Doing Transparency the Right Way

Eric Brown photoA core principle behind social media is transparency, a genuine effort to share the details of your work and what you are learning. It is easy to give transparency lip service and no action, so I’m always on the look out for authentic efforts at openness in the foundation world. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation caught my attention recently. Not only did the organization post its tax return (Form 990) on its Web site, but it used its Twitter feed to invite people to take a look. (The Form 990 contains the salaries of the five highest paid officers at the foundation, so carries some perceived sensitivity with it.) Hewlett did the same thing when it posted its Grantee Perception Report, an examination of how grantees rate the foundation. (The Center for Effective Philanthropy has produced such reports for nearly 200 foundations, and says it has counted about 30 that posted the results online so far. For the record, my employer – the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – has posted our Grantee Perception Report as part of our overall Assessment Report for the past two years.) Hewlett’s extra effort at transparency seemed like it warranted some investigation, so I talked with Eric Brown (above), Hewlett’s communications director.

Let’s start with the Grantee Perception Report. A lot of foundations have been doing these reports over the last several years. You decided to make yours public. What was the thinking behind that?
We first put our Grantee Perception Report up in 2004, so this is the third time we’ve done it. I think that when you begin to institute a culture of anything, then the culture perpetuates itself. So, when you do your Grantee Perception Report you make it public. There isn’t any decision making process that goes toward that, it just becomes a matter of course. I think the same thing is true for the 990. We even actually have a page where we put what the president and the chief investment officer make because that is what people are most interested in. They want to know how much the boss makes. So we make it easy for them. They go. They get the information they want.

So there was not a lot of internal debate about doing this?
Not particularly.  I think that we want people to understand that the Hewlett Foundation will be candid about what it’s learning about itself, about its grantmaking and about the work that it does. This just seems like another way to do that.

No long debates, no in-depth discussion? It is just part of your culture?
Yes. It emanates from the things that you hang your hat on. If learning, teaching and transparency are cornerstones of what you do and why you do it, then those decisions then derive from that. There doesn’t need to be a whole lot of discussion.

The same thing carries over to the president’s salary and the 990?
Sure. The other thing about that is I think it just makes sense because people can get your 990 [elsewhere]. It is not like these are private documents. Public documents we try to make as public as possible, searchable and findable and all that other stuff. It seems like the transparent and normal thing to do.

What struck me is that you not only made these public, but you tweeted about it. You’re happily communicating to the world, “Come take a look.”
If you are making stuff available for people, you ought to tell them, too. Every so often somebody will put their 990 up, and they’ll bury it on their Web site. They’ll take the compensation schedule and literally stick it in the middle of a thousand pages of investment schedules and things like that. That is transparency in the very narrowest sense. I think if we are going to put something that people are interested in finding out about on our Web site we might as well tell people where it is and how to find it.

What kind of response has there been? Do a lot of people come take a look at the 990?
I haven’t actually looked at the statistics, yet, because they just went up, but it is usually a moderately popular document.

And the Grantee Perception Report?  I know that is a complicated document to figure out.
The audience for the Grantee Perception Report is probably relatively discrete. My guess is it’s grantees who participated in the report and people who are interested in philanthropy and the practice of philanthropy. It is not like you are going to get waves of people flocking to the Hewlett Web site to read the Grantee Perception Report. But if the people who are most interested in understanding about what our grantees think about their relationship to the Hewlett Foundation and our take on what we heard, if they are able to get that information and use it to improve their own philanthropy or their nonprofit activities, then that is great.  

Any lessons to share with other foundations from this process?
I think people appreciate when you are communicating. I think people also understand that not all the news that you communicate is going to be good news. When we say our grantees felt like we need to do a better job of articulating our goals and strategies from the programs to the grantees [it is like us saying], “We know we can do better at this particular thing, and we’re going to try.” I think it is a good way to improve your own performance to talk about the things you want to improve. I don’t think people will complain that you have done something wrong, if you’re talking about what you’ve learned and how you’re going to try to do better. It feels to me that if people are concerned about criticism for having communicated something like that then they probably shouldn’t be that concerned.

Please feel free to share other examples or general thoughts on transparency in the foundation world below.

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