. As an older, smaller conversion, the public has long since forgotten the origin of the endowment, but what we do is still supported by the taxpayers granting favorable treatment to the endowment. Nevertheless, to my mind, conversions or foundations born of a wealthy individual’s gift (or other source) have the same obligation to transparency. Foundations are granted tremendous autonomy in what and how they do their work and, beyond some very broad IRS regulations, are only accountable to their boards. As a consequence, I think that we owe the public great visibility into what we do and how we do it. I believe that the great diversity of foundations is a strength in the sector, and I oppose external mandates regarding subject matter, limited lifespan, payout rates, or other aspects of foundation discretion. So, the only remaining constraint is public scrutiny of our process and our work.
GP: We often hear concerns that transparency takes a lot of time and resources, so it's really more relevant for large foundations. Why would you say transparency and openness should be a priority for even foundations comprised of a small team? How have you benefited from your efforts to open up your work?
CL: I see the GlassPockets standards as a floor and not one that takes a great deal of effort to keep shiny. We share through our website our current grants, our strategic plans, our governance documents, and financial reports. Even small foundations need to have these tools and structures and sharing them digitally is no burden. These things change relatively slowly and in the modern era are relatively easy to keep up to date.
Moreover, I’ve worked at two other foundations previously, one which started as not very transparent because of inattention to communicating to the public and one which had historically gone to great lengths to be opaque – the Atlantic Philanthropies during its anonymous giving phase. In neither case did our lack of transparency make our work better – I think it made it worse. We got less constructive engagement from the field, we got less alignment between us and grantees, and we didn’t benefit from the extra energy that comes from knowing that your successes and failures are going to be visible for all to see.
GP: Your commitment to openness includes maintaining a responsive grantmaking program with an open RFP that can be submitted on an ongoing basis. At a time when many foundations are putting up walls by shifting to invite only grantmaking, this is notable in that you are maintaining this kind of openness with a very small program team made up of three officers. Why has it been important to maintain the open RFP, and what is your advice to keeping it manageable for lean teams?
CL: Actually, we are right now reviewing our responsive grantmaking program and could very well stop or constrain it. While having an open RFP mechanism is one kind of openness, I am more committed to having an open-door policy. I think it is a legitimate strategic decision as to whether a foundation takes grant applications by invitation only, has a monthly letter of intent review (as we currently do), or something in between. What’s more important is that there be regular opportunities whereby grantseekers can learn from foundation staff about foundation priorities and strategies for change and where foundation staff can learn about the needs and interests of nonprofits in the field and the people in need.
”The GlassPockets process is a thoughtful and well-structured way of getting started in opening up to the public, what largely belongs to the public, even if it is held in trust for them by us on the inside.”
GP: How did the GlassPockets self-assessment process help you improve or better understand your organization's level of transparency, and why should your peers participate?
CL: The GlassPockets process is a thoughtful and well-structured way of getting started in opening up to the public, what largely belongs to the public, even if it is held in trust for them by us on the inside. Providing the information helps you in many ways – it helps you be sure that you even have all the tools, policies, and procedures of a modern nonprofit (e.g., conflict of interest, committee charters, etc.). It helps you whenever you have a twinge of conscience at the thought of making something public, in so far as that is telling you that you are doing something that you don’t feel good about – something that doesn’t pass the “would you want to see it on the front page of the paper test.” And the process is part of creating a culture of openness and honesty among and between board, staff, and grantees. Creating this kind of culture is an enormous project undermined by fear, norms of silence, and power differentials – but I think it is critical for effective grantmaking.
GP: Since ideally, transparency is always evolving and there is always more that can be shared, what are some of your hopes for how Archstone Foundation will continue to open up its work in new ways in the future?
CL: Having earned a GlassPockets designation now at a second organization, it is this issue that really interests me – how can we take further steps in transparency. While it is scary and a long-term project to build a shared understanding and the will to change, I hope to make much more information public – for example, grant proposals (at least the funded ones), evaluations, board minutes, budgets, and more. The federal grantmaking process at the National Institute of Health already does much of this. When I think about government processes, I expect all of that transparency and more -- and yet government is at least nominally subject to the control of the voting public. Since foundations do not make their grantmaking or staffing decisions subject to elections, shouldn’t we be even more transparent than government?
Fundamentally, the issue is that among funders and nonprofits, we spend a lot of time not just “reinventing the wheel” but more accurately, reinventing the flat tire. It is not that there is more knowledge or skill on one side or the other of the grantmaking table, it’s that there isn’t enough truth and light illuminating the conversation. And as the party with the power of the purse, it is incumbent on us to go first to change the dialogue if we want to have better results.
--Chris Langston & Janet Camarena