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Strategic Philanthropy

Unlocking Transparency and Openness for a Powerhouse Foundation

By August 1, 2018October 13th, 2021No Comments

Thoughts from the Purposeful Planning Institute Rendezvous

Which side of the table are you on? If you are a funder, you hold yourself – and others hold you – to high standards to make the right decisions. You navigate decisions that require understanding of how philanthropy can foster the types of change you wish to see in the world, financial acumen, and analysis of potential pitfalls. It is a responsibility that can verge at times on being overwhelming.

For a moment, however, imagine yourself on the other side of the table. You are the person who works in the trenches creating change. You seek to justify every penny, to show the good you do and can achieve. You capture on paper every number you can think of, every photo to tell your stories. Every dollar you get might pay part of a salary, fund basics, make more possible. Every dollar you do not get means more time searching for funding, or less time to do good.

The funder, clearly, has the power in this relationship before it even begins. You also have the power to streamline this process, communicate clearly, enable learning, and, maximize results for both parties. What I’m making a case for is greater transparency and openness. I recently co-led a discussion on this topic at the Purposeful Planning Institute’s 2018 Rendezvous. There are several angles to consider – openness in communications with grantees and grant seekers, transparency with the broader community, and roles of board members, staff, professional advisors, and others in facilitating honest and constructive funder/grantee relationships.

The Difference Between Transparency and Openness

Transparency is about how much information you share, internally or externally. The definition of the word includes phrases like “readily understood,” and “characterized by visibility or accessibility of information.” Openness layers on top of that, extending the concept of accessibility by “involving no concealment, restraint or deception; welcoming discussion, criticism, and inquiry.” It is about dialogue, listening and asking for input, and engaging stakeholders.

It’s Not as Hard as You Might Think

Many funders hesitate at the suggestion of greater transparency and openness. The prospect of opening up about resource levels and funding decisions can be uncomfortable, prompting worry over criticism from friends, business partners, and the broader community, as well as concerns about a flood of unwanted funding requests.

Yet being transparent and open actually provides you a stronger leg to stand on. Clear, well-defined, and publicly available guidelines reduce funding requests that do not fit your interests, and save valuable time and energy on the part of organizations that are looking for funding. Transparency means every board and staff member responds consistently and confidently, acting in unison toward a common goal. Openness, in turn, can encourage questions and input that can help you sharpen your focus and refine your funding strategies. What’s more, you can assess proposals on their merits and base funding decisions on clearly articulated criteria. And you can help organizations understand the reasons for declining requests, so they know whether or not to try again.

Strengthening Your Work at Every Level

In addition to expanding a positive reputation within the community, being transparent and open fosters learning and input, increases knowledge and understanding, and can result in more effective practices. Ultimately, these changes can lead to greater impact. So how does one layer in these qualities to improve day-to-day and long-term effectiveness? Here’s a list of key elements to incorporate:

Stages of Transparency and Openness

1. Ongoing: 
  • Share your goals and strategies, criteria used in decision-making, and grantee lists and reports on your website and elsewhere.
  • Make contact information for the right people easy to find.
  • Engage in discussions with grant seekers, at least during key process cycles.
  • Host convenings or find other opportunities to strengthen connections with grantees and others.
2. During the grantmaking process:
  • Enlist input from others – including stakeholders in the issue(s) you are addressing.
  • When communicating grant decisions, offer constructive feedback and insights of possible value as appropriate.
3. After funding:
  • Share lessons learned along the way internally, and within partnerships and networks.
  • Ask for input on how you might increase your approachability and communications.

As you consider all of this information, consider the potential pitfalls. Are you concerned about opening the floodgates to an unmanageable flow of funding requests? About balancing privacy with openness?  About opening you, your family, your company, or your foundation up to public scrutiny or political influences? These are legitimate concerns – but not ones that are impossible to address. Think about how you might take some initial steps, and begin to find your own path toward greater transparency and openness.