A higher bar for transparency, accountability

Ellie Buteau
Ellie Buteau

Ellie Buteau

Questions of accountability and transparency have been much discussed in philanthropy over the past decade, and there’s been an increased emphasis at the country’s larger  foundations on making more information about their operations easily accessible to the public.

But, too often, those advocating for more accountability and transparency fail to place an emphasis on one very important area — whether foundations are being effective in  pursuit of their goals.

If a foundation is accountable for, and transparent about, its financial operations, who is on its staff, and what grants they have made, that’s clearly a good thing.

But those criteria feel quite basic and should not, I would argue, be conceived of as a high bar to meet.

If foundations are not striving for a higher level of accountability and transparency, how long will it take to get to the fundamental – and truly complex — question of how effective are foundations in their pursuit of positive impact on the toughest problems our society faces?

The organization I work for, The Center for Effective Philanthropy, is a partner with Foundation Center in its Glass Pockets initiative, which seeks to catalog “foundations’ online transparency and accountability practices.”

We see Glass Pockets as an important initiative that we are proud to support.

The types of information Glass Pockets lists about foundations ranges widely, from what could be considered the most basic information foundations should make available to what I would argue is the most fundamental — “a comprehensive assessment of overall foundation performance and effectiveness that measures progress toward institutional mission and goals.”

And while I would argue this is the most fundamental information about which foundations should be transparent, a review of the Glass Pockets website shows that very few foundations have an assessment of overall foundation performance that they make available.

Our experience suggests this is not a result of foundations having but not sharing this information, but rather that most simply don’t have this information about their work.

One of the great virtues of Glass Pockets is that it makes this fact public.

I hope that as conversations about accountability and transparency continue, the issue of how effective foundations are in pursuit of their goals will be at the core of more of them.

Until the bar is raised to this level, how can we truly say that foundations are being as transparent or accountable as they need to be?

Ellie Buteau is vice president for research at the The Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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