How transparency helps foundations advance their missions

11 March 2010

Transparency is sometimes perceived as a stick with which to beat foundations . But recent initiatives are showing that transparency, more than being a duty, can actually help foundations achieve their goals.

Launched in January, Glasspockets is an initiative of the US-based Foundation Center and its partners to increase the openness of foundations about their work. It hopes that by illuminating successes, failures, and ongoing experimentation, foundations will build on each other’s ideas to increase impact.

The website which underpins the initiative is very nifty. As well as linking to foundations’ annual reports, grant-making policies and other useful documents, it contains a customised Google search that allows the user to search foundation websites for information on specific topics, for example homelessness. This is a really useful mechanism to improve the sharing of knowledge among funders. Often foundations make effort to push information into the public domain, but a resource like Glasspockets helps interested grant-makers and individuals find the information they need. It also offers a directory of foundation blogs, twitter and RSS feeds, and other social media.

In the UK, efforts to improve foundation transparency were spearheaded by Luke Fitzherbert who published the first directory of grant-making trusts in 1986, which courted controversy by naming and shaming those who chose to keep secret their grant criteria and who they fund. Fitzherbert’s efforts contributed to the creation of new transparency obligations for trusts and foundations in the Charities Act 1992. Others in the UK have carried forward this work. Intelligent Giving rates charities’ transparency by assessing to what extent 43 key questions can be answered using their annual report.

Many foundations voluntarily hold themselves to a higher standard than this, such as the Friends Provident Foundation which has published a report on its performance and impact. Another foundation, the Nominet Trust, is planning to launch an online knowledge-sharing hub to make available information about the projects it funds and applications it receives. Increasingly foundations are viewing transparency not as a threat, but as an opportunity to create more impact and have more influence through being open about their work.

If foundations aim to create the greatest social benefit with their resources, should they view knowledge-sharing not just an opportunity but as a duty so that others can use it to create impact?