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Power and Light: Transparency and Effectiveness in the Nonprofit and Philanthropy World

I’ve been heads down working on my next book about measurement and networked nonprofits with KD Paine and our editor, Bill Paarlberg.    One of the chapters is about measuring transparency.  So, when I heard that the Foundation Center and the Center for Effective Philanthropy were hosting an event “Transparency and Effectiveness,”  I was curious, especially given the speakers and the framing:

Foundations are pressed to be more transparent about how they work andmore effective about achieving impact. What is the link between transparency and effectiveness and can these two qualities ever be at cross purposes?   Sharing information about performance assessment, diversity, compensation, strategy-all give most foundations pause. Where do you draw the line?

Please join us for a spirited conversation that includes Bradford Smith, president of the Foundation Center, Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, as well as a panel of foundation leaders including Christy Pichel, president of the Stuart Foundation, and Emmett D. Carson, CEO and president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The event will be moderated by Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation.

The discussion was not a black and white debate about the definition of transparency or whether it was good or bad.  It was a nuanced discussion about whether transparency and can (or can’t be linked) to effectiveness  – the benefits and the challenges for those in the Foundation world.   I captured some of the best takeaway tweets in this curated collection.   There was a rich discussion about defining effectiveness and how to measure it, but what interested me more was the discussion about measuring transparency and its links to effectiveness.

The Foundation Center hosts one of the well-known philanthropy transparency projects called Glass Pockets.     (I’ve found the site invaluable because it aggregates information about foundations, including social media efforts, and it makes it very efficient to search for examples for trainings and presentations).  Foundation Center President Bradford Smith started off with a very clear articulation about why transparency is important.

  • Required for foundations, the right thing to do
  • Can increase effectiveness of the work
  • We can’t not be transparent in an age of connectedness

Phil Buchanan, Center for Effective Philanthropy, talked about the nuances of transparency.  He raised the question about the definition of transparency.   “Are we settling for superficial transparency, about whether the inevitable push to create simple check-lists is resulting in good information – or misinformation.    He  describes this a follow up blog post:

I worry that, in the worst case, we could witness the kind of counterproductive behavior that we see in the world of colleges and universities, where preoccupation with placement on the U.S. News and World Report rankings has led some institutions to take steps to improve their standing – to game the system, really – that are counter to what is best for their students. I worry that we’re not discussing critically the information foundations are being transparent about – and I am not sure there is value in transparency without engagement. And I worry that we’re overemphasizing transparency about trivial matters and under-emphasizing transparency that really facilitates greater effectiveness.

His point was that simply disclosing information without the public conversation  might lead to this sort of misunderstanding.     He also offers some thoughts on how to push for this dialogue, including more public commentary or engagement about the information that foundations make public; discussions of substance about openness and its links to effectiveness; and have more foundations share information about what works and what doesn’t.   An example of the last point,  is the Packard OE Wiki that has been dubbed “Public Learning.”   A nonprofit example is Engineers Without Borders that makes it impact assessment reports available on its web site.

This was the second time in a week that I heard this idea.   At the Social Innovation Summit, on a panel with funders, facilitated by Nancy Lublin of, one of the funders said:

“Any organization that receives funding, should use impact assessment and have to make their reports public. No shame in failing.”

In thinking about transparency and measurement for nonprofits for the book, it starts with a definition of transparency that KD Paine developed based the work of noted academic, Brad Rawlins:

1. Participation – the organization asks for feedback, involves others, (see chapter 12 on crowdsourcing) takes the time to listen, is prompt in responding to requests for information

2. Substantial – the organization provides information that is truthful, complete, easy to understand, and reliable.

3. Accountable – the organization is forthcoming with bad news, admits mistakes, and provides both sides of a controversy.

4. Absence of secrecy  -  the organization doesn’t leave out important but potentially damaging details, the organization doesn’t obfuscate its data with jargon or confusion, the organization is slow to provide data or only discloses data when required.

What do you think?   How does your nonprofit define transparency?  Is transparency linked to effectiveness?

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