Why Not Transparency?

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the Center's Glasspockets effort.)

Janet CamarenaThis week we had the opportunity to host the discussion "Power and Light: Transparency and Effectiveness" in partnership with the Center for Effective Philanthropy in San Francisco. CEP has been a Glasspockets partner since the beginning stages of this project and I want to begin by thanking CEP for inviting us to serve as a presenting partner and for giving the subject of transparency a headlining role.

When it comes to the issue of transparency, we find lots of fans and advocates among our philanthropy colleagues--but only, it seems, when the transparency demands are being applied to grantees. I was once again reminded of this tendency as I heard some of the excuses and doubts from some of the participants at this week's "Power and Light" program. So, I'd like to use this blog post as an opportunity to highlight some of the many benefits of transparency that Foundation Center president, Brad Smith, outlined at the top of the program, as well as make some reflections from our Glasspockets experience:

  • If you don't take charge of your narrative, others will create the narrative for you. History reminds us that the Foundation Center was founded as a result of congressional scrutiny arising from a dearth of information about philanthropic activities. In the absence of such information, Congress accused foundation leaders of committing "un-American acts" and congressional hearings began. The foundation leaders who had to defend philanthropy in the face of such accusations realized the field itself was to blame since up to that point there was no resource where anyone could learn about foundation activities. This led to the founding of the Foundation Center, and to this day one of the roles we take most seriously is that of providing transparency for the field.
  • When we talk to only ourselves, we can convince ourselves of anything, whether or not there is faulty logic. By opening up our thinking, strategies, goals, and methodologies to public view, it can only serve to strengthen our work because the flaws in the logic are exposed to the light of day and we can benefit from the experience and lessons of others.
  • One of the benefits of transparency is that it serves to communicate the value and relevance of philanthropy to causes and issues people care about.

This point about helping foundations better communicate their story and value is an important one that bears emphasizing. When the Foundation Center started to move its work online in 1995 with our first web site, there were only a handful of foundations adopting this new trend. Many foundations waited on the sidelines to see if this was relevant to the philanthropic field because they were concerned with the time, staffing and costs required. Over the years, we have heard many times from foundation colleagues who have developed new web sites that contrary to what they had feared about the visibility a web site might bring, that they were pleasantly surprised at the benefits of receiving a greater quantity of proposals that aligned with their work, and at the time saver it created to have answers to frequently asked questions readily available for potential grantees. This is a testament to transparency leading to greater effectiveness.

As we see the field embracing the use of the web to communicate its work, Glasspockets serves as a reference so that foundations can more easily make thoughtful and deliberate decisions about online transparency practices. Grants information is sometimes a cause for hesitation when it comes to foundation transparency. A good chunk of the discussion at this week's program focused on the reasons why foundations may not want to disclose grants data. Some participants discussed occasions when transparency might be counter-productive, such as when foundations are supporting initiatives that have opposition. Jacob Harold of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation made the point that these are grants that are more likely the exception rather than the rule and that grantmaking transparency should be on an "opt-out basis, rather than opt in" so that the default is to always share the data unless there is a good reason not to. Our Glasspockets team loves this idea because it is very much in line with our aim of creating a culture of transparency within foundations. Rather than ask, "Why should we share this," the question should be, "Why not?"

"Why not?" indeed seems to be the approach foundations take when listing the data they require from potential grantees. Pamela David of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund pointed out that foundations expect a lot of information from the nonprofits they fund, yet they aren't as willing to provide their own information. This raised the point that foundations sit on a "treasure trove of information" and that they should see themselves as knowledge producers and not just grant givers.

So how about it: Why not?

-- Janet Camarena

About the author(s)

Senior Director of Learning Experience