One of my favorite things to have discovered since joining the Ford Foundation last April to reboot its Philanthropy portfolio is the Fund for Shared Insight. This is a funding collaborative that seeks to advance the research and practice of feedback loops in the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, and to advance foundation openness. Basically, we think it’s really important to listen directly to the people we’re trying to help, AND to USE that feedback to improve practice. That last part is critical – lots of folks gather feedback, but precious few are able to use it, systematically and consistently.
We’re in the midst of our second year with the Fund for Shared Insight, and we’re getting ready to release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for projects that promote greater foundation openness. To walk our own talk, we want to be open about how we’re developing the concepts behind the RFP. We had the great good fortune to meet with a number of excellent organizations working on this issue, and have had a number of rich conversations among collaborative members, which have led us to some thinking that I’m honored to have been asked to share below.
We’re looking for feedback on concepts and language here. Are the ideas clear, does the language communicate effectively, can you picture what a funded project would look like? Do the concepts make sense, do they describe real foundation behavior, are they something worth working on?
You’ll notice that we include a framework for thinking about foundation openness, in a three-column table. We’ve had LOTS of discussion about this. We’ve found that it’s helped advance our thinking, and has stimulated good conversation, but it’s far from definitive. The thing about frameworks is, they’re necessarily distortions of reality. And what we’re clear on is that reality is not as simple as the three-part model we lay out below.
For one thing, different foundations will enter the continuum at different points. Some may start out with what we’re calling “fundamental” openness, and move to what we’re calling “courageous” openness. Others may start out as what we’re calling “closed” foundations, and stay there for perfectly valid reasons (a donor who requires anonymity, for example). For another thing, foundations, particularly larger ones, are complex systems. Some programs within the same foundation may embrace openness to a greater degree than others. How do we judge that foundation’s overall place on the continuum? And so on.
The essential point is, there’s a difference between one-way openness, in which a foundation makes its information available to the outside world, and two-way openness, in which it engages in dialogue with the outside world and is willing to make changes as a result. For some foundations, it’s a huge achievement even to get to one-way openness; as we point out below, nearly a third of foundations with assets over $100 million (that is, pretty big ones) don’t even have a website. For other foundations, sharing by default has become the norm, and they’re pushing themselves to address the power dynamic between funders and nonprofits, or talking candidly about failure. We want to recognize these different forms of openness and encourage conversation and practice that moves foundations toward two-way openness where that makes sense.
All right. That’s a lot of preamble, but we want to be candid about where we are. Since we believe that feedback thoughtfully gathered and applied improves performance, we want to improve our upcoming RFP by getting your thoughts about the language and framework below, which we’ll discuss and decide upon at our upcoming March meeting. Feel free to use the comments section below, or email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks very much for believing in the power of openness, and for sharing your own insight with us.
Increasing Foundation Openness
Draft Concept Paper to Inform a Request for Proposal
Why Increase Foundation Openness?
There are many potential motivations for foundations to be more open. The motivation driving the Fund for Shared Insight’s interest in increasing foundation openness is effectiveness. We hypothesize that in today’s complex, connected world, greater openness among foundations, the nonprofits that they support, and the people that both nonprofits and foundations want to help, is a prerequisite to effectiveness. We think that greater openness enables philanthropy to:
- Attract and empower good ideas from multiple sources;
- Facilitate faster testing and learning (including identification and sharing of what works and what doesn’t);
- Improve nonprofit relationships with funders and among each other;
- Strengthen collaboration and reduce duplication of effort;
- Increase public trust; and
- Build communities of shared
Toward this end, we are planning to release an open request for proposal (RFP) in the spring of 2016 to fund efforts to build upon existing or seed new activities to increase foundation openness in more staffed foundations in the United States. In 2016-17, we expect to provide up to $2 million in grants to promote foundation openness, although all funds may not be expended under the RFP. The grants will be a minimum of $100,000, over either one or two years, to support efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness.
We are sharing this draft concept paper in the hope that others can provide us with feedback about what is useful and not as helpful about the framework and perhaps suggest a better set of definitions or frameworks for increasing foundation openness.
Fund for Shared Insight (“Shared Insight”) is a collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. Shared Insight emerged from our belief that foundations will be more effective and make an even bigger difference in the world if we are more open – if we share what we are learning and are open to what others want to share with us, including grantees and the people we seek to help.
Shared Insight aims to do this by providing grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results; foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and share what we learn.
