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Join the next decade of foundation transparency

By Janet Camarena
January 30, 2020

Ten years ago, you rarely found references to foundation transparency. Most mentions at the time focused on its importance for grantees or governments. But the world was changing to one in which everyone expected to be able to find all the information they needed with simple online search queries. Yet, at that time only between 6-7 percent of foundations even had a website. That’s why Foundation Center created GlassPockets, a website that promotes greater foundation transparency. Today, GlassPockets is a service of Candid featuring profiles provided by 102 participating foundations that have committed to working transparently. A sign of progress is that 45 percent of GlassPockets participating foundations have embedded transparency as an articulated institutional value or policy.

Despite philanthropic openness, or the lack thereof, being more noticeable in our digital world, transparency is not just a current fad in the field brought about by social media and the proliferation of smart phones. The push for greater foundation transparency actually began back in the 1950s, during the period of McCarthyism, when foundations were being accused of committing “un-American” activities. Russell Leffingwell, a banker who served as board chair of the Carnegie Corporation, was one of those called to testify before a Congressional committee investigating these allegations. During his many hours of testimony, Leffingwell stated, “The foundation should have glass pockets,” so that anyone could easily look inside a foundation and understand its value to society, thereby inspiring confidence rather than suspicion.

Fast forward to today, and a world in which everyone carries actual glass in their pockets to connect them with the outside world in the form of a smart phone or tablet. The reality is that these devices are useless to connect with most foundations, because today still only approximately 10 percent of foundations even have a basic website. Even when adjusting for foundation size and looking at just those with assets over $100 million, one-third still do not have websites, signaling that opacity may be by design for many funders. The tools on GlassPockets help donors understand the case for working transparently and provide a roadmap for how to do so.

The foundations currently participating in GlassPockets range from the enormous and well known—think the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($47.8 billion in assets, $4.6 billion in total giving in fiscal year 2018)—to the relatively small, such as the Te Muka Rau Charitable Trust in New Zealand ($290,884 in assets, $14,397 in total giving in 2018). They include philanthropy of all types—public charities that make grants, independent foundations, family foundations, community foundations, and even some donor-advised funds like Open Road Alliance and Tableau Foundation.

If you’re with a foundation that doesn’t yet have GlassPockets, we invite you to use our transparency self-assessment tool and submit your profile today. There’s no charge to your organization, or to the people who view your information on the GlassPockets website. You learn how you can improve your transparency practices while also helping us continue to champion the importance of greater philanthropic openness.

Submitting your profile will give you the chance to understand how your transparency level compares to your peers, increase public trust, and expand public awareness of your legacy. You may experience more immediate benefits as well. Allison Magee, executive director of the Zellerbach Family Foundation, says, “GlassPockets helps me to navigate the conversations with my board. It helps me to really understand the broader context of what we can be doing, and, frankly, it helps me to push back at times, whether it’s to my board or to my staff about ‘Well we really should and can be doing more.’”

When we started GlassPockets in 2010, the profiles included 23 transparency indicators based on an inventory of the field and the kinds of information that foundations were sharing about their work, such as staff and board information, grantmaking processes, and knowledge sharing. Today, we continue to scan the landscape to identify what foundations are revealing about their work, and we have grown the indicators to 27, having added strategic plan details, demographic data, transparency values/policies, and open licensing practices. We expect that as the field continues to evolve, this list of indicators will grow as well.

Foundations frequently ask which indicators are the starting point. New transparency levels we introduced last year, Core, Advanced, and Champion, help to answer this question. Core-level transparency practices represent data most commonly shared by participating foundations and are the best place for new participants to begin. The levels are designed to encourage participation regardless of where a foundation is starting its transparency journey. Although we applaud striving to be more transparent, the intent of GlassPockets was never that it be considered a one-size-fits-all approach, or that a foundation had to have majority of the indicators in place to participate. Rather, becoming part of GlassPockets helps a foundation view transparency as a priority and evolve its transparency policies and practices over time. It creates an incentive to revisit these policies and practices on a regular basis, updating the GlassPockets profile with more and more indicators as transparency improves.

We hope your foundation will become part of GlassPockets. And, if you’re with a non-grantmaking nonprofit, we hope you’ll demonstrate your commitment to transparency by updating your Nonprofit Profile on GuideStar. Transparency is important to grantmakers and grantees alike, and Candid tools give each a way to achieve it.

Happy Lunar New Year! Happy new decade of transparency!

Tags: Foundations and grantmaking; Transparency