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Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Learning, Transparency, and Blogs 

November 19, 2013 — By Larry Kramer

Today, we launch the Hewlett Foundation’s new blog, “Work in Progress.” Why, you may wonder, should the Hewlett Foundation start a blog? And why now? Aren’t there enough bloggers out there already sharing their views? And don’t existing blogs already provide channels for us to express our views, if express them we must?

Perhaps. But this blog is about more than providing an outlet for members of the Hewlett community to air their opinions (though it will be that, too). As the name “Work in Progress” hopefully suggests, this blog is about learning. Because grantmaking is always a work in progress.

That grantmaking involves constant learning is one of the best things about working in philanthropy. It makes every day a challenge and, potentially, an adventure. We learn about what is happening in the fields in which we make grants. We learn about which of our strategies are working, and which are not. We learn about why they are or are not working. We learn about the successes and failures of particular tactics and particular grantees. We learn about how to make grants, how to monitor them, and how to measure and evaluate outcomes. In a word, we learn how to “do philanthropy.” (Okay, so that’s two words.)

Learning is, or ought to be, about sharing, which links it to transparency and, more broadly, to the idea of working openly. So this blog is also about being open and transparent. Sharing information and communicating what we learn invites others to tell us why our approach may or may not work or how it could be better. It enables intended beneficiaries to share reactions and give feedback, and it invites experts in the relevant fields to offer criticism and advice. Broadly sharing information about our strategies and practices also encourages input from the wider public, whose welfare is our ultimate objective. Just because foundations are not formally required to disclose information does not relieve us of the responsibility to expose ourselves to challenge and critique—even (or perhaps especially) if that means having our ideas and actions questioned. On the contrary, we should welcome such challenges as an opportunity to learn, to engage, and to improve.

By being open and transparent, we can also enhance others’ work. Openness about what we do enables others to build on our achievements and avoid our mistakes. It can attract new support for effective organizations and strategies, while making philanthropy more efficient by reducing the need for duplicative investigations and unnecessary due diligence. Disclosing information about our strategies, grants, and results can help foster debate about philanthropy, both generally and in particular arenas, as well as encouraging collaboration by making us visible to potential partners.

I am told that transparency has, for at least the past several years, been a topic of heated discussion in the world of philanthropy; or, rather, what has been debated is the relative absence of transparency—especially in comparison to institutions like government, universities, and public corporations. As with strategic philanthropy, most people seem to think that transparency is a good thing and also that we have too little of it. 

Any shortage of information about foundations is not, I should say, the result of a concerted effort to withhold it or even antipathy to sharing. Mostly, it’s a by-product of past practice, inertia, and the absence of a sense of urgency. Bear in mind that pressing public institutions to be transparent is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1960s, no one was very transparent. It took determined political campaigns to get governments and other institutions to change their practices. None of these organizations had previously faced serious pressure to be more open about their work, meaning they had few established processes for disclosure and little experience with what the consequences might be. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that change required a push from outside constituencies claiming both the right and the need to know.

What was true of governments, universities, and corporations in the past was also true of foundations—the biggest difference being that it remained true for foundations until more recently. Now that transparency has become an issue, however, the same inertia, bureaucratic conservatism, and uncertainty about the consequences of change are making the response slower and more cautious than supporters of transparency believe is necessary. But change is happening, even without substantial outside pressure.

The Hewlett Foundation is already quite transparent, at least by the standards of philanthropic organizations. We were among the first foundations to publish the results of our Grantee Perception Report, and we have long provided timely and detailed data about grants and operations. Our shortcomings, such as they are, have come not from unwillingness to share, but from the absence of processes to ensure that useful information makes its way outside the Foundation. Disclosure was not even a question in the early days, when the Foundation consisted of a few people meeting around a kitchen table. And while Hewlett’s leadership regularly chose to make information available when the issue came up, this occurred haphazardly and on a sporadic basis. In addition, our website was not designed with a broad concern for openness or transparency in mind, making even the information we have made available harder than necessary to find or retrieve.

To address these problems, we created a task force this past winter and charged it to develop a comprehensive set of policies and practices based on the opposite presumption, namely, that information created by or about the Foundation should be freely available. Starting from a presumption of openness and full transparency, we then ask whether there are reasons to make exceptions—mindful that these must be properly justified and no broader than necessary. We will, for example, recognize principled exclusions from our general policy of transparency where disclosure in a particular case would violate the right of privacy or a legal norm or threaten physical or material harm to an individual or organization. Our basic commitment, however, is to share information.

In embracing the value of openness, we do no more than hold ourselves to standards of behavior we have urged on others. We have, for example, long supported grantees that promote transparency in international aid flows and that press governments around the world to make information about their operations and budgets available to their citizens. Similarly, through grantmaking in our philanthropy program, the Foundation has pushed for transparency on the part of other philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. It is only fitting that we strive to live up to the same standards we ask of others.

What this means in practice will become apparent over the coming months, as we make the adjustments needed to turn concept into practice. As I suggested above, the major changes we need to make are less in defining what we share than in figuring out how to do a better job of sharing it. We need to create and implement internal processes to make the capture of information routine, comprehensive, and relatively painless—not a simple task, and something I believe may turn out to be a formidable obstacle for many foundations. Eventually, these processes will be absorbed into our culture and become automatic and effortless. Second, and equally important, we need to rebuild the information architecture of our website to make information thus captured easy to access.

Transparency matters. Being open matters. The Hewlett Foundation and our peers in the philanthropic sector have the great privilege to operate within a system that allows—and even encourages—us to use our resources for the betterment of society as we see it. And with that privilege comes the responsibility to act with the highest ethical standards and commitment to the public good. One way to ensure that the resources we have do the most good is to share our knowledge and experience broadly. In being open and transparent, we demonstrate confidence in our strategies, but also show that we are willing to have them challenged. For while we are proud of the work we do, we are also eager to test it so that we can continuously learn and get better at all aspects of our work.

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In case you missed it, that last paragraph was intended to be a stirring finish to our blog launch and announcement of a new transparency policy—a more complete Statement of Purpose with regard to our efforts in this area is available on our website.  But I need to add a few words by way of postscript about how this blog will work. We’ll use it, first, to let people know about noteworthy developments—everything from the launch of a new strategy or initiative to the release of an evaluation, report, or other publication to the announcement of personnel changes and other interesting goings-on. Each program can use the blog, alongside other outlets, to inform grantees, beneficiaries, and the general public about matters of consequence. And readers can choose between being notified whenever a new post is added or only when we post on particular topics or areas of interest.

But this blog is not only about formal business, and foundation staff can use it if they have thoughts or reactions to share about their work, their fields, or anything else relevant to the art and science of philanthropy. Nor will we act as censors to ensure that everyone speaks with a single voice. The Hewlett Foundation comprises a diverse community with varied ideas about our craft, and we are eager to share those ideas with people outside the organization. Discussion and respectful disagreement are signs of a healthy culture, and we want the members of our community to feel free to speak in their own voices. That way, we can make this “Work in Progress” a lively forum from which everyone can learn.