Fund for Shared Insight is a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Initial funders include the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The JPB Foundation, Liquidnet, the Rita Allen Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and we welcome other funders to join this effort, which will unfold over several years.
How Do We Define “Foundation Openness”?
We have frankly struggled with how to explain what we mean by “foundation openness.” At this time, our best attempt at defining foundation openness is to characterize two different broad categories as follows:
· Fundamental Openness. This set of practices involves making information about the foundation’s work publicly available. Often known as “transparency,” it includes practices such as having a web site, posting names of board members and staff, and making public information about grantmaking strategies and grants made. In some cases, fundamental openness may be necessary for pursuing courageous openness.
· Courageous Openness. This set of practices goes beyond transparency. It entails a deeper transformation of organizational culture to make sharing the default; to be open about failure, evaluation and learning; and to allow external stakeholders to engage meaningfully with the development of strategy, goals, and vision. While fundamental openness is often about the one-way transmission of information, courageous openness is primarily about two-way interaction between foundations and different key stakeholders.
In presenting these two categories, we acknowledge it is too simplistic to define foundation openness as a dichotomy of fundamental vs. courageous openness. We have thought about describing it as a linear process or points along a continuum, however, in reality we know foundation openness is more complex than that. For example, a foundation might be good at listening to stakeholders and acting on what it hears, but not in sharing about its failures. Also, foundations are not typically monoliths. A single foundation may have multiple program areas whereby some programs (because of advocacy reasons, perceived risks to grantees, opposition, etc.) are more or less courageously open than others.
In 2014, through an open RFP process, Fund for Shared Insight supported five organizations for activities designed to support increasing foundation openness. Their efforts included promoting greater adoption of Creative Commons licensing by foundations; encouraging more public dissemination of foundation reports through a centralized hub; producing videos featuring foundation staff sharing about their lessons learned; modeling open philanthropic practices; and investigating foundation CEO views on foundation transparency. We continue to learn from these grants and engage in focused discussion with these grantees and others to help us further define what we mean by “openness”, explain why it is important to philanthropy, and explore how we might encourage more openness among foundations, the nonprofit organizations that they fund, and the people that we all ultimately seek to help.
Through this process Shared Insight honed its views of the differences between closed organizations, organizations embracing fundamental openness, and organizations embracing courageous openness. We recognize that organizations engage in foundation openness at multiple entry points and that the process of becoming more open as a foundation is not as linear as our language might suggest but we offer the figure below as one possibly helpful way of framing the issue:
Foundation Openness Draft Framework
||No public communication (black box)
||Foundation communicates out (microphone)
||Two-way open dialogue (walkie-talkie)
||Transparency, more complete information for grantees and other potential collaborators
||Foundation decision-making is better informed, leading to better outcomes
||Could lead to public misunderstanding & mistrust
||Could lead to being inundated with requests, opening foundation to criticism
||Could force foundations to deal with “hard truths;” could add to cost of doing business; could potentially lead to damaging grantee reputations
||Reinforces status quo
||Questions status quo
||Changes status quo
||Practices & culture
||Information & solo insight
||Web 1.0 (Broadcast)
||Web 2.0 (Social Network)
Currently, some foundations in the U.S. are functioning as closed organizations. For example, according to the Foundation Center, fully 30% of foundations with more than $100 million in assets do not have a website. But a large and growing group of foundations is embracing fundamental openness, and a few are reaching for courageous openness.
Fund for Shared Insight aspires to spark movement of a large number of foundations along the openness continuum, with more foundations embracing fundamental openness and courageous openness over time. The foundations supporting Shared Insight realize that we ourselves are all on various points along the openness continuum (or spiral). We hope to learn and experiment along with many others over the next two years. We are sharing this concept paper with a desire to be humble, collaborative, and focused on learning, and to inform our development of an open RFP in this area in the Spring of 2016.
 We would like to acknowledge our colleagues at Grantmakers for Effective Philanthropy (GEO) for introducing us to the phrase “courageous openness” which has helped clarify our understanding of various approaches to foundation openness.
 In our funder collaborative meetings, we have at times envisioned depicting foundation openness as a spiral or ongoing feedback loop with multiple entry points where foundations can work towards both fundamental and courageous openness.
 We acknowledge this framework does not address the role of anonymous foundation giving.
 We plan on including data from the CEP study on foundation transparency here as additional background and context once the data are no longer embargoed on February 23rd.