A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Foundation Openness: A Critical Component of Foundation Effectiveness

We created the Fund for Shared Insight—a funder collaborative with diverse support from 30 different funders—to increase foundation openness. We believe that if foundations are more open—which we define as how they share about their goals and strategies; make decisions and measure progress; listen and engage in dialogue with others; act on what they hear; and share what they themselves have learned—they will be more effective.

We were so pleased to support Exponent Philanthropy’s video series featuring philanthropists being more open about their work: Philanthropy Lessons. We would love to see many more foundations make videos like these; engage in conversation with each other about these philanthropy lessons online and in person; share their experiences live at regional grantmaker association meetings or a national conferences like those Exponent Philanthropy hosts; and find other ways to be more open.

Why is this so important?

Recent research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (report on CEP’s website here, full disclosure we funded this research) found that foundation CEOs see grantees, nonprofits that are considering applying for a grant, and other foundations working on similar issues as the top three audiences who benefit from a foundation being open about its work. Further, 86% of foundation CEOs who responded to the survey said they believe transparency is necessary for building strong relationships with grantees.

It was great to learn from this research that many foundations are open about their criteria for nonprofits seeking funding, their programmatic goals, and their strategies; and share about who makes decisions about the grantee selection process. Yet the research also found that foundations are not as open about sharing what they are achieving, how they assess their work, and their experiences with what has and hasn’t worked—and that foundation CEOs believe it would be beneficial for foundations to share more in these specific areas.

Foundations don’t have to share about how they assess their work and what works and what doesn’t— and often it may not be easy to share these types of reflections. I’ve written elsewhere about how foundations who want to share externally need to first be open to sharing information internally [Transparency Outside Starts Inside]. It takes time, resources, care, and commitment from foundation boards and staff to be more open. But we believe strongly that not only will foundations be more effective if they share more, but also if they are open to listening and learning from what others share, including grantees and the people they seek to help. Indeed, it’s probably one of the best and most effective ways for foundations to learn.

We also believe, based partly on our own experience as a funder collaborative where we are learning together faster than we would on our own, that groups of foundations and cross-sector organizations will make more progress on increasing foundation openness than individual efforts. We also believe that all of this work will take time. Change is often hard and change in philanthropy is often a long-term endeavor. We invite more foundations to join Shared Insight and be a part of improving philanthropy together. We also invite foundations to spread the word about our new open request for proposals to nonprofits who are working on increasing foundation openness. More details are at http://www.fundforsharedinsight.org/grants/foundation-openness.

For more information about Fund for Shared Insight please feel free to contact me at llouie@hewlett.org or our project manager Melinda Tuan at melinda@fundforsharedinsight.org.

Lindsay Louie is a program officer for Philanthropy Grantmaking at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. One of the two main strategies in her work is the Fund for Shared Insight.

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