Transparency, Accountability, Authenticity - Foundations and Websites

Jim Canales, CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, wrote a guest blog post on Tactical Philanthropy as part of the soon-to-be-renamed "Audacious Ideas" series.  In it, he calls on large foundations to commit to increasing transparency, accountability, and authenticity in their working relationships with their grantees.

He specifically encourages foundations to make their processes more open, more transparent; to be held accountable to grantees (and to make the mechanisms for that accountability known to grantees) and to infuse interactions with grantees and applicants with respect.  He further points out that if the largest 250 foundations committed to these types of activities, the quality of grantor-grantee relationships could be significantly improved.

I applaud Mr. Canales' calls to action, and also agree with him that what he's calling for are things that foundations should be doing anyway -- that what he's calling for should not, in fact, be audacious, though it turns out that it is, among current foundation practices.

I would take his encouragement one step further, and apply it to all foundations, not just the 250 largest.  There is something of a gulf in the foundation world between the largest foundations (which, admittedly, comprise the largest percentage of dollars granted), and the remainder of the over 77,000 foundations that interact with grantees and prospective grantees in one way or another. 

Nonprofits -- those that are on the grantee side of the grantee-grantor relationship -- apply for and receive funding from foundations that are not in that top 250.  And they spend significant amounts of time doing it.  The top 250 foundations are more likely to have websites and to publish annual reports than their smaller peers.  It is generally easier for prospective grantees to find information about them and to interact with them.

The smaller foundations, many of which have few or no staff, frequently feel disconnected from the larger foundations, and that "keeping up with the Gateses" is out of their reach.

Here is one concrete step that I think every foundation, regardless of size, should take to move a little bit closer to Mr. Canales' vision of transparency, accountability, and authenticity: every foundation should have a website.

While not every foundation accepts unsolicited proposals, that does not mean that their work should be hidden from public view.  I have contended previously that foundations should be more transparent.  All foundations should voluntarily disclose basic information about their activities - what their funds support and in what quantities, how decisions are made, whether the foundation accepts unsolicited proposals (and if it doesn't, that's fine - putting up a website with clear guidelines and restrictions goes a long way towards letting prospective grantees know what to expect - and what not to expect).

Brad Smith, the President of the Foundation Center, makes the case in this post that all foundations, as a result of their favorable tax treatment, should accept unsolicited proposals (with the ability to express a preference for solicited submissions).

What do you think?  Should every foundation have a website?  Should all foundations accept unsolicited proposals?

work in progress sign

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
July 28, 2010, 01:30 PM

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