Tech, Transparency, Philanthropy…

…. published in the European Foundation Center’s spring 2015 edition …

A group of grantmakers was planning a series of workshops on transparency. They discussed transparency as it relates to grantees and metrics, transparency as it relates to governments and citizens’ voice in Closing Spaces, transparency as it relates to sharing failures… Then someone asked: “What about transparency for foundations, in terms of grantmaking practices and financials?”

The room got quiet. The first foundation representative to respond noted: “We have no obligation to share such information.” While it is true that there are few legal obligations, one might argue there is a moral obligation for grantmakers to be far more transparent than what is required by law.

To begin, we might ask: “Transparency for whom, and of what?”

We might answer the former question with each other, and in discussions with our grantees, and the general public. To answer the latter, we might publish, at a minimum, grantmaking procedures, grants made, their reports and our review, a list of board members, top employees and their salaries. In short, pretty much everything. Lists of board and staff salaries are no more than most foundations ask of grantees. Published grantmaking procedures would ensure grantmaking transparency. Listing grants made might limit funding overlap and free up resources for reinvestment.

Sharing grantee reports might help demonstrate best practices worth supporting.

Why share everything? Well, why not? A sector publishing the articles listed above would certainly differentiate between those who are truly working for the public good and those who call themselves a foundation and are, in fact, hiding something. At the other end of the spectrum, some in the advocacy community practise Radical Transparency. They publish emails in read-only form; they maintain an unwavering commitment to allow beneficiaries to represent themselves, and to participate in decision-making and process improvements. For them, this is a matter of securing the moral high ground, should an unfriendly government come for them in the night. That is probably a bit much for most of us.

The middle road, however – publishing our processes and decisions, sharing results on our websites while encouraging feedback through social media – would at least help us improve and increase understanding amongst ourselves and our stakeholders. And ultimately, it would show leadership in our space and lay the foundation for a more transparent and accountable civil society.

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