Mission: Critical Transparency in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

(G. Albert Ruesga is the president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.)

Ruesga-150Next year we mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I can’t say it will be a defining moment for our city or for our foundation—so many of these occurred shortly after the storm. But it will be an important time to reflect on what’s changed and what hasn’t changed over the past decade.

Katrina’s landfall in August of 2005 was a wake-up call for the city’s leadership. Clearly, whatever the Foundation had done to serve New Orleans and the region before Katrina needed to be re-imagined.

Early in the aftermath of the storm, the Greater New Orleans Foundation worked in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to help lead a planning process for the city called the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). This planning process, which sought input from as many residents and neighborhoods as possible, identified affordable housing as a top priority. This was not surprising in light of the colossal destruction of the storm.

This was a big step for the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an opening up, the beginning of a commitment to draw our knowledge and strength from outside our walls.

The Foundation got to work. Not long after the UNOP plan, the Foundation designed and implemented a $25 million initiative to support the creation of mixed-income, mixed-used affordable housing and also, initially, to help city government, community development corporations, and other agencies get back on their feet. Twenty-one local and national foundations contributed to the fund and worked together to share data, knowledge, and expertise. The initiative was enormously successful, helping over 9,000 residents find affordable homes and strengthening key housing organizations in the city.

Since that time, the Foundation has remained committed to ever-greater community engagement in its work. We’ve done this in small steps.

We began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines.

Early on, for example, we began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines. We used a design team composed of grantees to determine the form and content of our emerging work in organizational effectiveness (a.k.a. “capacity building”). Now in its fourth year, our organizational effectiveness work often uses “communities of practice,” cohorts of grantees who act as co-designers and co-leaders of these learning communities. We were one of the first foundations to open key pages of our website to comments and criticism from community members, committing to respond to these in no less than 48 hours.

Our commitment to increased community engagement extended to our donors as well. For several years we hosted a program called “Circle Talks” in which members of our donor community were invited to learn about our work and to push back, suggesting new approaches for rebuilding the region and holding us accountable to our mission.

We’ve also done something I believe few other foundations have: in our discretionary grantmaking guidelines we describe not only what we fund, but why; we provide a rationale for what we include in our guidelines as well as what we exclude. This is an invitation for grantees and others to challenge and thereby improve our thinking.

We’re still learning how to make our organization more transparent, more porous, more open to the influence of our stakeholders. We aim for what we call “mission-appropriate” transparency, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because without it our work would clearly suffer.

 -- G. Albert Ruesga

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