Foundations and Transparency

It's been a pretty busy week for anyone who is interested in foundations and transparency. The Foundation Center launched a new web portal, Glasspockets, which is dedicated to showcasing and promoting foundation transparency.
I was also lucky enough to post my thoughts on the subject courtesy of The Communications Network. What follows is a copy of my post. There was also an interesting follow up post titled What Constitutes Transparency? by Michael Hamill Remaley, the President of Hamill Remaley Communications. If any of these issues interest you, be sure to check out the Foundation Center's new website and these two posts.
Going Beyond Transparency
by Elizabeth Miller
When I think about communications in the context of the work that I do for The Overbrook Foundation, I’m generally focused on how the foundation communicates its goals, processes and awards to “the public.” To me, this effort revolves around the answer to two questions:
  1. How can the foundation go beyond doing the minimum of filing out tax forms and reporting our activities to the IRS?
  2. How can we best communicate our efforts and provide information that is necessary to complete our grantmaking objectives?
Those questions take on added importance as we grapple with ways to use new social media tools alongside the customary practices of press releases, regular updates to our Web sites, and informal communication. Given that there’s been so much interest in using Web 2.0 technologies such as blogging, tagging and social bookmarking, and social media tools more generally (for example, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to name a few), it’s hardly surprising that I’ve attended several conferences, lectures, and panel discussions about how to best incorporate these various new media strategies as part of our external communications program.
Increasingly, discussion inside the foundation has focused on how we at Overbrook can best adopt these tools for our own use, as well as how our grantees can also make use of them, and for what benefit. Still, the importance of effective communication is clearly (and should be) more than just the adoption of new specific new method of technology. I’d argue that the goal of using technology (as either a primary or supplementary method of communication) is to provide audiences more comprehensive information about the work that we do and how we do it, to distribute that information more widely as possible, to inform new (and often younger) audiences and potential grant seekers about what we do, and to make our work at Overbrook more open and transparent. I’d say strategizing about having open communications and understanding its importance is one of the most responsible things that a foundations can do.

Of course, transparency and openness doesn't come naturally to every foundation. Typically the fear of releasing some of the power of that information (for example who you fund, how much you award in grants, and the process by which this gets done) is something that many foundations have been reluctant to do. But since we’re already operating in such a saturation of information and openness thanks to the internet, it should be up to each foundation to make sure that information gets communicated in such a way that it advances the foundations goals at the same time it spreads the message and purpose of our grantmaking.
The way in which foundations can engage in external communication will vary and there is certainly no one size fits all model. It may be as simple as having a Web site that explains the process by which organizations can seek grant awards or that explains your primary areas of focus. It also may be having a newsletter that talks about the work of your grantees; or a blog that highlights discussions at conferences foundation staff attend, accomplishments of grantees, or that features daily observations that draw on a foundation's area of expertise. I’d stress that the method by which you communicate is not necessarily as important as the amount of information you give out, and the clarity by which you do it. A large number of foundations, whether they are private, family, or public foundations, regardless of the issue areas that they support or the total size of their assets, have already begun to recognize the importance of these kinds of external communications.
In the end, I think the long-term success of grantmaking depends on how well we communicate with those we are trying to serve, as well as those who want to understand how we do our work. Adopting the use of social media will inevitably allow us to reach bigger audiences, and will provide us with an efficient and effective channel of communication. But there are ‘"different strokes for different folks’" and so before launching a sophisticated communications program that goes beyond simply being more transparent, we have to ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish, whom are we trying to reach, and what (and why) we want to tell them or promote.
One final note: throughout this post I’ve stressed the importance of external communication. I also think you cannot overlook the importance of internal communication. In fact, honest and clear communication among staff, trustees, and board members, is certainly just as important. And of course, to effectively reach out you have to make sure there is a consensus on what that message is and why.
If you don’t understand your efforts clearly and are unable to communicate them, there is little hope that anyone else will be able to either.